Why formative assessment matters: the power of prior knowledge

Improving Teaching

“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.  Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”

(Ausubel, 1968 in Wiliam, 2016)

The memory of a chess master is both astonishing and limited.  Masters can take in and remember game situations at a glance; novices remember the positions of just a handful of pieces.  Yet masters’ memories are no better than those of novices when chess pieces are placed at random.  Simon and Chase (1973) suggest that as a chess player examines a game, they either encounter a known pattern, or they add an unfamiliar pattern to their memory.  During a decade of study, experts learn up to 50,000 ‘chunks’: each chunk being the positions of several pieces.  Skill in chess is the development of increasingly complicated mental models, or schema, comprising thousands of positions.


Learning – in chess or any other domain – is the addition of…

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