Strategy 3.6: Assess and Activate Students’ Prior Knowledge and Relate Lesson Content to Their Personal Lives and Experiences. Teachers understand the power of attaching new learning to prior learning; therefore, they systematically find out what their students already know. Though students differ in what they bring to each new learning situation, all students come with large stores of information waiting to be tapped and developed. Strategic use of tasks that assess and activate students’ prior knowledge can greatly enhance the possibility that students will understand and remember the lesson.
The work that teachers do with students at the beginning of a lesson can reap many benefits for everyone in the class. Tasks designed to assess and activate students’ prior knowledge can serve many purposes. A well-designed task can show teachers immediately what their students know or don’t know about a topic. Other tasks provide immediate links to the theme or topic by showing students that what they’re studying connects directly to their own lives, thus establishing personal relevance and interest.
Teachers can ask themselves a series of questions before they decide which activity or task to use:
• What prior student knowledge do I want to try to activate that ties to the content most directly or powerfully?
• How can I show my students explicitly how the activity links to the theme or content?
• How can I show my students that they can use what they already know to understand something new?
• How can I best elicit my students’ opinions, thoughts, or ideas about what they already know?
• What experiences can I provide for my students that will allow them to see and feel that what we are studying connects to their personal lives?
Most teachers have a repertoire of tasks for finding out what students already know. A journal activity allows students to write about personal topics that relate to something soon to be studied, for example: “Write about a time when you moved and had to leave something behind.” As another example, brainstorming can be done in many ways, from a standard list format to more complicated semantic webbing. The K-W-L format (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994) provides a structured way for students to chart what they already know about a topic (K), what they want to know (W), and then, at the end of the lesson, what they learned (L).
Students who are second-language learners can profit from the use of not just one, but several, activities that allow them to uncover what they already know about a topic and see how it relates to their own lives, before they begin to study the lesson content.
One valuable task designed to assess and activate prior knowledge is an anticipation and prediction guide, also known as an anticipatory guide (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994). Anticipatory guides are especially valuable tools for science teachers as they can reveal students’ scientific misconceptions. Teachers can then structure their lesson so that students experience the scientific phenomena in a new way, giving them a chance to confront their misconceptions and restructure their thinking (Bruer, 1993).
In constructing an anticipatory guide, teachers select key concepts (or a key reading passage) and then create a short series of true or false statements encompassing the ideas they want the class to consider. The students respond to each statement individually, in pairs, or in groups. At this point, the teacher tells students that they don’t need to know the correct answer—they should just make their best guess—but that they’ll be responsible for knowing the correct answer by the end of the lesson.
Anticipatory guides are an effective addition to a language arts or literature class, before reading a story or studying a unit. Here the goal of the guide is to enable students to interact personally with the ideas or values expressed. In this version, there is no correct response, for students are dealing with individual feelings. For example, before studying a thematic unit on courage, students might be asked to respond with “yes” or “no” to the following statements or ideas they’ll encounters in the readings:
• It is important to act brave even if you don’t feel brave.
• Physical courage is more important than moral courage.
• I have acted courageously at least once in my life.
• A person always knows what courage is when he or she sees it.
• A person can learn to have courage.
The teacher may ask students to periodically review their responses to the anticipatory guides as they progress through the unit, or to repeat the exercise at the end to see if their ideas have changed. In that case, students might be asked to supply evidence from the text that convinced them either to change their mind or to stick with their initial response.
Students in a physics class for second-language learners were given the anticipatory guide in Figure 3.4 prior to studying Newton’s Third Law. The teacher systematically assesses his students’ prior knowledge and possible misconceptions through the use of anticipatory guides. A key to understanding is in the “Later” activity at the end of the lesson, in which students are asked to examine their prior beliefs by redoing the anticipatory guide and explaining why their first answer was either right or wrong.