**GUEST BLOG** Pre-Teaching: What and How?

Kristel Vanhoyweghen and Tim Surma / Thomas More University of Applied Sciences

In these times of distance learning teachers are pre-teaching new content. But what is pre-teaching exactly? We first look at the theoretical concept and then discuss how to put it into practice.

What is pre-teaching?

Pre-teaching is an instructional strategy that involves teaching students concepts or skills before the actual class takes place. The aim is to activate and structure essential prior knowledge. Pre-teaching is usually used with specific target groups in remedial education and allows them to for example read through a text, answer questions or study vocabulary before class. It prepares them for ‘the real deal’. The current situation is different since pre-teaching is now used for all students, not just specific target groups. In reality, distance learning through pre-teaching will resemble more familiar instructional approaches like flipping the classroom. The most important thing to remember from the theoretical concept is that the subject matter is dealt with at least twice: the first time through pre-teaching and the second time in the classroom. Pre-teaching always implies the subject matter is dealt with in class as well. In this way pre-teaching differs from flipping the classroom which, in principle, presents ‘the content’ (concepts, theories, procedures…) outside of the classroom reserving class-time for applying that content, or deepening it, or…

Subject matter is key

What is essential and should we still deal with this crazy Covid-19 school year? We might have to strip down the curriculum to focus on the content that serves as a building block for the following school year. It’s also important to make sure we review the important topics that were dealt with in the class before schools closed down. Some of the other topics may become part of next year’s curriculum, but we don’t want to burden our colleagues too much. So we’ll have to use our common sense and decide what in the curriculum we should cross out. It’s also important to realise that, while students should spend about four hours per day working for school, those four hours don’t have to involve online classes. Working asynchronously offers students, teachers, and parents the chance to work/learn flexibly. You can schedule live sessions to answer your students’ questions and keep in touch.

What do we deal with via pre-teaching and how we discuss it in class later on?

Once we’ve decided which topics from the curriculum should be handled, we must ask ourselves whether we introduce the topic via pre-teaching or not, and how we’ll discuss it in class afterwards.

REMOTE TEACHING                                                FACE-TO-FACE TEACHING

Pre teaching 1

The blue subject is one that can easily be dealt with through remote teaching[1], so the teacher should only briefly revise this in class afterwards. The light green subject on the other hand should mostly be dealt with in class, so the teacher introduces the key ideas via pre-teaching and spends more time on the topic in class. The brown topic is introduced via remote teaching and is also dealt with in class later on. The final subject, in yellow, cannot be taught via distance education, so the teacher teaches it later on, when schools (hopefully) reopen. Deciding which topics to deal with is an interesting exercise that teachers can do individually or as a team.

It all still sounds rather abstract, right? Let’s see how to maximise the potential of this new type of remote teaching. We want to support teachers in the instructional choices they make when they develop their pre-teaching classes. We offer nine pieces of advice, based on our book Lessons for learning: twelve building blocks for effective teaching.

  1. Give students a framework to help the better contextualise it

Clearly indicate which subject matter students should process (and why) and connect it to other content. One way of doing this is through an advance organizer. In Lessons for learning the authors state:

An advance organizer offers a framework of concepts in which students can gradually integrate information. Ausubel pointed out that an organizer should be at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness than the content to be learned. Recent research confirms that students learn more effectively and efficiently when they are offered cognitive structures in which they can integrate new concepts as compared to when they have to discover that connection on their own.

Lessons for learning (2019)

Type of advance organizer How to use it?
Graphic Show students a visual representation of the content and connect new information to the other items. Lessons for learning starts with a graphic advance organizer of the twelve building blocks discussed in the book.
Expository Show or tell students what they will learn and what you expect from them (see building block 2). Every building block in the book starts with a summary that serves as an expository advance organizer.
Narrative Use an ice-breaker, for example a clip or a personal story, to introduce the to-be-learned content.
Comparative Compare the new content to what students already know so that existing cognitive structures are activated.

