Prior Knowledge

When students take classes in secondary education, they do not do so from scratch. They already know and can do a lot and that prior knowledge influences their learning. This prior knowledge is important because everything they already know and can do, including the misconceptions contained therein, determines the way in which they process new information. Prior knowledge exists from insights that students construct on the basis of school knowledge and daily experiences. There are large differences in prior knowledge between students:


The prior knowledge can be more or less complete. The prior knowledge can be disjointed and fragmented or form a relational unity. Some students have learned that the capital of Spain is Madrid, while others know that Madrid is at an altitude of 700 meters and that the nights can be freezing even in summer.

Prior knowledge may be less or more available to the student. For example, students know something about a subject, but this knowledge is at most latent. The prior knowledge can be correct, but also completely wrong or everything in between. If students' prior knowledge is well organized and accessible, they are better able to select, analyze and efficiently structure new data, relevant information.

However, misconceptions may also have arisen in students' prior knowledge, which can seriously hinder the processing of new information. When these students are confronted with new correct information, they must adjust their existing ideas or abandon them altogether. This is certainly not easy for adolescents, because they have more difficulty replacing a known approach or concept with a new one. Students may be attached to their incorrect concept both emotionally and intellectually. Ultimately, they have constructed it in their brains themselves. In order to encourage students to learn, it is important to make the gap between prior knowledge in a certain area and the new knowledge sought neither too wide nor too small. If students have a lot of prior knowledge in a certain area, they can more easily make connections and come up with examples. They then have to make less use of cognitive strategies. Prior knowledge among students in secondary education is very limited in many areas. They will therefore have to rely on cognitive strategies much more than, for example, students and will need a lot of explicit support from teachers.

Memorization is an important strategy initially because students would otherwise have no opportunity to link new information to existing knowledge. The existing prior knowledge can be mapped and activated by starting the teaching of new material with a compelling example. The new media are ideally suited for this. However, it is important to make the connection between the example and the new learning material explicit. An interactive educational conversation, whether or not preceded by an example, is also suitable for this. Here it is important to be aware that students with little prior knowledge will not actively participate in such a group discussion. Allowing students to brainstorm in groups about a certain topic does not yield much. Certainly not if the dominant student in a group posits a misconception. An advantage of an interactive learning conversation is that there is a good chance that misconceptions will surface. Moreover, through experience, teachers often have a good idea of ​​what misconceptions exist among students. The teacher can then very explicitly address the misconception. As noted earlier, students are attached to their misconceptions. It is therefore not enough to verbally correct the misconception or just explain why something is a misconception. It works better to let the students get started with it. This can be done by providing a concrete example and having the students point out the misconceptions in it, or by instructing the students to look for examples where the misconception emerges. Here too, it is important to explicitly indicate afterwards what the misconception is and why it is a misconception.