Building on Prior Knowledge: The Foundation of Learning

minute read
March 18, 2024

Learning is an incremental process that begins with acquiring and assimilating information, converting it into knowledge, and using that knowledge as the foundation for subsequent learning. It is a progression akin to stacking building blocks - one layer over another - to arrive at complex structures. 

All human knowledge is built using this model. Advanced mathematical calculations that make interplanetary exploration possible, for instance, are all based on the understanding that 1+1=2 and 2+1=3. Developing vaccines against the latest viral threats, likewise, wouldn’t be possible without basic knowledge of biology and cellular structure. 

This interlinked and staggered nature of knowledge has profound implications for learning. The reservoir of information and experiences with which we approach new knowledge allows us to connect dots, infer meanings, and grasp complex ideas with relative ease. 

This article explores the indispensable role of prior knowledge in the learning process and explains how a deliberate engagement with our existing understanding is essential for mastering new concepts and skills.

Understanding Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge is that which a learner already knows; it is the sum of knowledge, skills, and abilities that he or she brings to the learning process.  

Prior knowledge is a crucial component of cognitive development, serving as a framework upon which new knowledge can be built. Just as a carpenter apprentice draws upon their understanding of various types of wood and grain structures to master complex joinery techniques, learners bank upon their existing knowledge to make sense of and integrate new concepts.

The idea is illustrated humorously in a ‘Far Side’ cartoon by Gary Larson, where a student with bulging eyes asks his teacher if he can be excused because his "brain is full". 

This amusing scenario highlights a simple truth: when learning becomes a mere mechanical repetition, we quickly reach a saturation point. When we actively connect new information to what we already know, however, we can expand our cognitive capacity and deepen our understanding.

The Science of Learning and Cognition

Cognitive science offers profound insights into how we learn and the significance of prior knowledge in that process. 

The Cognitive Load Theory posits that our working memory—responsible for processing new information—has limited capacity. Prior knowledge plays a crucial role here, helping to construct new cognitive schemas within our long-term memory and thereby optimize learning efficiency.

To understand this better, consider the process of learning a new language, an endeavor that can be quite daunting for some. When we approach this task with a foundation in a similar language, however, the brain can use existing linguistic structures, vocabulary, and grammar rules to ease the cognitive load. Prior knowledge forms a network that new information can attach to, making the learning process more manageable and effective.

For instance, someone fluent in Spanish learning Italian will find similarities in vocabulary, sentence structure, and conjugation rules that make the learning process more efficient. That is because the brain can integrate new information with established schemas, reducing the cognitive effort required to store this new information. 

Prior knowledge directs our attention to what's relevant by enhancing our encoding efficiency while also expanding the capacity of our working memory. This allows us to manipulate and store more information by forming larger chunks of data, leaving more space in our working memory to process new information. 

Strategies for Leveraging Prior Knowledge

Here are three proven strategies that make effective use of what we already know to enhance the learning of new information.

  • Retrieval Practice: Testing oneself on what is already known is far more effective than passive review methods such as rereading text or consulting lecture notes. Active recall of facts, concepts, or experiences helps transform new information into prior knowledge. It also strengthens memory and interrupts the process of forgetting. Techniques like using flashcards or taking quizzes can significantly boost learning and retention. Through retrieval, memory becomes consolidated and learners can identify areas needing more focus. This makes knowledge more durable and accessible.

  • Concept Mapping: Visually organizing knowledge through concept mapping is a powerful way to clarify the connections between old and new concepts. This strategy enables learners to visually represent their understanding by identifying how new information fits within the broader context of what they already know. By drawing these connections, learners can better organize and integrate new knowledge. This makes new knowledge more meaningful and easier to retrieve.

  • Elaboration: Elaboration involves explaining new concepts in one's own words or relating them to personal experiences. It gives new material meaning and makes it more relatable. For example, understanding the principle of evaporation becomes more tangible when linked to personal experiences like noticing how a humid day feels hotter than a dry one. The process of elaboration creates more connections within the brain and enhances our ability to recall information later.

Practical Applications in Education

Effectively utilizing prior knowledge in an educational setting can transform the learning experience. 

  • Educators can begin by assessing a student's prior knowledge before introducing new topics and using that assessment to tailor instruction in a way that aligns with a student’s familiarity with a given subject. For instance, introducing advanced science topics through the lens of everyday phenomena can make complex ideas more accessible and engaging.

  • Technology and digital platforms offer unprecedented opportunities to leverage prior knowledge and personalize learning. Adaptive learning software, for example, can assess a student's prior knowledge and adjust the curriculum accordingly. This can be used to provide the student with challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult. Online forums and collaborative platforms also allow learners to share their experiences and insights, further enriching the learning process.

An approach to learning that leverages prior knowledge allows for a more dynamic, interactive, and effective learning environment that builds upon the foundational knowledge each student brings to the classroom.

Harnessing Prior Knowledge for Deeper Learning

Throughout this exploration, we've seen how crucial prior knowledge is in shaping our learning journey. It provides a foundation upon which new learning is built and enhances our capacity to integrate and retain new information.

At SOLVED, we recognize the transformative power of leveraging prior knowledge in educational success. Our platform is designed to empower learners by providing access to cutting-edge tools and resources that make learning more effective and engaging. 

Together, let's unlock the full potential of our prior knowledge!

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