Every student views new information through the lens of prior knowledge. In fact, some researchers suggest that learning requires connecting new information to what we already know. Either way, more connections leads to improved recall and utility.

However, prior knowledge can hurt or fail to connect to new knowledge in several ways.

  • Inactive Knowledge: The student fails to recognize a connection between new and existing info.

  • Insufficient Knowledge: The student recognizes some connection to prior knowledge, but they’re existing knowledge is not enough to make meaningful connections or improve learning.

  • Inappropriate Knowledge: The student draws a connection to correct information that does not apply to the new information. Example: Belief that testing ‘negative’ means a bad result. If the context is a drug test, then testing negative means absence of drugs and is good.

  • Inaccurate Knowledge: The student draws a connection, but their existing info is wrong.

Some inaccurate knowledge can be fixed just by drawing attention to it. However, inaccurate knowledge that is reinforced over time and different contexts is called a misconception (e.g. conspiracy theories). Misconceptions are not fixed by formal instruction.

Misconceptions are not corrected by formal instruction.

The most powerful tools for fixing misconceptions are time and repetition. Essentially, the same process as how the incorrect knowledge was ingrained.

However, there are other techniques to speed the process

  • Elaborative interrogation: Asking students why questions or to explain their reasoning. This progressively draws attention to inconsistencies or component misconceptions

  • Bridging: Leading students through a series of concepts from something they believe to the rejected knowledge. E.g. Students don’t believe wood exerts a force on a book. However, they believe a spring would. Spring -> Foam -> Firm foam -> Pliable wood -> Solid wood

Signs of Failure

  • Students don’t see connection between what they’re learning and what they know

  • Students can’t relate concepts to their experiences

  • Students bring up concepts at seemingly random times

Tools & Techniques

  • Diagnostic Assessments: a low stakes exam meant to gauge student knowledge

  • Concept Inventories: An assessment, often multiple choice, designed to deliberately trigger common misconceptions

  • Self-Assessments: Students rate their own abilities

  • Explicitly link past material

  • Analogies to everyday activities