Assess What You Know


Learning plays a significant role in your organization’s future success. In fact, learning is required—without learning, your organization will experience its death in short order. Why? We all know that change is required to facilitate your transition into the future, and that this change is a continual process. To change, we must learn. Learning produces change. It is the only way to change. Therefore, we must carefully consider how we learn.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the science of learning. In particular, I’ve been studying the book How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching, published by Jossey-Bass in 2010.1 The research is intended primarily for higher education, but I’m confident it applies to corporate and other organizational settings, too, because it is fundamentally a book about how the human brain works in the process of learning.

As the subtitle indicates, the book presents seven principles for teaching and learning. The first of these is “Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.”2 As I considered this principle and its implications in the context of organizational change, I was struck by how critical this principle is. It is in essence the gateway to all learning.

Let me explain.

Prior knowledge plays a critical role in subsequent learning. Put plainly, what is already in our heads has a profound effect on putting new information in our heads. However, most training is designed, if it’s “designed” at all, without considering the influence of what the student already knows. More specifically, the way we generally conduct training makes one or both of the following (false) assumptions:

  1. That what the student already knows is compatible or even supports what is about to be learned.
  2. That what the student already knows is irrelevant because the new knowledge will supplant any previous knowledge.

These errors in assumption are made for seminar/classroom training as well as on the job training.

Ambrose et al. (2010) said that prior knowledge serves as building-block foundations for new knowledge. They cited the research of others which affirmed that for people to learn they “must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge.”1 The strength and ability for that prior-knowledge foundation to support new knowledge is dependent on four dimensions–whether prior knowledge is:3

  • Activated – “new knowledge ‘sticks’ better when it has prior knowledge to stick to.” Students who have some familiarity with a concept will integrate new knowledge more readily. For example, it is easy for Americans to memorize 7 or 10-digit phone numbers. However, if asked to memorize a group numbers from Belgium (6 or 7 digits) or Denmark (8 digits) or South Korea (7 to 11 digits), they would have more difficulty.
  • Sufficient – “when students possess some [but insufficient] relevant knowledge, it can lead both students and instructors to assume that students are better prepared than they truly are.” For example, it is often the case that people know how to perform procedures (e.g. bookkeeping tasks), but not understand the principles behind them. This poses a barrier to expanding on this knowledge.
  • Appropriate – when students draw on inappropriate prior knowledge, “it can skew their comprehension of new material.” A common example of this is that college composition classes teach a particular form of writing that is inappropriate for other contexts (e.g. business and science). This inappropriate knowledge can make learning and communicating in other domains more difficult.
  • Accurate – “inaccurate prior knowledge [i.e. wrong knowledge] can distort new knowledge by predisposing students to ignore, discount, or resist evidence that conflicts with what they believe to be true.” Perhaps the strongest form of inaccurate knowledge is stereotypes. They are strong because they have been instrumental in past perceived realities.

Given the above, we see that the impact of prior knowledge on subsequent learning is indeed profound. Any problem with inactivated or insufficient or inappropriate or inaccurate prior knowledge impedes learning. On the other hand, the stronger the combination of activated, sufficient, appropriate, and accurate prior knowledge, the more new learning will be facilitated.

The challenge in all of this is obvious: How do we assess prior knowledge on these dimensions? We can’t measure this like we can a heart rate or cholesterol level, and we cannot apply a simple test to indicate the status of someone’s prior knowledge, especially on these four dimensions.

Instead, we must consider how training is designed and what instructors can do to more effectively impart new knowledge. Ambrose et al. (2010) shares several guidelines to accomplish this.

  • Activating prior knowledge: Students do not naturally or automatically activate what they have previously learned. Therefore, instructors must challenge students to do this. Students must be prompted to call upon previous learning and make strong connections to current situations and learning activity.
  • Sufficiency of prior knowledge: Instructors have the primary responsibility to develop a clear understanding of what knowledge is sufficient and required to support new learning. Students and instructors then work together to assess whether students’ knowledge is indeed sufficient. (And if not, they must develop strategies to fill in gaps of sufficiency.)
  • Appropriateness of prior knowledge: Instructors need to be very deliberate in satisfying this element of learning. They must “(a) clearly explain the conditions and context of applicability, (b) teach abstract principles but also provide multiple examples and contexts, (c) point out differences, as well as similarities, when employing analogies, and (d) deliberately activate relevant prior knowledge to strengthen appropriate associations.”
  • Accuracy of prior knowledge: Correcting inaccuracies in prior knowledge is a very difficult task, especially when they are subtle misconceptions. Resolving this requires patience and creativity.3

Ambrose et al. (2010) presented 21 specific strategies for accomplishing the above. They are too many to summarize here. Each idea has merit and should be considered for its fit in your training environment.

If you and your organization are serious about becoming prepared for the future, you must also consider how people change. That means you must also consider how they learn. If your organization is like 99% of others, your approach to learning has been merely dump-information-in-and-hold-accountable. Be honest with yourself. How effective has this been? How much learning, and change, has really occurred? You are concerned that you won’t be ready for the future that you envision and it concerns you at least a little. (It should.)

One of the most important things you can do to resolve this is to carefully consider how people really learn. You’ll need to change your thinking about how to prepare yourself and others for the future.

That will require learning. Start by assessing your own prior knowledge about how people learn.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo “bridging knowledge to health” by Paul Bica. Available at

1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 15.
2: Ambrose et al., How Learning Works, 4.
3: Ambrose et al., How Learning Works, chapter 1.

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