Skip to main content

December 11, 2014

This month’s column is the fourth part in a series I’m posting every other month or so about how we can apply and see in action the 7 principles of research-based pedagogy described in the excellent book How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose, et al. Last time was practice and feedback. Before that came motivation and knowledge organization. This month’s topic: students’ prior knowledge, ch. 1 of the book.

The lesson from the first chapter of How Learning Works is simple and seemingly self-evident: “[s]tudents’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning” (p. 13). Students will learn more readily and more thoroughly if they possess a sufficient and accurate knowledge base and are able to draw on this knowledge in appropriate contexts. This situation is the ideal for teaching heavily cumulative subjects such as language acquisition. In fact, as Ambrose et al. write, “there is widespread agreement among researchers that students must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge in order to learn” (p. 15; emphasis preserved).

But often students either do not think to activate their knowledge from previous courses (what’s called the “transfer problem”) or they activate prior knowledge that is inaccurate, contextually inappropriate, or insufficient for the task at hand. A particular obstacle for foreign-language instruction is the tendency for novices to rely too much on analogy between their native language and their language of study (p. 21, citing Bartlett and Thonis [PDF]):

When many of us are learning a foreign language, we apply the grammatical structure we know from our native language to the new language. This can impede learning when the new language operates according to fundamentally different grammatical rules, such as subject-object-verb configuration as opposed to a subject-verb-object structure.

What Greek or Latin teacher hasn’t struggled with a class determined to translate or interpret a passage from left to right as if it were English word order? The same principle goes for cross-cultural learning and will be familiar to teachers of language and civilization alike: novices tend to apply their own cultural assumptions to their understanding and interpretation of the practices of other cultures.

We can correct some kinds of inaccurate knowledge and assumptions through head-on instruction, directly addressing and refuting the inaccuracies. But it is difficult to combat misconceptions. This term refers to deeply-held beliefs that have been reinforced over time and across contexts, are made up of a combination of accurate and inaccurate knowledge, and are often tied to students’ values, ideologies, or identities. Misconceptions are particularly persistent because they may produce successful explanations or solutions in certain circumstances. For instance, the often-persistent but inaccurate notion that datives can always be translated by “to” or “for” will get students through a sizeable portion of their readings (but woe betide them when they encounter a dative of agent).

It’s possible to put students on the path to correcting, replacing, and eliminating their misconceptions, but it is a gradual, incremental process. One of the best things we can do is give our students time to think: “when distractions and time pressures are minimized, students will be more likely to think rationally and avoid applying misconceptions and flawed assumptions” (Ambrose et al. p. 26, citing Finucane et al. [PDF] and Kahneman & Frederick [PDF]). Relieving time pressures on assessments like exams and quizzes is good practice anyway, since it also accommodates students with limitations on reading speed, with anxiety, or with other learning obstacles.

Teachers of Greek and Latin often encounter students who have accurate, activated declarative knowledge but not procedural knowledge, or vice versa. Declarative knowledge is knowledge of content (i.e., “knowing what”), while procedural knowledge is the skill set for applying the content properly (i.e., “knowing how and when”). The student who possesses declarative but not procedural knowledge can identify a dative but can’t explain its function in the sentence; the student with procedural but not declarative knowledge, on the other hand, can interpret a sentence correctly but cannot identify case usages or subordinate clause types.

So: how can we address insufficient, inaccurate, inappropriate, or inactive prior knowledge when teaching Latin or Greek language?

There are a number of ways to diagnose prior-knowledge issues. We can take inventory of what students do (and do not) already know by means of a self-assessment or pre-test. We can identify explicitly the prerequisite knowledge for our courses. We can have students brainstorm or draw concept maps to help reveal to us and to themselves their beliefs and assumptions about our material. Especially useful is to ask priming questions designed to trigger recall of appropriate information, thus helping students activate prior knowledge, a practice called “elaborative interrogation” (for example, having students answer questions about verb moods and case usage before they translate a sentence).

We can also help our students prevent their prior knowledge (or lack thereof) from hindering their learning by discussing the issue directly. Identify common patterns of error in student work. Explain disciplinary conventions that may cause confusion or trouble for novices (such as “translationese,” intended to reflect students’ comprehension of Greek or Latin syntax at the expense of fluidity in English). Point out the limitations of analogies or heuristics — for example, cognates or derivatives in English can help with Greek or Latin vocabulary, but beware “false friends.” And provide guidelines (inasmuch as they exist) for when these tools are applicable.

When prior-knowledge troubles crop up in class, options for treatment include giving students multiple opportunities and ample time to practice accurate and appropriate employment of their knowledge; explicitly linking new material to content from earlier courses and from units earlier in the current course; or having students make reasoned guesses or judgments on the basis of their prior knowledge and then justify their reasoning. In the case of insufficient knowledge, it’s crucial to deal with problems head on. In a second-semester language course with only a few students who lack sufficient preparation, for instance, the students in question should, if possible, be moved back to the first course in the sequence and shouldn’t be passed into or permitted to test into the higher level. But if most or all of the class lacks such preparation, it’s essential to slow down the course’s pace and devote time to review (or, as it may be, initial instruction) of prerequisite material. Pushing ahead on a forced march doesn’t do anybody any good.

A successful language curriculum will ensure proficiency or (preferably) mastery at lower levels before students are sent on to higher levels. This sounds obvious; but if C-level performance at the elementary language level isn’t sufficient preparation for progression to cumulatively harder study of the language (as I’ve come to believe through my experiences in the classroom), we shouldn’t be awarding Cs at all, but should be redefining performance of such quality as insufficient for continuation, as insufficient to pass the class. (Professor Rebecca Sears, my colleague at Wake Forest University, tells me that the University of Michigan uses "basic skills tests" to determine whether students are ready to proceed to the next course in their Latin sequence; these tests can be attempted up to 3 times and have a passing requirement of a B– or above.) Moreover, we should periodically reevaluate our language curricula for alignment of learning goals, outcomes, and sequencing. And when necessary, we should undertake the arduous but ultimately worthy goal of curricular redesign. These points shouldn’t discourage us, but should get us to think bigger about supporting the learning of classical languages.


T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Editor-in-Chief of the SCS Blog and Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Satire, Plautus: Curculio, and two forthcoming books, A Commentary on Plautus' Curculio (Michigan) and Masks (Tangent). He can be contacted at