How to leverage prior knowledge to enhance learning.

Learn more about our article - Integrating educational knowledge: reactivation of prior knowledge during educational learning enhances memory integration - published by npj Science of Learning.
Published in Neuroscience
How to leverage prior knowledge to enhance learning.

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Our article, “Integrating educational knowledge: reactivation of prior knowledge during educational learning enhances memory integration”, was recently published in the journal npj Science of Learning. My colleagues, Lydia Krabbendam, Martijn Meeter and myself are based at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands. The Nature team wanted to know more detail about how memories can be harnessed to enhance learning. My responses are as follows.

What was the main aim of your research and why did you decide to investigate this?

My previous research on beneficial effects of prior knowledge on learning and memory and associated brain processes was mostly about understanding the mechanisms. Now I really wanted to see how we can best leverage prior knowledge to enhance learning. There is surprisingly little that is known about this from cognitive and neuroscientific perspectives.

I noticed there was a slight time difference between both experiments, does time influence our ability to memorise? 

It definitely does: more time between learning and testing generally decreases performance due to forgetting. In this experiment, we focused on a quick test immediately after learning (i.e. after a short distraction task), but in previous research I have looked at effects after 24 hours. I now have data with a similar experiment where we investigate memory a week after learning, so we’re interested to see what happens there.

What about colour? Did you use colour purposefully to assist memory?

No, but we are planning to use colour cues in a new experiment.

What were the key findings from the study?

We found that when students can better reactivate previously learned information during their learning of new information, their memory of this information will be stronger. It also helps when this information fits prior knowledge and when students indicate they expect they will remember the information.

How will teachers be able to apply your findings to their lessons in class?

Teachers will be able to revisit previously learned information more often, especially when it relates to information that is learned at that moment in time. Both students and teachers often think that once something is learned it is set in stone in the brain and they don’t have to pay attention to it anymore. However, it actually makes sense to retrieve previously learned information often (a process known as retrieval practice). We have also shown that retrieval aids knowledge building when linking old to new information.

What’s the bigger picture of your research findings?

The bigger picture is that memory is a continuous and fluid concept. Memories are never set in stone and it pays to never treat them in this way in educational situations. It is therefore useful to often revisit memories, both to strengthen them, modify them, and to link them to newly learned information!

What is the future for the field (e.g. university curricula, advances in research, evidence-based policy)?

There is a big future for the cognitive (neuro) science of (long-term) memory to inform educational practice. The question about how to best store memories spans all school subjects but a lot of what we know about how memory works is not yet optimally practiced in educational situations. We are learning new things everyday, and I am very excited to be involved in applying this to real-world situations.


Van Kesteren, M.T., Krabbendam, L., Meeter, M. Integrating educational knowledge: reactivation of prior knowledge during educational learning enhances memory integration. npj Science of Learning 3, Article number: 11 (2018) 

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Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Neuroscience

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