Why do some students learn at a faster rate than others? Although many factors undoubtedly play a role, could it be that prior knowledge of a topic is one of the most important factors?
This is the basis of the Matthew Effect, so named after the bible verse that states that “for every one who has will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” This term has also been applied to reading skills, as those who achieve early success are more like to make further gains later on.
But does this also apply to knowledge as well?
Across three experiments, this study found evidence to suggest that there is a positive relationship between students’ prior knowledge on a topic and their subsequent learning of new knowledge for that topic. In other words, students who know more, learn more.
The researchers named this the “Rich-Get-Richer” Effect. Let’s take a look at this fascinating phenomenon in more detail, and find out what it means for you, as a teacher, in terms of practical classroom strategies.
What the research says
The researchers investigated the impact of prior knowledge on learning new information using two different topics: football and cooking. They started by giving students a knowledge test on these topics, and then taught them “new” information. To make sure all of the information was new and previously unknown for all students, the taught information was all false. Students rated how much they felt they’d learnt, and also completed a test on the “new” information. Finally, students also rated their curiosity in learning each “new” piece of information.
Here are the three key findings from the research:
- The more prior knowledge students had on a topic, the more “new” information they learnt on that topic, as shown by scoring better on the knowledge test. Importantly, prior knowledge on a topic only enhanced learning for that topic. For example, students with a higher level of prior football knowledge successfully learnt more of the “new” football information, but not more of the “new” cooking information.
- The more prior knowledge students had for a topic, the greater they judged their learning of the new information.
- Students’ curiosity in learning the “new” information played a key role. The more prior knowledge students had on a given topic, the more curious they were to learn more information - and the more curious they were to learn “new” information, the more information they actually learnt.
This research presents a double-edged sword problem. For students with lots of prior knowledge on a topic, it’s great news. But the outcome isn’t so positive for those who have less initial knowledge. So, how does the Rich-Get-Richer Effect translate into classroom strategies?
Using the Rich-Get-Richer Effect to your Advantage
When approaching a new topic, try not to assume students will have the same (or even similar) prior knowledge. By starting from the very beginning, it ensures a fundamental base level that all students can then build upon.
Present information in small steps
Students with less initial knowledge may be slower to learn the topic information. Presenting information in small steps, as per Rosenshine’s second Principle of Instruction, will ensure that students don’t experience cognitive overload as they encounter new topic information.
Ensure early success
Set up the first topic lesson so that all students have the chance for early success. For example a simple knowledge test, such as a multiple-choice quiz, that students can easily pass. For students who have less prior knowledge, this will help them to feel progress early and boost their confidence going forward in the topic.
Check for understanding regularly
Regularly checking in and monitor student progress will mean you can identify early if any of your students are struggling. If so, this can be a good prompt to provide extra support if needed to get them back on track.
Checking student understanding regularly can be used as part of a teaching technique known as mastery learning. This essentially means giving students regular knowledge tests, and requiring that they meet a certain level of mastery on this (for example 80-90%) before moving on to new content.
In the original study we mentioned, curiosity to learn played a key role in allowing students to learn more “new” information. Other research has also supported the importance of curiosity. For example, research suggests that having a “hungry mind” is one of the three key predictors of school achievement, being as important as intelligence.
So, another key strategy is to encourage curiosity for the topic: teach your students why they should always ask why.
It’s hardly surprising that when you know more information on a topic, you’re able to then learn more information on that same topic. Essentially, each nugget of information also acts as an anchor point that new information can be "hooked onto."
This can be problematic in classrooms, where inevitably some students will have more prior knowledge than others, creating the potential for those with less prior knowledge to fall behind. However, knowing about this can lend itself to numerous strategies that can help accelerate all students’ learning.