It’s your first day of class, you’ve been anticipating this day for weeks. Your pen, notebook, and materials are all ready to go, you’ve even pre-organized your notebook for optimum note taking strategies. Your instructor struts in and immediately starts throwing out terms and concepts you’ve never even heard of before and you think to yourself “I have no clue what they’re talking about…”

Your instructor just failed to activate your background knowledge and connect it to the new topics they are lecturing about. This isn’t your fault at all, it happens a lot when learning new things. This can lead to confusion, decreased comprehension, and lower success in any learning environment, including your own studies.

Three lightbulbs with tanged to untangle wires hanging vertically. Third bulb is lit. Illustration on blue background.
There are two types of background knowledge: critical and supporting.

The good news is that there are steps you can proactively take to activate your background knowledge for better learning outcomes and long term success.

What is background or prior knowledge?

Background knowledge is the information and understanding you hold about concepts and problems associated with the new material you’re learning. For example, before you jump into trigonometry, you’ll need background knowledge on the concepts of algebra and geometry. Trying to learn trigonometry without that prior knowledge would be nearly impossible.

There are two types of background knowledge, critical knowledge and supporting knowledge.

  • Critical knowledge is, well, critical to the topic you’re learning about. Without critical background knowledge you wouldn’t be able to learn about the larger topic. Taking the example from above, algebra and geometry are pieces of critical background knowledge for learning trigonometry.
  • Supporting knowledge is the supplemental knowledge you hold that can help you understand the larger topic, but is not needed for success. For example, knowing Latin can be great supporting knowledge when learning Spanish, but it’s not critical.

It’s usually the instructor’s job to assess their students’ critical and supporting background knowledge prior to teaching, but responsibility also falls on the student to activate their background knowledge before engaging with a more complex topic, particularly when they set off to learn on their own.

So, how can you activate your prior knowledge and set yourself up for success?

4 Tips for activating prior knowledge

1. Assess yourself before you wreck yourself

You wouldn’t embark on a long road trip without preparing first, you need to check the health of your vehicle, get some snacks and drinks in order, and chart your path. The same goes for embarking on a learning journey (snacks and drinks are important here too).

Before starting a class or learning about a new subject, you should assess your background knowledge to see if there are any gaps you may need to fill prior to starting. For example, if you’re planning on taking a course on 18th century European history but realize you don’t know which countries made up the continent at that time, you should learn that on your own before diving into that course.

One method of self reflection prior to your learning journey would be to jot down what you know about the subject at hand. You can create a mind map by picking out overarching concepts and topics and connecting your current knowledge to them. This doesn’t have to be neat, just write down any knowledge you have that would be even remotely related to the new subject you’re going to learn about.

Self assessment sometimes feels like a waste of time, but even if you come to the conclusion that you have all of the background knowledge you need, you’ve done something extremely helpful. You’ve self-reflected, which has shown to boost your future learning, confidence levels, and memory retention.

2. Refresh your knowledge

While you’re actively learning about the subject, take good notes and continue to revisit them to refresh your memory. Humans are forgetful, and sometimes forgetting a single piece of background information can lead to future headaches and struggles. By reactivating past information learned, you can enhance your memory retention of that knowledge in addition to future knowledge learned.

Continue to test yourself on the subject matter to see which concepts you have a solid grasp on, and what you may need to brush up on. This can also be helpful to assess if you’re ready to dive into even more complex material later down the road.

3. Build on your background knowledge

If you find a concept or problem difficult to grasp, maybe you need to work backwards and build on your supporting knowledge first. When you’re hitting your head against the wall trying to break through on a topic, sometimes all it takes is a quick refresher on some supporting information to have that eureka moment. Maybe you’re stuck on a trigonometry problem and realize that you’re mixing something up in the pythagorean theorem.

Once you’ve succeeded in mastering a subject, make it a habit to continue learning even more and stay up to date with any new findings on that subject. Continued learning is key to succeeding long-term and keeping your knowledge base up to date, and you never know when you may need to tap into that prior knowledge base again.

4. Take breaks

Taking a break from your material can also be extremely beneficial. You may have all of the background information needed to understand a concept you just can’t grasp, but your brain may just need some time to process all of that information and connect the dots.

Study burnout is real and if you’re not careful, it can hurt your study progress. Just like training for a race or hitting a lifting PR, you need built in rest days and de-load weeks. Your brain needs the same thing when prepping for an exam or course.


The prior knowledge you hold is key to success in future learning. Without critical knowledge, it can be nearly impossible to grasp a new subject, and supporting knowledge can make your time learning a new subject much easier. Next time you’re about to engage with a new topic, think of assessing your prior knowledge as a critical tool for success.