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  • Writer's pictureLisa

Achieving Activation and Integration of Prior Knowledge Using Interactive Science Lessons

student activates prior knowledge and applies it to new concepts

This post marks the beginning of a series in which I’ll be sharing details of the framework I use to create interactive science lessons for student-centered learning in my very own virtual high school chemistry class! For a more concise review of the entire series, be sure to download the free “5 Elements of Effective Interactive Science Lessons for Student-Centered Learning” guide which includes some tips for how to build each one of the five elements yourself.

Some of the elements described in this series might be strategies you already incorporate into your own lesson plans. I’m not sure any of them are entirely unique or ground-breaking. As a scientist by training, though, I see each of them as analogous to an aspect of the scientific method and, for me, the innovation has been in putting them all together to deliver the “lab” in every lesson.

Here are the basics of the first element, "Review & Preview", which you'll learn about in this article:

a list of strategies to achieve activation of prior knowledge

“Review & Preview”:

A Warm-Up Element of Interactive Science Lessons

In its most basic form, “Review & Preview” is a warm-up, a challenge my students encounter as soon as they enter my virtual chemistry class. At my cyber charter school, when my students enter class, they are actually just logging into an online meeting using special software much like you may have experienced using Zoom, Google Meets, or Microsoft Teams during virtual learning throughout the pandemic. Since all students enter class at different times – some 10 minutes early, some on time, some a few minutes late – “Review & Preview” has really filled a gap for me in providing that sort of subliminal, psychological message that students should get ready, preparing to be engaged as soon as they arrive. There are many students who attend classes back-to-back all day long at my school, though, and that constant, uninterrupted computer work can become difficult all day everyday. So, it’s not uncommon for some students to login as soon as they are able and then physically step away for a little while just to get a stretch or a drink, snack, or bathroom break. BUT – when they return, they’ve got something to do.

Make no mistake, though. “Review & Preview” is not just “something to do”. It’s never a crossword puzzle. It’s not a word find. IT’S NOT BUSY WORK. For me, it serves multiple purposes. Before I describe what those are, I want to share with you how it was born as an important element in my planning interactive science lessons for student-centered learning.

“Review & Preview”:

Testing The 60% Mindset In High School Chemistry

Within the first few pages of the text, “Visible Learning: What Works Best to Optimized Learning in Science”, the authors cite the work of another educational researcher named Graham Nuthall who authored “The Hidden Lives of Learners”. In this text, Graham Nuthall proclaims that “students already know 60% of what we expect them to learn in our classrooms each year”.

When I initially read that, admittedly, my mind churned on it for days – maybe weeks.

I teach high school chemistry. Graduates who have been through the course usually describe how difficult it was, so it was obvious to me that my students would not know much about nuclear fission, electronegativity or partial pressures prior to studying those specific concepts. These specialized ideas and terminology in the course also don’t show up in much of the reading students might do on their own time or as part of research for other courses. So, I was definitely reluctant to accept this notion that students could possibly know even 10% of what I was planning to teach them, let alone 60%!

At my cyber charter school and in my position, in particular, I had believed and tried to convince my peers and my principals of exactly the opposite for years and years! It was my experience that too many ill-prepared students were enrolled in chemistry simply because my school has few science electives to take as alternatives to college-prep sciences like chemistry and physics. Choosing to believe my students held 60% of the knowledge I was charged with delivering them each year was, therefore, very purposeful. It did not come naturally.

In classic hypothesis form and function, I thought – “If they actually know 60% of what I’m going to teach, then I can challenge them to do so much more with our time together!”

As it turns out, adopting that 60% mindset was the only thing that allowed me to successfully make the switch to student-centered learning for me and the students in my classroom. Even then, it was unnerving at best. There were days I might have actually held my breath while I waited for students to complete activities, shuttering to think that they might refuse to do them completely or that the majority would claim they “just don’t understand”. I went prepared to every class with answer keys completed and ready to share in case it was crickets.

Because I was clinging to that 60% notion with pure, unsubstantiated trust, I felt the need to test it.

