2.3: Learning about… prior knowledge, misconceptions and worked examples

Time allocation

45 minutes


  • Read the section below on prior knowledge, misconceptions and worked examples.

The intended outcomes of this activity are for you to:

Learn that
2.2 Prior knowledge plays an important role in how pupils learn; committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas
2.6 Where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if new ideas are introduced too quickly
2.9 Worked examples that take pupils through each step of a new process are also likely to support pupils to learn
Learn how to
Build on pupils’ prior knowledge, by: 
2d Identifying possible misconceptions and planning how to prevent these forming
2g Encouraging pupils to share emerging understanding and points of confusion so that misconceptions can be addressed

In your notepad

As you work this through activity try to answer the following questions.

  • Why is it important to take prior knowledge into account?
  • What is a misconception?
  • How does prior knowledge affect whether pupils develop misconceptions?
  • What can teachers do to prevent misconceptions forming if prior knowledge is weak?

Prior knowledge plays an important role in how pupils learn; committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas

Rosenshine (2012) tells us that “the most effective teachers ensured that their students effectively acquired, rehearsed and connected background knowledge”.

There are two reasons why this helps pupils learn.

The first is that what you learn depends on what you know. Having an extensive and secure background (prior) knowledge helps pupils to integrate new learning into schemata in their long-term memory. This explains why novices (e.g. your pupils with limited schema) find it harder to learn new ideas compared to experts (e.g. adults with extensive schemas).

For example, as pupils move through school, they will encounter many and increasingly complex literary devices. Each time they are introduced to a new technique it connects to existing knowledge and extends and reinforces their schema on ‘literary devices’. For example, a pupil will learn descriptive adjectives in KS1, they will build on this to learn similes in KS2, this will be developed to include metaphor as a concept in KS3 and then building on all of this to understand text level metaphor at GCSE.

The second is that the more prior knowledge a pupil has about a topic in their long-term memory, the more space will be freed up in the working memory to engage with more complex ideas and reflect on meaning. Here’s an example many of us will recognise:

Consider learning to drive. When you first learn you are conscious of every decision; how far to turn the wheel, when to look in your mirrors, how hard to press the accelerator etc. Over time, and with repetition, this knowledge is transferred to your long-term memory and you are freed up to use working memory for other thinking tasks, such as remembering a set of directions in a new city. If you still had to use your working memory to figure out what every road sign means, you would likely spend an unnecessary amount of time driving around and missing your turn offs.
(Adapted from Willingham, 2009)

How does this apply to the classroom? It means we need to think carefully about how we sequence knowledge and whether some knowledge is particularly important as a basis for other concepts. We look at this idea of foundational concepts in Block 4. For now, it is important to note that by committing a number of key facts to long-term memory pupils free up working memory to think about more complex ideas. What these facts are will differ depending on the age of your students and the subject you teach.


Video type

Talking heads

Short description

A group of teachers who teach across different year groups speak about the most important facts they want pupils to have committed to their long-term memory to aid their teaching.

Teacher 1 (Primary, Year 6)
Teacher 2 (Maths, Year 7)
Teacher 3 (Primary, Year 2)

What should you focus on in this video?

  • How do the teachers decide on which key facts would be beneficial in pupils’ long-term memory?
  • How do they take prior knowledge into account?

Video transcript

Teacher 1: By the time I get them in Year 6, I am hoping that there are quite a few things already committed to long-term memory, especially in the core subjects. It makes Year 6 a lot easier (for me and the pupils) if they are confident, active and engaged readers, with a solid vocabulary base. If pupils can enhance their writing with vocabulary from their wider reading and improve it in the drafting process, their outcomes are more cohesive. Not necessarily subject-specific language which I know they will cover in Year 6 but a broad base. I get so fed up with everything being described as “nice”. There are so many other adjectives out there! It’s also helpful if they automatically use the rules of grammar, such as capital letters, new paragraphs, full stops and the punctuation to demonstrate direct speech. The Year 6 curriculum becomes quite dense with colons, semi-colons etc. which means that it helps if I don’t have to still correct basic grammar they should know already.

Teacher 2: The first thing I do at the start of Year 7 is check how fluent my new classes are with things like their times tables, formal addition, subtraction and written multiplication and division methods. I know I can teach them everything else they need to know but if they don’t have the four operations at their fingertips, it slows everything down and they have to really think about each calculation when I want them to be concentrating on a new idea or concept.

Teacher 3: In Year 2, I know that the pupils don’t have tons of prior knowledge to build on, but I am really aware that I am building the foundations for later. I focus on core skills like embedding phonics and securing the spelling rules, really improving literacy skills so pupils are starting to read more fluently. Automatic recall is key. This means that pupils can focus on comprehension and recall. I also spend lots of time working on basic grammar such as full stops, question marks and capital letters so pupils’ writing can flow. Before I begin teaching this, I will assess starting points so that I am really clear on what pupils can already do.

In your notepad

  • What might be some of the key facts that are important for your phase/subject?
  • How might you take into consideration pupils’ prior knowledge of key facts in your phase/subject when planning?

Where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if new ideas are introduced too quickly

We all understand what is meant by a misconception. It may be a simple misunderstanding. It can also be a faulty belief, where people have come to the wrong conclusion – because of a lack of understanding or having the wrong information – and it has stuck. Multiplying two numbers doesn’t always give a bigger answer (think decimals); heavy items don’t always sink in liquid (think oil); and there are occasions when you can start a sentence with ‘because’.

