Discover more from Tips for Teaching Professors
Tip: Activate Prior Knowledge
Honor what students bring to the classroom & provide necessary context and connection to what is to be learned. It is essential to culturally relevant pedagogy.
Students come to our classrooms with a wealth of prior life experiences, knowledge of different topics, and understandings of the world. Norma González and Luis Moll have written extensively about funds of knowledge. Their book, Funds of Knowledge, is “based on a simple premise: people are competent and have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge.” They argue that students’ academic learning is supported by teachers encouraging them to draw on the knowledge and skills they learn from their home communities.
Asset vs. Deficit Mindset
Thinking about the funds of knowledge that a student brings with them is an asset-based view of student learning. In contrast to a deficit model or perspective (i.e., focusing on what students cannot do and blaming individual students for their failures), an asset-based perspective “focuses on what a student can do: their strengths, skills, talents, interests, and competencies”
The only resources that learners have for approaching a new challenge is what they already know and are already interested in. The only way to build new interests and capacities is by activating and building on students’ prior interests and background knowledge before instruction. This process honors what students bring to the classroom and provides them with necessary context and connection to the purpose and payoff of what is to be learned. It is essential to culturally relevant pedagogy.
Some of the easiest strategies for helping students to activate prior knowledge rely on simple, low-tech, high-engagement activities:
Diagnostic or pre-quiz. This preview quiz introduces students to the material they will see over the next few weeks, and helps the instructor to get a better sense of what students already know, what is completely unfamiliar, and what might students hold misunderstandings about.
Brainstorm what students already know. This can be a group activity, or students can do this on their own. In my English classes, I often start with a group brainstorm of vocabulary related to the topic we’re about to discuss. Working as a group, all students are able to see a collective list of terms they should know grow, and have the opportunity to ask questions, make connections between new vocabulary and concepts they already know, and amend their understandings as new information from classmates is shared.
Scanning techniques. These pre-reading strategies ask students to engage with a text first by noticing important organizational structures (e.g., headings, call-out boxes, words in bold or italics, guiding questions) that texts tend to have in common. This allows the student to transfer their knowledge of how their history text is written to how their psychology text is written.
Anticipation/Prediction. By asking students what they think will happen, what they anticipate they will learn or predict will occur, students are drawing conclusions and making inferences based on incomplete understandings - which itself is valuable data for the instructor. Then, once the activity is complete or students have finished the module or unit, ask students to return to their predictions and evaluate how accurate they were. If they were fairly accurate, how did what they learned affirm what they already knew? If they weren’t accurate, what new knowledge contributed to them changing their predictions?
These are just a few strategies I have found effective - for more, check out the links below.
For more reading…
Cornell Univ.’s Center for Teaching Innovation has some strategies, including an interesting take on a Gallery Walk
Here are some brainstorming strategies from the Univ. of Texas, Austin, Faculty Innovation Center
There are a few videos of this in action at the Iris Center at Vanderbilt Univ’s Peabody College.
EdWeek story with short narratives from a variety of instructors
Univ. of North Texas Teaching Commons: How Prior Knowledge and Assumptions Impact New Learning