The teacher designs instruction to help students see connections to prior understanding.

Students are not empty vessels to be filled (Freire). They enter classrooms with years of knowledge, skills, and perceptions acquired through formal and informal educational experiences. Connecting new information to prior knowledge “increases the likelihood that our students will be able to recall and use what we teach” (Wenk, 2017). As our students “experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they…incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge” (University at Buffalo). This idea that our students “construct” their knowledge, rather than just receive it from our lectures or reading, is a theory called constructivism (learn more about constructivism).  

Taking time to gauge students' prior understanding at the start of your course will support your ability to appropriately engage students in your course content. There are a lot of ways you can help your students connect your course content to their prior understanding and we have highlighted some of them below. ITL encourages you to integrate a strategy (or strategies) that may work for your courses. Book a consult if you would like support in utilizing any of the ideas below! 

  • Prior Knowledge Self-Assessment

    Create a simple rubric and have students complete a self-assessment during your first-class session. Along the left side of your table list key skills or knowledge that will be developed over the course of the semester. Ask students to rate themselves using a scale like: No knowledge, Some knowledge, Extensive knowledge. Check out this example from a graduate course that was created electronically and used to measure confidence in research skills. You can collect these anonymously to get a sense of where the whole class is, or you can ask students to include their names, so you know how to differentiate support when needed. You can also consider administering the rubric at the end of the semester, so students can reflect on where they grew (and you can collect feedback to improve future courses!).

  • Group Concept Mapping

    Concept maps are a common active-learning strategy and a fantastic way to engage students in both cooperative learning and knowledge integration. Concept maps include key terms or concepts, and then a visual representation of how those concepts are related to each other (example, example). To prepare for in-class group concept mapping, create a list of major terms or concepts you want students to include in their map (include terms from prior weeks). You can hand students the list or put it up on a slide to share with the class. 

    • Using Technology: If you want students to work digitally on their Concept Map, they can use PowerPoint (PPT tutorial and free templates) or you can use Whiteboard (tutorial). Both PowerPoint and Whiteboard can be accessed for free with YSU credentials through Office 365 in the Penguin Portal.  
    • Using Paper: Provide a large piece of posterboard or paper (easel board paper works well) for each group, and a stack of post-it notes and a few markers. Encourage students to write the concepts on the post-it notes (then they can move them around) and then draw the lines directly on the paper.  

    Regardless of if you chose to utilize technology or paper, have students share out their concept maps. Be sure to review the maps as well to assess knowledge of concepts and the ability of students to integrate that knowledge. Provide clarification where needed to help students better understand key course content. Remind students that concept mapping does not only have to be an “in-class activity” and encourage them to utilize concept mapping for their own studying.  

  • Small Group Crowdsourcing

    This is a low-prep way to gauge what students know about a given topic. Put students in small groups and introduce a question or topic. Have them write down everything their group already knows about that given topic. Have students share out and then correct and clarify any misconceptions. This is a good strategy for understanding students’ prior knowledge, but it also helps students activate their own prior knowledge and support connections to the latest information. 

  • Simple Classroom Assessment Techniques

    After presenting content, utilize a simple assessment technique to have students reflect on what they have learned, what is interesting to them, and a question they still have. The K. Patricia Cross Academy has a 2-minute overview of 3-2-1 and a free template to use for your course. If 3-2-1 seems too simple, you can use something a bit more complex like KWLA+R.

  • Guided Notes, Advance Organizers, and Active Reading Documents

    You can guide students to connect their learning to prior understanding with the use of guided notes, advance organizers, or active reading documents. These strategies can benefit students in prioritizing the most essential information and connecting the concepts you want them to connect. Download free materials for guided notes, advance organizers, or active reading documents. You can include questions in your notes/organizers that help students make connections, consider some of the ideas below: 

    • How does what I read today connect to what we have learned up to this point in class? 
    • Using a visual representation, compare ________ (today’s concept) with ____________ (last week’s concept) 
    • Reflect on classes you have taken before this one, what have you learned that helps you better understand _________ (today’s concept)? 
    • How will what you are learning today benefit your future?