Simple Strategies to Activate Students’ Prior Knowledge

Despite our best efforts, it can be a challenge to get students interested and engaged in their learning. Often, many of them lack the prior knowledge to infer meaning. However, there are some genuinely useful strategies that can help re-engage them and keep their attention. One of those strategies is to activate students’ prior knowledge.

To activate students’ prior knowledge, a constructivist mindset helps students draw on prior experiences and knowledge so they can create new meanings and new learning can take place. In some cases, certain strategies are more effective when used within a particular subject.

Before delving into the best strategies for activating prior knowledge, it’s important to touch on a few key terms and understand the importance of engagement.

Why is it important to activate prior knowledge?

Students of all ages bring with them beliefs, experiences, and information about what they’ve learned and how they learn. A vital component of teaching and learning is taking time to discover what students know, don’t know, or believe to know about a topic. 

Activating prior knowledge has enormous benefits to students. When they learn to compare and contrast new information with pre-existing knowledge, they become metacognitive; this means they have an awareness of their own thought processes, and learn to think about their thinking as they take in new information.

When students are taught to activate their prior knowledge, they are essentially teaching themselves to scaffold. From there, new facts, ideas, and concepts are built, and they can consider how the new information fits in with what they already know.

What types of knowledge can be activated?

There are generally two types of knowledge:

  • Declarative knowledge, which is knowledge that a person has about specific facts and details. Generally, this kind of knowledge is very surface-level and is related to “knowing about” certain topics.
  • Procedural knowledge, which is a higher level of knowledge that goes a bit deeper. Students with this kind of knowledge make connections between concepts and recognize the relationships that exist. Generally, this knowledge is more about “knowing how” to do something.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that because a student knows a lot about a certain topic, that they are at an advantage. This isn’t always true. Sometimes students have acquired incorrect or incomplete knowledge, which can be a huge obstacle to overcome.

The importance of constructivism

It is helpful to understand the idea of constructivism in reference to prior knowledge activation. Constructivism is the belief that learners actively produce their knowledge based on their experiences as opposed to passively learning. By the time students enter school, they have already constructed theories and ideas about how things work. Using this base, learners integrate new information and representations with their prior knowledge.

When teachers activate their students’ prior knowledge, they tap into old stores of experiences and information so that new learning can be constructed. Reconciling old knowledge and new experiences helps students more deeply understand the concepts that are presented to them.

Strategies to help activate prior knowledge

The strategies below can be used with any subject, depending on the topic, students’ ability levels, and your teaching and learning goals. However, they are broken into subjects because certain ones are more beneficial in a specific setting.

Language Arts Strategies – Reading, writing, comprehension

When it comes to language arts, knowledge activation encompasses a wide variety of things. For example, reinforcing comprehension strategies activates student’s prior knowledge, and sharing texts of a similar genre works to stimulate curiosity and initiate the inquiry process that will direct the learning. Generating inquiry questions about language and literature also works (download the set of questions here). Below are two specific strategies that work well to activate prior knowledge in language arts instruction:

  • Visuals and vocabulary: Prior to reading, ask students to skim through the text. They should look at all the pictures, diagrams, maps, graphs, and tables. This helps students familiarize themselves with the content and some of the words they will come across in their reading. As they do this, encourage them to highlight or write down words that are unfamiliar to them. In a small group, write these unknown words on index cards and scaffold the definitions with them. Discuss what students can learn from these words, as well as how the visuals they’ve seen can help them learn more about the text. Add them to a vocabulary or word wall.
  • Anticipation guide: Provide students with a list of 5-8 short sentences from the text they are about to read. Prior to reading, ask students to read each of the statements and check whether they agree or disagree with the statement. Revisit the guide after reading the text to see if any of their opinions have changed. This is great to use as a discussion starter, and for students to share their opinions about the topic. I’ve used this strategy with my Fairytale Inquiry Unit and had a lot of success!

Teaching spelling using a structured word inquiry is also a great way to introduce new words and investigate them using an inquiry approach.

Social Studies Strategies- History, geography

History and geography are subjects that students often have misconceptions about. For example, students assume that the American Civil War was entirely about slavery. Activating prior knowledge in social studies helps correct misconceptions that might otherwise make learning difficult or confusing for students. Alternatively, many students need practise developing specific social studies-related skills, such as contextualizing history, reading maps, and approaching serious events with a critical eye (our posts on the U.S Capitol Attack and Respectfully Teaching Indigenous History both offer excellent teaching advice for this). The strategies below are particularly useful for social studies teaching:  

  • Roundtable: Students are put into groups of 4-6 and given a single sheet of flipchart paper and a marker. The teacher poses a question or gives students a statement to respond to. Students jot their ideas down on the paper; this can include the use of words, diagrams, drawings, quotes, and anything else that is relevant to the question or statement. Students are encouraged to say their ideas aloud as they write them on paper so that the other group members can hear them articulate their ideas and add to them if they want. Using this strategy can lay the foundation for upcoming discussions, and it encourages creativity and communication skills.
  • Questionnaire: Despite being more traditional in nature, I’ve found questionnaires to be one of the most eye-opening strategies for reviewing student’s prior knowledge. The use of a questionnaire (anonymous or not) is a great way to see what students know about historical events or geography-related terms. Furthermore, it helps me to adjust the course content according to the gaps in knowledge. This is the questionnaire template I use when teaching an Ancient History course: CHW3M questionnaire template

There are more great resources to help teach social studies in our Social Studies Portal.