We also now know that all new learning is related to prior knowledge. Stronger and more developed prior knowledge makes it easier for us to learn new, related things. Where the reverse is true and prior knowledge is weak or shallow, pupils are more likely to learn things incorrectly by forming misconceptions. This is because pupils will form incorrect connections or make assumptions to fill gaps in their knowledge.


In the examples below Ava and Tyler have developed misconceptions based on shallow or incomplete prior knowledge.

As you read, consider how these misconceptions have formed and how their teacher might be able to spot them?

Ava is in Year 7. She loves storytelling and so is excited when her first piece of writing in English is to write a creative story about an adventure three friends go on. When she receives her feedback from the teacher, Ava is upset to see so many corrections circled and that she was marked down for grammar. Ava doesn’t understand – she thought that you used an apostrophe to show that something was plural so she used it throughout her story (e.g. The three friend’s walked quickly towards the bicycle’s which they would use to get away).

Tyler is in Year 1. He has noticed that the trees had leaves which were green during the summer when he played in the park but now that it’s autumn, the leaves have changed colours to yellow and brown! It’s fun because he can kick them. At the school entrance there is a tree which has stayed green which is confusing. It’s a smaller tree though and his teacher told him it was called a holly bush so Tyler assumes that trees can only be trees if they lose their leaves, all the others are bushes.

Your pupils will come into your class with existing prior knowledge. While it’s impossible to know and take into account all the prior knowledge each of your pupils brings, you can safely assume that some of this prior knowledge will be weak or shallow and has already or will potentially lead to misconceptions. This is why careful planning and thought needs to go into identifying possible misconceptions and then planning how to prevent these forming.

In the example above, Ava had insecure prior knowledge about apostrophes before she was introduced to the idea that apostrophes can be used to show plurals. Her existing schemata on grammar and apostrophes was too weak and so she only remembered the fact that an apostrophe is used with an s to show possession. She has extended this understanding and now uses apostrophes – incorrectly – to form plurals. Her teacher might spot the consistent error in her writing and be able to make an intervention.

Tyler has made an assumption about what makes a tree a tree based on his observations and through a partial understanding. Unchecked this could lead to lots of confusion later on. His teacher may not spot the misconception immediately but through further questioning and dialogue they may pick up on his misconception.

There are a few simple techniques which Ava and Tyler’s teachers can use to help prevent misconceptions forming where prior knowledge is weak or insecure:

  • Think about what prior knowledge a pupil might or should have before planning to introduce new content:
    • Look at schemes of work for previous year groups
    • Refer to department or phase schemes of work
    • Ask your mentor or another colleague.
  • Identify what prior knowledge pupils hold about a topic and how secure it is:
    • Use questioning to get pupils to share their ideas or thinking
    • Ask pupils to write down everything they know about a topic in a mind map
    • Use a short quiz before starting a topic to assess specific prior knowledge.
  • Take your time introducing new content, strengthening the prior knowledge:
    • Slow down when you are introducing new content. Take your time to allow for discussion and questions
    • Show how it connects to a previous bit of learning with examples and explanations
    • Include questions which draw on the prior knowledge as well as new content

You will work with your mentor in session 2.2 to plan how to introduce new content when prior knowledge is weak.

Worked examples that take pupils through each step of a new process are also likely to support pupils to learn

Now we understand how the memory works and its role in learning, and the way in which existing knowledge helps pupils to learn new knowledge, we can think about what this means for our teaching. We will look in much greater detail at the types of classroom practice which make learning more likely in Block 3. For now, let’s focus on one area that is particularly relevant to the factors we have been learning about: worked examples.

A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or solve a problem. According to Wittwer & Renkl (2010), there is “abundant empirical evidence showing that example-based learning [or worked examples] … is more effective than learning by problem solving alone”. With all tasks we set in the classroom, pupils are likely to perform better if they are shown how to do something, step by step, rather than asked to figure it out for themselves.

The illustration shows a teacher standing at the front of a class, modelling an example with a solution so that pupils can observe the method used rather than simultaneously trying to solve the problem for themselves.

Supporting pupil learning with worked examples

The reasons why pupils learn better with worked examples will be familiar to you now. When pupils are confronted by a new task or problem it places high demands on their working memory. The combination of content information and the need to work out how to solve the task can be overwhelming. If pupils are given worked examples to support them during the process of problem solving, it frees up space within their working memory. This makes them more likely to succeed in the task when they do it independently.

The amount of guidance or annotation you provide in a worked example will vary depending on the context and the levels of expertise of your pupils, but a general rule is that the more novice a pupil, the more complete the worked example should be. As they develop their levels of expertise, gradually reducing the level of supporting information is beneficial for pupil learning.

While a worked example can support pupil learning by easing some of the cognitive burden, their effectiveness is even greater when they are used in particular ways:

  • A large number of experiments have demonstrated that pupils learn more when alternating between worked examples and solving problems on their own, so long as the problems are similar to the worked example (Pachler et al., 2007).
  • If a pupil actively explains the worked example to themselves (or others) they will be even better prepared to transfer the knowledge to new problems (Wittwer & Renkl, 2010).

You will work with your mentor in session 2.6 on worked examples and there is an opportunity to practise them in the activities below.