An advance organizer can be a schema or a short summary of the key concepts that will be discussed, a few well-chosen questions, or the translation of a few difficult words that will appear in a new text. So don’t just mention ‘chapter 6 part 4: page 12-15’, but also include the title of the class, the chapter in which it is situated, and a short summary of the content.

The following advance organizer is taken from a British history class. The teacher introduces the context and key concepts at a distance while explaining topical vocabulary.

Pre teaching 2

Source: https://twitter.com/VHPS_AsstHead/status/1248956019977400325?s=20

2. (Briefly) test your students’ prior knowledge

Maybe your students have prior knowledge that’s relevant for the upcoming classes that can be revised? The more domain-specific prior knowledge they possess, the better and quicker they’ll understand the new content, and the longer and more deeply they’ll be able to remember and apply it (Kole & Healy, 2007). You can test their prior knowledge by asking them a few questions before class (after which you show them the answers, and discuss them). You can include these questions in the assignment or via an online quiz (using for example Kahoot, Socrative, Google Forms or BookWidgets). An online quiz has the advantage that it also immediately gives the correct answers.

Instead of having your students complete a quiz you can also just tell them what prior knowledge they’ll need for your class and where to find it. You can refer to a relevant vocabulary list or a summary in their textbooks, a step-by-step plan in their workbooks or a clip on YouTube or Scoodle.

3. Specify the learning objectives and/or success criteria for the to-be-learned content and share them with your students

As a teacher you know which learning objectives you want your students to achieve with each assignment or class. However, it’s important that students are also aware of what you expect from them and the level at which they have to master the subject matter. Explicate the goals of your digital class to them and clearly specify your expectations. For example, in this class you will …

  • contrast endocrine with exocrine glands and describe how they are built, or
  • translate the words from the list on page 5 and use them in a sentence.

Disclaimer: don’t exaggerate. This shouldn’t become a massive administrative task.

4. Have your students study a worked example before they start practising

Most textbooks introduce new subject matter via one or more worked examples. Some students think that those examples aren’t useful, so they skip them and start practising immediately. However, research clearly and unequivocally shows that studying worked examples first is a more effective and efficient strategy as compared to immediately starting to practise, especially for initial skill acquisition (McLaren, van Gog, Ganoe Karabinos & Yaron, 2016). After this, you leave out steps one-by-one until the student does it alone (partially worked examples).

If there is no worked example to start from available in your book, then you can use an exercise that was made in class, an exercise from the key or an online instructional clip in which an exercise is explained. There are hundreds of online sources available, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Important here is not only that the steps are made explicit, but also the reasoning for the step. We call this modeling.

5. Support students with scaffolds when they’re practising

Provide students with a (limited) number of exercises from the workbook, the digital learning environment, Scoodle… Select exercises that every student can complete successfully. Use support that’s tailored to their understanding and gradually decrease it as they develop more knowledge; scaffolding (Van de Pol, Volman, Oort & Beishuizen, 2015). Given the current circumstances that can be difficult, but still you can help your students by:

  • offering them an overview, a step-by-step guide, or a worked example that they can use when they don’t know how to proceed with the exercises.
  • sharing the key to the exercises so that they can verify their answers, or they can check what the next step is in solving the exercise. Don’t worry too much about students that will immediately look at the key without trying to do exercises themselves. They will also learn in a way, because they will spend time studying worked examples, which also enhances learning. To counter this, however, you can make the key available after all students have completed the exercises or share hints only.
  • giving them the opportunity to ask questions, for example by organizing a live session when the assignment has been made. Give them feedback about the answer as well as the method they used. Questions like ‘what would you do differently next time’ will allow students to reflect on the assignment.
  • making individual agreements with disadvantaged students if possible.

