Monday, February 6, 2012

VTLC Reading Circle 2012 (part 1 of 7)

Greetings VTLCers and Scholars,

Today kicks off the reading activities for our annual common read, which is How Learning Works by Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman.  There are several ways to participate, including reading and reflecting on this series of blog posts.  For more details, see our website.

One of the things that I have enjoyed the most about this reading is the way this book addresses concepts that I think I knew (instinctively or unconciously, perhaps), but I had not necessarily thought about how to address in specific ways through curriculum, course design, in-class activities, and assessment activities.

The first concept the authors present is "Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning" (13).  Because we all work in disciplines with content knowledge, I would not be surprised if many examples of this came to mind as you read the chapter on this concept.

Below are a few questions for reflection on the first chapter and concept.  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments (which is where I'll share my reflections as well).

  • How do you gauge prior knowledge of students? What assumptions do you make about what they do or do not know when entering your courses? 
  • Do you use activities to “activate prior learning” (15)?  What strategies might you recommend to your colleagues about this? 
  • What examples of inaccurate prior knowledge do you encounter in your courses? To what extent are they “isolated” or “integrated” misconceptions (24)? 
  • When you encounter integrated misconceptions or stereotypes, what strategies do you think best work to unseat, suppress, or replace them? 


  1. The example of inaccurate prior knowledge that I am constantly running up against in my comp classes is the idea of a 5-paragraph essay. It's the hardest thing to convince some students that essays can have fewer or more paragraphs. I usually like to show them how they could (should!) restructure some of their own writing to help combat the misconceptions; it's easier for them to see/understand when it's their own work, I find. And as for how I try to activate their prior learning, I am definitely in for the explicit reminders: "remember when we looked at such and such last week?" or "how does this fit with what we discussed at the beginning of the semester?"

    I'm getting a lot of practical, specific ways to address these concerns from the book as well! I find myself nodding along, because I know all of this, but apparently I need to have my own prior knowledge activated sometimes as well! :)

    1. I've had a similar response. Many of these things I knew but had never sat and thought about or actively planned for when designing a lesson plan or syllabus. The 5-paragraph essay is a killer: but it is a great bridge between what they should come in knowing to what they should learn about college-level writing. Plus, it has so many salvagable concepts that translate well to the curriculum of 101/102.

  2. (I'm doing my own self-reflection on the reading circle not in the blog but in the comments.) What really struck me about this concept when reflecting on my own teaching is that I do a lot of diagnostics in my Composition classes about what writing and research skills students have, but that I have, at least by comparison, neglected to diagnose that knowledge when I teach Literature classes. I am thinking about creating a diagnostic essay or perhaps another tool that will assess what prior knowledge students have about content, literary studies, and writing about literature. If you have any suggestions, let me know! How I have responded to this in the past is that I have created resources that I use repeatedly in every class, but I've never thought about designing those resources around prior knowledge, and doing so would likely make them more effective for me.