Math Strategies to activate prior knowledge

Particularly with math, it is a good idea to ask students what they know about key concepts before delving into a new topic. For example, students introduced to algebra benefit from clarification of the terms “variable”, “unknown”, and “like terms”. Moreover, students probably have their own methods for solving problems that would be useful to share in the classroom. A great website that offers awesome warm-up activities is NRICH; I highly recommend it!

Photo courtesy of
  • Opening task: This is a strategy I learned when I taught in England and used the Singapore Math system. I had a lot of success using their warm-up methods. What I would do is write one question asking students to complete a short task. The task was something the students would learn how to do in that lesson. For example, I gave students a sheet with the length and width of a rectangle and asked them to find the perimeter. This resulted in a discussion about how to calculate perimeter, and the students shared strategies they used to help them. By giving students the task first, they have the opportunity to explore the concept and try out different strategies to help prepare them for new learning.
  • Think-pair-share: This is a tried-and-true strategy that is particularly helpful in math. Students engage in small-group thinking before answering questions in a whole-class discussion. Using this strategy provides students with processing time, prompts to activate prior knowledge, and acts as a check for understanding. Teachers can decide to set time limits, require students to jot down their ideas on whiteboards, and mix up partners as they see fit. Modelling think-alouds also help because they encourage students to “think about their thinking”.

Download a set of 50 challenging math inquiry questions to facilitate inquiry-based math learning!

Science Strategies

Using prior knowledge activation strategies in science depends largely on the grade level of students and the specificity of the subject. For example, in an elementary science lesson, more general types of warm-up activities are suitable. However, in high school, when science classes become more specialized, some prior activation strategies will work better than others. Below are two strategies that can be used in both the elementary and secondary classroom.

  • Photo sort: Set up an assortment of photos that are related to the concept being covered in the lesson. For example, if you’re teaching about ecology, provide a collection of related photos to students. Have them sort the photos by predicted sequence, subtopic, or grouped by another criteria. Once students have done this (in pairs or small groups), have them feedback their choices and scaffold understanding. From there, begin your lesson.
  • Frontloading: This strategy is useful when students need explicit frames of reference; for example, culturally diverse students or ESL students benefit immensely from visuals and discussions about certain topics and issues before learning more deeply about them. Not only does this help activate their prior knowledge, but it also promotes equity and levels the playing field for all students from the beginning.

I suggest using a Scientific Inquiry in the Elementary Classroom to make the most out of these prior knowledge activation strategies. You can also try incorporating some science and space inquiry questions as well!

The Arts Strategies

Knowledge activation in the arts can be a bit tricky. For starters, it’s a subject that students tend to either love or hate. To combat this, prior knowledge activation needs to encompass more than just drawing, painting, and creating. Art borrows plenty of inspiration from other subjects. For example, studying art means also studying history. Analyzing architecture touches on scientific and mathematical concepts. Helping students realize this is the first step in activating prior knowledge.

  • Art web: This strategy is fairly common in the classroom. Students first get a topic or idea. In the art classroom, this could be the name of an artist, art period, the title of a piece of music, or the name of a famous landmark. Around the topic or idea, students branch out in a web shape to jot down all the things they can think of that relate to the word(s) in the middle.
  • See, Think, Wonder: This strategy works wonders for getting students to draw on prior knowledge. Students receive a specific photo, image, or illustration. Firstly, they need to write down what they see in the image (people, shapes, colours, etc.). Next, they write down what they think about the image. This can include other things they are reminded of when they look at the image, or what they think might be going on. It is a more in-depth analysis of the image. Finally, students write what they wonder about the image. These include questions about what’s going on, questions about the artist or creator, or other random questions the image provokes.

We’ve created a simple See, Think, Wonder template to use in any lesson where a photo or illustration is being used. Also, be sure to check out our 50 Creative Inquiry Questions About the Arts for more inspiration.

Key Takeaways:

(1) Teachers should adopt a constructivist mindset which is the belief that learners actively produce their knowledge based on their experiences as opposed to passively learning.

(2) Prior knowledge can be categorized in two ways: declarative knowledge, which is knowledge  related to “knowing about” certain topics, and procedural knowledge, which is more about “knowing how” to do something.

(3) Different prior knowledge activation strategies will work better in some subjects than others, so it is important to know your goals and outcomes in order to choose an appropriate strategy.

What other prior activation strategies have worked for you? Share them in the comments below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

Cover photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

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