This communication addresses the use of a new type of referents database in the context of an architectural design studio. It discusses the results of design experiences held with the objective to study the cognitive effects of a teaching approach based on precedents and metaphors available as interactive and reusable digital models to students. The introduction of this referent-based approach is inspired by three major principles: the largely accepted fact that the creative work of architects is highly supported by referring to precedents and metaphors, the use of algorithmic digital methods to encapsulate architectural knowledge, and the constructivist approach to architectural design education. The study finds that the role of the modeled referents is helpful for the design studio learning, and that they are most creatively used when internalized by the student.