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Prior Knowledge: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:01 What Is Prior Knowledge?
  • 1:30 Prior Knowledge & Learning
  • 3:17 Constructivism
  • 4:06 Activating Prior Knowledge
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Norma Castillo

Norma has taught English in the K-12 setting and psychology, sociology, and education in a university setting. She has a master's degree in educational leadership.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes it is really easy for you to learn something new but some things are harder to learn? In this lesson, we'll define prior knowledge and why it can make learning new things easier. We'll also explore different strategies to activate prior knowledge.

What Is Prior Knowledge?

Joan was recently invited to a high school soccer game by a friend. Having only attended basketball games before to see her own son play, Joan was concerned that she would be completely lost because she didn't know anything about the game of soccer. She even hesitated to accept the invitation but decided to go anyway. After all, she was going to support her friend's daughter, but in the back of her mind, she was concerned that she wouldn't even know when to cheer. Her son told her it would be easy to understand soccer because she already understood basketball. How could understanding basketball make it easier for Joan to understand soccer? Aren't those games completely different? While the games are in fact completely different, Joan started to realize that she already had some information in her brain (basketball) that made it easier for her to learn new information (soccer). She had some prior knowledge.

What we already know about a topic before learning more about it is prior knowledge. It is what we already have in our brain before we learn more. Even when we think we may not know anything about a topic, we may have heard something about it, seen it before, or experienced something similar. Our previous experiences, as limited as they may be, are our prior knowledge.

A perfect example is this lesson. You may have not already known what prior knowledge was, but you may know what the word prior means (before), and knowledge has to do with information. Your brain starts to make meaning of this by trying to connect it to the words you already know.

Prior Knowledge and Learning

Psychologists who study how we learn have stated that prior knowledge is the single most important factor in learning! Prior knowledge makes it easier for us to learn new things because of how our brain works. When we learn, we connect new learning to what we already have in our brains, forming something like a bridge between the old and the new. That bridge, or connection, makes learning easier.

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