Episode #5 of the course The science of learning by Benjamin Keep
In the last lesson, we discussed more effective ways to remember new things. This lesson discusses the crucial role that prior knowledge plays in all kinds of learning, including memory.
All new knowledge is built on our prior knowledge. It’s also the main thing that distinguishes learners from each other; our brains otherwise work pretty much the same way.
As with elaboration, when we want to remember something, it helps to “stick” it to something else. When we activate prior knowledge, not only are we “sticking” it to something, we’re also fitting the new information into an organized knowledge structure, which is what we need to become experts.
Helpful and Harmful Prior Knowledge
Often, we have prior knowledge about something we want to learn; the challenge is in activating this knowledge effectively. When we learn about variation in statistics, we don’t think about all the things in our lives that vary: the amount of sleep we get every night, how many showers we take, how much we drive, etc. When researchers asked students about variation in their lives, students were able to understand and apply the concept far more effectively.
In other cases, the prior knowledge we have inhibits learning. When students learn laboratory physics, for example, they often think of the word “error” to mean “mistake,” because that’s the way the word is used in everyday contexts. What scientists often mean by “error” is more like “uncertainty in the measurement.” It’s not a mistake that someone made, but an inevitability of measurement. The association between “error” and “mistake” makes it challenging for students to learn about and discuss uncertainty in science.
The same thing happens in psychology with the word “negative reinforcement.” It’s common to think of “negative” as “bad,” but in this context it means, “taking something away,” like “subtract.” Negative reinforcement is about removing unwanted outcomes, like how updating your computer removes the annoying pop-up requests to update your computer—it’s not about reinforcing bad behavior. In these cases, our prior knowledge interferes with what we’re learning.
Preparation for Future Learning
In some cases, you can do something that creates relevant prior knowledge for the topic you want to learn about. Students who played a WWII video game, for example, recalled and applied information that they heard in a lecture about WWII more effectively than those who played a different game. The video game experience didn’t directly teach any concept that the lecture went over—students tested immediately after the video game experience showed no improvement on their test scores. It was only after the lecture that the advantage of the preparatory experience became apparent.
In other cases, solving a problem (or trying to) before hearing the canonical approach helped students transfer their knowledge to new situations. Students who tried to discover the concept of density before hearing the formula for density were able to apply to solve density problems more effectively than students who heard the canonical formula first. Even students who didn’t come up with the right answer during the discovery task benefited from it.
How Can These Ideas Help?
When learning a new topic, ask, “Why would this be the case?” When researchers asked students “why” questions as they were trying to remember a specific set of facts, it forced the students to draw on prior knowledge.
Seek out experiences that might prepare you to learn. Can you engage in an immersive experience before listening to a lecture or reading a textbook? Can you try to solve a problem first, before reading the canonical answer? If so, think of this activity less about getting the answer right and more about trying to understand the structure of the problem.
For my Chinese “directions” goal, I might have watched a handful of videos about people giving and taking directions before diving into the topic. What ways might you get a “feel” for what you want to learn, before explicitly learning the details?
Next lesson, we talk about a topic related to prior knowledge: analogies.
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