The Difference between Knowledge-Telling and Knowledge-Building in Your Learning

Knowledge Telling versus Knowledge Building


When going over material that we’ve learned, most of us instinctively focus on knowledge-telling, which involves repeating the material in a rote manner, where we just go over it again and again until we feel that we remember it well enough. However, research shows that we can get better results by focusing on knowledge-building, which involves a more in-depth analysis of the material when we learn.

In the following article, you will learn about these two styles of learning, and about how understanding them can help you study more effectively.


Knowledge-telling vs. knowledge building

When going over material, either by yourself or when explaining it to others, there are two main learning styles that you can adopt:

  • Knowledge-telling: this involves going over the source material repeatedly, with only minor modifications each time.
  • Knowledge-building: this involves going beyond the rote repetition of the source material, and includes the use of techniques such as highlighting key points, restructuring various sections, and drawing connections between different parts of the material.

Research on the topic shows us two important facts about how people study, with regards to these two learning strategies. First of all, it shows that knowledge-building is more effective as a learning style, meaning that it leads to better learning outcomes. At the same time however, research also shows that most people have a knowledge-telling bias, where they instinctively tend to focus on knowledge-telling, even though it’s significantly less effective as a learning style.

Note: research on the topic looked primarily at how people focus on knowledge-telling and knowledge-building when they tutor others, which is an excellent way to learn yourself. In the present post, we will apply these findings to the field of self-study, under the assumption that if these techniques help you learn better when you’re teaching others, then they will also help you get better results when you’re learning by yourself.


How to focus on knowledge-building

When you study, you want to make sure that you focus on knowledge-building once you feel that you have a solid grasp of the material.

You can do this by using various strategies, including:

  • Highlighting key points in the material.
  • Reorganizing and the material in order to improve its structure.
  • Drawing connections between different parts of the material.

One of the best techniques that you can use is asking questions about the material, which force you to analyze it in-depth, and consider it from angles that you haven’t considered it before.

For example, if you’re learning about mitochondria (the cellular organelles responsible for energy production), a basic question on the topic might be:

  • What is the main function of mitochondria?

While this is an important question that you should know the answer to, if you just focus on repeatedly memorizing the answer to that question (i.e. focus on knowledge-telling), then you won’t develop a thorough understanding of what this information actually means.

However, you can improve your understanding of the topic by asking questions that prompt you to consider this information from different angles. For example, you could ask:

  • What would happen if all the mitochondria in a cell suddenly stopped working?
  • How would you explain the role of mitochondria to a 5-year-old, using only simple analogies?
  • What raw materials do mitochondria consume, and where do they get them from?
  • What materials do mitochondria create, where are they transported, and what are they used for?

In addition, if you’re teaching the material that you’re learning to someone else, you want to encourage interactions with that person as much as possible. This means letting them ask you questions, and especially ones that lead you to truly analyze the material before answering. The advantage to doing this is that other people will find ways to think about the material from new angles, that you haven’t considered yourself.


A note on reflective learning

Overall, focusing on knowledge-building by using the techniques that we saw so far ensures that you develop a strong understanding of the material.

However, another thing that you should do is actively monitor your knowledge throughout the learning process, and identify any misunderstandings that you have, as well as areas where you need to improve. This is referred to as reflective knowledge-building, and it essentially means that you should display self-awareness when you learn, in order to improve your learning outcomes.


Summary and conclusions

  • There are two main styles of learning that we use when we go over material that we’re familiar with: knowledge-telling and knowledge-building.
  • Knowledge-telling is used when we simply repeat the material in a rote manner, without modifying it or engaging with it on a significant level.
  • Knowledge-building involves a thorough analysis of the material, by using techniques such as highlighting key points, or asking questions that prompt you to consider the material from new angles.
  • Studies show that most people tend to focus on knowledge-telling, despite the fact that knowledge-building leads to better learning outcomes.
  • It’s important to remember that effective learning should be reflective, meaning that it should involve a constant appraisal of your understanding of the material, together with attempts to fix any misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge.