Activating prior knowledge: methods, tools and tips

Do you ever wonder if your students are truly immersed in the learning process? Are they actively forging connections between new knowledge and their existing understanding? Are they retaining what they’re being taught? As education professionals, we constantly seek ways to create captivating learning experiences that ignite curiosity and foster critical thinking skills. One simple strategy that holds incredible potential is activating prior knowledge. But how exactly does it work? How can we leverage the power of technology to make this process even more impactful? In this post, I dive into the theory and research behind activating prior knowledge and explore the exciting possibilities that ed tech tools offer in tertiary settings.

The theory behind activating prior knowledge

The concept of activating prior knowledge is rooted in schema theory, which suggests that individuals organise their knowledge into mental frameworks or schemas. Schemas serve as the mind’s filing cabinet, storing our accumulated understanding and experiences (Anderson & Freebody, 1981). When we activate prior knowledge, it’s like opening the relevant drawer in this mental filing cabinet. Just as a filing cabinet helps us efficiently organise new information by allowing us to place it in the appropriate file, activating prior knowledge allows us to make connections between what we already know and the new information we’re encountering. Once these connections are made, the new information becomes securely filed away, ready for later retrieval and application.

Research has shown that activating prior knowledge can significantly improve learning outcomes. For example, the seminal study by Bransford and Johnson (1972) found that participants who were given a context for a passage of text before reading it were better able to understand and remember the information than those who were not given any context. Similarly, a study by Pressley and Afflerbach (1996) found that students who were taught to activate their prior knowledge before reading a text performed better on comprehension tests than those who were not taught this strategy. Additionally, the further reading section of this post contains a number of recent empirical studies in which prior knowledge activation was found to improve knowledge retention in a number of tertiary settings. 

Activating prior knowledge contributes to enhanced learning outcomes by promoting comprehension, retention, and critical thinking skills. By activating their existing schemas, learners can establish connections between new and old information, leading to improved understanding and memory of the new information. Additionally, activating prior knowledge fosters critical thinking by encouraging learners to analyse and evaluate new information in the context of their existing knowledge and experiences.

Ed tech tools for activating prior knowledge

The learning management system (LMS) combined with ed tech tools can be powerful facilitators of activating prior knowledge in higher education settings. Here are some examples of how different methods and associated tools can be used to activate prior knowledge:


Tools such as quizzes and surveys, can be used to gauge learners’ existing knowledge and tailor instruction accordingly. LMS and Learning Tools Interoperability (LTIs) such as H5P’s range of quizzes and Atomic Jolt’s social poll, offer pre-assessment tools that can be used to assess learners’ prior knowledge before beginning a new unit or module. This information can be used to tailor instruction to meet learners’ needs and ensure that they are not repeating information they already know. Pre-assessments can also be used to identify gaps in learners’ knowledge, which can be addressed through targeted instruction or serve as a means for self-assessment.

A poll is shown with 4 multiple choice questions related to Assisted Reproductive Technologies.
In this example, healthcare professionals in a UTS Online Master of Women and Childen’s Health are provided with a poll about statistics related to Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Though it’s not meant to be a measure of student’s current knowledge, in considering what they think the answers will be, they must draw on what they already know about the topic. Later in the page, those statistics are revealed at relevant points within the content. For those students who are eager to see the answers in one place, an accordion is neatly displayed at the bottom of the page.

Discussion and collaboration

Discussion forums can be used to facilitate knowledge sharing and exchange. Effective discussion prompts and techniques may encourage learners to activate their prior knowledge and connect it to new information. For example, asking learners to share personal experiences related to a topic can help them to connect new information to their existing knowledge and experiences. 

Collaborative learning activities, such as group projects and peer review, can also promote the activation of prior knowledge by encouraging learners to share their knowledge and perspectives with others. Many LMSs have functionality that support group work such as Canvas groups and its associated group homepage that creates a seamless environment for groups.

Reflective exercises

Reflective activities, such as journaling, blog posts, or online portfolios, can engage learners in self-reflection and promote the activation of prior knowledge. These activities encourage learners to reflect on their existing knowledge and experiences and connect them to new information. 

