Activating Prior Knowledge: Connecting students' experiences to class concepts

Prompting students to reflect on how the course material relates to their own lives can help them develop a deeper understanding of your subject. Particularly when students are reading large amounts of theoretical material or research findings, it can be difficult to pause and connect that work to past experiences or future plans. In this video, Tina Grotzer models how she builds in moments for her students to relate the course to their life experiences in order to deepen their understanding. 


Tina Grotzer, Principal Research Scientist in Education

Student Group



Harvard Graduate School of Education


Applying Cognitive Science to Teaching and Learning

Group Size

35 students

  • Ground reflections and conversations about experiences in the course content. Though students may enjoy connecting the course to their personal lives, this practice will be most helpful for their learning when it’s clear how their reflections help enhance the course material and push towards your learning objectives. 
  • You can help students connect the class to their experience by asking them to look forward as well as reflect back. Consider how you can help students link the course to their future plans as well as their past experiences. 
  • Be mindful of airtime and whose voices get heard in discussions motivated by personal reflections. Keep in mind that students may have had very different life experiences connected to the course material, and no one student will be able to speak for everyone.
  • The role of affect is increasingly recognized as central to learning. Fortus reviews the literature linking emotions to learning. This research suggests that engaging student affect with strategies that take student personal experiences into account can influence student interest and motivation in learning course content (2014).
  • Immordino-Yang and Damasio argue that separating knowledge acquisition from affect may impede knowledge transfer and, consequently, the use of knowledge outside of the classroom and in novel situations. Connecting course content to students’ experiences may be one way to leverage the connection between students’ emotions and learning (2007).