By: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. And Dr. Eric Jensen
If someone asked me to define learning simply, I would say: Learning is the acquisition and storage of new input such that a lasting neural network is formed. These neural networks may reactivate older ones to connect more information in proper categories (well sometimes that is…). When multiplied by millions, these connected neural networks make me who I am and help me to use these storage sites to accomplish goals and apply what I’ve learned.
Every student comes to a learning opportunity with a different schema or background knowledge. When students use these already-created, neural “superhighways,” learning is often more effective and efficient. When educators prepare, prime or pre-expose the brain before learning new information, they are helping students assimilate the information in smarter and easier ways. Every student comes to the learning journey with a “state of mind,” or a mood. If positive, there is a better chance of that student having a successful learning opportunity; if negative, sad, hopeless, and unmotivated, there is a greater chance of learning not occurring. We can, and must, prepare our students’ brains academically, emotionally, and physically before the learning process.
In my most recent book with Eric Jensen, Bringing the Common Core to Life, we wrote about the importance of priming or pre-exposing the brain and it begins:
“The level or quality of student background knowledge contributes to achievement, since the existing neural networks (if supportive and accurate) can provide the vocabulary, mindsets and original facts needed to succeed. If students don’t have sufficient background knowledge to build on, you will need to integrate the missing chunks of information into your instruction with scaffolding.”
There’s a good reason to do this: What students already know, and how they have performed on the subject, is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information about it. In fact, it ranks a powerful 0.67 effect size (Hattie, 2009), which places it in the top 20 percent of all achievement factors. In the world of research, you’ll often hear the phrase effect size used. An effect size is simply a standardized measure of the effect that one agent has on student achievement.
While it’s possible to have negative effect sizes, most fall between 0.00 and 0.40. Effect sizes falling under 0.20 are considered minor. Those from 0.20 to 0.40 are considered moderate. Any effect size from 0.40 to 2.0 is considered “very significant” (Jensen & Nickelsen, 2014). So having background knowledge is highly correlated with student achievement.
Let’s look at strategies to increase background knowledge before teaching new information.
Priming vs. Pre-Exposure
Priming and pre-exposure are categories for preparing the brain before deeper learning occurs. They both build background knowledge and have the following benefits:
- They prepare the learner for the understanding of concepts and give the brain information to build into a semantic structure later on.
- They improve efficiency in the student’s ability to name a word, an object, and a concept or even perform a skill with some earlier exposure (Martin & van Turenout, 2002).
- Additional connections may have already been made to begin the more complex hierarchy.
- The effects of priming and pre-exposure may often be stored in such a way that they preserve data as well or better than if we purposefully learned it.
Pre-Exposure happens with long-term advance notice. It is teaching snippets of content and skills days, weeks, months or even years before accountability. It is otherwise known as building background knowledge. Spiral curriculums or purposeful scaffolding take advantage of this powerful tool.
Some classroom examples are:
- Attending field trips before the unit
- Viewing virtual museums via Internet before the learning or reading
- Reading a variety of genres that enhance background knowledge continually
- Pre-teaching vocabulary words – elaborating on them
- Providing homework that deals with that student’s lack of background knowledge on a particular subject
- Showing pictures related to the topic
- Viewing video clips before a topic so there are visuals in mind while learning
- Inviting guest speakers who are enthusiastic and at ease speaking with kids
- Providing “Realia” or artifacts connected with the content
Priming is very similar to pre-exposure but it happens minutes or even seconds before exposure to a learning event. Some classroom examples of priming are:
- Standing by a poster that says: “Brain Alert” when needing to tell them something important
- Sharing and using the daily target for learning
- Creating a standard web showing all the targets, concepts, and products that they will encounter in the unit and refer to it every time you teach one of the targets
- Students seeing or hearing relevant words
- Students naming or using the primed words is powerful
- Using vocabulary words while speaking or discussing the learning
- Activating prior knowledge before lessons and giving “snippets” of information needed before teaching the lesson
Activating prior knowledge is an example of priming and extremely powerful and can be very engaging as well. It’s so powerful that I made it a daily habit to start all of my lessons with engaging APK activities. In the book, Deeper Learning (Jensen & Nickelsen, 2008), there is a whole chapter dedicated to engaging ways to activate prior knowledge.