“Review & Preview”:

Pre-Quizzes Used Diagnostically

In my first attempt to incorporate “Review & Preview” into my interactive science lessons, I merely used a “pre-quiz” of sorts. I was intending to achieve activation of students’ prior knowledge if they had it and review that data quickly, before I started the lesson, to determine the level of differentiation I wanted to apply to the student-centered learning activity I had planned. I played with a variety of technologies to administer these pre-quizzes to get data lickety-split and make decisions on the fly. They were usually very short – only one or two questions – and they were always multiple-choice because they were always taken directly from old exit tickets I’d used or even old unit tests.

The results shocked me.

I was preparing to teach electrostatic attraction as a standalone lesson as part of an Introduction to Chemistry unit during the first week or two of the school year. The pre-quiz I prepared included only three tasks:

  1. Given four pairs of ions, students would select which set included ions that would attract one another.

  2. Students would decide which type of ions would produce an “electrically-neutral” substance when paired, a positive and negative, a positive and positive, or a negative and negative.

  3. Given Bohr diagrams (to which they hadn’t yet been introduced in the context of a chemistry course) with a simple legend for reference, students would choose the electrically neutral model.

In administering this particular set of questions, I wasn’t just testing Graham Nuthall’s assertion about the 60%. I was testing just how deep their prior knowledge went. I wondered, “Was it purely definition-language-based [on the level of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge 1 or Bloom’s simple recollection of facts] or could they correctly answer the questions using symbolism they may have never seen before [which would require higher-order thinking skills represented by Webb’s Depth of Knowledge 2 or Bloom’s application of facts]?”.

Nearly half of the students earned 100% on that pre-quiz! Slightly less than half answered two of those three questions correctly when provided with the ion symbols.

Here’s what was really shocking to me . . . these questions I posed to them were standard-based. They reflected the learning goals students should have mastered after the lesson was delivered! Yet, there they were, demonstrating mastery before the lesson had even begun!

The Evolution of “Review & Preview”:

From Activation of Prior Knowledge to Integration of Prior Knowledge

When I shared these results with my team of four other chemistry teachers to see if I missed something in the vertical alignment of our school’s science curriculum, they all agreed students wouldn’t have seen these particular content items yet. As a cyber school, though, our students can be more transitory than those in traditional learning environments. Still, the Pennsylvania state standards for secondary science don’t suggest that students would have ever be taught these terms in a way that would have produced this type of mastery.

Well, I was sold! Graham Nuthall had me completely convinced that I had been aiming too low, drastically discounting what my students were able to reason without instruction.

So, I really upped the ante. I transformed this practice from simple activation of the prior knowledge students entered class with to also integration of it into the lesson. To achieve the activation of prior knowledge, I’d include concepts and questions that represented review items from former science courses or knowledge students would be able to access through life experience. To achieve the integration of prior knowledge, I’d include concepts and questions that challenged students to extend their prior knowledge in a manner that would connect to the topic of the day, the lesson at hand.

In the Visible Learning text, the authors list both “leveraging prior knowledge” and “integrating prior knowledge” as instructional strategies with high effect sizes. For leveraging prior knowledge, the effect size presented in the text is recorded as 0.65 and that for integrating prior knowledge is 0.93. Remember, according to Visible Learning principles and thousands of metadata analyses, an effect size of 0.40 represents a year worth of learning; effect sizes of 0.65 and 0.93 nearly or more than double that. According to this research-based measure, “Review & Preview” as I have prepared and used it contributes significantly to learning gains in my classroom.

“Review & Preview”:

Supporting Other Science-Specific and Social-Emotional Learning Goals

At the same time I was attempting to overhaul my lesson planning to include more student-centered learning strategies and activities, I was attempting to string together concepts within my one-year curriculum -- to spiral chemistry – in an effort to enhance retention and deeper understanding throughout continually revisiting connecting concepts. By using the “Review & Preview” to call upon students prior life experiences, not just prior academic knowledge, I was able to connect with them on a human level which provided a segway for the informal discussion of all sorts of topics. As a cyber school teacher teaching in a distance learning model, this connection is exceedingly important to compensate for the inability to learn from and respond to nonverbal cues.

In this way, I was able to show students how what they already have experienced can help them think through that which they don’t yet know. When they discover that they’ve successfully reasoned out a problem – before even being taught how to work it – there’s an “I can do this feeling!”, a self-confidence that propels them through the remainder of the lesson. “Review & Preview” fosters growth mindset in a major way.

