Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Student Construction of Knowledge

Students learn by connecting new knowledge with knowledge and concepts that they already know, thereby constructing new meanings (NRC, 2000). Research suggests that students connect knowledge most effectively in active social classrooms, where they negotiate understanding through interaction and varied approaches. Instructors should be aware that students, as novice learners, often possess less developed or incomplete conceptual frameworks (Kober, 2015). As a result, it may take time to learn how to “chunk” knowledge into similar, retrievable categories, grow larger conceptual ideas, and interconnect ideas. They may also harbor misconceptions or erroneous ways of thinking, which can limit or weaken connections with new knowledge (Ambrose, et. al, 2010).

Instructors can build approaches that help students develop and learn pathways to becoming expert learners whose conceptual frameworks are deeply interconnected, transferable, rooted in a solid memory and skills foundation, and easily retrieved (Ambrose, et. al, 2010). Students build strong conceptual frameworks when instructors: help them assess and clarify prior knowledge; facilitate social environments through active learning activities that interconnect ideas and vary approaches to knowledge; and invite students to reflect, co-build course road maps, and pursue other forms of metacognition.


  • Biology - A classic example of a misconception, students often believe that seasons change based on the earth’s proximity to the sun. In reality, seasons change as the earth tilts toward or away from the sun at different times of the year. To counter this misconception, an instructor implements a Think-Pair-Share activity. First, she asks students what causes the seasons, in order to assess their prior knowledge and potential misconceptions. Students then pair with a partner to discuss answers and share as a class. The instructor then presents a well-organized lesson on this topic directly addressing the misconception. Students again pair and explain the seasons. Students harboring the misconception may experience cognitive dissonance during the activity as they learn. Further activities continue to restructure and confirm their knowledge.
  • Public Health - An instructor assigns a case study for advanced epidemiology students that walks them through the assessment of a disease, development of most effective treatments, and in depth study of its transmission and likely impact if not controlled. In the nature of case studies, the assignment has students perform a variety of different skills, from microbiological analysis to population impacts. As such, it provides a real-world example of the ways that different chunks of knowledge interconnect, with challenges that may ask students to connect new knowledge to preexisting understanding.  
  • English Literature - An instructor opens a seminar on Renaissance literature by asking students to share their knowledge of the period. He learns that students took an introductory course in previous semesters that focused on theological contexts. He decides to assign some period readings on belief and religious history, and takes the class to a local museum with English sacred texts, in order to expand his students’ knowledge of the period. At the same time, he cultivates an understanding of religious symbolism and themes in drama, to help students develop a deeper conceptual understanding of the relationships among religion, drama, and literary criticism. 


  • Provide scaffolding - Instructors can open lessons with content that students already know, or ask students to perform brief exercises like brainstorming that make the class’s pooled knowledge public. Instructors can then gradually introduce new information, allowing time for making connections and clarifying issues to help students build their conceptual frameworks. This model can work on the level of the individual class or a whole course, and a variety of learning frameworks and techniques for beginning / ending class exist for scaffolding content.
  • Visibly organize course content -  To help students organize information in a logical way, instructors can provide a roadmap or outline for each class, invite students to help build a roadmap based on their knowledge and desired gains, and make explicit how topics connect with one another. Lecturing can build knowledge more effectively when a roadmap and clear transitions are provided, while the simple use of a whiteboard or chalkboard to list topics, a schedule, or connected ideas can help students build tighter conceptual understanding.    
  • Allow students to make predictions and encounter phenomena - Rather than tell students information, instructors can encourage them to discover ideas on their own by making predictions and encountering phenomena. This strategy leaves open, and should in fact encourage, the possibility that students will offer incorrect, inaccurate, or misguided responses at times. Instructors can build a learning culture that values thinking over answers, and connection over ‘rightness’ (follow link for Harvard Instructional Move, “Developing a Learning Culture”).
  • Show students how experts with more developed conceptual frameworks think through problems or topics - Students by and large enjoy watching how their instructors think. Instructors can demonstrate to students how they think through problems or scenarios in their field by performing problems on the board, thinking out loud through a social dilemma, tracing the ways they link words and images to form a literary interpretation, or sharing how they undergo research in their field. Additionally, instructors should be bold in expressing doubt if they are unsure about a student’s question. Because students are still building conceptual frameworks, they will often respond when they are able to visualize another person’s framework.


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research – Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kober N. (2015). Reaching Students: What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.  

National Research Council. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.