What can go wrong with the legal student’s prior knowledge?(2)


Now suppose your students enter your course or learning activity with both sufficient and correct prior knowledge related to what you want to teach them. Does this guarantee that your teaching results in achieving the learning goals?

Activate to enable connecting
Unfortunately not yet. One additional element is missing. For learning to take place: Activating prior knowledge is essential. We often observe legal teachers teaching without enabling learners to find the link between the new information and their existing knowledge.  As a result the new knowledge will not be connected by the learner to his/her existing knowledge base.  Learning will not take hold.

For learning to take place the prior knowledge has to be “called up”, raised to level where it becomes available for conscious usage. Learning is about connecting the new with the existing. New knowledge “sticks” much better when it has prior knowledge to stick to.

But learners may not spontaneously bring their prior knowledge to bear on the new learning you present. Their existing knowledge should therefore be activated. Learners must become aware how the new fits with the old.

We often expect students to automatically link what they are learning with knowledge they gained earlier. However they may not do so automatically. Students often “compartmentalize” knowledge by course, semester, professor or discipline. They may not recognize the relevance of knowledge from a previous course to a new learning situation. Such connections should therefore be highlighted by the teacher.

How do I activate?
How to activate? One way that often works well with legal learners is so-called elaborative interrogation. It is simply asking a set of related “why” questions to your audience on the topic you are about to start teaching.

Research has shown that if learners are asked to generate relevant knowledge from previous courses or from their own lives, it helps them to facilitate their integration of new material.

Therefore, by asking “why” questions learners are forced to draw on their prior knowledge. This process activates the prior knowledge and brings it towards the learner’s conscious level ready to receive and combine with new knowledge.

So before you dive into the new material, simply ask relevant “why” questions in order to activate necessary existing prior knowledge.

Another means to activate knowledge is to ask students to write down what they know about a topic that is necessary for understanding the new knowledge. Also, exercises can be used to generate students’prior knowledge.

When to activate?
The above refers to required connecting activities at the start of a teaching activity. However, teachers should also connect during a teaching session. Too often we overestimate the ability of learners to connect information we just told them recently with new information we told them now. Constantly show (or better: ask ) for the link between the recent and the new. This ensures that the new knowledge get better anchored in the mind of the learner.

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