Warming up prior knowledge

Preparing for meaningful learning

Hey 👋

Hope your Thursday is thrilling. Today, we’re extending our theme of meaningful learning with a dip into advance organisation

Big idea 🍉

One of the goals of education is to foster meaningful learning. One of the best ways to achieve this is to help students make connections between what they are learning and what they already know.

"The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows."

— David Ausubel

However, it's not just what the learner already knows, but how ready-to-mind that knowledge is. Prior knowledge is like 'glue for new ideas'. But, it's more like a hot-melt glue for a glue gun than a superglue... it’s stickiest when warmed up.

For example, if I am teaching about the properties of the human 'eye', but one of my students is into sewing and is thinking about the eye of a needle, then they will be confused and not learn hugely effectively. (sure, this is a far-fetched example, but it illustrates the point well)

We can increase the chances that students make meaningful connections by helping them warm up or 'activate' their prior knowledge first. If we don't do this, we risk students building isolated (or meaningless) understanding and potentially even connecting to the wrong prior knowledge (and seeding misconceptions).

So how can we activate prior knowledge?

One basic approach is to use pre-review. This is when we offer a recap, give our students a quiz, or just ask them to free-recall what they know about a particular topic, before we extend that understanding.

A more sophisticated approach is to use advance organisers. These are 'cognitive scaffolds' which help students anticipate and structure incoming ideas. Ways we can do this include:

  1. Bigger picturing Establishing where the forthcoming learning fits within the broader structure of a topic. Graphic formats can be particularly powerful for visualising relationships and hierarchies.

  2. Knowledge pre-organisation Providing students with an organised overview of all the knowledge they’re going to learn in a topic. Advance organisers aren’t mere overviews of the landscape, they’re better thought of as bridges—linking the known with the new.

  3. Similar skeletons Connecting the intended learning to previous content that has a similar meta-structure. For example, before exploring the relationship between the area of a circle and its circumference, revisiting how the area of a rectangle relates to its perimeter.

Note → Advance organisers work best for complex topics. And where they do work, they can even be equity building—as they tend to offer greatest benefit to those with lowest prior knowledge.


• Building meaning doesn't just require prior knowledge, it needs available prior knowledge.

• We can warm up prior knowledge via pre-review or advance organisation.

• Advance organisation is more sophisticated but can be effective for complex topics and benefits those with lower prior knowledge.

Challenge → How do you currently approach the activation of prior knowledge? How might you enhance things even further?

Little links 🥕

PRO bites 🥑

For Snacks PRO subscribers only → learn more.

(which this week includes an car-based interview with Rachel & Josh about ‘ratio’ in teaching!)

Till next (thrilling) Thursday…

Peps 👊