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The Impact of Prior Knowledge and Organization on Students' Learning- Case Study on CEE 3340

Updated: Mar 18, 2018

This is a case study to investigate how I, as an instructor for CEE 3340, utilize different fundamental knowledge about human learning to improve my students' performance in the lab course.



Learning is an active process that involves change in knowledge, beliefs, behaviors or attitudes over time. It cannot be something directly pressured to the students but rather something students themselves do. Students’ prior knowledge and organization of them can have a huge impact in effective learning.

Impact of Students' Prior Knowledge

Students' prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

Students’ prior knowledge can be a double-edged sword. If such knowledge is inert, insufficient, inactivated or even inaccurate, it can severely interfere with or hinder the new learning that we, as teachers, try to convey. On the other hand, robust, accurate and activated prior knowledge will help teachers build new learning process upon students’ solid groundwork. As teachers, not only we need to identify and recognize students’ misconceptions underlying in their background knowledge and correct them, but also try our best to utilize accurate prior knowledge to facilitate their new knowledge accumulations. There are many strategies that help us determine the extent and quality of prior knowledge such as talking to colleagues who teach prerequisite courses, having students assess their own prior knowledge, using brainstorming to reveal them, and looking for patterns of error in student work.

One effective way for me, as a teacher, to evaluate my students’ prior knowledge in their lab course (CEE 3340 Environmental Engineering Laboratory) is to start a diagnostic assessment such as a simple quiz that contains very simple data analysis problems at the very beginning of each semester. This quiz serves the purpose to find out whether students received relevant experimental data analysis training or those training (mainly from basic chemistry lab courses) could be applicable in my course. I also try to link the new materials to students’ prior knowledge in the pre-lab lecture by asking questions in relation to materials learned previously. When introducing the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) tour module in this lab, I always encourage students to reflect what they have learned in CEE 2300 (Environmental Engineering Principles) about treatment processes, and what processes should be employed in a conventional WWTP. This can help them to understand what processes are actually present in the tour facility after considering the cost and treatment efficiency. By emphasizing this gap in WWTP design, the basic principles of those processes can be activated in students’ brain and they can also provide a smoother transition for them to learn the new aspects of economic cost and removal efficiency about those processes. Moreover, I will start a make-up class at the beginning of the semester to talk about the most common mistakes that have been made in previous semesters to inform and remind what the students at the present semester will likely to encounter in advance. Such consistent errors collected directly from students’ shared misconceptions, even from previous semesters, can help current students correct inaccurate information.

Impact of Students' Knowledge Organization

How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.

It is not just what students know but how they organize what they know that can have profound implication for their learning. Experts and novices usually have drastic differences in knowledge organization from the aspect of the density and nature of connections imbedded in their knowledge structures. For experts, they usually have rich, meaningful knowledge structures that could further support their learning and performance. However, novices tend to build sparse and superficial knowledge structures, which results in their inability to retrieve and apply new knowledge. Teachers, as the experts in their disciplines, need to help novices, their students, to foster the connections between pieces of knowledge, thus leading the students to develop more flexible and effective knowledge organizations. There are a few strategies that can be used to enhance knowledge organization in students, such as using contrast and boundary cases to highlight organizing features, analyzing tasks to identify the most appropriate knowledge organization and providing students with the organizational structure of the course.

One of the methods that I use in my course to enforce students’ knowledge organization is asking them to draw concept maps of each experiment module to show how they explicitly organize and connect concepts that have been mentioned in this specific subject. Meanwhile, I can give them feedback of how they improperly linked unrelated concept or failed to connect relayed concepts. This interaction has dramatically helped students reveal and diagnose their weakness in knowledge organization while providing them a correct pathway to be experts in this subject.


Impact of Knowledge Mastery

To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.

In addition to impact of prior knowledge and organization on students’ learning, mastery, which refers to attainment of a high degree of competence, is another milestone students need to reach for effective learning. Mastery requires component skills and the ability to integrate them successfully. More importantly, it also requires the students know when and where to apply what they have learned. In that case, teachers should never assume students will automatically know to apply these skills once learned. Instead, teachers should always explicitly discuss the conditions and contexts of applicability to help students successfully transfer what they have learned. Other strategies to facilitate this transfer can be giving the students chances to apply skills in diverse contexts, asking them to generalize to larger principles and providing prompts to relevant knowledge.

One strategy that I employ in my lab course is ask students to come up with a research plan by themselves, conduct the experiment and evaluate the results without prompts at the end of the semester. Students, at the beginning of the course, will be guided to understand how research plan is constructed based on the specific objective, how experimental procedures should be designed according to the research plan and how experimental data should be analyzed with the help of prompts provided in the lab handout. After three month’s training of these component skills, this final “self-serving” module will further help students make connections between these skills and knowledge they just possessed and proper application under the given context. The reason to ask students to initiate the application without any prompts is to fortify those learned skills and train them to use these skills in a higher degree of automaticity.


As instructors, being aware of how prior knowledge and knowledge of organization influence students’ learning is very critical and being able to help students to reach mastery within a domain is challenging. Therefore, we must adjust our teaching philosophy accordingly to achieve effective learning in students from these aspects.

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© 2018 by Cong. 

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