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Using Constructivism to Help Students Build New Knowledge

Instance Description

Constructivist theories assert that to develop understanding and build new knowledge, learners must be actively engaged in seeking knowledge and information, not passively taking it in (Bada, 2018). As learners encounter the world around them, they build knowledge and integrate it into their existing personal knowledge base, also known as a schema. There are three different types of constructivism, including Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Constructivism, Lev Vygotsky’s Social Constructivism, and Radical Constructivism, which was developed by Ernst von Glasersfeld. Each type has unique aspects, but all three share the same basic principles, which are that knowledge is constructed by the learner, learning is an active process, knowledge is both socially constructed and personal to the learner, and learning exists in the mind of the learner (McLeod, 2019).

When put into practice, constructivism requires the instructor to take on a non-traditional role, which may mean learning some new skills. Because constructivist learning environments and assignments are student-centered, an instructor must act as a learning facilitator to accommodate student learning. The instructor provides guidance, acts as a mentor, creates scaffolding for learning, and organizes resources to support students throughout their learning journey.

Cartoon brain with workmen standing on it as if they are doing construction on it.
Photo Credit

 Credit: © Amy Waters / Adobe Stock

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See it in Practice

TryIt Python Example

You can use Python coding to solve all sorts of problems. To get started, let's try something simple. In the left half of the window, try to enter the variables and the sum in the correct spaces, and then choose the Run button. A correct answer will return the following result in the right side of the DataCamp window: “The sum of 1.5 and 6.3 is 7.8” 

# This will get executed each time the exercise gets initialized. # Using the variables below, verify that 1.5 plus 6.3 equal 7.8. num1 = num2 = # Add two numbers sum = # Display the sum print('The sum of {0} and {1} is {2}'.format(num1, num2, sum))

Sometimes, students who have received complex or demanding material in class cannot later quite remember the required steps or information necessary to complete assigned homework. Course authors and designers can intentionally help with this sort of situation by promoting “just in time” skill building. Repetitive practice reinforces the learning of a skill or behavior, and instructors can now include an opportunity for practice the moment a concept is presented by embedding DataCamp as a sort of “scratch pad” for students. To work with DataCamp for some just-in-time practice with coding, follow this example: 

  • Offer students an example of a simple problem that can be solved using Python coding.
  • Suggest that students use the DataCamp window that’s embedded in the course to practice writing their own code to solve a similar simple task. 
  • Inform students that they can select the “Run” button at the bottom of the DataCamp window in order to see if their code has been written correctly to solve the problem. 

Note: you can try a simplified version of this practice yourself in the DataCamp window above!

Later, when the learner sits down to attend to homework, the task and process required will be that much more familiar due to prior knowledge and experience at the point when the concept was presented in the lesson.

Students can gain familiarity with Python while receiving instruction in any mode - be it synchronous, asynchronous or via cell phone while attending class in person. While doing homework, students can refer to the code they created previously in DataCamp. During office hours, instructors can reflect with individual students as they refer to content in Canvas and enter code in DataCamp - all in the same window. Repetitive practice builds learning!


DataCamp can be used with several programming languages including Python and R.


The culminating class project in Earth 103: Earth Futures requires students to research and write short essays about 6 different communities around the world that are actively in crisis or soon will be due to climate change. Giving students agency to select locations that are meaningful to them, like their hometown, a favorite vacation spot, or the home of their ancestors supports one of the main aspects of constructivism: that learning experiences should be student-centered. The culminating project assignments are spaced throughout the course so that as students build knowledge, their entries "level up" in understanding and sophistication. Students are permitted to submit drafts of their first two submissions to receive faculty feedback, which acts as a scaffold for future essays. The students choose whether to keep that score or make revisions and re-submit for a higher grade. In addition, the most unique way that this assignment is student-centered is that the authors of the best essays are invited to publish their work in Communities in Crisis: Student Voices on Climate Change, an open educational resource available on the web.

Assignment Details: Culminating Project: Communities in Crisis: Student Voices on Climate Change   

The goal of the culminating class project is for you to focus on the impact of climate change on communities. We center this assignment on communities because while the impacts of climate change are global, certain communities will be hit harder, as we will learn about this semester. By community, we mean a village, a town, or, at largest, a city. A state or country is not considered a community. Likewise, the topic must be related to this course; earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami are NOT eligible topics. 

The project will require six entries, an entry every two weeks/modules, and we suggest that you think about a topic that is related to the material discussed in those modules. For example, you might choose hurricanes for Entry 1 (Module 2) since we are discussing hurricanes during that module. While it is not mandatory to focus on the topic of the week, you must choose six different topics and six different communities. 

You will be responsible for doing the research, choosing the topic, and finding the community. We suggest that you use sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wikipedia, or Google Scholar to do your research.  

Each entry must be a minimum of 300 words and a maximum of 500 words and must address the following questions, which are part of the grading rubric.

  1. What is the threat? 
  2. Why is that community vulnerable? 
  3. What are the forecasted impacts on the community? 
  4. What are the solutions to the threat? 

NOTE: You must write this in your own words -- paraphrase everything. This means no direct copying, even if you use quotation marks. That said, all your sources must be cited at the end of each essay.

