University of Nebraska Medical Center

Activating Prior Knowledge

The activation of prior knowledge is an important activity, especially when your lesson focuses on conceptual knowledge, because it helps students connect the new knowledge gain you are facilitating with concepts they’ve already mastered.

Benefits to the student include:

  • Approaching new topics with a sense of confidence
  • Activating long-term memory
  • Identifying new learning needs

Benefits to the instructor include:

  • Identifying a baseline level of understanding
  • Opportunities to adjust materials and delivery to meet the needs of students
  • Opportunities to review foundational concepts (level the playing field)

Practical ideas for incorporating this type of activity into your classroom include:

Start with an “open book review.”
List major ideas and take 3-5 minutes at the beginning of the activity for students to re-familiarize themselves with those concepts. Learners use this time to brush up on related concepts, and you get a few minutes to observe the activity in order to adjust your lesson according to what you see.

See who can list the most facts about a topic. 
Help students retrieve knowledge from their long-term storage by supplying related terms on an interval basis. For example, if the major concept is plagiarism, help students recall what they know by writing the words paraphrase, citation, and copyright on the board as students appear to get stuck.

Most students enjoy competition. Give the student who remembers the largest number of accurate facts a treat. The reciting of these facts to the group will help learners who are struggling to remember or who have a weaker foundation in the topic.

A potential modification to this activity is to “disqualify” any student who shares an inaccurate statement or one that is not directly related to the topic. This forces the individual to consider how sure she is about a statement’s accuracy and utility before sharing. The rest of the class is engaged in listening for any discrepancies with their frameworks for the topic because they become the final judges about each statement.

Working with a small group? Turn it into a game of “Boggle.” The student with the largest number of unique facts wins.

Assign homework. 
Don’t feel you can devote time at the beginning of your lesson to this type of activity? Via email or your learning management system, prepare a few practice test items or another quick activity for students to complete that will involve them in activating their prior knowledge before they come to class.

Not sure what prior knowledge your students have? Ask them!


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