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Activating Students Knowledge of New Material
James E. Dallas

Too often we assume students enter our classrooms with a blank slate. The research informs us that tapping into students' prior knowledge before introducing new concepts is more closely related to student achievement than is intelligence. Activating current knowledge helps to reduce the apprehension students experience by giving them opportunities to articulate and discover what they already know about specific concepts. Additionally, this strategy of activating prior knowledge can stimulate student interest in new topics introduced in class. It also helps the teacher determine the starting place for instruction and the next instructional steps. Below are examples of teaching strategies currently used by teachers to activate students' knowledge prior to teaching new material:

  • K-W-L CHART- Prior to the study of new material, a discussion, a reading, or an upcoming event, students are given opportunities to brainstorm about what they already Know, and Want to know about the topic. Later on they complete the L portion of the chart by filling in everything they Learned.

    What I Know What I Want to know What I Learned

  • Carousel Brainstorming- This type of activity can be used to activate, summarize, review and reinforce new material and material already studied. Large sheets of newsprint paper are posted on the wall at various points around the room. The teacher writes a specific question on the sheet- one that relates to new topics that will be taught. Example: Compound Words (charts would be headed with common halves of compound words); Things you know about (various community helpers, regions of the country or world); Words made with common prefixes/suffixes
Student Directions:
  • Students are divided into groups of 4-6 and assigned to a sheet of newsprint
  • Each group starts with a different colored marker, standing in front of one of the pieces of newsprint
  • Choose a recorder
  • Brainstorm responses to the posted question/topic
  • After a couple minutes and at the signal, move one sheet to the right
  • Brainstorm quickly and add to the new sheet (2 minutes)
  • At the signal move to the right and repeat the process
  • Continue until each group has brainstormed responses to all of the questions

Optional last step: Each group ends up at the chart where they began with a few minutes to:
- look over and see what developed after they left it;
- group the ideas into categories, eliminating repeated ideas

Wordsplash - A wordsplash is simply a collection of critical terms, which are familiar to students, selected from a reading, a chapter in a textbook, or an article, which students are preparing to read. The uniqueness in this context is the way in which the terms are associated with the new topic about to be studied. The selected terms are displayed randomly and at angles on a visual (overhead or chart). Students are asked to brainstorm and generate complete statements (not just words or phrases) which predict the relationship between each term and the broader topic. Once statements are generated, students turn to the printed material, read to check the accuracy of their predictive statements, and revise where needed.

Word Associations - Prior to studying a new unit or concept, the teacher asks the students to write down five words that occur to them when they think of a specific event, period in history, important person, etc. After writing down their ideas, students share their responses and elaborate on their thinking relative to the new concept or topic to be taught.

As educational psychologist David Ausubel states, "The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly." What is essential for teachers to do prior to teaching any new concept is to simply ask the question- What do you already know about? Providing these kinds of opportunities for students helps them to place new information into a larger context and to recognize the big picture.


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