The Difference between General Characteristics
and Specific Prior Knowledge of a Learner Population
Dept. of Educational Management, ISE, BNUZ
Both general characteristics and specific prior knowledge belong to learners’ cognitive characteristics, which is the important part of learner analysis in instructional design process.
General characteristics (e.g., reading level, SES, regional affiliation, etc.) relate to instruction for a particular topic, influencing sometimes how a topic is approached for some groups learners differently than for others or influencing instructional message design or strategy decisions for all learners.
Specific prior knowledge refers to those things that a learner has learned that are directly related to a higher-order learning task that we have in mind. It is those prerequisites to a learning task that somebody already possesses.
Here we are to discuss their differences :
1. They are based on different aspects of psychological theory.
Charles E. Spearman proposed a two-factor theory of intelligence. His theory states that a general factor (g factor for short) plus one or more specific factors (s factor for short) account for scores on intelligence tests. He believed the g factor was general mental ability. Complicated mental activities contained the greatest amount of g factor. The abilities associated with g-factor are also being able to determine the relationship between two or more ideas. The g-factor is common to every type of cognitive performance. S-factor is the specific abilities that Spearman believed “go into” the overall g- factor. Individuals have specific abilities that are part of the overall-g.
I considered that general characteristics and specific prior knowledge are based on this two-factor theory of intelligence. General characteristics belong to the g-factor of a person, which are the basic abilities for common tasks of learning. And specific prior knowledge should be divided into two parts. One belongs to g factor too, while the other belongs to s factor. Then we discuss g factor further.
Raymond Cattell followed in Spearman’s footsteps, but made some important modifications. He went further to describe the g factor. Cattel said that the g factor was made up of two components: fluid and crystallized intelligence. “Fluid Intelligence is the power of reasoning and using information. Crystallized intelligence consists of acquired skills and knowledge and the application of that knowledge to a specific context in a person’s experience” (Kalat, 1996). Fluid intelligence reaches a high peak whereas crystallized intelligence is always increasing in an individual’s life (Cattell, 1987).
So generally, one’s cognitive characteristics can be divided into g factor and s factor, and then g factor can be divided into fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. I consider the part of “specific prior knowledge” that belongs to g factor is made up with crystallized intelligence, while “general characteristics” that belongs to g factor entirely is made up with fluid intelligence.
Here we can master their relationship through the graphics below:
2. They have different ways to be analyzed.
General characteristics may be analyzed through psychological test. If instructional designers are lack of such test tools, they can imagine and analyze them through learners’ ages, career backgrounds and places they come from. Because these factors have strong correlativity with their general characteristics of cognition.
However, specific prior knowledge cannot be test easily, because the content of the test won’t cover all of the prior knowledge. Then we just assume the learners’ prior knowledge first, and then give them a test to examine how much the assumption meets the truth. Or we can interview the learners and ask them what they have learned.
3. They have different significances in instructional design.
In the practice of instructional design, the primary difference between the two is that specific prior knowledge determines what needs to be taught and general characteristics have an influence on how things should be taught.
4. They are emphasized in different degrees in various situations.
If the learners are of different ages and different background, such as various adult learners in specific course, we should pay more attention to their specific prior knowledge. If we are facing a group of students in primary school, middle school and high school, we emphasize their general characteristics, because their prior knowledge is similar.
Cattell, R. B: Intelligence: its structure, growth and action
Kalat, J. W. : Introduction to Psychology
Patricia L. Smith & Tillman J. Ragan: Instructional Design