According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2003), every day from September to June some 53.5 million students in the United States walk into classes that teach English, mathematics, science, history, and geography and face the sometimes daunting task of learning new content. Indeed, one of the nation’s long-term goals as stated in the The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners (National Education Goals Panel, 1991) is for U.S. students to master “challenging subject matter” in core subject areas (p. 4). Since that goal was articulated, national and state-level standards documents have identified the challenging subject matter alluded to by the goals panel. For example, in English, high school students are expected to know and be able to use standard conventions for citing various types of primary and secondary sources. In mathematics, they are expected to understand and use sigma notation and factorial representations. In science, they are expected to know how insulators, semiconductors, and superconductors respond to electric forces. In history, they are expected to understand how civilization developed in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. In geography, they are expected to understand how the spread of radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident has affected the present-day world.
Although it is true that the extent to which students will learn this new content is dependent on factors such as the skill of the teacher, the interest of the student, and the complexity of the content, the research literature supports one compelling fact: what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content. Commonly, researchers and theorists refer to what a person already knows about a topic as “background knowledge.” Numerous studies have confirmed the