Testing Schema


EDD 631: strategy

Testing Schema

Student Name

May 23th, 2018

Spring 2018



Table of Contents

Part 1: Introduction…………………………………………………………….P. 3

Part 2: Literature Review……………………………………………………… P. 6

Part 3: Methodology……………………………………………………………P. 7

Part 5: References………………………………………………………………P 13

Part 6: Appendices………………………………………………………………P 14

Appendix A- Civil War Test ……………………………………


Without letters, one cannot know words. Without words, one cannot know sentences. Simple math leads to calculus. Literature and history gets darker, but also richer, as both get more complicated. No student or teacher can do without prior knowledge as a building block to further and continued learning. Every teacher creates lesson plans based on the assumption of prior knowledge of the subject matter: information to be fleshed out, gaps to be filled, more complex answers provided to simple earlier lessons. However, as useful as prior knowledge is in the classroom, educational theorists and psychologists have had a harder time defining it as a subject of study. Harry L. Chiesi, George J. Spilich and James F.Voss (1979) view “knowledge of a domain as an understanding of its basic contents, as well as its goals, rules and/or principles.” Therefore, what needs to be known before one can learn history, science or math is a basic understanding of their contents, their purpose, and their structure. This seems fundamentally contradictory: in order to learn something, you must already know about it. This is only the first of many problematic features of using prior knowledge as a teaching tool in the classroom. There are also issues of intellectual honesty, regional differences, external sources of education, and inconsistent education. But despite these problems, we know that prior knowledge is a vital component of education overall. We know you can’t do algebraic factoring without mastering the four basic functions of math; we know you can’t read Moby Dick if you don’t understand letters, words and sentences; and you’re never going to understand combustion if you don’t recognize earth, fire, water and air. Prior knowledge needs to be measured in order to properly set learning goals and create lesson plans, but the variables in each student’s learning history makes that problematic. The best option is accepting those variables, and adjusting to the student’s needs. This is again problematic when a teacher must contend with a classroom of thirty or more, but the option of not measuring or using prior knowledge as a teaching tool, as has been done with too much frequency in the past, is bound to leave students behind with incomplete information, unable to progress into more complex domains of knowledge. Therefore, tests and rubrics based on acquired knowledge, rather than scholastic achievement, must be designed and used in order to best approximate the actual process of learning.

There is another motive behind discovering the processes of prior knowledge. Just as the moon landings were less about the origins of the moon but rather the origins of the Earth, exploring how children develop prior knowledge is less about children specifically than it is about cognition itself. Those who study prior knowledge through child development or child psychology are really studying how the human brain works. That is not to say that the focus isn’t on the child, but that studying how a child develops the most basic building blocks of knowledge informs how adults acquire and use more complex information. What can be learned from an intense and rigorous study of prior knowledge can yield enormous benefits to the fields of psychology and education.

Or it would be if it weren’t so difficult to measure prior knowledge. To date, no one has designed a foolproof means to qualify or quantify it. There are just simply too many variables, both personal and cultural, to create a default way of measuring it. The obstacles for properly measuring prior knowledge are profound. On the lightest side, there is the issue of honesty; nobody likes to admit that they don’t know something. When asked if they know a particular fact, chances are good that a child will lie. It’s not their fault; they simply haven’t developed the schema that tells them that honesty in this particular case is beneficial to them. Another obstacle is regional differences. In the South, the Civil War is often referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression,” tilting the long-ago agreed-upon scales in the wrong direction. If a child from the South were relocated to the West or the North, such schema would be confronted with a vastly different narrative that contradicts prior knowledge. On the plus side, there is information there to be altered; however, it would now need to be radically reshaped, which of course will be met with resistance. Also of great concern are external sources of education. While it is widely assumed that the parents are the first educators, it cannot be assumed that their schema fits with any known curriculum. Their own schema may be skewed by the same anomalies that are now affecting their children. But the most contentious external source of education is religion. Some lessons taught by all the major religions directly contradict science, which makes science classrooms problematic and politically tense. Even the way certain religions treat social hierarchies make activating prior knowledge difficult. If a micro culture has retrograde perspectives of gender, chances are good that a female teacher is going to have a hard time accessing a student’s prior knowledge. Finally, there is the issue of an inconsistent education, an umbrella term meant to cover a world of unavoidable mistakes: frequent relocation of the child, a hazardous home life, poverty, inconsistent teaching methods, poor resources, and most importantly, lack of continuity with teachers. The measurement of prior knowledge would be much easier if it could be tracked and especially helpful to educators and psychologists if it could be tracked over years with consistent participating teachers working with a consistent student pool.

