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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.

For example, Joan already knew that in basketball, players carry out defensive and offensive roles. The defense and offense idea was a little different in soccer because the team had specific members who only played offense and other team members who only played defense. Nevertheless, the fact that she had some previous experience with this concept in the sport of basketball allowed her brain to make a connection with the new concept in the sport of soccer. This made Joan's learning easier.

Having prior knowledge doesn't mean that we have to know a lot about a topic in order to learn more. It just means that it is easier to learn when we already have something for our new information to hold on to. Not only does it make it easier for us to learn, prior knowledge also makes it easier for us remember what we learned; it goes into our long term memory. When we remember what we learned, we are able to use it in settings outside of a classroom.

Imagine a medical student cramming for an exam on a topic he or she has very little prior knowledge about. The student can place enough information in his or her brain just long enough to take the test for class but not be able to actually perform those skills on a patient. That's because the information didn't go into his or her long term memory. When we connect the material we are studying to something we already know, it is more likely that we will learn the material well.

Constructivism

Constructivism is a learning theory that uses prior knowledge as the main factor in learning. The idea behind constructivism is that we actively construct, or create, our own learning. We use the information we already know to try to make sense of new information. We don't just gain knowledge, we create it by giving it our own meaning. That is why learning is different for all of us, even if we have been taught the same way. We all have different experiences, attitudes, skills, and knowledge that we bring to the experience; therefore, we all make sense of the new information differently. Someone else who also didn't know the game of soccer, but who has more knowledge of basketball than Joan did as a spectator, may have created a different meaning to the defense and offense concept than she did. That's why all learning is personal.

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