Prepping the Brain for Learning: Simple Strategies, Powerful Results

Brain Based Results

Let’s look at strategies to increase background knowledge before teaching new information.

Priming vs. Pre-Exposure

Priming and pre-exposure are categories for preparing the brain before deeper learning occurs.  They both build background knowledge and have the following benefits:

  • They prepare the learner for the understanding of concepts and give the brain information to build into a semantic structure later on.
  • They improve efficiency in the student’s ability to name a word, an object, and a concept or even perform a skill with some earlier exposure (Martin & van Turenout, 2002).
  • Additional connections may have already been made to begin the more complex hierarchy.
  • The effects of priming and pre-exposure may often be stored in such a way that they preserve data as well or better than if we purposefully learned it.


Pre-Exposure happens with long-term advance notice. It is teaching snippets of content and skills days, weeks, months or even years before accountability. It is otherwise known as building background knowledge.  Spiral curriculums or purposeful scaffolding take advantage of this powerful tool.

Some classroom examples are:

  • Attending Field Trips before the unit
  • Viewing Virtual Museums via Internet before the learning or reading
  • Reading a variety of genres that enhance background knowledge continually
  • Pre-Teaching vocabulary words – elaborating on them
  • Providing homework that deals with that student’s lack of background knowledge on a particular subject
  • Showing pictures related to the topic
  • Viewing video clips before a topic so there are visuals in head while learning
  • Inviting guest speakers who are enthusiastic and at ease in speaking with kids
  • Providing “Realia” or artifacts connected with the content


Priming is very similar to pre-exposure but it happens minutes or even seconds before exposure to a learning event.   Some classroom examples of priming are:

  • Standing by a poster that says:  Brain Alert when needing to tell them something important
  • Sharing and using the daily target for learning
  • Creating a Standard Web showing all the targets, concepts, and products that they will encounter in the unit and refer to it every time you teach one of the targets.
  • Students seeing or hearing relevant words
  • Students naming or using the primed words is powerful
  • Using vocabulary words while speaking or discussing the learning
  • Activating prior knowledge before lessons and giving “snippets” of information needed before teaching the lesson


Activating prior knowledge is an example of priming and extremely powerful and can be very engaging as well.  It’s so powerful that I made it a daily habit to start all of my lessons with engaging APK activities.  In the book, Deeper Learning (Jensen & Nickelsen, 2008), there is a whole chapter dedicated to engaging ways to activate prior knowledge.

One of my favorites is called Super Sleuth. It’s just 9 boxes that have 9 questions about the topic they are preparing to explore.  I create some lower level questions and some higher level questions.  Students go from one student to another (9 different students) asking the questions until all of them are answered and a signature of the “answerer” goes in the box with the question.  Not only is this extremely engaging and fun, but students (and the teacher!!!!!) are getting the gist of what others know on the topic.  It’s creating and building on existing neural networks.

I love this informal data because it tells me what information is missing in their background knowledge and what misconceptions I must address soon.  Sometimes I even learn which words I must pre-teach.  If you want more examples of Super Sleuths, just email me at:

Here are some additional engaging ways to activate prior knowledge:

  • Create questions they can discuss in small groups before the learning occurs (EX:  What do already know about this topic?  What would you like to learn about this topic?  What do you visualize in your head when I say :_________.  What other concepts is ____________ related to?)
  • Play games to activate what they know about a topic
  • Give students a Quick Write to help them retrieve what they know about a particular topic.  (Quick Draw when there is a diagram involved
  • Good ol’ famous KWL:  I know… I want to learn… I learned.


Beyond improving how well students will learn, there are also several other reasons to secure a strong foundation through building background knowledge and activating prior knowledge:

  • To improve opportunities for memory of the concept or skills taught
  • To cultivate the connections so relevancy can occur
  • To ensure that students’ background knowledge has a strong foundation
  • To correct students’ misconceptions
  • To foster interest, motivation, and excitement


Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:

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