Our Students as Learners

Prior Knowledge and Prior Experience

Students come into our course with a broad range of backgrounds, educational experiences, and prior knowledge and skills. Current research on learning suggests that learning is determined by what the learner already knows about the topic or related topics (Svinicki, 2004). If the pre-existing knowledge is correct and consistent with the new information, the effect on learning is positive. However, if prior knowledge is full of misconceptions, or conflicts with new information, the effect on new learning can be negative.

Circumstances in which prior knowledge hinders learning:

Ambrose et al. (2010) identified circumstances where prior knowledge can hinder student learning. Select one of the tabs below to learn more about each type of knowledge.

Inactive Knowledge

Students do not always automatically draw on prior knowledge. Therefore, even though students have relevant prior knowledge when learning a new topic/ concept this information is often overlooked and does not help learning of the new material. In this instance students may struggle to learn new information even though they have prior knowledge that could help them learn more effectively.

Insufficient Knowledge

Relevant and accurate prior knowledge is sometimes activated but it is not sufficient to support the desired level of performance of the instructor. For example, an instructor asks her students whether or not they have written an essay in previous courses. Based on the students’ positive response she assigned a critical writing essay for the first assignment. However, it was clear that most students did not know how to develop an argument and support it with appropriate evidence. Thus the students’ prior knowledge of essay writing did not align with the expectations of this course.

Inaccurate and Inappropriate Knowledge

Students can draw on knowledge (from everyday contexts, incomplete analogies, from other disciplines and from their own life experiences), but that knowledge may be inappropriate or inaccurate for the new context. This knowledge can distort the interpretation of new material, or impede new learning. It is important to note that inappropriate knowledge does not always mean inaccurate. Inappropriate knowledge can also result from misunderstanding of content and definitions, and their context. This inaccurate information is often hard for them to “unlearn”.

+ column: activated, sufficient, appropriate, accurate

- column: inactive, insufficient, inappropriate, inaccurate

Figure 4. How prior knowledge can help or hinder student learning.

When planning a class or an entire course, ask yourself the following questions to gauge students’ prior knowledge:

  • What do my students already know about the topic?
  • What kinds of questions, prior knowledge tests or non-graded assessments can I use to find out my students’ prior knowledge?


Take a moment to jot down some ideas on what you currently do to identify student prior knowledge. Keep in mind that prior knowledge refers not only to concepts but also to thinking skills, interpersonal and professional skills or attitudes/values.

Before we conclude this section it is important to note that the influence of prior knowledge on learning is not always negative. Learning ultimately begins with the known and proceeds to the unknown. Connecting everyday experiences with classroom topics and intentionally engaging preexisting knowledge with new classroom content can promote meaningful and lasting learning.