But a full and exhaustive measuring of schema is hampered by two factors. First, any long-term social or psychological experimentation could greatly hinder a child’s education. We cannot sacrifice a child’s entire life, education, and future well being, even in the name of science. Second, such an intense study would have to, by necessity, jettison the concept of grades. While a grading system was originally put into place in order to chart a child’s progress through their education, especially in terms of guiding and gauging their educational needs, it now exists as a validator and an aspiration. Grades are now earned, rather than a simple reflection of where the child is in terms of the educational ladder and knowledge acquisition. Only if the burden of grading is taken out of the equation can we come close to an honest and accurate picture of the scaffolding of knowledge acquisition.

Literature Review

The history of the study of prior knowledge begins with Jean Piaget, noted Swiss psychologist and epistemologist known for his pioneering work in child development. It was Piaget who began using the term schema to describe the framework of knowledge acquisition. Piaget was especially helpful in describing an “assimilation and accommodation” framework of knowledge acquisition, in which children would essentially learn a new fact and fit it in with the ones they already know. In The Language and Thought of the Child (1959)Piaget details his research methods, using psychometric method that involved close interaction and interrogation of children. While he made great strides, there were many criticisms from later researchers.

Lev Vygotsky pointed out that a child’s cultural background could greatly affect the stages of development (such as the Southern student believing in the “War of Northern Aggression). Because different cultures stress different social interactions, this challenged Piaget’s theory that the hierarchy of learning development had to develop in succession.

Later researchers in this field built from the foundation Piaget created, to variable results. In their classic study, Bransford and Johnson found that prior knowledge was an important factor in both learning and memory (1972). They found that prior knowledge does not guarantee its usefulness for comprehension unless it is activated in an appropriate context prior to the presentation of new knowledge. So context can and does play a factor in both memory acquisition and recall. Jerome Bruner (1966) proposed that learners pick and choose information using existing cognitive structures – schemata – to help them organize knowledge and experience, so that they can apply their knowledge to new situations.

In terms of generating practical applications in the classroom, there is a great deal of helpful scholarship. Pressley, Wood, Martin, King, & Menke (1992) suggest having students answer questions about new content, which helps them to establish relationships between prior knowledge and new content: “Attempting to generate elaborative thoughtful answers to questions accompanying meaningful content (i.e., explanatory answers going well beyond the information as presented) increases the learning of that content” (Pressley et al, 1992, p. 93).

One schema activation method introduced in the literature is questioning. Piaget used this method in his researches decades ago, and it still yields a greater response than any other method. The key ingredient is moment-by-moment interaction, wherein the instructor or questioner can watch the learner thinking in order to provide an answer. This question-and-answer method helps them to improve their cognitive processing, especially when accompanied with follow-up questions. This process helps learners solidify their “mental representations,” thus making comprehension and recall easier (Brunning, Schraw, Norby, & Running, 2004).


The first step in activating prior knowledge is to understand what prior knowledge students have in the first place. This requires a diagnostic. This can work on both a macro and a micro level, for the whole semester/school year, and for each individual unit. For the purposes of this study, I am using history as a subject and the Civil War in particular, because of its specificity and evolving complexity. The test is short answer, as multiple-choice answers could be vulnerable to guessing. Having to provide say, the name of the president of the U.S. during the period or either Generals, Lee or Grant, will provide a specific answer. It would be best to call the diagnostic a “test,” rather than a diagnostic, as students tend to take a graded tests more seriously and are less likely to “fake” their answers. The diagnostic can be geared to whatever level needed. Depending on the level, an extra measure can be added to each question: “On a scale of 1-5, how confident are you in your answer?” This will allow a level of self-reflection and self-awareness for the student and a measurement for the teacher of the comfortability of the students with their prior knowledge. In terms of schema theory, a question concerning confidence can test whether or not that particular fact has become part of permanent knowledge. Also, close attention should be paid to the variance between the confidence level and the correct or incorrect answer; high confidence coupled to a wrong answer could indicate either bad teaching or disproportionate high self-esteem. If the students are too young or less developed for that kind of self-awareness, the question of confidence should be used in an after-test follow-up, which should be done regardless of the age of the students. This way, the teacher can make individual assessments of each student and their prior knowledge level. Two main questions should be asked (before revealing the correct answers), the aforementioned confidence question, and the source of their information. This can give the teacher a window into the learning practice the students have encountered so far, if the students are able to recall. Chances are good that the students will list parents, grandparents, and siblings. Also, within the last decade or two, media has also become a more prevalent source of education than it used to be, so that may be a factor as well. One way or the other, the teacher will now have data in the form of the answers to the initial questions, as well as their confidence levels, all of which can be assessed as quantitative statistics for parents and administrators.

