How to harness students' experience to their learning

Why harness experience and prior knowledge?How to post it

If we are to engage students in learning that they find meaningful and relevant, we need to know a little about their lives, knowledge and backgrounds so that we can  ‘draw upon these lifeworld resources during curriculum design’ (Sellar & Cormack, 2009:128). Acquiring this knowledge and incorporating it into our pedagogy and curriculum, can seem challenging, especially when we teach large groups of diverse students.  However, it need not be if we develop activities that allow students to bring their own knowledge, experiences and backgrounds to bear on their learning.

How to harness experience and prior knowledge?

Sessions in which teachers harness students’ experiences to their learning often begin by asking students to consider what they already know about the topic or issue of the session, what do they think about it, what experiences they have had of it, and so on. This might be helped along with a few prompts or activities that stimulate discussion, maybe  begin with a problem for them to work on in groups so they can draw on what they know collectively and so that different views and ideas can be exchanged openly. 

Then, working through the students’ ideas, the teacher gradually introduces the key theoretical concepts and propositional knowledge, but all the time making connections to the ideas expressed by the students earlier. 

Play the following video clips below to see an example of how this might work in practice in a Human Resources session on career planning.

  • The first clip shows students talking about their career journey so far:
  • The second clip shows students applying a theoretical framework to a case study, having first applied the theory to their own career journeys so far:

For more information on these and other video resources see

Advantages of harnessing experience and prior knowledge

The pedagogical technique of starting from where students are at and then connecting their knowledge to theory is what McLean & Abbas (2009) call the ‘biographical turn.’  It has two clear advantages over the more common format of theory first then application.  First, students’ different positions and interpretations form part of the subject of study (see Haggis 2006:532) and abstract concepts become more understandable and relevant to the students’ own lives. Second, students have the opportunity to learn from each other, interacting with the rich diversity of students in the group.

Conditions for harnessing experience and prior knowledge

It is sometimes difficult to get students to open up and share their ideas, especially in big groups, so it is important to create a safe and inclusive learning environment at the outset.  This may mean that you need to establish some ground rules first.  These might include making it clear that all students are expected to participate and that all contributions will be treated as valid.  To create a climate of trust, a community within the classroom, students need to known that any personal views or experiences they disclose in the process of collaborative learning, will be treated respectfully and confidentially.  Once students know each other and agree the ground rules, they are more inclined to participate fully in discussions and debates. They are more likely to question and challenge ideas, and to see things from different perspectives. 

Further reading and information

Hockings, C. (2011).  Hearing voices, creating spaces. Artisan teaching in a mass higher education system. Critical Studies in Education,

McLean, M. & Abbas, A. (2009). The 'biographical turn' in university sociology teaching: A Bersteinian analysis. Teaching in Higher Education, 14 (5), 529-541.

Sellar, S. & Cormack, P. (2009). Redesigning pedagogies in middle-years classrooms: Challenges for teachers working with disadvantaged students. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 17 (2), 123-139.

For more information about this topic and inclusive learning and teaching in HE generally you may be interested in participating in the HEA/JISC funded online module Learning to Teach Inclusively.  See project website for more details