How to Study at University

Practical tips and general thoughts on how to study at a Western university

Building knowledge

Posted on | October 20, 2011 | No Comments

Point: A major purpose of seminars is to construct knowledge

Here’s a deep question: Where does knowledge come from?

Does it come from books? Or lecturers? Does it come from personal experience? Or from your rumply old grandfather, the one who lived a hard life, smokes a lot and always has a story to tell.

This really is a deep question and it deserves a full response. But I don’t have the space or time for that. (Or perhaps the brains.) What I will say is that many people believe that knowledge is constructed. It doesn’t come already packaged, so to speak. We have to build it.

If that is true (and I think it largely is) how do you think knowledge is constructed?


You might be able to construct a new house by yourself – cut down the trees, saw them into boards and planks, tie and nail them together, unto a house. I couldn’t though you might. Just the one of you, all alone. But, just like houses, you very rarely construct knowledge by yourself.

We live in society. We do most things, especially most of the best things, with other people. And one of the best things we can do with others is to share what we know and to have ideas. Which is just another way of saying ‘construct knowledge’.

So when and where do you construct knowledge? The most important part of the construction process is interaction with other people. It can happen whenever your active mind is interacting with …


  • A writer. So read actively!
  • A speaker. So listen actively!

But interacting is a two-way process. It is not just reading and listening, even actively. You need to contribute too.

One of the best places to construct knowledge is in a seminar or tutorial discussion. You are with a group of other students who all know some things, but not the same things, about the subject. By the end of the seminar you should all know more about the subject than you did before, and almost certainly some new ideas that nobody had before, ideas that were constructed during the discussion.

A seminar is a place where you show an idea to the group and say, “What do you think of this?”

The group will look at it from various angles and say things like, “This part is good but I’m not so sure about that part.” And, “The idea would work in this situation but not in that one.” And, “If you did this to your idea it would make it better.” And, “Yeah, and then if you did this … ”

The purpose of the process

Do you see the process?

If you have ever wondered about the purpose of a seminar then this is it. It’s to construct knowledge, to have new ideas that you could never have had by yourself.

So next time you are in a seminar look on yourself as a builder of knowledge. With others. Get used to the process. Be active and contribute. Get better and better at it.

It doesn’t matter if the knowledge is old. Don’t worry if others have constructed it before. All the builders of new knowledge – Einstein, Hawking, Steve Jobs – built a lot of old knowledge first. And believe me, they didn’t do it by themselves.



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