Activate knowledge to spark the cognitive process

If you want your students to learn what you want them to learn, it’s smart to activate their knowledge base before you begin delivering content.

Activating the knowledge base is educator jargon for prompting students to think about the topic you want them to learn before you introduce the topic.

Activating students’ knowledge base is to teaching methods what dangling a worm in the water is to fishing: You call attention to your bait in the expectation the fish will latch on to it.

Bait your hook with attractive activators

You have many options with which to bait your lesson hook. My personal favorite is informal writing prompts because they force every student to rise to the bait. If you choose informal writing:

1. You could prompt students to reveal facts they know about the topic. 

All the "facts" students know may not be correct, which provides secondary bait. It’s also possible that students know nothing on the topic, which might prompt curiosity to fill that knowledge gap.

2. You could bait your lesson hook with an informal prompt to reveal experiences students have had that are relevant to the lesson you’re going to cast before them.

3. If you expect students already have some information, correct or not, on the lesson topic, you could bait them to reveal their attitudes toward the topic.

4. You could bait your hook with an invitation to students to reveal their assumptions about your lesson topic.

Land students in the cognitive processes

Once students have risen to the bait, all you have to do is pull them in.

I say "all you have to do," but there’s nothing easy about pulling students in. It requires determination, strategic knowledge, skills developed through long practice, hard work, and a bit of luck thrown in.

The important thing is that you do land students smack in the cognitive process.

Get their "little grey cells" functioning.

Get their neurons passing messages.

Get students thinking, for as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham says in his book Why Do Students Hate School?:

Quote: Whatever students think about is what they will remember.

Finding the objectives for learning

I recently completed a MOOC (a massive open online course) from an well-regarded university.  Although the course topic was about starting a business, I was equally interested in learning more about designing online learning.


My coursework in instructional design taught me a course had to have instructional objectives.

This course didn’t.

marcio-galliI chalked that up to instructor failure.

One of the other students in the course, Marcio Galli, a software developer and entrepreneur who works  at telasocial in Brazil, took a different approach.

Instead of blaming someone else for not preparing a list of objectives, he figured out how to identify–and meet–the course objectives on his own.

Initially, he began by completing (but not submitting) the weekly quizzes one item at a time as he finished the video lectures. When he realized the questions didn’t always correspond to the lecture sequence, he began going back and redoing his earlier answer based on the new information he learned.

When Marcio got to the last week of the class, he completed the entire quiz before watching any of the video lectures.

His innovative approach effectively provided him with the objectives. It also activated his knowledge and created an anticipatory set.

Is that great, or what?

A round of applause to Marcio of @TelaSocial for showing me how to learn better by doing more of the work for myself.

Actively teach active learning with online tutorial

 The University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning contains many resources that can be adapted by teachers of upper middle school and high school students. A great one is a tutorial on active learning strategies.
screen capture shows first slide in tutorial on 12 active learning strategies
Besides using the slides for your own professional development, you could use the slides to teach students to use active learning and to enable them to study your  content.

How to use the tutorial

I’d probably present one strategy to students every second or third week. For the presentation, I’d show one example of a strategy applied to English language arts.

For example, the first slide about reflecting on experience with PowerPoint and finding a positive and negative example could easily be adapted to hundreds of informal ELA writing prompts, such as:

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with poetry. Come up with an example of a positive experience and a negative experience.

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with advertising. Come up with an example of an ad that you think works well one you think does not work well.

Take a moment to reflect on your reading about using commas. Come up with an example of a comma rule you think you understand well and and an example of a rule you don’t understand.

Rather than ask for oral responses, I’d use informal writing, which gets all students involved. I could present the strategy and have students write on any one of those prompts all in 10 minutes.

The rest of the first week I would use the same type of reflect-on-knowledge exercise for some aspect of that day’s work. That might take 2-3 minutes for informal writing. In a week, students would be able to use the strategy on demand.

Of course, the goal is to get students to use a strategy without prompting. That typically means forcing students to practice the strategy on material they select from options you set.

I might have students bring an “admit slip” each day for a week explaining how they used the reflect-on-experience strategy to help them activate knowledge prior to coming to my class.

The third week I might require an admit slip explaining how they used the strategy to help them activate knowledge for some other class.

Teaching this way gets students to apply the strategy enough times that they understand its value and limitations.

They may even use it on their own without prompting.

Questions? Alternative ways of using this material? Share your ideas.

This material previously appeared in Writing Points for April, 2011, © 2011 Linda G. Aragoni

What do you know, Joe?

Before you begin teaching, help students identify something in their experience to which they can connect the material you intend to present. In eduspeak, this is called activating the knowledge base. The knowledge could be facts, attitudes, experiences, or assumptions.

Informal writing provides a good way to get all students involved in activating their knowledge.

Page of the Hobbit showing Tolkien illustration

For example, before you introduce The Hobbit, you could have students write for 1-2 minutes on what they remember about the setting of Bridge to Terabithia to get them thinking about the importance of setting.

Or you might have  students write for 1 minute about what they found was the hardest grammar rule to apply in last night’s homework.

Having everyone write lets all students demonstrate to themselves that they know something relevant to what is to be taught. Studies show students who write prior to class discussion are more likely to participate in oral discussion.