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The Unanticipated Obstacle to Learning

You’d think that what students already know would provide a foundation for additional learning. But sometimes, this prior knowledge can turn out to be a barrier—and their professor may not even know it.

This unanticipated obstacle to learning was the subject of a presentation that Janet Hudson, Faculty Associate Director for Innovative Teaching at the Center for Teaching Excellence, explored in a workshop at Winthrop University’s Conference on Teaching and Learning on February 6, 2016. The third annual conference gave faculty members an opportunity to stay updated on the latest trends in higher education and to share their knowledge on classroom best practices.

Research into the science of learning has identified that prior knowledge, while essential to learning, can often be a significant barrier to learning as well. During her workshop, “The Unanticipated Obstacle to Learning: Students’ Prior Knowledge,” Dr. Hudson reviews the compelling literature on this topic and examines examples of prior knowledge assessments from a variety of disciplines. What’s the issue surrounding prior knowledge and why is it a subject that many educators are focusing on? According to Dr. Hudson,“There’s this conundrum where everything we learn is based on what we already know. It’s just like you can’t do algebra until you’ve learned your multiplication tables. New learning is based upon prior learning. But one of the biggest obstacles to students grasping some concepts is that they have already formulated in their minds an idea of how something works and that becomes an obstacle to how they learn.”

In the workshop, attendees are also given the opportunity to practice identifying common misconceptions in different disciplines and to develop assessments and learning activities for addressing these common misconceptions. Giving an example from her own discipline, Dr. Hudson states, “In history, students today don’t think of Maryland as a southern state. When I explain that Maryland had plantations, tobacco, agriculture and a slave economy, they think that’s an example of plantation agriculture in the north. It’s because they’ve misunderstood that the term south has a very flexible meaning. I’d get so frustrated when they would tell me that tobacco, plantation agriculture existed in the north. I was thinking that they don’t pay attention to what I say. They don’t take good notes. They don’t review their notes. But it turns out they were believing something that I never contradicted because I didn’t know I needed to. “

Dr. Hudson’s goal is to help faculty develop strategies for identifying students’ prior knowledge and approaches for revealing students’ unstated misconceptions and flawed understanding in order to remove barriers to learning and potentially accelerate student learning. She sees active learning techniques as being crucial to this process.

“If you really understand both learning and the obstacles to learning and how it works, you realize it’s not going to happen unless you’re constantly engaging the students, figuring out where they’re confused, helping them navigate that confusion.”

Dr. Hudson is confident that if faculty approach this growing topic with a sense of curiosity and determination and think of teaching itself as an intellectual challenge, they’ll be able to develop courses that give students the knowledge and skills needed to successfully compete in an increasingly demanding job market.

Janet G. Hudson joined the CTE as Faculty Associate Director for Innovative Teaching in January 2015.  She is committed to assisting faculty in implementing evidence-based teaching strategies that foster student learning, with particular emphasis on the “flipped learning” model.  She has extensive undergraduate teaching experience in a wide-variety of formats.  As an associate professor of history for Extended University, she has also published an award-winning book, "Entangled by White Supremacy," and her current project explores the role of African American soldiers in World War I.