Example: asking learners to write a reflection on how a new concept relates to their personal experiences can help them to activate their prior knowledge and make connections to new information. 

At the beginning of this module in a subject on a UTS online Graduate Certificate of Child and Family Health that explores family relationships, what makes a family and how this is different for all of us, students take part in a Mentimeter Word Cloud poll to share what family means to them. They then view the results and reflect on how their perspective may be similar or different from others.

Visual and auditory cues

Videos and infographics can be used to stimulate prior knowledge activation. These multimedia resources can be used to provide learners with visual and auditory cues that help them to connect new information to their existing knowledge and experiences.

Example: a video that provides a real-world example of a concept can help learners to connect the concept to their existing knowledge and experiences.

Real-world examples

Case studies and real-world examples can be used to connect theoretical concepts with practical applications. These examples can help learners to activate their prior knowledge by providing them with concrete examples that they can relate to. When selecting and designing case studies and examples, it is important to choose examples that resonate with learners’ experiences and are relevant to their lives.

In this short course on financial accounting for business professionals, students are given example responses from fictional ‘course mentors’ who represent cohorts within the learner demographic and are subsequently asked to consider how the learning they are about to do might be relevant to their own careers. It was designed in Canvas LMS using Atomic Jolt’s comment box to facilitate the discussion.

Tips for design

When designing activities that activate prior knowledge, it is important to keep in mind these tips and best practices:

Relevance: Ensure the activity is relevant to learners’ lives and experiences.

Clarity: Provide clear instructions and expectations for the activity.

Active participation: Encourage learners to actively participate in the activity by asking questions, sharing their knowledge and experiences, and applying new information to real-world scenarios.

Formative assessments: Incorporate formative assessments throughout the activity to monitor learners’ progress and provide feedback. Make use of the reports and analytics available through LTIs and your LMS and check back regularly.

Reflection: Provide opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning and actively connect new information to their existing knowledge and experiences.

Activating prior knowledge is a powerful strategy for enhancing learning outcomes in tertiary settings. Ed tech tools can be used to facilitate this practice by providing a range of activity options in online learning. When designing activities that activate prior knowledge, it is important to keep in mind the importance of relevance, clarity, active participation, formative assessments, and reflection. By incorporating these strategies and tips into teaching and learning practices, education professionals can promote effective technology-enhanced learning experiences that engage learners and enhance their learning outcomes.


  • Anderson, R. C., & Anderson, P. (1981). Reading Comprehension and Schema Theory. In J. T. Guthrie (Ed.), Comprehension and Teaching: Research Reviews (pp. 231-255). International Reading Association.
  • Bransford, J. D., & Johnson, M. K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 717–726.
  • Pressley, M., & Afflerbach, P. (1996). Verbal Protocols of Reading: The Nature of Constructively Responsive Reading [Review of Verbal Protocols of Reading: The Nature of Constructively Responsive Reading]. College Composition and Communication, 47(2), 305–306. National Council of Teachers of English. 
  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285. 

Further reading

  • Kärner, T., & Warwas, J. (2015). Functional relevance of students’ prior knowledge and situational uncertainty during verbal interactions in vocational classrooms: evidence from a mixed-methods study. Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training, 7(1), 1–.
  • Lou, A. J., & Jaeggi, S. M. (2020). Reducing the prior‐knowledge achievement gap by using technology‐assisted guided learning in an undergraduate chemistry course. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 57(3), 368–392. 
  • Schimmelfing, L. C., & Persky, A. M. (2020). Activating prior knowledge using multiple‐choice question distractors. Medical Education, 54(10), 925–931. 
  • Soederberg Miller, L. M., Cohen, J. A., & Wingfield, A. (2006). Contextual knowledge reduces demands on working memory during reading. Memory & Cognition, 34(6), 1355–1367. 
  • Stewart, J. J., & Dake, G. R. (2019). Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge Using a Bridge Activity as an Initial Interactive Discussion in a Flipped Organic Chemistry Course. Journal of Chemical Education, 96(11), 2426–2431. 

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