Use Students’ Prior Knowledge to Build Motivation

New Learning from Prior Experience

Students’ prior knowledge about–and experience with–a topic can be leveraged to help kindle a desire to learn more. When they have had successful and meaningful experiences learning about something before, they often enter related courses excited to learn more (Ambrose et al., 2010). However, students don’t always make the conceptual connection between our courses and their past experiences without our helping them to do so (Day & Goldstone, 2012). As instructors, we can enhance students’ motivation in our courses by setting up opportunities for students to activate and connect their prior knowledge to our classes (Perkins & Salomon, 2012).

Building Value for Your Course Content

Structured opportunities throughout the semester can help students recognize the ways in which your course connects to topics and experiences of interest to them—perhaps to a past Co-op, future career opportunity, current event, or even another course. This process consistently encourages students to value your course content more deeply and invest more fully in the learning process.


  • At the beginning of a unit, build value by asking students to brainstorm questions they have about that topic, identify a current problem in the field to which that topic is relevant, or predict which elements of the unit are likely to be most relevant for currently available Co-op placements (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Using Prior Knowledge to Support Self-Efficacy

Prior knowledge applies not only to skills, facts, and formulas, but also to students’ learning experiences and beliefs about learning (Ambrose & Lovett, 2014). Assess and make use of students’ prior knowledge and experience to help raise their self-efficacy, or belief in their ability to learn your course material.


  • Use a brief diagnostic quiz (Libarkin et al., 2014) to determine your students’ areas of strength and weakness, and focus instruction and feedback on troublesome concepts (Ambrose et al., 2010).
  • Build in time before major exams and projects for students to brainstorm and share strategies that they have found to be effective in similar courses or tasks in the past, as well as to plan approaches to seeking help when they are confused or uncertain.
  • Be explicit about the ways that your course or assignments may seem familiar (perhaps from lower-level or high school courses), but actually require different approaches or seek to accomplish different learning goals, in order to help students tailor their thinking and problem-solving approaches more effectively (Ambrose et al., 2010).



Ambrose, S.A. and J.A. Bridges. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ambrose, S. A., & Lovett, M. C. (2014). Prior knowledge is more important than content: Skills and beliefs also impact learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Goldstone, R.L. & Day, S.B. (2012): Introduction to “New Conceptualizations of Transfer of Learning”, Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 149-152.

Libarkin, J., Jardeleza, S.E. & McElhinny, T.L. (2014).  The role of concept inventories in course assessment, in Geoscience Research and Education. New York, NY: Springer.

Perkins, D.N. & Salomon, G. (2012). Knowledge to go: A motivational and dispositional view of transfer. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 248-258.