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Assess and activate prior knowledge

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Students’ prior knowledge of a subject is one of the most critical factors in learning more about the subject. Prior knowledge consists not only of factual, declarative knowledge but skills and beliefs related to the subject and to learning. As one group of researchers concluded:

Students come to every learning situation with prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence what they notice about the situation, how they organize and interpret it. This affects their ability to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 1999).


1. Assessing students’ prior knowledge before teaching new topics, and then using the results to plan instruction.

  • Online, pre-class quiz. Ask several open-ended questions to elicit students’ knowledge of upcoming topics. Review these quickly prior to class to look for patterns, gaps, and misconceptions. The information can help you take students’ prior knowledge into account when you plan lectures, assignments and class activities.

  • Concept inventories. In some fields, educators have developed concept inventories to assess students’ understanding of core concepts. Use the inventory as a course pre-test, or select items to use as pre-tests for specific units in the course.

 2. Activating students’ prior knowledge.

  • Habitually remind students about relevant prior knowledge. Students are not always aware that they have prior knowledge that could help them learn and understand new topics and concepts. Remind them. This can be done quickly by reviewing prior knowledge pertinent to the new topic at hand.

  • Provide lists of concepts and key ideas relevant to a new topic. Students can use the list to as a reminder of and to review material pertinent to the new topic.

  • Use written prompts to prime prior knowledge. Prior to starting a new topic, give students several questions in which they list and/or define and/or explain concepts that will be relevant to a new topic. 


  • See What Do Students Already Know for additional techniques.
  • See Concept Inventories for additional information.  

Cerbin, W. (2015). Assess and activate prior knowledge. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from