July 27th, 2016

Prior Knowledge as an Unexpected Obstacle to Learning

By:

studying in the library

Prior knowledge is essential for learning because it helps us make sense of new ideas and information. But when that prior knowledge is incomplete, confused, or flawed, it can create barriers to learning. Consider the following scenarios.

Novice travelers’ experience: Awaiting the city bus in Tokyo, an American couple fumbled through their foreign currency to create various combinations of unfamiliar coins to pay the yet unknown fare. Their prior knowledge taught them that city buses require exact change upon entrance; moreover, they were aware that riders and drivers don’t patiently tolerate the uninitiated. Why wasn’t the fare posted? Were tickets purchased in advance? Their anxiety to discover the mysterious cost of this public transportation adventure rose as the bus approached.

Missing piece of expert local knowledge: Bus fares in Tokyo vary by distance traveled. The fare is paid upon exiting.

Novice student’s experience: “I took notes, studied them, and thought I did well on the history test until my professor wrote: ‘You misunderstand one of the most basic principles of this historical era. Plantation tobacco slavery was a defining characteristic of the southern Chesapeake colonies (Maryland and Virginia). Plantation slavery was NOT a feature of the northern economy as you indicated.’”

Student’s prior knowledge stumbling block: This student came of age in the 21st century, and Maryland is not commonly perceived as a southern state today. So if plantation tobacco slavery existed in Maryland, as her professor indicated, then apparently plantation slavery existed in “the North,” a conclusion she drew from unknowingly linking her 21st century understanding of Maryland’s regional identity with the expert’s content.

Guiding novice learners
New knowledge builds on existing knowledge, and this strongly agreed-upon principle is imbedded in our education system and culture. For example, algebra builds upon mastery of multiplication, and similarly, at the K-12 level, numerically ordered grades imply that mastery of the third grade precedes entry to fourth grade. Colleges design prerequisite courses to scaffold disciplinary expertise.

Pervasive agreement that new knowledge builds upon prior knowledge, however, rests on the unstated assumption that one’s prior knowledge is accurate and complete. Yet evidence abounds that this assumption is wildly optimistic if not frequently flawed. As the examples above illustrate, whether you are a novice with the Tokyo bus system or a novice in an introductory history course, your prior knowledge can become an obstacle rather than a conduit for new learning. Even with all the necessary prerequisites met, students commonly begin courses with inadequate prior knowledge or, more problematically, with prior knowledge that is confused and that includes misunderstandings, flawed thinking, and misplaced assumptions.

What’s an expert to do?

Step 1: Diagnose
For prior knowledge to accelerate rather than hinder learning, flawed thinking, misunderstandings, confusion, and misplaced assumptions MUST be diagnosed. Only when novices recognize their confusion can it be explored and reconsidered. This is easier said than done, however, because:

  • Novices are often unaware of their own flawed thinking or misunderstanding.
  • Novices who recognize their lack of understanding may be too confused to form questions that experts readily understand.
  • Novices who risk expressing their confusion with inarticulate questions that vaguely reference this, that, and the thingamabob are commonly greeted with blank stares, rolled eyes, impatient gestures, or worse—public ridicule.
  • Novices frequently bristle at new information or ideas that experts share, especially when these contradict novices’ understanding or challenge their worldviews, political identities, or life experiences. This in turn may lead novices, consciously or unconsciously, to resist or reject the ideas.

Step 2: Construct an “anatomy of confusion”
Rather than expecting novices to always take the initiative, lead with their confusion, and willingly make themselves vulnerable, as disciplinary experts we can strategically bring a sense of curiosity to novices’ perspectives. We can imagine their misunderstandings, errors, and flawed assumptions as evidence for analyzing and data for constructing our discipline’s “anatomy of confusion.”

How do we begin?

Gather data for your anatomy of confusion:

  • Reflect on your teaching experiences in search of common misunderstandings.
  • Speak with colleagues about patterns of confusion they’ve noticed.
  • Interview advanced students who may recall recent breakthroughs and remember their earlier confusion.
  • Brainstorm with novices to increase your insights into their “flawed” understanding of your expertise. (Remember, colleagues in other disciplines, family, and friends may be willing novices ready for experimentation.)

Conduct novice brainstorming exercises:

  • Invite novices to brainstorm all the associations they make with a word, phrase, or core concept that is vital to your expertise. Note false associations and omitted ones.
  • Invite novices to ask questions regarding a core concept you’ve identified from your discipline. The questions are your data, so look for imbedded assumptions and note vague references and missing vocabulary.

Classify your data. Common misunderstandings reveal that novices tend to:

  • Apply familiar-word meanings when discipline-specific meanings are needed
  • Extend analogies too far or too literally
  • Apply generalizations erroneously to specific situations
  • Assume that rules and forms that fit one context or discipline apply equally in a different context or discipline
  • Miss crucial concepts

Finally, with the addition of self-assessments to link particular confusion with particular concepts or levels of mastery, an anatomy of confusion can become a valuable tool for constructing pathways for novices to follow away from arrays of misunderstandings toward improved and increased understanding.

Reference: Ambrose et al. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dr. Janet G. Hudson is the Faculty Associate Director for Innovative Teaching at the University of South Carolina Center for Teaching Excellence.


  • Steve

    Very useful suggestions. A similar approach to closing the gap between expert and novice knowledge is the Decoding the Disciplines project: http://decodingthedisciplines.org/.

    • Janet Hudson

      Love the visual! Great tool–thanks for sharing.

  • Bill Goffe

    Great article — I really enjoyed it and I’m convinced that this topic is quite important yet often overlooked.

    Another way to find out about prior student thinking is with “JiTTs,” which stand for Just in Time Teaching. These are short answer questions posed before class in the course LMS. They’re typically on topics that instructors have found that students found difficult in the past. As students have not yet “covered” the material in class, they’re graded generously. By glancing through them, the instructor can see where student difficulties lie and use class to address them. After content questions in the JiTT, a great wrap up question is “What did you find puzzling, interesting, or surprising in this reading?” Finally, JiTTs are fairly common in STEM disciplines. One nice resource on JiTTs is http://serc.carleton.edu/econ/justintime/index.html .

    I’ve long used JiTTs and have found them to be very valuable.

    • Janet Hudson

      Excellent addition Bill–thanks for sharing.

  • Maria Vita Calkins

    Given my own experience teaching in the social sciences, these ideas really hit home. The issue of prior knowledge is particularly true in the areas of psychology & sociology. Students seem to have a difficult time separating anecdotal evidence (supporting their faulty prior knowledge) from empirically based evidence on a given topic. A good deal of what’s covered in these academic areas can also be challenged by a student’s beliefs that they might label “common sense.” For example, when asked how many legal cases are settled out of court versus going to trial, their “common sense” is biased by the media, which typically depicts jury trials. It is difficult for them to believe that a very small percentage (less than 10%) actually go to trial.

  • Andrea Leatherdale

    This is a really relevant article for me as I teach in a program that assumes student learning is scaffolding. Yet as an upper year teacher, I am frequently confronted with students who I think are under-prepared (and find myself “blaming” the lack of preparation from their earlier semester experiences). This article has re-framed the problem for me and I will instead look for strategies in my first few weeks of the semester for me to identify the confusion in my students’ understanding to make the content more relevant.