Making Connections to Prior Learning and Experience

It’s Week 2 of the school year. We have set up a supportive learning environment so next we go about finding out what students already know. This will include results from last year, other data we can access but will also likely include other in-class activities. We already have our curriculum and course guides in place, so why do good teachers spend time finding out what students already know? This post looks to explore the research behind our practice.

Students learn best when they are able to integrate new learning with what they already understand. (pg 34 of the New Zealand Curriculum)

Image from pg 71 “Hidden Lives of Learners” by Graham Nuthall

This figure is Graham Nuthall’s explanation of how our brains make sense of new information. All experiences, learning activities, discussions etc. are stored in our working memory which then attempts to make connections with our prior knowledge and related experiences. The working memory then evaluates this information, integrates the new experience with our prior knowledge and changes (or maintains) our understanding. (Hidden Lives of Learners, 2007).

This process also shows why it is important for us to identify any misunderstandings that students have in their prior knowledge. Otherwise they may continue to misinterpret what we are trying to teach them.

Lynfield College students using a whiteboard table last year to collate their ideas.

Different types of prior knowledge activities can reveal different types of prior knowledge so it is important to try a variety of methods rather than just one brainstorm to identify what students know (or think they know). For more on this, I highly recommend reading pages 84-92 of Effective Pedagogy in Social Sciences Best Evidence Synthesis by Graeme Aitken and Claire Sinnema.

Prior Knowledge Activity Tools I have found useful for this
Multi-Choice Google Forms, Kahoot
Open Question Conversations, Essays, Google Forms/Slides/Drawing
Concept Maps Old fashioned A3 paper! Google Drawing, LucidChart
Brain storms Whiteboard tables, A3 paper, Padlet, Post Its

When teachers deliberately build on what their students know and have experienced, they maximise the use of learning time, anticipate students’ learning needs, and avoid unnecessary duplication of content. (pg 34 of the New Zealand Curriculum)

Once we know what our students already understand we can then purposefully design the learning that they need. All teachers complain about not having enough time, now we can ensure that we don’t waste time covering what they already know.

By knowing their needs, we can also scaffold the learning opportunities appropriately. By finding that sweet spot of just enough challenge to stretch students’ thinking and abilities we make the most of our time in class with them. WIthout doing so, we risk either making students bored or making them give up. I love how Daniel Willingham phrases this. When we pitch the learning content at just the right level, we allow students to feel “The pleasurable rush of solving a problem” (from Why Don’t Students Like School).

Teachers can help students to make connections across learning areas as well as to home practices and the wider world. (pg 34 of the New Zealand Curriculum)

By knowing more about experiences that students have had outside our classrooms we can help them make links between what we are studying and what is happening outside our classroom. This will also encourage students to look at their understanding from a different perspective. Think about the science involved in cooking, how can this help students to better understand what they are learning in Chemistry (for a great example of this, see the Kitchen Science Cook Book.

Also, by getting students to make connections with other learning areas, home experiences or global situations, we are pushing them to develop much deeper thinking about ideas. SOLO Taxonomy considers the ability do this higher thinking skills and calls them relational and extended abstract thinking (


This post was initially written for use by teachers at Lynfield College. The reflection prompts that were shared with it were:

  1. What different methods do you use to gauge prior knowledge? What other methods could you try?
  2. How are you helping students make connections between their experiences outside of class and what you are learning in class?

Feel free to respond to these prompts in the comments below.


1 thought on “Making Connections to Prior Learning and Experience

  1. Pingback: Providing Sufficient Opportunities to Learn | Steve Mouldey

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