Strategies for Helping Students Build Background Knowledge

In Building Background Knowledge For Academic Achievement: Research On What Works In Schools, author Robert Marzano investigates the relationship between background knowledge and student achievement. According to the author, background knowledge is one of the strongest indicators of how well students will learn new content. Marzano cites numerous studies that suggest that prior knowledge has a strong positive correlation with academic achievement. Furthermore, he cites research that indicates prior knowledge gaps can affect individuals well into adulthood and can serve as an accurate predictor of occupational choice and income.

It makes sense that prior knowledge affects student achievement. After all, how can students reasonably be expected to excel when they lack the basic knowledge and foundational skills necessary to successfully master the content that is presented to them? They cannot, of course. Varied factors such as students’ prior exposure to content (or lack thereof) in previous grades and schools, access to resources, parental support and poverty can all affect students’ background knowledge.

Marzano advocates leveling the playing field by providing students with rich learning experiences, exposure through field trips and the support of mentors—all of which are effective strategies. Unfortunately, opportunities for participating in both field trips and mentoring may be limited due to lack of resources, lack of funds, red tape and/or lack of administrative support—all of which are factors beyond your control. Fortunately, scaffolding instruction, providing rich learning experiences and other effective strategies for building background knowledge are completely within your control.

Try the following instructional strategies to help your students acquire the knowledge they will need to master new concepts.

Frontloading Instruction

Give students information and supports that will help them to understand the concepts you are presenting. For example, if you are beginning a novel study of Number the Stars, provide students with historical maps, photographs, artifacts and background information about World War II, Hitler’s regime and the persecution of Jewish people during that time.

Providing Relevant Pre-Learning Experiences

Provide students with relevant pre-learning experiences to help them acquire the background knowledge necessary to understand concepts you are planning to introduce.


Provide students with the supports, resources and guidance they need to grasp and master new concepts.