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What IS Prior Knowledge?

For purposes of designing instruction, prior knowledge refers to the knowledge a learner already has in their stored knowledge bank, BEFORE entering into the new learning experience you are providing for them in your online course.

An informal way to think about this is to ask yourself:

“What do people need to already know, in order to be ready, willing, and able to learn what I’m about to teach them now?”

When people sign up to take an online course, one of the main things they are looking for is the instructor’s expertise in providing just the right prior knowledge at each step of the learning journey, to reliably deliver the specific transformation they want to achieve. 

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What is the importance of activating prior knowledge in education?

Why focus on prior knowledge in your online course or learning program? Why does it matter?

Prior knowledge matters because it makes it either easier, or harder, for people to learn the new material you are offering in your course.

How hard or easy it is for someone to learn something depends on how much prior knowledge they already have about the subject matter… and whether the prior knowledge they have is helpful or gets in the way. (The learners’ prior knowledge affects cognitive load, which is a measure of the difficulty involved in learning something new).

No prior knowledge = unguided discovery learning

If learners have NO prior knowledge of the subject matter, they are thrown into unguided “discovery” learning.

Much of life itself consists of unguided discovery learning (otherwise known as “learning the hard way”).

While unguided discovery learning CAN be enjoyable (for children at play, or for advanced experts exploring new frontiers in their chosen fields), more often it is neither fun, enjoyable, nor even especially safe (as in the global Covid pandemic which has thrown the entire planet into a forced situation of prolonged discovery learning).

From the perspective of creating online courses, people do not sign up for an online course to experience unguided discovery learning.

Research reveals that unguided discovery learning is not as effective as structured learning in an online context. The whole point of an online course is to provide a GUIDED learning experience, in which the course creator has created a well-designed path leading the learner reliably from Point A to Point B. That’s what people are looking for in an online course: a reliable, well-constructed, GUIDED journey.

The way to ensure that your course provides a well-constructed guided learning journey is to build in the prior knowledge your learners need at every step of the way. This way they can follow a path that really does lead from Point A (their point of prior knowledge when starting the course) to point B (the transformation they want to achieve by taking the course).

So… how can you do that?

When you set out to create your online course, it helps to “begin with the end in mind” by using a process of backward design. 

If you start with a clear idea of what your course participants will be able to do as a direct result of completing your course, you can then use backward design to think through the prerequisite skills they will need to have at each step that it takes to reach that learning goal.

Types of prior knowledge

Essential and supporting prerequisites

Educational theorist and researcher Robert M. Gagné distinguishes between two types of prior knowledge:

  • Essential or enabling prerequisites: prior knowledge that learners MUST HAVE to learn what you are trying to teach them now
  • Supporting prerequisites: prior knowledge that it would be NICE TO HAVE in order to learn what you are teaching now

Mental processing space is at a premium in online learning, as compared to in-person learning, due to the navigational complexity, lack of immediate feedback, and social distance imposed by the nature of online learning itself. Therefore, in designing an online course, it may be helpful to focus on building only the essential prior knowledge that your course participants MUST HAVE in order to reach the learning destination (Point B) your course promises.

Helpful and unhelpful prior knowledge 

Prior knowledge is helpful if it provides a foundation on which to build the next steps in a learning sequence. For example, if someone already knows Latin, they have helpful prior knowledge for learning Romance languages like Spanish or French. Learners of Spanish and French who already know Latin will be helped by their prior knowledge of word roots and grammar rules that work throughout the Romance language family.

However, if someone already knows Latin and now wants to study Chinese, Arabic, or Hindi, the vocabulary and grammar rules of Latin will not be helpful to them. Applying Romance-language rules to non-romance languages leads to a phenomenon called “Language interference”, where the wrong prior knowledge gets in the way of new learning rather than supporting it.

So if you were teaching Arabic or Hebrew to speakers of Romance languages, you would first need to build in helpful prior knowledge by teaching Semitic-language rules relating to word roots and grammatical structures, and also instruct learners to ignore their unhelpful prior knowledge of Romance language rules.

If you were teaching Turkish to speakers of English and Arabic, you would need to instruct them to ignore the unhelpful (in this context) rules of BOTH the Indo European AND Semitic languages and instead teach relevant rules relating to “agglutinative” languages like Turkish and Japanese, that build words by “gluing” small units of sound and meaning onto each other to form words.

Once you have identified and eliminated (or guided your learners to disregard) their unhelpful prior knowledge, the next steps are to:

  • Build on top of their existing helpful prior knowledge
  • Fill in any missing essential prior knowledge
  • Construct your course to provide the needed prior knowledge step by step

Let’s explore the best way to achieve each of those methods of activating learners’ prior knowledge.

Steps to follow as you build the right prior knowledge into your online learning programs

1. Understand the prior knowledge your target audience does (and does not) have

 The tighter and more specific your niche is, the more uniformity there will be in the amount and type of prior knowledge your learners have about your course’s subject matter. Your understanding of their shared prior knowledge allows you to construct your course in a way that works for all members of that specific audience.

