Failing to address students’ prior knowledge feels bad

hand drawn image of book titled How Learning Works

Today the BCcampus Online book club  was talking about Chapter 1 of How Learning Works, which is about students’ prior knowledge.


Some colleagues shared stories illustrating how instructors’ failure to attend to their prior knowledge is not just a neutral oversight – it can be a really negative classroom experience.



In a sentence each, themes of two stories were:

when I (student) have relevant prior knowledge and you (teacher) don’t know it, or don’t acknowledge it, I feel frustrated and annoyed…


when I (student) do not have relevant prior knowledge and you (teacher) carry on as though I do, I feel humiliated and embarrassed…


None of these feelings – frustration, annoyance, humiliation, embarrassment – are going to help create good conditions for learning; they are all pretty crappy ways to feel.

This crosses into my interest lately  in thinking about “how do you want them to feel?” as a learning design question (inspired by Monique Gray Smith‘s keynote at the Festival of Learning – here is the recording).

So for instructors, the first invitation is to find out about students’ prior knowledge; as it turns out, simply having course pre-requisites may  not be enough. I am going to continue this thought in a future post about ways to use Liberating Structures to help uncover prior knowledge.

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