The Importance of Activating Prior Knowledge

I have previously written about the role of memory in classroom pedagogy. This post draws upon both this theme and its link to Metacognition in the discussion of the topic, Activating Prior Knowledge.

This infographic below from the EEF Metacognition report demonstrates The Seven Step Model: it supports teachers in developing pupils’ independence. As you can see, Activating Prior Knowledge is step number one in this process and it is largely instigated and supported by the teacher (compared to the pupil) at this stage:

Activating prior knowledge (PK) is an extremely valuable part of the learning process for pupils. When they learn to compare new information with pre-existing knowledge, they become metacognitive. If pupils can develop the ability to recall prior knowledge, they can then learn how to scaffold their own learning and thus develop greater independence. Pupils need to be given the opportunity to see how their PK compares and contrasts with the new knowledge/skill being taught and this helps learning take place.

In terms of how this translates into class practice, practical strategies teachers have used to activate PK include: brainstorming, concept maps, KWL grids, “spot the mistake” etc. It is likely you have used some, if not all of these before.

Another strategy I have recently tried in my class is the use of “anticipation grids”. Here is an example of such a grid from the start of a Maths unit of work:






Fractions are parts of a whole.



If the numerator of a fraction is bigger than the denominator, this means it is greater than one whole.



Mixed numbers are made up of whole numbers and a fraction.



Fractions can be simplified or equivalents found only by using multiplication



Fractions can only be ordered in size by using diagrams or pictures



You can tell which fraction is biggest just by looking at its denominator


The pupils are asked to consider whether the key concepts/statements (linked to the learning objectives) are true or false before beginning the topic. This allows the teacher to establish exactly how much the pupils already remember from previous lessons and what they will need more support with. The pupils then complete the same process at the end of the unit, providing a method for both student and teacher to evaluate their learning (alongside other such common methods as low stakes tests, quizzes, exam/SATs example questions). This can be adapted to numerous different themes and subjects - a quick Internet search reveals numerous examples from KS1-KS4.

This quote nicely from David Ausubel, a cognitive scientist, perfectly concludes this post:

“If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him/her accordingly.”


EEF Blog Seven Step Model

Examples of strategies for activating prior knowledge

Written by Vanessa Sullivan, Evidence Lead in Education, St Peter’s CE V/C Primary School, Coggeshall 

Find out more about Vanessa here.

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