Each time you write an essay, you will add it to the same document, so that in the end you will have one document with six different essays included. 

Note: You will be able to resubmit entries 1 and 2 for regrading. All other entries are final.


Example details from the Mapping with GIS class

GEOG 482: Mapping with GIS does not have lectures or content pages like many online courses. This course works with a constructivist approach developed by Eleanor Duckworth and called Critical Exploration. Critical Exploration calls for students to solve real-world problems using their own ideas instead of instructor-provided content. The instructor queries and encourages student thinking and provides scaffolding but does not give students direct answers through lecturing. In this example, Canvas Discussions are used so that students may respond to the case study. The instructor and teaching assistants query and encourage the students and intercede if any students provide inaccurate or inappropriate information, and they are also available to answer student questions as they arise. For each module, the instructor records a video case study of a real-world problem using PowerPoint, gives students a few solid resources to assist with solving the case study, and then asks students to find additional resources to build knowledge about the topic before creating a post about it in the discussion. Students must also read and post a substantive response to at least two peers' posts. This example also deploys the social learning aspects of Social Constructivism theory, which posits that knowledge creation is a social endeavor. If the class is large, students may be divided into groups to make the discussion more manageable for students and the grading more practical for instructors.

Overall discussion assignment details

Discussions are where you share findings of your independent research about the objectives established for the lesson and where you learn with your fellow students.

That's right - this course requires you to find, evaluate, and effectively communicate knowledge you discover yourself on the web, or in the library, or from your own experience. For the most part, we don't require any particular books, websites, or other sources. Why? Because today's employers stress that one of the most valuable skills they look for is the ability to discover, evaluate, and effectively communicate information needed for a particular task. That's what knowledge workers do. Another desirable workplace skill is the ability to learn with and from others. If you don't already have these skills, you probably will by the end of this course.

Following this introduction, you'll find three discussions about topics outlined in the educational objectives established for the lesson. To earn the highest possible score, investigate one topic per discussion, post a high-quality contribution to the discussion, and study your classmates' contributions. 

A "high quality" contribution is a post that meets the following criteria:

  1. Correct and relevant. The post addresses one or more questions posed in the discussion assignment. It provides accurate information that advances the class's understanding of the topic.
  2. Distinct. The post is substantively different from others. It adds new sources, facts, and perspectives to the discussion. If your chosen topic has already been discussed, find a different source or sources. Acknowledge classmates' similar posts (by name), and compare what your source(s) has to say.
  3. Uses Authoritative and trustworthy sources. Questions about the accuracy or timeliness of the source, if any, should be disclosed. Circumstances of posts based on personal experience are explained. 
  4. Properly paraphrased.  Sources are paraphrased in students' own words. Quotations are limited to a small portion of the post. 
  5. Properly cited.  Online, open-access sources are linked directly from the post. Other (offline) sources are cited in accordance with the Academic Integrity Guide presented in the Introduction to this course. If copyrighted graphics are included, the copyright is acknowledged, and educational Fair Use is properly claimed.
  6. Appropriate length. Posts should be about 250 words - concise enough to read without scrolling, but long enough to demonstrate your understanding of the topic. 

Our team will provide individual attention to your posts, using a rubric that's based on the criteria I just explained.

If you're not confident in your ability to find quality sources, you may wish to review Google's Search Help and the Penn State Libraries LionSearch guide.

That's it! We hope you enjoy this active learning approach. I know we'll enjoy learning with you, from you, and helping you along the way.

Individual Datums Discussion Assignment Instructions

Following this introduction, you'll find three discussions related to the educational objectives established for this lesson. Like the preceding lesson, your participation score depends on how many discussions you contribute to, and on the quality of your contributions. To earn the highest possible participation score, post one high-quality response to one discussion question or topic per discussion. Fewer and/or lower-quality contributions earn lower scores.

Our team will provide individual attention to each of your posts.


Begin by watching the YouTube video "What's Next for Geodetic Datums?" Use the National Geodetic Survey's datasheets to find vertical and horizontal control points in your area. Look into datums in other parts of the world, such as China's GJC-02 datum.

Now, investigate and report on one of the following topics and questions. Plan to spend one to two hours reading classmates' posts, discovering and assessing sources, and drafting and refining your contribution. 

  • What is a horizontal datum?
  • What is the current horizontal datum commonly used in the U.S., and how does it differ from its earlier version?
  • What is a vertical datum? 
  • What is the current U.S. vertical datum (or its counterpart where you live)?
  • Describe (that is, paraphrase an authoritative description of) a current horizontal and vertical datum, and explain its intended purpose.
  • Discuss the U.S. National Geodetic Survey’s plans to replace the current horizontal and vertical datums in 2022.
  • Discuss the implications of the coming changes in horizontal and vertical datums for surveying and mapping.


  • Use the "Search entries or authors" tool in the discussion forum to discover what classmates have written about your topic.



Video case studies will need captions and transcripts.


Larger courses will require graders.



  • Bada, S. O. (2018). Constructivism learning theory: A paradigm for teaching and learning. Journal of Research & Method in Education, 5(6), 66–70. 
  • McLeod, S. A. (2019). Constructivism as a theory for teaching and learning. Simply Psychology. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from