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Assessing Prior Knowledge


In order to remember and understand new information, students need to be able to place it within the context of what they already know. They are then able to assimilate new information into an existing category, and are able to adapt their current schema to accommodate the new information. Through this process, learners are able to consistently and efficiently acquire and organize information and to evaluate and refine their cognitive schemata. Many students, however, struggle to identify the prior knowledge that is most relevant to a new area of learning, especially if they consider the text or unit of study to be far removed from their interests and experience. Students benefit from explicit strategies to access the prior knowledge that will support them in learning new content.


By accessing prior knowledge, students are able to organize new information within an existing framework, and they are cognitively primed so that the new information is maximally recognizable and comprehensible. Accessing prior knowledge allows students to recognize when ideas are related, and to critically evaluate and ultimately adapt their existing schemata, so that their conceptions of ideas develop and expand. Accessing prior knowledge also helps students to generate interest in an area of study, and to ask focused and relevant questions that can guide effective inquiry.

Content Area Adaptations 

Students need to be able to access prior knowledge before beginning a text or a unit of study in any content area, since it is a basic and essential step to effective learning. Many students will not access prior knowledge without guidance, especially when faced with less familiar content, so they will benefit from instruction and guidance in using this strategy in all content areas.

Learning Strategies 

  • Connecting
  • Inferring
  • Metacognition
  • Predicting
  • Questioning
  • Synthesizing

Common Core Standards 

  • CCRA.R.1
  • CCRA.R.2
  • CCRA.R.3
  • CCRA.R.4
  • CCRA.R.8

Content Areas 

  • ELA
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Learning Strands 

  • Listening
  • Numeracy
  • Reading
  • Speaking
  • Writing

Prewrite Questions

In this activity students survey the text and create questions they think the text was designed to answer. During reading, students will try to answer their questions. The questions help set a purpose for reading. This activity works particularly well with non-fiction texts.

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Building Background
  • Launching Into New Content

Photo Drop

This activity, adapted from Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org) helps students consider what they already know about a topic or a text through visual media. Students examine relevant photographs and identify what they see, make inferences, and anticipate what they will learn.

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Building Background
  • Launching Into New Content

Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up

This easily adapted activity can be used to help a class activate its shared prior knowledge in an engaging, cooperative, and nonthreatening setting.

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Launching Into New Content
  • Reflection
  • Synthesis