How Does Prior Knowledge Impact Students’ Online Learning Behaviors?

How Does Prior Knowledge Impact Students’ Online Learning Behaviors?

Kirsten R. Butcher (University of Utah, USA) and Tamara Sumner (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1858-9.ch007
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This study explored the impact of prior domain knowledge on students’ strategies and use of digital resources during a Web-based learning task. Domain knowledge was measured using pre- and posttests of factual knowledge and knowledge application. Students utilized an age- and topic-relevant collection of 796 Web resources drawn from an existing educational digital library to revise essays that they had written prior to the online learning task. Following essay revision, participants self-reported their strategies for improving their essays. Screen-capture software was used to record all student interactions with Web-based resources and all modifications to their essays. Analyses examined the relationship between different levels of students’ prior knowledge and online learning behaviors, self-reported strategies, and learning outcomes. Findings demonstrated that higher levels of factual prior knowledge were associated with deeper learning and stronger use of digital resources, but that higher levels of deep prior knowledge were associated with less frequent use of online content and fewer deep revisions. These results suggest that factual knowledge can serve as a useful knowledge base during self-directed, online learning tasks, but deeper prior knowledge may lead novice learners to adopt suboptimal processes and behaviors.
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Prior Knowledge And Comprehension

In this research, we explored how prior knowledge influenced students’ online learning behaviors and analyzed the relationship between these behaviors and students’ eventual knowledge outcomes. We chose to examine prior knowledge as a predictor of online learning behaviors because prior knowledge repeatedly has been shown to be a key factor in predicting learning with text (e.g., Adams, Bell, & Perfetti, 1995; McNamara, Kintsch, Songer, & Kintsch, 1996; McNamara & Kintsch, 1996; Recht & Leslie, 1988; Schneider, Körkel, & Weinert, 1989) and multimedia materials (e.g., Kalyuga, 2005; Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003).

The rationale for why prior knowledge plays a strong role in learning can be drawn from research and theory in cognitive psychology. Relevant prior knowledge forms a framework for incoming information (Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982), allowing new materials to be integrated into a flexible knowledge representation that can be transferred to new situations (Kintsch, 1988, 1998). Without a conceptual framework of prior knowledge into which incoming information can be integrated, learners typically focus on memorizing isolated facts that can be recalled but cannot be applied outside of the context in which it was learned. This type of knowledge long has been referred to as “inert knowledge” (Whitehead, 1932).

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