Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Building Upon Students’ Prior Knowledge and Skills

Students entering university possess years of educational experience, as well as personal stories that shape how they respond to teaching and learning. Research in educational psychology demonstrates that students’ prior knowledge can directly impact their learning in class. For example, learners who have more extensive K-12 academic preparation tend to have greater academic success in college (Kurlaender and Howell, 2012). Conversely, prior misconceptualizations or inaccurate knowledge can also hinder future development (Ambrose, et. al 2010). As such, instructors should take the time through assessments, active learning, and beginning-of-class activities to ascertain the knowledge their students bring to the classroom, and strategize how this information can inform pedagogy.


  • Some students in a class had not been exposed to relevant material since their early high school years, while others more recently took a similar class and scored well on an advanced placement exam in their senior year. These students began performing better in class and were at a distinct academic advantage. In response, the instructor used placement test data to assess students’ level of knowledge and provided optional enrichment to students on a voluntary basis outside of class.
  • Students did not develop strong writing skills in high school, but chose to pursue a major that involved essays and other written assignments. After the first writing assignment, the instructor noticed disparities in students’ writing capabilities and encouraged students who needed extra support to hone their writing skills by working on their essays with the university writing center. 
  • An instructor opened class by asking students to crowd-source their knowledge about Shakespeare in groups, and then pool their shared conclusions on the board. Responses ranged from a mix of accurate knowledge (date of birth, profession, common themes), to the inaccurate and misconceptualized (wrote “novels,” never existed, avoided religious topics). The instructor addressed some misconceptions in class, and used responses to plan future conversations and assignments.


  • Implement a diagnostic assessment - Consider giving students a brief assessment at the beginning of the course (or an individual class) to measure prior knowledge or skills. This kind of assessment is typically low-stakes with no formal grade, and can be framed to the students as such (for instance, where appropriate, students can be told that they are not expected to know much of the information). It is fine for students to know that the purpose of the assessment is to ascertain the knowledge and skills they bring to the classroom in order to develop more effective instruction. Instructors may also consider readministering the assessment after instruction as a measure of learning. For some disciplines, concept tests or published concept inventories can be used to gauge students’ prior knowledge.
  • Use multiple assessment strategies - An instructor can use multiple strategies to assess students’ prior knowledge each class. This may involve strategies like discussion in small groups, Think-Pair-Share, 1-minute papers, anonymous surveys on Canvas, instructional tools like clicker questions or handouts, and more. These continual assessments help instructors monitor student learning in their classroom and address gaps and deficiencies as needed.
  • Target misconceptions directly - Once an instructor has identified student misconceptions and/or has referred to the literature and is aware of student misconceptions, they can encourage students to confront their own misconceptions and restructure their thinking. This may involve metacognition, or guided activities that ask students to analyze their own thought process and outline their grasp of an issue. It may also involve helping students reconstruct their knowledge in more accurate ways.
  • Build upon prior knowledge - After assessing students’ prior knowledge and addressing misconceptions, the instructor can use assessment results to inform future instruction, connecting what students already know with new knowledge and understandings. Strategies include pointing to upcoming lessons, providing lesson or lecture roadmaps, inviting reflective writing, and active learning activities like concept maps or case studies. Hampshire College provides a helpful list of other activities for engaging student prior knowledge.


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research – Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kurlaender M, Howell JS. (2012). Academic Preparation for College: Evidence on the Importance of Academic Rigor in High School. Advocacy & Policy Center Affinity Network Background Paper. College Board Advocacy & Policy Center.