Activate Students’ Prior Knowledge to Increase Access

January 17, 2024

As educators, you’re used to looking at the big picture of your course. You can see how units are connected, how skills are built over time, and how students will ultimately show proficiency. For students, this can sometimes be more difficult. They may not see how each distinct unit or lesson connects to the overarching goals, and that can stop them from internalizing skills the way you’d want them to. One way to help students recognize and take advantage of connections across your course is by explicitly activating their prior knowledge.


What Does It Mean to Activate Students’ Prior Knowledge?

Regardless of what grade level you’re teaching, or what unit you’re about to start, students have skills, experiences, and content knowledge that they can apply. When you ask students to think about these skills, experiences, and content knowledge, and look for ways to apply it to their new learning, you are activating their prior knowledge. 

In a math classroom, you might ask students where they have seen a similar problem, vocabulary word, or shape in the past. You could ask them to begin by discussing what they remember from a previous grade or a previous unit before introducing new concepts. In ELA, you may preview vocabulary or themes from the texts and ask students if they have seen these in other texts or in their own lives. 

By asking students to explicitly seek out connections between new learning and previous learning, you encourage them to bring that previous learning to the forefront of their minds. In doing so, you help them access new content more effectively because they have an entry point.


Why is Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge Important?

Like we just mentioned, activating students’ prior knowledge gives them an entry point to access new content. This is just one reason it is so important. Activating prior knowledge also allows all students to be engaged with the new content, encourages them to revisit and more deeply internalize previously learned skills, and contextualizes their learning in the scope of the year—and beyond.

When you have to learn something new, and it feels completely different from anything you’ve seen in the past, it can be very overwhelming and discouraging. This is unfortunately how many students can feel when they begin a new unit or topic in school. Activating their prior knowledge can shift the narrative in their minds and help them recognize that there is something they already know, some connection they can make that encourages them to engage with the content by applying these understandings. 

By taking the time to help students recognize content connections and their value to new learning, you create a more supportive learning environment around new content. Additionally, there are many skills students will repeatedly use throughout their schooling experience, and by encouraging them to explicitly revisit and apply these skills, you ensure students won’t forget them. 

Finally, activating prior knowledge can help students see why the new content is important in the scope of the given school year and beyond. In math class especially, students often ask “Why are we learning this?” For them, some of the skills seem far removed from what they feel like they need to know. By helping them see how skills and concepts build upon one another, you can help them see the bigger picture: that they are ultimately working to become effective problem solvers and critical thinkers. You can help them recognize that all of their learning is connected as they work towards that greater goal.


How Can I Activate Students’ Prior Knowledge?

There are many ways you can activate students’ prior knowledge to support their understanding of new content. Fishtank Learning embeds many of these opportunities directly into the unit and lesson plans to make it easy for you and your students. 

As a Fishtank Math teacher, you can find ideas to activate students’ prior knowledge at the unit level in the Unit Prep and Standards sections. In the Unit Prep section, you can find Essential Understandings and Vocabulary that offer insight into what students will learn in the unit. From there, you can begin to consider how these connect to previous learning and plan to engage students in discourse around those connections. To help you more easily identify the previous skills the unit builds upon, in the Standards section you will see a list of Foundational and Future Standards. The Foundational Standards can help you understand when students may have begun to learn about this concept, and what questions you can prompt them with to recall that learning.

Below is an example from the 1st unit of 6th Grade Math: Understanding and Representing Ratios.

Foundational Standards

At the lesson level, there are Tips for Teachers that can help contextualize individual lesson objectives in the scope of the unit. These can offer a jumping off point for framing the lesson with your students and encouraging them to consider what they have learned so far in a unit before introducing new topics. 

Below is an example from Lesson 15 of the 1st unit of 6th Grade Math: Understanding and Representing Ratios.

Tips for Teachers

Fishtank Plus users unlock additional supports to activate students’ prior knowledge through an expanded assessment package that includes a Pre-Unit Assessment and Analysis Guide. These resources help you directly identify the previous learning students need to build upon in the coming unit and direct you to resources within the curriculum to use for review if needed. These resources can be spiraled into lessons as quick moments for review that remind students what they already know about a topic. 

Fishtank ELA teachers also have opportunities to activate students’ prior knowledge at the unit level and lesson level. Similar to the Standards connections listed on math unit pages, ELA pages include a Content and Knowledge Connections Section that identifies the specific units students will build upon. Teachers can also review Notes for Teachers that offer strategies for framing the unit and deepen a teacher’s understanding of what prior knowledge students might bring to the unit. 

Below is an example from the 1st unit of 6th Grade ELA Developing Resilience: The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963.

Content Knowledge Connections

At the lesson level, middle school teachers can review Key Understandings in Knowledge and Skills and Strategies that can serve as a jumping off point to identify previously introduced understandings. Through discourse, students can recognize how each lesson builds upon what they have already learned. 

Fishtank Plus users unlock additional support for activating students’ prior knowledge with access to Enhanced Lesson Plans. These Enhanced Lesson Plans include, among other sections, a Comprehension Review and Vocabulary section and a Building Background and Engagement section. Both of these can be leveraged to activate prior knowledge as students are encouraged to make connections to previous texts, units, and their own personal experiences. 

Below is an example of the Enhanced Lesson Plan for the 1st Lesson of 6th Grade ELA unit 1. 

Enhanced Lesson Plan- Building Background and Accessing Prior Knowledge


Want more ideas to set your students up for success this school year? Dive into the Fishtank Blog to find strategies for engaging every student, guidance on using Fishtank resources, and the latest on what works in the classroom. Create your free Fishtank Learning account today to access thousands of free, standards-aligned, lesson plans in ELA and Math.

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