Additionally, its significance as a model for the hypothesis step in the scientific method cannot be overstated. When we (scientists) hypothesize, we make educated guesses. We use information we already know – whether it’s experience or textbook facts – to make another decision, another choice. “Review & Preview” activities require students to do the exact same thing within the context of a specific standards-based topic, concept, or skill.

Examples of “Review & Preview” Used In Real Interactive Science Lessons

Let’s consider how “Review & Preview” has been successfully included as the first element in a few of my chemistry lessons.

mass volume density interactive science lesson

In the “Mass, Volume, & Density” lesson, the “Review & Preview” question posed is: “Which of these cereals is more dense?”, and I show two pictures.

One is a bowl of cold cereal flakes and the other is hot, cooked oatmeal. In addition to asking students to determine which is more dense, they should also be able to explain their reasoning. If they are able to answer the question but are unable or unwilling to explain their reasoning at the beginning of the lesson, they will be able to explain their reasoning at the end of the lesson. If they are able to explain their reasoning at the beginning of the lesson, the challenge inherent to the lesson content will be for them to use sophisticated, technical language to do so in a complete, coherent way. In this lesson, it’s been my experience that nearly all students choose the oatmeal as their most dense cereal option, explaining that there are no “holes” or “spaces” around the individual pieces. This is a great example of students using what they know from life experience. At the end of the lesson, they should be able to provide a clear, more detailed comparison of the two objects, specifically noting how tightly particles are packed together in a defined volume, in part, because that’s the proverbial seed that was planted at the very beginning of the lesson.

My “Laws of Conservation” lesson includes a “Review & Preview” activity that calls less upon experience-based knowledge and more on prior learned knowledge or reasoned knowledge as it pertains to specific technical language. In showing students two images – one with a cartoon depiction of a woman holding a ball over a ledge and the other with the cartoon depiction of a woman dropping the ball over a ledge, I ask students to label the energy of ball in each scenario as either kinetic or potential. Then, I prompt them to explain their reasoning for the claims they made. Whereas sometimes this warm-up task leans more heavily on the review portion or the preview portion, the task for this particular lesson was intended as both, truly review and preview. It serves a very diagnostic purpose for me in determining how many students have encountered the terminology already. It also, however, reflects the learning goals, the outcomes students must master once the lesson has been delivered.

My “Direction of Heat Flow and Phase Changes” lesson “Review & Preview” task is a little different than each of the former examples I’ve discussed. It was definitely intended to spiral in prior knowledge I have already taught my students. By the time I teach this lesson – which is within the first month of school – they would have finished the electrostatic attraction lesson in which they learned what holds all particles together and the temperature lesson in which they learned what the temperature of matter really represents – the speed with which particles move. So – it's about stuck togetherness and movement.

The “Review & Preview” task challenges them to label a very busy diagram depicting water in three phases. Each phase is contained in a closed jar as particles AND is depicted in the form we find familiar (i.e. ice for solid, a glass containing water splashing up for liquid, and clouds for gas (because that’s the best we can do to show water vapor, right?!). Each of these phases is labeled for them – solid, liquid, and gas with the parenthesis (s, l, or g) as symbolism they may or may not have seen before but will definitely encounter again in the future. On top of each of the phases they need to assign two numbers. The first ranks the phases by extent of attractive forces between particles, 1-3, with 1 being little and 3 being lots. The second ranks the phases by extent of particle movement, again -- 1-3, with 1 being little and 3 being lots. Between the phases are arrows representing phase changes – solid to liquid, liquid to gas, solid to gas, then backwards – gas to liquid, liquid to solid, and gas to solid. I provide a word bank of terminology used to describe these changes and have students assign those terms to each arrow.

Up until this point in the task – everything I’ve asked them to do is review, integrating prior knowledge that I know they have.

The preview portion – leveraging that prior knowledge – comes when I ask them to them assign each arrow with another label, either ENERGY GAINED or ENERGY LOST. The ultimate goal of this lesson is to explore the terminology of “exothermic” and “endothermic” as processes involved in the conservation of energy.

This is a challenging task that prompts students to raise the expectations they have for themselves; the effect size for that is a whopping 1.44!. It lets them know I hold them to a high standard; the effect size for teacher expectations is 0.40. It’s more exciting and engaging t