Problematic Prior Knowledge

Hunting for Misconceptions

The first principle of learning, in How Learning Works (a fall CAT reading group selection—you can read the first chapter here) is this: Learning must be built on prior knowledge. When we learn, we are “interpreting incoming information and… perceptions through the lens of…existing knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions.” To learn effectively, students must connect what they learn to what they already know; but incomplete or inaccurate prior knowledge or assumptions can hinder learning instead of help it. What students already know can stymie their learning even if it’s not wrong, but simply inappropriate to a new context, like “faux amis” in language instruction, or nonscientific usage of the words “force” or “mass.”

Before we can correct or re-contextualize them, we need to identify our students’ misconceptions and preconceptions. Even if there’s not a validated concept inventory for your subject matter, you probably have a sense of common errors. Non-graded prior knowledge probes and diagnostic writing are useful tools for pinpointing potential obstacles. Questions that ask students to make predictions, or anticipate future learning, can be opportunities to uncover misconceptions and pique students’ curiosity.   

We also need strategies for overcoming cognitive hurdles like confirmation bias. As Gooding and Metz (2011) explain, “the brain files new data by making connections to existing information. If this new information does not fit the learner’s established pattern of thinking, it is refashioned to fit the existing pattern… Brain connections are strengthened when revisited or rehearsed, so each false practice fortifies the misconception–making it even more resistant to change.” Merely presenting the correct information does nothing to dispel misconceptions, so it’s critical that we help students become aware of gaps and errors in their learning, then work explicitly to adjust them.

This can be challenging. Students may find the necessary cognitive conflict to be destabilizing, or even threatening. A novel approach to lowering the stress of exposing errors is to have students blunder intentionally and then share the errors, so that they learn what they’re all doing wrong. More conventionally, students can make progress by discussing their conceptual frameworks, providing evidence for their beliefs and finding ways to test them, and examining what they’re accepting as evidence. They may benefit from drawing concepts maps. Students will need repeated practice with the new concepts, and reflection on the evidence that contradicts their prior assumptions or practices. They will need to reason through the new models and ideas, so that they fully understand why the new framework is superior. But they’ll build strong foundations and connections for deeper learning.

Upcoming Events and Additional Services:
Assignment Design Workshop: Thursday, February 9, 2:00-3:30 For support in crafting engaging assignments—projects, papers, experiences, exercises, etc.–that produce deep learning, and measure student progress accurately, please sign up for this hands-on workshop. We can help you revise existing assignments or devise new ones. To RSVP, email

CAT “Office hours” at Strozier: Starting next week (January 30) we’ll be hosting walk-in consultation hours at Strozier, in the Scholars’ Commons. Please stop by to share your great ideas about teaching, get feedback on anything from an assignment to a SoTL project to a new course, or discuss a teaching issue. We look forward to seeing you!

And if you missed any, or want to look back at earlier messages, the weekly CAT tips are now archived on our website