The more important derivation from the diagnostic is that the teacher can now create lesson plans, both macro and micro, for the whole school year. The primary motivation for the teacher is the activation of that prior knowledge. The website “Mind Steps” provides several important questions that teachers should consider when creating these lesson plans:

· Does my lesson lend itself to an activator? […]

· Do your students have the prior knowledge they need? […]

· Are there any distracting details in your lesson that might activate irrelevant prior knowledge? […]

· What is the most appropriate activator given the type of background knowledge students need and how you want them to use it in an upcoming lesson? […] (https://mindstepsinc.com/2012/09/activating-prior-knowledge/)

Asking these particular questions can help the teacher hone their lesson to just the information that elicits the activation into new modes of knowledge. The first question directly addresses the teacher’s ability to make connections themselves, and to properly present it to students in a manner that engages their curiosity. The second question is fairly self-evident (it should in fact probably be the first question, as it’s the actual foundation of the lesson plan). The third question is a trap any teacher can fall into, as we’re all prone to adding the extraneous albeit fascinating details we ourselves learned from our own teachers. The fact that the owner of the Appomattox Court House had moved there after the Battle of Bull Run, which started the Civil War, is an incredible coincidence, but may not be a fact that allows students to better understand why the Civil War started in the first place. Such an irrelevant detail may instead elicit stories about moving. It will be important to always maintain an eye on the central goals to be taught about a particular event, in this case the issues of slavery and economic conflict. The final question is the most important question: does the lesson plan facilitate the connection between what the student knows and what the teacher wants them to learn? Does it create a bridge between the known and the unknown? Does the lesson plan trigger schema?

One of the primary goals of using prior knowledge in the classroom has nothing to do with the content, the information being imparted, but rather the form. The ability to make connections between prior knowledge and new knowledge shows a capability for abstract thinking. Abstract thinking may be the most important attribute taught in a classroom, since the ability to do so allows the thinker to measure and evaluate, to make metaphors, to recognize irony, to view the bigger picture. Such thinking is necessary for all higher order functions and for leadership positions. Law, medicine, engineering, physics: all these disciplines and more require the ability to make connections between what is known and what can be imagined. An early introduction to this ability will allow student not only to excel in education, but in life. When a student is able to say, “Hey, that’s just like…,” they’ve proven that they can see past extraneous details and the un-apt differences, and model the new situation or information according to prior experience and knowledge, and proceed accordingly. Learning abstract thinking provides an adaptive framework, which will allow them to manage and manipulate their own schema. Whether the new information or experience re-enforces, complexities or contradicts prior knowledge, the student will adapt their “personal simplified view over reality,” widening and stretching it to accommodate new knowledge.

Once the lesson plan is created and carried out, the same test, the “diagnostic” should again be administered (for the individual unit; a comprehensive diagnostic might be cruel). If the students are comfortable enough with the confidence question, it should be included, Thus, not only will the teacher have data showing the progress of building upon prior knowledge, the parents and administration will have evaluative data concerning the effectiveness of the teacher and their lesson plans.

