Constructivism: The Power of Prior Knowledge

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Imagine you are a science teacher about to start a new unit about Cellular Respiration and you are dreading it. You know that this is going to be a very difficult unit for your students. You have no idea how you’re going to get your students to learn all of this new, complicated material, let alone how you’re going to get them interested in the topic! But wait! You think back to your college teacher education program and all of the teaching methods you learned and you realize that you already know the perfect strategy for teaching your students…


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What is Constructivism?

Here are some key components of constructivism:

  • Students are NOT blank slates; each student brings some form of prior knowledge with them to class
  • New knowledge is built off of prior knowledge and experiences
  • Students should construct their own knowledge through personal experiences and develop explanations and justifications based off of those experiences (with teacher assistance and clarification)
This video further explains the definition of constructivism and how it can be applied in the classroom!

Constructivism in the Lab

“It is not enough to show students how to learn the known; we need to show them how to discover the unknown”

-David Pushkin

In his article about constructivism in the lab, David Pushkin first describes elements of creative thinking that are a part of a lab setting: visualization, making connections, personifying, and creating analogies. All of these things are very important in completing a lab and they are all reliant on background knowledge. Pushkin goes on to say that one of the reasons that students struggle in a Physics laboratory is because they are unable to relate and connect to what they are learning. They rely on numbers to try to solve problems, even though what they really need is to create context for the problem based off prior knowledge and real world application.

Pushkin implements constructivism in his lab by making it inquiry based and student centered. He has his students determine what the major questions and goals are of the experiment rather than him defining these things for them. In Pushkin’s opinion exploration and elaboration of topics is the goal of labs, but it is also very important that students can connect to what they are learning and apply it to their daily lives! Within his labs, Pushkin uses the constructivist learning cycle in order to teach his students.

Constructivist Learning Cycle

The constructivist learning cycle is defined by the five E’s: engage, explain, explore, elaborate, and evaluate. Each steps helps students to build knowledge off of the previous step!

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  • Creates interest, generates questions, and assesses student background knowledge about a specific topic
  • Often serves as the “attention getter” at the beginning of a new topic and should connect to prior knowledge
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  • Allows students to further build on the knowledge and observations they gathered from the engage stage through shared experiences.
  • Involves students making new hypotheses about the topic through inquiry based, open ended, or close ended activities, such as a series of small experiments or rotating through stations with activities that all have to do with the topic
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  • Definitions are formed
  • Students work together to create definitions or explanations about the topic based on the activities completed in the explore and engage stages
  • After having students discuss definitions and provide justification for their explanations, the teacher provides clarification and formal definitions (connecting them to the students’ prior experiences!)
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  • Students apply definitions to new experiences and further develop their understanding of a topic
  • A great place for open ended activities, student designed experiments, and application to the real world


  • Allows teachers to assess student understanding and allows students to evaluate their own knowledge of a topic
  • Can include asking open ended questions, unit tests, projects, or lab practicals
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Five E’s Cycle Example

Let’s see how we could apply the learning cycle to the topic of physical and chemical changes in a chemistry classroom:

  • Engage: Show students one demo that involves a physical change and one that involves a chemical change. For example, a demo of a chemical change may be something such as the elephant toothpaste experiment or lighting magnesium on fire while an example of a physical reaction may be mixing Kool-Aid powder with water or melting an ice cream cone. You may also ask open ended questions such as “Is lighting a candle a physical or chemical change?” and have students use their prior knowledge to discuss their thoughts.
  • Explore: Students will do a series of experiments, some showing chemical changes and others showing physical changes. Students will hypothesize about which experiments are chemical reactions and which are physical reactions and observe what factors they believe indicate each kind of reaction
  • Explain: Based on the experiments they just completed, students will discuss the differences between a physical and chemical change and the definition of each. They will use the factors they observed in the experiments (color change, precipitation of a solid, phase change, etc.) to help them create and justify their definitions. The teacher will then clarify and provide formal definitions
  • Elaborate: Students will research and observe reactions that happen in daily life and determine whether the changes are physical or chemical. They need to be able to justify their answers!
  • Evaluate: Students could be evaluated with something as simple as an exit slip in which they have to write the difference between physical and chemical changes and identify indicators of each.

If you are interested in learning more about how background knowledge helps us learn, this Ted Talk by Peter Doolittle explains how our working memory functions and how it helps us make sense of the world!


Pushkin, D. B. (1997). Where Do Ideas for Students Come From? Research & Teaching, 238–242. Retrieved from


  1. Hi Caitlin! I really enjoyed your question about how long term memory plays into constructivism. Long term memory is where your prior knowledge and memory of prior experiences are held. Your working memory retrieves information from long term memory in order to connect that specific memory or information to a current experience, which is the basis of constructivism. I’m honestly not sure if long term memory connects to constructivism in more ways than that but I would be really interested in doing more research about it! Thanks for your comment!

  2. Hi Shelby! Thank you for your question and comments. I definitely think that the Chemistry department here at Miami could take a more constructivist approach during labs. All of the labs are very cut and dry and students are not supposed to stray from the lab manual. This does not allow students to connect what they are learning to their life or to their prior knowledge. As a result, I think students don’t really retain a lot of knowledge because they are just trying to get through the lab the way they know it is supposed to be done. By using a constructivist approach, students would get the opportunity to do the lab in the way they think it should be done by using background knowledge about the subject. Therefore, students would be able to connect what they are learning to their previous knowledge and are more likely to retain knowledge.

  3. Hi Anna!
    This post is very informative, you make constructivism look so exciting and fun for not just the students but for the teacher as well. I love the idea of watching our students develop their skills throughout the learning cycle! Your ted talk discusses working memory, but how does long term memory play a role in constructivism?

  4. Great post Anna! I actually used the same article about David Pushkin and how he uses constructivism in the lab. I really enjoyed the article because it gave me a different perspective about lab. I made the connection between his lab and the chemistry labs here at Miami. His lab is a lot more student centered, whereas the labs we do in our college chem classes are a lot more straight forward with students following a list of instructions. Do you think the chemistry department here at Miami could take a more constructivist approach during labs or not? Why do you think so?

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