The Rich Get Richer: Prior Knowledge and the Learning of New, Domain Specific, Information

Prior knowledge is a powerful tool in the classroom for the learning of new information…I don’t think many would dispute that. I see it in my classroom all the time. Students who have taken a human body systems course prior to my AP Psychology course always perform well on my unit covering biological bases of behavior. Students who have already taken AP Statistics will usually outperform those who haven’t when covering research methods and statistical analysis of experimentation in my class. That previous understanding of current information to be learned provides students with a base of knowledge from which to build. This foundation is obviously absent from those who are interacting with new material for the first time.

But, how does prior knowledge relate to the learning of new information that was not previously known, both within a specific domain and outside of that domain? Does prior knowledge on some aspects of cooking or American football impact the learning of new, previously unknown, information within those domains (The Rich Get Richer Effect)? Does prior knowledge, more generally, impact the learning of new information in any domain? Does having a high level of prior knowledge stimulate learners’ curiosity about that domain of information? And does that help to explain why prior knowledge is impactful on domain-specific learning?

These questions were researched by Dr. Amber Witherby and Dr. Shana Carpenter in their paper, “The Rich-Get-Richer Effect: Prior Knowledge Predicts New Learning of Domain-Relevant Information“. (1) Across three experiments, Witherby and Carpenter used the domains of cooking and American football to test:

  1. how domain-specific knowledge in one domain impacted new learning within that domain,
  2. how domain-specific knowledge in one domain impacted new learning outside of that domain, and
  3. whether students are more motivated/curious to learn from domains where a high level of prior knowledge has already been acquired.


High levels of domain-specific knowledge in one area positively predicted new learning of information within that domain. Witherby and Carpenter call this the rich-get-richer effect. “Prior knowledge appears to play a key role in the selective acquisition on new, domain-relevant information.” Also, with respect to the experimental design, Witherby and Carpenter were able to rule out three explanations for the positive relationship between prior knowledge and learning in prior work:

  1. the relationship is not driven by high-prior-knowledge students already knowing some of the to-be-learned items,
  2. the relationship is also not driven by a confound in the number of to-be-learned items between low and high-prior-knowledge students,
  3. and, finally, the relationship is not driven by a tendency of high-prior-knowledge students to simply be better learners when compared to low-prior-knowledge students.

The rich-get-richer effect appears to operate specifically to enhance learning for new information that is relevant to prior knowledge. Outcomes from experiment 3 also showed that prior knowledge in each domain predicted more curiosity to learn new information in that particular domain, and that curiosity predicted better learning. “The relationship between prior knowledge and new learning is likely driven by a qualitative, and not a quantitative, way in which students process the to-be-learned information.”

So, bottom line, what does does this mean to me as a teacher? How might this information impact my instruction? Prior knowledge matters. Tasks set early in a lesson (pretesting, retrieval practice) to activate student’s prior knowledge can have a positive effect on subsequent learning opportunities; whether that effect results from strengthened associations of to-be learned information or from a heightened curiosity to learn. So, while these activities may sometimes seem a bit tedious to teacher and students alike, they are valuable. Also, this is something to share with my students; let them in on the results of this research. I’ve said it once (okay…more than once) and I’ll say it again: it seems to me that when I treat my students like mature learners and let them in on the science, they respect instruction even more and put more effort into it.

How do these results solidify or refute your beliefs about prior knowledge?

How might this impact your classroom?

Feature image by cottonbro from Pexels

  1. Witherby, A. E., & Carpenter, S. K. (2021). The rich-get-richer effect: Prior knowledge predicts new learning of domain-relevant information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Advance online publication.

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