Learn Foundational Knowledge

A basic part of any classroom is to have students internalize key facts and theories of the field. It is often essential for students to have some understanding before they can begin to apply and evaluate more difficult concepts.

Key Takeaways from Educational Research:

  1. Learning can be described as a series of hierarchical steps with foundational knowledge at its base (see Bloom’s taxonomy)
  2. In order to help students learn, we as teachers should allow our students to build their own knowledge by integrating new skills and concepts into their pre-existing intellectual framework of understanding (see Constructivist theory)
  3. The fields of neuroscience and psychology have demonstrated that information becomes a long-term memory after ample opportunity to practice using the information in expected as well as new situations (see The Science of Remembering)

What is foundational knowledge? Bloom's Taxonomy

One way we can think of learning is as a series of hierarchical cognitive steps (originally described by Bloom but updated and altered many times since). Broadly speaking, Bloom described learning as a combination of lower-order cognitive skills, such as being able to define or elaborate upon a term, and higher-order cognitive skills, such as being able to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize claims. We define foundational knowledge as Bloom’s lower-order cognitive skills, which are typically thought of as the base of a learning pyramid, since these skills are the foundation for all higher-order cognitive skills.

Bloom defines two levels of lower-order cognitive thinking, remembering and understanding. Breaking learning into these distinct levels provides a useful framework to design questions or learning goal. As teachers, we can employ a different set of vocabulary to target each level. The table below lists a few examples and other common question verbs for each level of learning:


Level of Learning


Question Example

Other Common Verbs


recalling previously learned information, i.e., a ‘regurgitation’ of facts

· List the stages of the cell cycle

· Define the Renaissance


List, Find, Name, Identify, Locate, Describe, Memorize, Define, Recall


comprehension of the facts within the larger context of course material and the ability to paraphrase information

· Summarize how a cell divides

· Give an example of a Renaissance painter

Interpret, Summarize, Explain, Infer, Paraphrase, Discuss


For further reading check out these sources:

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard : A more detailed explanation of the taxonomies of learning from the experts at Harvard University's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt: A more detailed description of the original and updated Bloom's taxonomies 

Constructivist Theory- Knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner

It is important to keep in mind that telling your students information is not the same as having them learn that information. Students learn best when they have opportunities to build their own knowledge by integrating new skills and concepts into their pre-existing intellectual framework of understanding – a theory of learning known as constructivist theory. This perspective on student learning implies that we as teachers should serve as facilitators with the expertise to create situations and present challenges that prompt them to critically, rigorously, and accurately construct their own knowledge.

One way to help students construct their own knowledge is to introduce a topic with a question that students may or may not yet be ready to answer. This approach motivates students to understand key concepts and challenges that need to be solved, even if they cannot come up with the exact formula needed or exact date that a historical event occurred. It also provides an opportunity for students to recall their prior knowledge, whether it be from another course or from their own life experiences, which can help them put the new information in a larger context. Lastly, having first-hand experience with an authentic, real-world problems helps peak student curiosity and primes them to receive the information needed to solve the problem.

After experiencing the problem, students are ready to receive a lecture or discussion explaining the theory (sometimes called ‘just-in time telling’ or ‘productive failure’). Studies show that students who both experience the problem followed by a theory-based lecture outperform their peers who did a reading followed by the same lecture or who just experience the problem. The lecture on theory after experience helped students solidify the information and allowed them to predict the outcome of a different situation that was based on the same theory.


For further reading check out these sources:

The ABCs of How We Learn: A practical guide to teaching using the latest educational research written by Stanford professors; includes a section on just-in-time telling

How People Learn: A report by the National Research Council presenting the conclustions of research from cognitive sceince and its application for teaching and learning

The Science of Remembering

The fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and developmental psychology have begun to map how learning occurs in the brain.

Our brain is constantly taking in information from the environment, yet not all of it is efficiently remembered. The first step of forming a memory, is temporarily storing that information in short-term memory. Information that is interesting or can be related to a past personal experience are given higher priority by our brain and are moved to this type of memory. Information in short-term memory can be further ‘encoded’ by the brain into long-term memory, or else the information is forgotten. Encoding is a process by which the brain physically forms new connections between neurons. In this way, the new information is linked together with old information, with similar information being stored together. Encoding is more successful when students phrase information in their own words and can link it to the context of information as they understand it (see constructivism above). It is important to give students feedback at this stage to prevent any misconceptions from becoming long-term memories. The last stage of memory is recall, which strengthens and increases the number of connections neurons make. After a long-term memory has been encoded, it can be forgotten unless used. By engaging students, repeating information, and providing an opportunity for students to practice and use information, we can increase the likelihood that they will encode and strengthen a memory.

As teachers, we can take advantage of science research and incorporate different types of memory techniques into our classroom. Some examples appear in the table below:


Teaching Method


Targeted Step in Learning Pathway



Repeating facts over and over again

Keeps facts present in short-term memory

- Repeating the name of someone you just met (ie. “Jeff”, “Jeff”, “Jeff”)

- Verbatim taking notes from a presentation

- Re-writing key steps of process for memorization

Clustering (or chunking)

Breaking long lists of items into smaller, categorized groups

Prevents overloading of short-term memory

- Breaking long lists of numbers into units of personal significance (ie. race times, previous address, birthdays)

- Breaking a series of random images into sets of images in the same category


Expanding on an idea to link it to prior knowledge

Improves recall (i.e. things that wire together fire together)

- That man is named “Jeff” … BECAUSE … Jeff is tall like my math partner also named Jeff (more effective if elaboration is precise and relevant to the fact trying to be remembered)

- Recall steps in a pathway by drawing a mental picture of how the steps of the pathway interact in the world

Spaced retrieval

Recalling a fact after time has elapsed

Improves transfer/enocoding (as information is used its connections are strengthened making it easier to remember in a variety of contexts)

- Seeing Jeff at every class year reunion will force you to recall and remember his name better

- Practicing problems from all mid-terms before the final to practice and re-solidify that information


For further reading check out these sources:

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard : A more detailed explanation on the science of learning from the experts at Harvard University's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning

Make it Stick: The science of successful learning: A best-selling book detailing decades of research on memory and learning. This website details aspects of each chapter with useful summary graphics as well as a link to buy the book.  

What types of activities work well with this learning goal?

Learning Foundational Knowledge can be worked into a variety of activity types! Here are just a few examples:


Lecture: A lecture, when kept short and interspaced with active learning activities, is a good way to disseminate information to a large group of students. Make sure the lecture is short and sweet so that students stay fully engaged. It is also beneficial to target a variety of types of learners: include figures, minimal text in the form of bullets, examples of any abstract concepts, and repeat yourself as needed.


Statement Correction: Statement Corrections are a great way to reinforce basic principles. It forces students to identify inaccuracies in statement, bringing common misconceptions to the foreground. By opening up the statement corrections to a group, the instructor can further help students overcome these misconceptions by having peers instruct each other.


There are also ways to Learn Foundational Knowledge in unexpected activity types.


Sequence Reconstruction: Sequence Reconstruction is often used to practice basic concepts that inherently have an order to them; but they can also be used to learn this order. The reconstruction can be given to students who do not know the correct order. Students can use context clues or images to put it in order and learning the rules that connect each item in the process. For example, you can imagine having students put together timeline based on descriptions of events or a scientific pathway based on images of each intermittent step.