Unit 1: The power of prior knowledge and experience

Welcome to unit 1 which explores the learning principles that underpin the power of prior knowledge and experience. Watch this video where James Lang explains how an effective way to help students learn something new is to test it against what they already know.

Download this video clip.Video player: jim_lang_-_e4j_teaching_methods_1st_principle.mp4
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Whenever we are learning something new, we normally begin by testing it against what we already know. Researchers refer to what we already know as our prior knowledge, and it turns out that our prior knowledge has a substantial impact on how we process and understand new learning.

The educational theorist Jean Piaget argued that our prior knowledge takes the form of schema, which one might think about as mental models or conceptual maps of our understanding in a particular area. Bain (2004) provides an overview of the theory of schema especially in how it relates to university teaching. We have schema in our minds that govern all our thinking and action.

Described image
Figure 2 The schema in our minds

As teachers, we want students not simply to filter our course content through their existing models, but to change and expand those internal models. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by having students articulate and reflect upon their prior knowledge and mental models prior to learning something new.

When students are invited to discuss their understanding and experiences of a subject before they have gained initial exposure to it, this opens the student up to the prospect of change. Moreover, as a happy corollary, this process helps us recognize the specific misconceptions and problems the students have, and it enables these points to be addressed more effectively.

In short, if we do not understand or discuss the ethical understandings that students bring into the room, we are less likely to reach the students with any of the course content. In many of the Modules, we encourage you to invite students to surface their current ideas about ethics, or engage in ethical decision-making activities, before you present the content to them for the first time. This helps students to surface and discuss their prior knowledge and experiences, and gives you a clear picture of what will be most important for you to address and emphasize throughout the Modules.

Almost any learning experience is enhanced when students first have the opportunity to articulate and discuss their prior knowledge about a subject matter. This process can at times seem messy and inefficient, as the students’ initial discussions or ideas will not yet be informed by the theories and ideas which you hope will enrich their understanding.

However, taking even a short amount of time to learn about their understanding helps you to realize the best way to change and enhance the mental models that you have brought into the room.

1.1 Challenges of teaching anti-corruption, integrity and ethics