One obstacle that cannot be overcome is the quantification of knowledge that has long been a staple of the American educational system. The aim of these tests should be to measure a student’s progress to ensure that they leave school with a full understanding of the world’s workings, its government systems, its politics, its financial structures, its arts and literature, its expectations and its challenges. Instead, their knowledge or lack thereof is subjected to scrutiny and judgment and a letter grade that classifies them. This practice is counter-productive to the pedagogy of the acquisition of knowledge. It quantifies what can only be qualified. And just as students are evaluated for something out of their control, so are teachers. A teacher cannot know exactly what words are going to activate that light bulb above a student’s head. A teacher cannot know the learning capability or interest level of each and every student. And yet their job security is dependent upon knowing that and showing the results through annual aptitude tests, which means teachers teach to the test, not towards making good citizens who can handle the real world.

What is needed is a series of steps that activate not only prior knowledge, but abstract thinking; such a measure could allow the student to overshoot the goal of passing an aptitude test. They will be able to not just answer the questions with the information they’ve learned; they’ll be able to trick the test by eliminating wrong answers and hypothesizing the right ones. A teacher with a solid agenda and self-reflection will be able to activate prior knowledge and abstract thinking. With all this in mind, I have designed a simple 3rd grade history quiz to be given to a class before they begin the chapter on the Civil War (see Appendix 1). Some questions are easy and obvious, while others may be difficult for them. The two follow-up questions, concerning confidence and origination, will help the teacher understand their students’ level of prior knowledge. Importantly, if the confidence level is high, then that student has already “placed” that knowledge into their schema. That fact is already known, and the teacher can build from there. When the unit is finished, the teacher may administer the test again, with benefits to both the teacher and the students: the teacher can of course gauge the level of information absorption and retrieval each student has achieved; the students, who should recognize the same test they took a week earlier will be able to process the change in their knowledge. It would be wise for the teacher to either show the students their earlier results, or talk through the process while going over the new results.

The practical realities of teaching make it nearly impossible to be as mindful as we should be in the classroom. 30 students with 30 sets of prior knowledge, which may or may not align; outdated resources that rarely engage or inform students; discipline and learning problems; external pressure from administrations and parents alike; a constantly changing pedagogy that must be constantly updated like programs on an iPhone; not to mention ever-decreasing budgets and salaries making life in and out of the classroom stressful and often debilitating: if someone created a simple step-by-step guide for activating prior knowledge and teaching students abstract thinking, it might go a long way towards both relieving teachers of a little bit of their burden, as well as channel students towards not just greater knowledge, but greater understanding and awareness of that knowledge.


Any Teacher Can Become a Master Teacher. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://mindstepsinc.com/2012/09/activating-prior-knowledge/

Bransford, J.D. and M.K. Johnson (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some

investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1972. 11(6): p. 717-726.

Bruner, J., Toward a theory of instruction. 1966, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brunning, R. H., Schraw, G. J., Norby, M.M., & Running, R. R. (2004). Encoding Processes. In

Cognitive Psychology and Instruction (pp. 65-91). Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Chiesi, H, Spilich, G. & Voss, J. T. (1979) “Acquisition of Domain Related Information in

Relation to High and Low Domain Knowledge,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18:257-273.

learning_theories:schema_theory [Learning Theories]. (2013, December 10). Retrieved from


Piaget, J. (1959). The language and thought of the child.

Pressley, M., Wood, E., Woloshyn, V. E., & Martin, V. (1992). Encouraging mindful use of prior

knowledge: Attempting to construct explanatory answers facilitates learning. Educational Psychologist, 27 (1), 91-109.

Rumelhart, D. E. Schemata: The building blocks of cognition. In J. Guthrie (Ed.),

Comprehension and teaching: Research reviews (pp. 3-26). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. 1982.

Appendix 1

Civil War Test

1) What was the primary issue over which the Civil War was fought? __________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

2) What were the two sides called in the Civil War? ________________________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

3) Who was President of the U.S. at the time of the Civil War? _______________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

4) What were people who opposed slavery called? _________________________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

5) What did the group of states opposing the U.S. Government call itself? ______________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

6) President Lincoln gave an important speech on what battlefield? ____________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

7) Between what years did the Civil War take place? _______________________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

8) What book did Harriet Beecher Stowe write about slavery?________________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

9) Who was the winning Northern general? _______________________________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________

10) Who was the losing Southern general? ________________________________________

a) On a scale of 1-3, how confident are you about your answer? ________________

b) Where did you learn that answer? ______________________________________