Knowledge Forum: A Product of Research—an Advance in Learning

Knowledge Building—What the Results Show
Standardized Tests Compare Student Performance

Expert Analysis of Student Work in the Knowledge Building Database

Interactions Among Knowledge Building Students


Knowledge Building—What the Results Show

A true knowledge building environment facilitates learning—learning that is centered around ideas and deeper levels of understanding rather than the completion of often unrelated activities. Knowledge Forum is a collaborative database developed for this process of "knowledge building"—defining problems and hypothesizing, researching and collecting information, analyzing and collaborating. The structured environment of Knowledge Forum encourages these processes; it is where ideas are explored, new information is shared, and new knowledge is created. Research shows that this type of sustained inquiry encourages student interaction and inquiry. Research also shows that knowledge building produces a level of student interaction that occurs regardless of ability, a quality of inquiry that is above standard, and improved scores not only in basic skills but in conceptual development as well.

A team of researchers, teachers, administrators, and computer scientists has collaborated over the past decade to create the research basis and subsequent designs for Knowledge Forum. Based on the original knowledge building program named CSILE (Computer Supported Integrated Learning Environment), this "second-generation" CSILE product incorporates advanced features and technology for fostering knowledge building in the classroom. In their research, the team considered learning in both private and public sectors. Comparisons of the organizations of traditional schools, university-level research institutes, and highly successful commercial corporations clearly point to the common link in these successful organizations—the production of knowledge. Researchers have concluded that maximizing this production requires structures that define everyone as contributors. Unfortunately, most classrooms are not organized this way. Knowledge Forum was developed to change this.

The use of this powerful collaborative database helps classrooms become knowledge building communities, in which all students are producers of knowledge.

In Knowledge Forum, students are expected to pose questions, define their own learning goals, acquire and build a knowledge base, and collaborate with one another. Built-in scaffolds ´cue´ students to the thinking strategies that characterize ´expert learners´ while the structure of the database with its communal views necessitates sharing of information. Students contribute public notes, "build-on" to others' ideas, and "reference" the work of peers. The ongoing practice of these advanced operations, combined with teacher support and coaching, helps students acquire the sorts of learning strategies that characterize expert learners.

Extensive research has been done using the original knowledge building environment. Results of CSILE use in the classroom not only verified its effectiveness, but helped shape subsequent revisions. The current version, Knowledge Forum, is the result of this research and of the overriding goal of teaching all students to be knowledge producers. More than 250 schools in 12 countries have piloted the knowledge building software. Teachers' stories about its use vary, but their descriptions of results do not. The consequences of knowledge building are virtually the same—test scores go up, confidence and competence improves, and the quality of student inquiry rises dramatically

Standardized Tests Compare Student Performance

In American schools standardized tests are the most commonly used tool for communicating educational results to the community. Test results are often one of the first indicators requested by school boards and administrators when considering approval of new programs and expenditures. Parents expect to see test results and, for the general public, results have become a barometer for the success of local school districts. Results were compared for standardized test performance of students using knowledge building software and non-using Control groups. Students who were regularly engaged in knowledge building scored higher both on basic skills and higher-level thinking.

Improved Test Scores—better performance on basic skills

In a study done in 1990-1991, students in knowledge building classrooms showed increased scores in language, reading, and vocabulary skills. Figure 1 below shows that improvement in basic skills for both first-year knowledge building students and second year knowledge building students were better than the Control group.

Figure 1

CTBS composite language adjusted post-test scores

The Control class used in the research cited above was a class at a traditional school that does some group projects (without CSILE) as well as teacher-centered instruction. The other two groups include student communities who were on their first year of CSILE use or had already had a complete year of CSILE. Students were given the Canadian Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) at the beginning and the end of the school year. Improvement was measured by the post-test score, which was adjusted for group differences at pre-test by using an analysis of covariance. (The covariance method is preferred to gain scores as a means of measuring improvement.)

Improved Test Scores—better performance on higher level thinking skills

Research also shows that students improve in higher-level thinking and learning skills. Results from Figure 2 below show that students using knowledge building processes made greater progress over the course of the year in their ability to understand and use science concepts learned from difficult texts. Problem solving and recall abilities saw greater improvement for these students as shown by a comparison of their performance in the fall pre-test and spring post-test.

Figure 2

Ratings on learning from difficult texts

Students from CSILE and Control classes were given, in individual situations, a difficult text to study. The texts dealt with scientific principles such as natural selection, buoyancy, and photosynthesis. The texts were about two pages long. After studying the text, the student was asked to answer a problem-solving question, making use of the scientific principle in a new context. The student was also asked to recall the text's explanation of the principle. (Each student was given a different text at post-test than pre-test.)

Expert Analysis of Student Work In the Knowledge Building Database

As another measure of the effectiveness of knowledge building, experts and university-level students were asked to evaluate the quality of student work in the database. Not only was the quality of student comments found to be above standard in many cases, it also showed an increase in conceptual advancement. In addition, the quality of student research questions and the process of inquiry seemed to indicate to evaluators that there was a conscious effort on the part of students to clarify and explicate their research findings—a critical step in reaching new levels of understanding.

Quality of Student Work Judged Above Standard

Quality of student comments were judged above grade level. Outside evaluators judged a bank of 156 comments created in the knowledge building environment by 5th-6th graders. Only 17%, or 26 of 156 comments, were rated as written by Grade 5/6 students—83% were rated high enough in quality as to be written by higher-level students, teachers, or science professionals.

