2 Content: When do we need to talk about background knowledge?

The Challenge of Background Knowledge

A fair number of the challenges that we face in engagement have to do with the necessity to give students background knowledge, in other words, the context in which students are going to be learning. Dealing with ‘the things students need to know’ can often be the place where we both lose students and also lose teachers to boredom.

Before access to the Internet, we needed to have a clear sense of what information we needed for a class months in advance. The information either had to be in our heads (which means you need to rely on your class going in a direction that fits your own expertise) or shipped around in books from publishing houses. Now we can have that information at our fingertips.

When do we introduce it? Do we try to give students tons of background knowledge about something BEFORE they need it? That is, before they have the context for it? Do we introduce the ‘why’ before we give them the background knowledge?

Maybe more importantly, if we allow students some control over their own learning, how do we help them acquire background knowledge on stuff we hadn’t planned on, or, maybe more challenging stuff we don’t know about?

Why do I need to go to class? All the information from the class is on the Internet anyway. I’m going to pay better attention at home. – A Student.

Why should I pay someone to talk about a topic infront of me off the top of their head when I can read or watch the material in a way that was maticuasly developed to be the most eficient way to learn it for free online.


Look at your expectations of prior knowledge for your course. How are students supposed to acquire it? How can you balance the why of the background knowledge with the context of why it’s important? How can you explain this balance to your students?


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Engaging Students in an Online Era Copyright © by David Cormier; Ghanem Ghanem; and Brandon Mailloux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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