One of my favorites is called Super Sleuth. It’s just nine boxes that have nine questions about the topic they are preparing to explore. I create some lower level questions and some higher level questions. Students go from one student to another (nine different students) asking the questions until all of them are answered and a signature of the “answerer” goes in the box with the question. Not only is this extremely engaging and fun, but students (and the teacher!) are getting the gist of what others know on the topic. It’s creating and building on existing neural networks.
I love this informal data because it tells me what information is missing in their background knowledge and what misconceptions I must address soon. Sometimes I even learn which words I must pre-teach. If you want more examples of Super Sleuths, just email me at: email@example.com.
Here are some additional, engaging ways to activate prior knowledge:
- Create questions they can discuss in small groups before the learning occurs (EX: What do already know about this topic? What would you like to learn about this topic? What do you visualize in your head when I say :_________. What other concepts is ____________ related to?)
- Play games to activate what they know about a topic
- Give students a Quick Write to help them retrieve what they know about a particular topic (Quick Draw when there is a diagram involved)
- Good ol’ famous KWL: I know… I want to learn… I learned…
Beyond improving how well students will learn, there are also several other reasons to secure a strong foundation through building background knowledge and activating prior knowledge:
- To improve opportunities for memory of the concept or skills taught
- To cultivate the connections so relevancy can occur
- To ensure that students’ background knowledge has a strong foundation
- To correct students’ misconceptions
- To foster interest, motivation, and excitement
In addition to increasing background knowledge, we can prepare students’ brains academically, emotionally, and physically before the learning process. Below are specific examples of prepping academically.
Prepping the Brain Academically – EXAMPLES
- Ask students to visualize the grammar rule, what a vocabulary word looks like, steps to solving a word problem or math procedure, historical event or a setting from a book. This is a powerful priming tool. A picture paints a thousand words.
- Reviewing information is a great way to bring forth the established neural network so it is fully prepared to “add to” the collection! Reviewing can be a form of activating prior knowledge. Give each student dry-erase boards to show you correct answers as you give students questions or choices. A quick “show me” helps the teacher scan the audience to see who is getting it and who is not. A short pre-test quiz can also do the same.
- Implicitly Suggest – Set them up for success right away with subtle motivational techniques. Research showed that when students who took a test marked with an “A” had better performance on that test than those that had their test marked “F” (the markings were on the front cover of the test as a Test Bank ID code). The research focused on how primed evaluative letters (grades of an “A” versus an “F”) affect explicit and implicit achievement motivation, and therefore, cognitive performance (Ciani & Sheldon, 2010).
I’m not suggesting that you place the letter “A” on tests beforehand, but I’m suggesting that we help students believe ahead of time that they are ready for this (because there was effort to learn it and support to get it) test or assignment. Even having your first set of questions as simple and familiar can set the stage for their brains. Teachers who do many formative assessments and student self-evaluation tools have actual data to show students that they are ready for the test. This alone is a motivating factor that they can do well on a test.
- Pre-Teach Vocabulary Words – Before doing an activity, teaching content, or reading, take the time to pre-teach the most important vocabulary words/concepts in an engaging, interactive, memorable way. Pre-Teaching vocabulary in social studies and science helped the struggling reader in researched studies (Carney, Anderson, Blackburn, and Blessing, 1984) (Moran, 1990). This pre-exposure will give them the chance to identify words while reading and then be able to place them in context and remember them better. Use some of the following strategies for pre-teaching vocabulary:
- Role-playing or pantomiming.
- Categorizing the words (List-Sort-Label).
- Predicting how these words might be used in the reading.
- Connecting the words with other words and phrases they are familiar with.
- Showing the word in the context they will interact with soon, but leave the word out, then students guess which word goes into the blank (close activity).
- Matching words with pictures that go with them – a game!
- Using gestures or playing charades.
- Showing real objects.
- Pointing to pictures or Googled images.
- Doing quick drawings on the board.
- Elaborating on the word’s meaning with examples and stories
- Book Tagging – Have students look through a book and tag with a sticky note a page with a picture, graph or diagram that is new or interesting to them.
- Bulletin Boards – Create an interactive bulletin board about the unit and post it about one week before the unit begins. They can bring articles, websites, questions, Googled images to place on the web so that learning about that topic continues.