One reason it doesn’t work to create an online course for “everyone,” is that “everyone” does not have the same amount or type of prior knowledge. So while it’s true that it’s important for “everyone” to eat healthy, the specifics that go into eating healthy will be very different for Sumo wrestlers, macrobiotic vegans, endurance bikers, finicky four-year-olds, and seniors living in a nursing home.

To find the starting point for your course (Point A) you need to take the prior knowledge of your specific target audience into account.

First, conduct market research to gain insight into the prior knowledge your target audience has.

Then, analyze whether this prior knowledge is helpful, or unhelpful, for what you want them to learn.

2. Build on top of learners’ existing helpful prior knowledge

  • Step 1: Identify the learning goal for your academy, course, lesson, media item (whatever scale you are designing instruction at). That is “Point B” … the transformation you want to deliver.
  • Step 2: Identify your learners’ existing prior knowledge of the subject matter (that is “Point A” … their starting point).
  • Step 3: Map out the most direct path that leads from Point A to Point B. That is the learning journey your course provides.

Out of all the possible ways you COULD set up your course to lead from Point A to Point B, how do you know what the most direct path will be?

Course creators often get stuck at this point in their course design process, because they have SO MUCH prior knowledge of their subject matter, themselves, that it is difficult or impossible for them to understand what “the most direct path” would be, for a novice learner who does NOT share their advanced level of expertise.

Your extensive subject matter knowledge, paradoxically enough, constitutes the WRONG prior knowledge for determining how to structure your course! (This problem is so common that it has a name, “The Expert Blind Spot”.)

To overcome the expert blind spot, it works both well and fast to rely on a different type of prior knowledge, based on Gagné’s research into how people achieve different types of learning outcomes best.  

It’s also helpful to keep Bloom’s Taxonomy in mind…so that no matter what type of learning you’re creating, you always build in the more foundational lower-level thinking skills (remember, understand, and apply) as helpful prior knowledge learners’ can use later in a lesson, course, or online school to fuel and support the higher-level thinking skills involved in analyzing, evaluating information, and creating something new. 

3. Building in prior knowledge across different domains of learning

Here’s how you can use Gagné’s research to leverage and build on your learners’ prior knowledge, across the five domains of learning  (verbal information, attitudes, cognitive strategies, intellectual skills (how-to), and motor skills).

Verbal information often serves as essential prior knowledge for later, more complex learning that can be delivered in either the same course or one that comes later in a series of courses.

Verbal information learning helps learners use words to list, state, describe, etc. what they’ve learned.

In the world of online course businesses, many course creators use verbal information learning in the form of checklists, swipe files, and short informational PDFs and eBooks, as lead magnets or free courses early on in a marketing funnel.

Verbal information learning outcomes can range from the very simple to the very complex:

  • List
  • State
  • Describe
  • Memorize
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Compare and contrast
  • Explain the significance of

Simple verbal information functions such as list, state, describe and memorize, are at the early levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Complex verbal information functions such as evaluate, compare and contrast, and explain the significance of multiple factors and ideas, are at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

For example, a very simple verbal information course could enable learners to list the names of five breeds of dogs. Let’s call this course 1.

A more complex course in the same series could guide them to compare and contrast the benefits and drawbacks of different dog breeds for families with young children. This is course 2.

An even more complex course for veterinarians could have learners explain the significance of specific historic dog breeding protocols and the resulting health issues commonly seen in each breed at the genetic and epidemiological level. This is course 3.

In terms of prior knowledge, course 1 could serve as necessary prior knowledge for those wanting to take course 2 in the same online learning program. However, course 3 is for a different target audience, as veterinarians would have learned everything in course 1 and course 2 long ago and would not find that relevant prior knowledge for what they are interested in learning online now at their advanced stage of expertise.

In analyzing the target market for any online course you want to create, it’s essential to understand your audience’s existing level of prior knowledge relative to the subject matter you plan to teach. An important aspect of market research is determining not only WHO your course is for (your niche) but also WHAT they already know (their existing level of prior knowledge relative to your subject matter).

Skill learning (How-to courses)

The first step in learning any performance skill (how to change a tire, how to bake a cake, how to sell one thousand widgets a day without even trying, etc.) is to learn the foundational concepts or big ideas that are essential prior knowledge for performing that skill.

You teach those concepts as verbal information… so verbal information is often the prior knowledge needed to perform a skill (but it’s not ENOUGH to perform the skill… you then have to teach the actual action steps as well).

Mindset change courses

Often the prior knowledge needed to change one’s mindset and behavior, is a gut-level awareness of what DOESN’T work. This is why so many effective mindset change programs teach that someone has to “hit bottom” before they are ready to truly change.

