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February 23, 2012 / Thinknology

Adult Learners and Prior Knowledge

Tapping into prior knowledge of adult learners is a key element in adult learning. In Can You Read the Minds of Your Learners?, Connie Malamed cites  a book by James E. Zull called The Art of the Changing the Brain. He presents the following ideas:

  • Prior knowledge is based on each person’s life experiences.
  • Prior knowledge is persistent and is not easily swept away simply because an expert or instructor says something else is true. In this situation, an existing schema can hinder learning new information.
  • Prior knowledge is always the beginning of new knowledge; new knowledge builds on existing knowledge.
  • In order to communicate with someone, you need to find a common language based on prior knowledge.

With adult learners there is a great deal of prior knowledge to tap into and build on. Triggering it is the key to successful student engagement. The first step is to make sure the materials you use have articles or stories that are of interest to adults. Nothing is worse than having an adult learner read a boring or mundane article or story written for kids.

The second step is setting the stage for your students’ reading. Initiate a discussion about what the student is about to read. For example, if the students are about to read an article about credit scores, ask questions about their experience with credit and if they were ever turned down for a loan. If they don’t have direct experience, ask about the experiences of relatives or friends. This will build familiarity with the lesson topic and help to build reading comprehension.

The most effective instructional materials for adult learners find a way to trigger prior knowledge. That is why we felt it was essential that Think60 lessons include a section called Before Reading. Here students are asked about their life experiences related to the article or story they are about to read. In the writing activities that come after the reading, they are asked to think about their initial responses and build on them for new insights.

How do you tap into your adult student’s life experience and existing knowledge about various subjects? Let us know.


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