- Flipped Classroom – Have students read and learn about the content at home as an assignment so they can come to class with the background knowledge ready to apply that learning through an activity, writing, simulation, project, etc. One of the advantages is more time making sure the students are practicing the information correctly and at a higher level. More feedback can be given, too!
- Quick Fact Sheet – Before reading historical fiction books, ask students to read a fact sheet about that time period so they understand the setting and mannerisms throughout the book better.
- Pre-Assessments – This is a 2-fold power strategy. Not only will the teacher get some data about where the students are with the upcoming unit or target, but he/ she will also be giving students a priming opportunity. Some of the information on the pre-assessment implicitly sticks to their memory and creates or adds to the existing neural networks.
Now that you have several strategies for prepping the brain academically, equally if not more important, is prepping the brain emotionally and physically!
Prepping the Brain Emotionally & Physically
- Create a positive learning culture. To get students ready to learn, make the environment safe, build relationships in fun manners, and then get them to care about the content and activities. Once each student cares or is invested in your topic, building the basics gets much easier. New explicit information (concepts, terms, definitions, insights, summaries, facts, and so on) is held for a few seconds in our working memory. Working memory must deem the content important enough to pass it to the hippocampus part of the brain. This whole learning process starts with trust, safety, excitement, care and YOUR attitude! It starts with your mood, energy levels, attitudes, gestures, and facial expressions. Show your students that they can trust you by answering every comment, question, or discipline with an affirmation of the effort the students made.
- Prep their States of Mind (somewhat like moods) – a positive state of mind can produce an amazing learning experience. Help them visualize their favorite place that makes them smile. Simply ask them to participate in fun energizers or play a game for immediate success and challenge. We might have them participate in a quick simulation that causes curiosity and wonder. We might even ask students to engage in deep breathing with slow music to calm their brains. Chocolate and healthy treats work wonders too!
- Think Long-Term – Explain to students how their brain works during the learning process. The more they understand, the better the choice of strategies they will use to help them achieve their goals. In fact, they can learn how much sleep their brain needs every night to function optimally, learn which foods protect the brain and give it focus, and how exercise can actually regenerate brain cells!
- I recommend the book, It’s All in Your Head, for middle and high school students. This book takes them through understanding their brains and yet gives them strategies that are easy to implement. The following websites and articles can guide them as well:
- Amazing Short Term Results – Right before a test, maximize your brain power by feeding the brain well. For about 45 minutes of brain fuel, have students do about 25 jumping jacks (great for indoors and small classrooms), drink water, and eat a healthy snack to provide energy.
- Think Dopamine — Overall, eating protein, participating in voluntary gross motor exercise/movement, and being part of a positive learning culture can all foster the production of dopamine. Dopamine induces positive effect, aids in flexibility, and gives working memory a temporary boost.
- Destress the brain before learning — We know that a little adrenaline is good for learning – it enhances memory, but too much cortisol, another stress hormone, can actually hurt learning and brain cells. I used the strategy called “Bracketing” often in my classroom.
When students came back from recess or lunch stressed about something that occurred there, I asked them to write on a sticky note how they felt about what happened. This act of writing frees the prefrontal cortex so that it can think deeply about the content coming ahead versus the emotions.
Remember, emotional experiences TRUMP all other experiences or content. It’s the most powerful memory lane out there.
Carney, J., Anderson, D., Blackburn, C., & Blessing, D. (1984). Preteaching vocabulary and the comprehension of social studies materials by elementary school children. Social Education, 48(3), 195-196.
Ciani, Keith D.; Sheldon, Kennon M. (March 9, 2010) British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 80(1), pp 99-119, DOI 10.1348/000709909X466479 A versus F: The effects of implicit letter priming on cognitive performance pp. 99-119(21).
Hattie, John. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.
Jensen, Eric and LeAnn Nickelsen (2014). Bringing the Common Core to Life. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Jensen, Eric and LeAnn Nickelsen (2008). Deeper Learning: 7 Powerful Strategies for In-Depth and Longer-Lasting Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Martin, A. & van Turenout, M. (2002). Searching for the Neural Correlates of Object Priming. In D. Schacter and L Squires (Eds), Neuropsychology of Memory (pp. 239-247). New York: Guildford Press.
Moran, Patrick. (1990). Lexicarry: An Illustrated vocabulary builder for second languages. 2nd revised edition. Brattleboro, VT: Pro Lingua Associates. 162 pp.