12 building blocks to use learning technologies effectively – Building Block 1: Activating relevant prior knowledge

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools are closing (Mirjam’s children have been home since Friday and will stay home for at least 2 weeks) and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the book ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

wijze lessenIn the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]


This is the first one. Stay tuned for more! In the coming days, a collaboration will be set up between Mirjam Neelen, Paul A. Kirschner & ExCEL, the Expertise Centre for Effective Learning of which Paul A. Kirschner is guest professor, and Tim Surma and Kristel Vanhoyweghen (also authors of the book) are researchers. Together with Tine Hoof, also a researcher of ExCEL, we will translate the 12 building blocks, and how learning technology can strengthen them, into English.

What you already know determines what and how quickly you learn, so explain the ‘Lessons for Learning’ authors. As an instructor, you need to activate or actively repeat the already present, but possibly dormant, prior knowledge that learners have and need to understand the new thing to be learned. By doing this, you immediately give them a steppingstone to connect new subject matter to previously learned subject matter. As another win, you give direction to the further course of what needs to be learned. After all, it’s easier to remember new information when it is attached to prior knowledge.

How can you use learning technology effectively to activate relevant prior knowledge? Here are Rubens’ suggestions:

  • Have learners take a quiz before coming together online, for example a day in advance. This way, as an instructor/facilitator you can keep track of how learners are doing. When you identify gaps, you can adjust the content accordingly, for example by giving separate instruction to learners who have difficulty with a specific thing. Most digital learning environments include quiz tools. You can even use an online form for this or separate tools for testing.
  • Have learners take a quiz at the start of an online class. Again, you can adjust the content as needed. One useful tool for this is Mentimeter. Sometimes critics argue that the frequent use of applications such as ‘Kahoot’ or ‘Socrative’ gets boring. If this is the case, wouldn’t the same not be true for answering questions by a show of hands?!
  • Use adaptive tests. Give learners instructions or follow-up questions based on their answers. Note that this type of testing goes a step further than ‘just’ activating inside information. This will be discussed in a separate blog post.
  • Make a short video or podcast to repeat concepts that learners need to be able follow the content of the upcoming class. Preferably, combine these with a quiz. You can also do this with concepts that learners need to be able to do homework effectively.
  • Determine which parts of the ‘learning at home’ they found difficult (look online prior to class). You can do this, for example, via an online bulletin board (such as Padlet), via a messaging tool (for example in Microsoft Teams), via a discussion forum, or even via an assignment functionality.
  • Use clear and concise online videos to repeat working methods that learners have to automate.
  • Let learners make an inventory of what they already know about the topic to be discussed via a mind map, blog post, online poster, or online bulletin board. Depending on the ‘level’ of the learners (novice, advanced, and anything in between), you can consider offering them a structure for a mind map in advance.
  • Use learning technology to develop advance organisers (structured information at the start of a learning process at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness intended to either activate prior knowledge or give the learner anchor points for new information, among other things; see Ausubel).
    • Provide a visual overview of the subject matter through a digital learning environment. You can also use animations, infographics, or online posters.
    • Create a short video or podcast. Diana Laurillard once explained that learners often listen better to feedback as compared to when they read it (texts on a screen are quickly scanned). This may also be the case for advance organisers.
    • Use a video, podcast, virtual reality or 360-degree video to ‘warm up’ the group with a (personal) story that connects to the new material. Ausubel calls this a narrative organiser. For example, imagine a virtual visit to the Anne Frank house or a refugee camp, if you want to discuss these themes.

Of course, this is not an extensive list as there are undoubtedly more examples to be found but hopefully these are useful.

Coming next: Give clear, structured, and challenging instruction!

[1] Note: These blogs don’t take criteria/requirements for selection of learning technologies into consideration (including costs). It’s always wise to first consider which learning technologies your organisation already has and which are also supported. The different tools or functionalities all have strengths and weaknesses. In general, you always need to explore the properties and make a conscious choice. In any case, always take the General Data Protection Regulation into account.

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