Figure 3

Quality/grade level rating of student comments in CSILE

In this study 156 peer comments made in CSILE on a physics topic were studied. These were typed up on separate pieces of paper and then rated as to their probable origin. University students who rated the items were told that the comments were made to Grade 5/6 students, but not who made them. Raters were told that the comments came from: Grade 5/6 peers; High School Physics Students; University Physics Students; Grade 5/6 Teacher; or Science Center Curator. The majority were judged as above grade level quality. Figure 3 above shows how the university students linked the comments to probable authors.

Increase in Conceptual Advancement

Research shows that while working in the knowledge building environment, students' ability to explain complex scientific concepts increases. An analysis of student research comments showed marked improvement. As shown below, students engaged in knowledge building showed higher-order thinking, shifting from a functional and empirical frame of explaining physical phenomena towards a more theoretical frame of explanation. The analysis demonstrates that the students advanced considerably in their self-organized inquiry; that is, they succeeded in answering their research questions by finding explanatory scientific knowledge.

Figure 4

Conceptual advancement by CSILE users

A frequency distribution of students' initial and final conceptions (in this case, in physics topics) indicates that CSILE students, as a group, moved from functional and empirical explanations to more advanced theoretical explanations.

Student Work Exhibits Advanced Forms of Dialogue

When knowledge building theory is implemented in practical ways in the classroom, it pushes students to consistently work toward conceptual enrichment. Student research questions showed a high level of sophistication, and expert evaluation showed that the questions posed, if pursued, would likely lead to new conceptual understanding. Evaluators noticed a sustained inquiry, which included research problems that allowed students to answer their main research questions by generating a series of more specific questions. In addition, evaluators were particularly impressed with students' consistent and forceful way of requesting each other to clarify or explicate their work. Researchers note that comments, which provide explanatory scientific information, are critical for advancement of students' inquiry. Particularly notable was that student comments in the knowledge building environment provided analogies, which made new conceptual points of view available to the students who received them.

Figure 5

Quality and depth of student inquiry as rated by experts

Two highly quoted professors of philosophy of science from well-known Canadian and Finnish universities estimate: 1) the cognitive value of research questions; 2) the progressive nature of inquiry; 3) potential conceptual change); 4) the cognitive value of peer-interaction.

Studies Monitor Interactions Among Knowledge Building Students

When students work collaboratively there is always a concern regarding work quality—will it continue to meet the standards? A common fear is that the misconceptions of less advanced students will be picked up by others and perpetuated. Conversely, there is the issue of equality—the fear that collaborative, technology-rich applications such as Knowledge Forum will cater only to the higher-end students. However, research shows this to be untrue; low-level and high-level students interacted with equal frequency in the knowledge building database. This may be due to the 'anonymous' nature of the database. While erroneous—all students must sign authorship of notes—many students feel a measure of privacy when they are able to compose their notes privately before submitting them. Research also shows that misconceptions are not perpetuated. In addition, skills acquired and used in the knowledge building environment show a transference to off-line work.

Collaborative Skills Increase and Transfer to Off-line Work

Students' ability to monitor and coordinate each other's ideas increased for off-line conversations. Figure 7 (below) shows that collaborative skills gained and used in the knowledge building database were integrated in other situations. Monitoring skills (such as awareness of and influence on peer ideas) showed a strong transference to face-to-face collaboration. In the test group using knowledge building software, students showed more monitoring of each other's ideas in face-to-face conversations, hence more useful collaboration overall.

Figure 7

Face-to-face monitoring of ideas for CSILE users and non-users

Collaborative science experiments were done in: 1) the usual classroom using face-to-face group format; and 2) in groups using CSILE as well as face-to-face interaction (where students used CSILE to keep track of their own and each other's experiments, results, and explanations). Students using CSILE showed an improvement in monitoring skills in face-to-face conversations.

Student Misconceptions Are Not Perpetuated

In the knowledge building environment, misconceptions were not generally taken up and reinforced by other students. The database, however, does include misconceptions. This reflects how students actually think and 'figure' along the way to understanding, but research shows that most misconceptions are either ignored or challenged. Moreover, only a tiny fraction of the notes containing misconceptions were presented as "facts." Often, students make considerable progress toward resolving misconceptions. In a knowledge building environment where students are not asked to prove what they know, but rather to explore their understanding, they can be surprisingly good at distinguishing what they really know from what they hypothesize or conjecture. In the study below, most misconceptions appeared in "problem," "theory," or "I need to understand" statements, just as misconceptions might arise in any university research hypotheses.

Figure 8

Reaction to misconceptions by CSILE users

One rater found that misconceptions in the CSILE database were largely ignored, partially resolved, or resolved.


In summary, it is clear that the practice of knowledge building in a structured environment is associated with high quality student work, improved test scores, and advances in conceptual development. A structured knowledge building environment to which all students contribute not only inspires high quality work, but also supports the integrity of student interaction. The quality of scientific discourse increases; communication of concepts improves; and skills learned on-line transfer to off-line activities. Research clearly shows that students succeed when allowed to pose their own questions, test ideas, explain their theories, and collaborate on solutions. Knowledge Forum, designed and built on the basis of this research, helps classrooms become communities—academic communities whose purpose is the nurturing of ideas, the discipline of sustained inquiry, and the building of new knowledge.