Adopting the wrong mindset is always a choice learners CAN make. In order to truly change to a more helpful mindset, one must have relevant prior knowledge about how and why adopting the wrong mindset is not the choice THEY want to make.

Cognitive strategies courses (learning how to learn)

The key component in mastering a cognitive strategy (a way of “learning how to learn” something), is practicing the strategy… but before learners can practice the strategy, they must be taught what the strategy is and how it works. Understanding how the strategy works is essential prior knowledge learners need in order to put the strategy into practice.

Motor Skills courses (movement)

To perform a movement routine smoothly using automatic muscle memory, learners first need prior knowledge of the individual steps that make up the routine. This means that in order to teach a physical movement routine online, it’s important to start by breaking the routine down into its individual movements and teaching those movements one by one.

4. Building in prior knowledge at different SCALES of learning

You can use Gagné’s research combined with backwards design and Bloom’s Taxonomy to  build prior knowledge into a lesson, a course, or your whole online academy 

To build prior knowledge into a lesson, follow the nine events of instruction discovered by Gagné. Before creating a lesson, make sure you have a clearly defined learning objective: what will learners be able to do due to completing this lesson, that they couldn’t do before?

Bloom’s taxonomy: Ask yourself where your lesson’s learning objective falls on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Is the goal of the lesson to help learners:

  • REMEMBER something they learned before (i.e., recall prior knowledge)
  • UNDERSTAND basic concepts and ideas
  • APPLY something they’ve learned in practical ways (i.e., USE prior knowledge)
  • ANALYZE something they’ve learned (reflect on prior knowledge)
  • EVALUATE the meaning or impact of what they’ve learned (put their prior knowledge into context)
  • CREATE something new based on what they’ve learned (use their prior knowledge to generate something new)

If the lesson’s learning goal requires higher-level thinking skills such as analyzing, evaluating, or creating something new, make sure you have first built in the prior knowledge your learners will need to accomplish that goal, in an earlier lesson, or earlier course. (The “Line of Understanding” from Learn and Get Smarter, Inc. provides a helpful framework to support you in doing that). 

Ask yourself which of the five domains of learning your learning goal requires, and structure the part of the lesson where you present new instruction, based on the guidelines for that domain of learning.

You can find specific guidelines for setting up instruction for each of the five learning domains,  in Course Design Formula: How to Teach Anything to Anyone Online, Chapter 7, pp. 151-160.

To build prior knowledge into a course, set up the course sections (Thinkific calls them “chapters”) this way:

  • Verbal information courses (chunk the information, with each chunk moving from lower to higher-level thinking skills)
  • Attitudes courses (wrong way, right way, role models, find your why, support)
  • Cognitive strategies (explain the strategy, practice the strategy, get feedback)
  • Intellectual skills/How to (foundational concepts/tools and resources/steps to follow/fine tuning)
  • Motor skills (teach each individual movement/create smooth movement routine/practice/feedback)

To build prior knowledge into a course bundle or a whole online academy:

Determine the highest-level learning goal for your academy as a whole, then work backwards to determine the essential prerequisites. Create a course to teach each prerequisite in order. Learn more about how to create a learning sequence for your whole academy, here.

Conclusion and summary

Having the right prior knowledge (and NOT having—or relying on- the wrong prior knowledge) is one of the most important factors in successful learning of all kinds. Ensuring that learners have the right prior knowledge is especially critical in online learning, where it’s harder for the instructor to adapt and adjust the material in real-time based on immediate learner feedback.

Knowing what prior knowledge your learners have, what prior knowledge they need in order to learn what you’re about to teach, and how to layer the needed prior knowledge into every lesson, course, and bundle in your online academy, is a critical skill for ensuring your course participants’ ability to achieve the transformation you promise.

What if you discover that your course participants need prior knowledge that you haven’t yet provided in your course?

Your options are to:

  • Create pre-requisite courses as needed
  • Sequence the learning within your current course
  • Sequence courses in a bundle

Thinkific makes it very smooth, easy and convenient to add an earlier chapter to an existing course, create new courses to backfill any prior knowledge your learners need, or to create bundles of courses that build on each other in an online academy.

If the learning in one course is essential prior knowledge for those that follow, you can make some courses in the bundle pre-requisites that learners must complete in order to unlock the courses that come later in the learning sequence.

If something is hard for your course participants to learn, ask yourself what level of Bloom’s Taxonomy its learning objective calls for, and make sure you haven’t left out any of the prior knowledge steps or levels that your learners need so they can achieve that learning objective.

It doesn’t work for someone with expert-level skills to tell a novice learner, “Here’s how I built a rocket ship based on my 40 years of experience in astrophysics” and then jump right to, “Now YOU build one!”. This deliberately far-fetched example is designed as a reminder that learners need to be taken on an incremental journey, one small step at a time, to help them build in the prior knowledge they need at every step of the way along the learning journey you provide for them.