Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

Bena Kallick is a private consultant providing services to school districts, state departments of education, professional organizations, and public agencies throughout the United States and internationally. Arthur L. Costa is professor emeritus of education at California State University, Sacramento, and co-founder of the Institute for Intelligent Behavior in El Dorado Hills, California.

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Learning is the ability to make sense out of something you observe based on your past experience and being able to take that observation and associate it with meaning.

– Ruth and Art Winter

Intelligent human beings learn from reflecting on and making sense of their experiences. When confronted with a new and perplexing problem they will often connect with experiences from their past. They say, “This reminds me of …” or “this is just like the time when I …”

They may use analogies such as “when I see this, it is just like this” or “the way this operates is just like the way XX operates.” They use past knowledge and experiences to abstract meaning, carry that understanding forward, and apply it in new situations.

Episodic Grasp of Reality

Some students do not use this uniquely human capacity for making connections. They approach every situation as if it is the first time they ever saw such a problem or task. It’s as if they never heard of it before, even though they may have recently encountered the same type of problem.

Their way of thinking is what psychologists refer to as an “episodic grasp of reality” (Feuerstein 1980). Each event in life is separate and discrete, with no connections to what may have come before or with no relation to what follows. As a result, their learning is so encapsulated that they seem unable to draw forth from one event and apply it in another context.

The gap for some students may be due to their lack of knowledge about how learning works (Paul, 2013). Any time you learn something new, you need to draw upon two kinds of prior knowledge: connections to the subject at hand, and knowledge about how learning works.

When students know how learning works, they are more easily able to access connections to the subject at hand. Learning how to learn is as important as learning the content.

As you begin any new learning, ask yourself questions like:

  • What is the main ideas that I’m supposed to be learning?
  • What will be important ideas that I’ll will take away?
  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What are some experiences that I relate this to?
  • What cam I do to remember the key ideas?
  • What is it about this topic I may not understand, or am unclear about?

Recognizing appropriate strategies help you to understand and remember what you are learning so that you can draw upon it for future learning.

Which of these learning strategies do you frequently use?

  • underlining important parts of a text
  • discussing what you are learning with other people
  • drawing pictures or diagrams to better understand the subject
  • making up questions that you try to answer about this subject
  • thinking back to what you already know about a subject
  • practicing the concepts of this subject over and over until you know them well
  • thinking about your thinking, to check if you understand the ideas in this subject
  • going back over material when you don’t understand something
  • making a note of things that you don’t understand very well, so that you can follow them up
  • looking back to see how well you did when you have finished
  • organizing your time to manage learning
  • planning how to do suggested activities

Remember, connections come to the prepared mind!

The world economy no longer pays for what people know but for what they can do with what they know.

– Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development


Feuerstein, R. Rand, Y.M, Hoffman, M. B., & Miller, R. (1980). Instrumental Enrichment: An Intervention Program for Cognitive Modifiability. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Paul, A. (October 7, 2013). Smart Strategies That Help Students Learn How to Learn. Mindshift.

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Rob DuBon
Rob DuBon
2 years ago

Who are the ‘Ruth and Art Winters’ that said the quote in this article, it is a great quote?