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Teaching challenge

Ms McShane finds it hard to ensure all pupils understand the new ideas she teaches. She has noticed that many have gaps in prior knowledge, even if they have covered related topics in previous years, or the topic is one she taught them herself. Others struggle to link new ideas to their existing knowledge. How can she check and build upon pupil prior knowledge to help them understand new ideas?

Key idea

Pupil learning is more successful if teachers check, activate and build on pupil prior knowledge.

Evidence summary

Prior knowledge helps us make sense of new material

“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner knows already” (Ausubel, 1968 in Simonsmeier et al., 2018). This is because pupils “come to understand new ideas by relating them to old ideas” (Willingham, 2009). Existing knowledge (stored in long-term memory) is what makes new ideas meaningful.

We can illustrate this by looking at sentences we might ask pupils to understand. As you read the sentences below, consider what pupils need to know to make sense of each one:

  1. To convert a decimal to a fraction, use place value.
  2. Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
  3. Some say that Henry only made the break with Rome because the Pope would not let him have a divorce (Byrom et al., 1997).

For example, if pupils don’t know who Henry was, who the Pope was and why a divorce mattered to him, the sentence – and the topic – will make little sense.

Teachers can help pupils to learn by linking new ideas to prior knowledge. This makes it easier to process those new ideas. For example, if pupils have studied stories about adventures previously, they know what to expect in encountering a new adventure story. This then makes it easier to remember them, by connecting the new ideas to existing knowledge. The greater pupils’ prior knowledge, the easier learning becomes for them: “it is easier to learn new information… [and] to solve new problems when one has a rich, well-connected body of knowledge and strong ties and connections” (Rosenshine, 2012). Well-organised prior knowledge makes it even easier for pupils to learn new ideas.

Weak prior knowledge can cause pupils to misunderstand

For prior knowledge to help pupils, it needs to be complete and accurate: if pupil prior knowledge is weak, pupils can misunderstand new material. If pupils hold misconceptions or lack correct knowledge, they can form misconceptions. For example, knowing that the surface of the Earth appears flat may lead pupils to conclude that the Earth is a disc (Simonsmeier et al., 2018). If Ms McShane tries to introduce a new idea which does not fit into a pupil’s current mental model – particularly if the pupil’s mental model is inaccurate – that pupil may misunderstand or reject this idea (Chi, 2009).

Activating prior knowledge can help pupils to succeed

An effective starting point for teachers is to identify what pupils already know, and any gaps in their knowledge. Having done so, Ms McShane can seek to introduce new material in small enough chunks to be comprehensible, and to make explicit links between prior knowledge and the new ideas. Where pupils have missing or incomplete knowledge, adding new concepts will help pupils to develop more sophisticated mental models. However, where Ms McShane’s pupils already hold beliefs which happen to be wrong, she must focus on changing old concepts (Chi, 2009). When introducing new material, Ms McShane needs to develop pupils’ mental models by taking small steps and posing lots of questions which explicitly link pupil prior knowledge with the concepts being taught.

Nuances and caveats

If pupils have lots of prior knowledge and are reminded of this, it can prevent them from looking for new or better problem solutions (Simonsmeier et al., 2018) – like a driver going into autopilot: they stop thinking hard and therefore don’t develop their mental model.

Key takeaways

Ms McShane can begin to improve her instruction by understanding that:

  • drawing on existing mental models helps us to learn new information and solve new problems more effectively
  • weak prior knowledge can lead to misconceptions. Ms McShane must make the effort to diagnose what her pupils do know, don’t know and misunderstand
  • Ms McShane can build on this by reviewing pupil prior knowledge and introducing new material in steps while asking lots of questions
  • by carefully activating pupil prior knowledge and challenging pupils’ incorrect beliefs, she can support pupils to develop accurate mental models

Further reading

Simonsmeier, B. A., Flaig, M., Deiglmayr, A., Schalk, L., & Schneider, M. (2018). Domain-Specific Prior Knowledge and Learning: A Meta-Analysis Prior Knowledge and Learning.


Byrom, J., Stephens-Wood, P., Riley, M., & Counsell, C., (1998). Changing Minds: Britain 1500-1750. Oxford: Pearson.

Chi, M. T. (2009). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. International handbook of research on conceptual change. 89-110. Routledge.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.

Simonsmeier, B. A., Flaig, M., Deiglmayr, A., Schalk, L., & Schneider, M. (2018). Domain-Specific Prior Knowledge and Learning: A Meta-Analysis Prior Knowledge and Learning.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.