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WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH TELL US ABOUT PRIOR KNOWLEDGE?

Students connect what they learn to what they already know, interpreting incoming information, and even sensory perception, through the lens of their existing knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions (Vygotsky, 1978 ; National Research Council, 2000 ). In fact, there is widespread agreement among researchers that students must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge in order to learn (Bransford & Johnson, 1972 ; Resnick, 1983 ).

However, the extent to which students are able to draw on prior knowledge to effectively construct new knowledge depends on the nature of their prior knowledge, as well as the instructor ’ s ability to harness it. In the following sections, we discuss research that investigates the effects of various kinds of prior knowledge on student learning and explore its implications for teaching.

Activating Prior Knowledge

When students can connect what they are learning to accurate and relevant prior knowledge, they learn and retain more. In essence, new knowledge “ sticks ” better when it has prior knowledge to stick to. In one study focused on recall, for example, participants with variable knowledge of soccer were presented with scores from How Learning Works 16 different soccer matches and their recall was tested.

Thus, it is important to help students activate prior knowledge so they can build on it productively. Indeed, research suggests that even small instructional interventions can activate students ’ relevant prior knowledge to positive effect. For instance, in one famous study by Gick and Holyoak (1980) , college students were presented with two problems that required them to apply the concept of convergence.

The researchers found that even when the students knew the solution to the fi rst problem, the vast majority did not think to apply an analogous solution to the second problem. However, when the instructor suggested to students that they think about the second problem in relation to the first, 80 percent of the student participants were able to solve it.

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