Students’ Prior Knowledge Can Help or Hinder Learning

I am sure that every instructor wants to know how learning works. Some do. Others think they do. And yet others, perhaps even you, want to make sure they do.

Aside: It will be helpful to have a basic understanding of cognitive learning theory as you go through this article.

This article is titled after the first principle listed in the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.  It is an outstanding reference for teachers. It holds particular value for college instructors who are subject matter experts but may lack expertise in the principles of teaching and learning.  That includes many adjuncts and new full-time instructors.  In fact, I have observed a few full-time instructors who could learn a few tricks from this book.

How Learning Works

I encourage you to get a copy of How Learning Work and and use it as a teaching reference.  Don’t just read it, but refer back to it periodically. I will not cover everything addressed in this book.  You can, however, find more information on the Carnegie Mellon University website.

A Basic Principle of Teaching at Work

I believe that the first chapter of this book leads to a very basic principle of teaching. It is the responsibility of instructors to match their teaching to what students already know. To do so, they must accurately assess their students’ prior knowledge and take appropriate action accordingly.  (Aside: I came to this conclusion prior to finding it stated similarly on the aforementioned website.)

There is an important caveat, also not covered in this book – teach to the middle of the class. Do not slow down your class significantly to teach a few students basics they should already have learned. Pull those students aside, and deal with them individually. Conversely, do not accelerate the class to any great extent just because some students can keep up. Challenge the higher achieving students with advanced assignments, possibly for extra credit. Guide them in learning things that go beyond the objectives you have set for the course.

Lack of Prerequisite Knowledge Hurts Students’ Learning

The idea that insufficient prior knowledge can hinder learning seems quite obvious. That is why many college courses require prerequisite courses or assessment exams.  With no prior knowledge of Spanish, even the most gifted student enrolling in a section of Spanish II would be at a loss.  The same can be said for sequential courses in any discipline – mathematics, chemistry, psychology, and electrical engineering to name just a few.

Dismayed InstructorThe wise instructor assumes nothing.  A short case study leading off Chapter 1 illustrates this point.  An instructor asked her students what types of statistical tests they had learned in the previous course. Students indicated that they learned the basic approaches such as T-tests, chi-square, and ANOVA.  So, the instructor gave her students a basic assignment, one that should have been simple for those who knew these basic analytic techniques.  She was shocked when she learned the majority of her students demonstrated little understanding of how to apply the tests they said they said they had learned.  What had happened to this prior knowledge?  Possibly a number of things.

Ambrose and her co-authors suggest that instructors activate students’ prior learning by giving them some guidance.  I had an organic chemistry instructor who did this extremely well.  I observed her closing out class with a homework assignment and telling students something like this, “The second problem is challenging but you can do it if you think about what you learned from the last reaction I diagrammed on the board.”  A mathematics instructor of mine took a different approach, and quite successfully I would add.  For example, in his Calculus I course he would give students a quick review of the trigonometry they needed to know before proceeding with a lesson.  He told me this triggers their memory of what they had previously learned. The authors give other examples of how to help students activate prior learning.

Declarative vs. Procedural Knowledge

Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Some students have accurate but insufficient prior knowledge. They may have memorized facts (declarative knowledge), but they don’t know how to apply them (procedural knowledge).  Those of you who are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy understand this well.  Students memorize and comprehend (or understand) what they learned.  However, they are not able to apply that knowledge to analyze a problem.

I saw this scenario play out in the class of another chemistry instructor, I’ll called him Dr. Flip, because what he did was flip his class.  (Aside: For more information about flipping classrooms check out The Khan Academy and the College Classroom.) He gave group assignments in class that helped his students think about and reason out answers based on what they had already learned.  These assignments were based on the principles of social constructivist learning theory, and they worked well.  At least in most cases.

Some students don’t like to think.  This was the case for three of Dr. Flip’s students who came to me and complained that he was not teaching them anything.  They complained they had to learn the material on their own. All had high GPA’s, but they apparently achieved those grades by memorizing what they were told they needed to know.  They didn’t realized was that social constructivist learning is retained much better than rote memorization.

Aside:  Over the years, I have talked to many struggling math students who blamed their failures on their instructors. Why? Because the students had done all the homework and “understood” how to solve all the problems. Therefore, clearly the instructors’ tests were too difficult. 😉 )

Inappropriate and Inaccurate Prior Knowledge

An example of inappropriate prior knowledge would be a physics student applying the techniques he learned in a creative writing course to his lab report. That same physics student might have inaccurate knowledge about the difference between weight and mass.

There are techniques instructors can use to address inappropriate prior knowledge. For example, a Sociology instructor might encourage students to think about how their cultural knowledge might guide them differently than Japanese students in a certain situation. In a more general sense, instructors can give students some guidance for how to solve a problem.

To address inaccurate prior knowledge, a math instructor could ask students who got the wrong answer why they solved a problem as they did. However, old habits may be difficult to break. Instructors may need to repeatedly ask students to justify their reasoning.

How Learning Works

I will be writing articles based on all seven principles set forth in How Learning Works.  I will add links to those principles, which are listed below.

Having said that, PLEASE read this book yourself to get the full benefit. How Learning Works is one of the most valuable references I have in my personal library. But if I have not convinced you of its value, read the accolades others have given the book in the How Learning Works Recommendations section below.

The seven principles of How Learning Works are:

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  3. Students’ motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning.
  6. Students current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed.


How Learning Works Book Recommendations

Don’t take my word for it; read what prominent professional educators had to say about How Learning Works:

“How Learning Works” is the perfect title for this excellent book. Drawing upon new research in psychology, education, and cognitive science, the authors have demystified a complex topic into clear explanations of seven powerful learning principles. Full of great ideas and practical suggestions, all based on solid research evidence, this book is essential reading for instructors at all levels who wish to improve their students’ learning.

Barbara Gross Davis, assistant vice chancellor for educational development,University of California, Berkelely, and author of Tools for Teaching


This book is a must-read for every instructor, new or experienced. Although I have been teaching for almost thirty years, as I read this book I found myself resonating with many of its ideas, and I discovered new ways of thinking about teaching.

Eugenia T. Paulus, professor of chemistry, North Hennepin Community College, and 2008 U.S. Community Colleges Professor of the Year from The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education

Thank you Carnegie Mellon for making accessible what has previously been inaccessible to those of us who are not learning scientists. Your focus on the essence of learning combined with concrete examples of the daily challenges of teaching and clear tactical strategies for faculty to consider is a welcome work. I will recommend this book to all my colleagues.

Catherine M. Casserly, senior partner, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

As you read about each of the seven basic learning principles in this book, you will find advice that is grounded in learning theory, based on research evidence, relevant to college teaching, and easy to understand. The authors have extensive knowledge and experience in applying the science of learning to college teaching, and they graciously share it with you in this organized and readable book.

– From the Forewords by Richard E. Mayer, professor of psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara: coauthor. “e-Learning and the Scence of Instruction”: and author. “Multimedia Learning”.


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPitietro, M. & Norman, M. (2010) How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.