6. Check whether your students have understood the content

Check whether your students have understood the content after your remote teaching session (Wiliam & Thompson, 2007). You can ask your them to write down what they’ve understood well and what they need extra help with, much like an exit ticket. You can also have them answer diagnostic questions, which are multiple choice questions with different answers that each reveal a different type of misconception or mistake. You can use online tools like Kahoot, Socrative, Google Forms or BookWidgets.

You can support students who keep on struggling with certain aspects of the content by giving them individual feedback (in writing or orally), discussing another worked example in an online class …

7. Have students process the content actively

Give students an assignment that allows them to actively process the to-be-learned information (Fiorella & Mayer, 2016). By actively constructing meaning, and therefore creating a new ‘by-product’ like a summary, schema, or a mindmap, they’ll process and remember the information more deeply as compared to passively ‘consuming’ the information. You can also have them self-explain to themselves or teach the information by explaining a concept out loud and in detail (to themselves or a peer), or rephrase the subject matter into their own words or explain how to solve a certain problem. If they explain it to one of their classmates, they can for example use Google Hangouts. Or they can summarise the information in a short clip, a mindmap, an infographic, or a Cornell summary. Summaries can be used to re-organise the content, but they also allow students to test themselves later on. A Cornell summary allows them to cover the right hand side and use the concepts on the left to test themselves (see tip 8) or vice versa. You can let students choose which type of generative processing they want to apply, and whether they want to do this offline or online.

8. Have students test themselves

Making a practice test enhances learning and tells students how well they’ve understood the content (Roediger & Butler, 2011). This testing effect is a robust empirical finding in the research on learning, so stimulate your students to implement the testing effect by:

  • making flashcards about the to-be-learned content. These flashcards have a question on one side and an answer on the other. You can make them yourself or use online apps like Quizlet.
  • covering the right hand side of their Cornell summary and retrieving the information based on the concepts on the left hand side.
  • having them come up with questions about the to-be-learned content.

9. Space out the content over time

Keep your classes short, as the content will be dealt with more than once. By dealing with content during two different sessions, you automatically trigger a mechanism in our human brain called the spacing effect. Research has shown that repetitively dealing with subject matter with intervals in between enhances long-term retention (a.o., Kang, 2016). Tell your students when and how you’ll come back to the content.

Last but not least: KIS(S)

This list of tips is not exhaustive, but it will hopefully show you that distance education also appeals to the teacher’s common sense. The same effective principles apply to both offline and online education. Keep it simple!

This blog includes more information on how learning technology can be used to support each of the 12 building blocks of Lessons for learning.

Written by Kristel Vanhoyweghen and Tim Surma – researchers at EXCEL, Expertise Centre for Effective Learning at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences, Mechelen, Belgium

ExCEL contributes to effective and evidence-informed education by translating research findings into good practices ready for classroom use. 


Fiorella, L., Mayer, R.E. (2016). Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28, 717–741.

Kang, S. H. (2016). Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 12–19.

Marzano, R. J. (2010). Designing & teaching learning goals & objectives. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

McLaren, B. M., van Gog, T., Ganoe, C., Karabinos, M., & Yaron, D. (2016). The efficiency of worked examples compared to erroneous examples, tutored problem solving, and problem solving in computer-based learning environments. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 87–99.

Mesmer-Magnus, J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2010). The role of pre-training interventions in learning: a meta-analysis and integrative review. Human Resource Management Review, 20, 261-282.

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends Cognitive Science, 15, 20–27

Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., Oort, F., & Beishuizen, J. (2015). The effects of scaffolding in the classroom: Support contingency and student independent working time in relation to student achievement, task effort and appreciation of support. Instructional Science, 44, 615-641.

Wiliam, D., & Thompson, M. (2007). Integrating assessment with instruction: What will it take to make it work? In C. A. Dwyer (Ed.), The future of assessment: Shaping teaching and learning (pp. 53–82). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


[1] It’s important to realise that we’re carrying out emergency remote teaching (Hodges et al., 2020) and not online distance education.