Cognitivism offers insight into how our minds process information and convert it into knowledge. This approach shifts our focus from visible actions to the internal cognitive processes at play. This article will explain the importance of cognitivism and illustrate how it can be used to improve the learning experience. So whether you are a student aiming to enhance your learning capabilities or an educator looking to upgrade your instructional methods, an understanding of cognitivism can help you achieve your goals.
What is cognitivism
The theory of cognitivism centers on how information is processed within the mind. It goes beyond observable behavior, emphasizing the internal mental processes that occur in learning. Cognitivism theory asserts that learners play an active role in information processing, and so there is a focus on developing areas such as knowledge, memory, thinking, and problem-solving. Integrating cognitivist principles into education involves adapting instructional strategies to match up with these internal cognitive processes.
The history of cognitivism goes back to the late 1950s. At this time, a notable change began to unfold in learning theory, steering away from traditional behavioral models towards ideas more based on cognitive sciences. This shift marked a departure from the exclusive focus on observable behavior, prompting psychologists and educators to highlight the significance of cognitive processes, and central to this change were new beliefs surrounding concepts such as critical thinking, problem-solving, language acquisition, and also the complex realm of information processing.
In recent times, cognitivism has become more and more embedded into instructional design. Many psychology and education specialists, consciously rejecting entrenched behavioristic assumptions, have embraced the psychological principles derived from the cognitive sciences. This means that, in the modern classroom, students are not just seen as passive recipients of information but are encouraged to be actively engaged in mental processing. This deliberate departure from the conventional has been met with widespread recognition. Whether characterised as a learning revolution or a gradual evolutionary process, there is a consensus that cognitive theory now stands at the forefront of prevailing learning theories. Rather than just manipulating the materials presented, contemporary approaches prioritize directing student engagement and interaction within instructional systems (1).
See also: Cognitive Apprenticeship
How Does Learning Occur?
In the contested landscape of learning theories, cognitivism is positioned on the rationalist end of the epistemology spectrum, prioritizing the acquisition of knowledge and internal mental structures.
Cognitive theories put forward the belief that the nuanced processes underpinning learning must be understood and prioritised. This means thinking about how information is received, organized, stored, and retrieved by the mind. Therefore, in cognitivism, the spotlight is not just on the actions of the learner, but also on understanding what they know and the mechanisms through which their knowledge is acquired. As mentioned, the learner is perceived as an active participant, engaging in mental activities that involve internal coding and structuring (2).
Supporters of cognitivism see the brain as an information processor similar to a computer, operating on self-developed algorithms for information processing and decision-making. In this process, individuals acquire and store their knowledge, forming schema (a mental framework) in their long-term memory. However, this knowledge is not randomly stored. Instead, it is subconsciously organized into categories, facilitating the retrieval of pertinent information when needed.
Memory, according to cognitivists, is one of the most crucial areas of interest, so the processes and conditions that enhance memory are key to the understanding of how we learn. Contrary to some study methods, cognitivists advocate for tasks like ‘retrieval practice’, where learners practice recalling information from memory, citing its effectiveness in improving memory and, consequently, allowing for better learning outcomes (3).
Furthermore, tests, which are sometimes viewed skeptically by some in education, are often supported by cognitivists. To them, tests serve a dual purpose as retrieval practice and diagnostic tools, allowing teachers and students to pinpoint gaps or weaknesses in knowledge. Additionally, cognitivists endorse strategies like ‘spaced practice’, recognizing that the brain’s effectiveness in recalling information improves when intervals are introduced.
Another cornerstone of cognitivist philosophy is problem-based learning, which asserts that attempting to solve problems before being taught the solution cultivates deeper learning, even if errors are part of the process. This holistic perspective on learning from a cognitive position not only shows the complexities of mental processes but also provides practical insights for educators and learners attempting to understand the concept of knowledge acquisition (4).
Which Factors Influence Learning?
In terms of the dynamics of learning, both cognitivism, which focuses on mental processes and internal structures, and behaviorism, which centers on observable behaviors shaped by external stimuli, underscore the crucial role played by environmental conditions. Cognitivism, in particular, explores how learners actively process information internally. For both theories, instructional strategies take center stage, with explanations, demonstrations, and examples believed to be very important in guiding students through the learning journey. Similarly, the value of practice, coupled with corrective feedback, is thought to be crucial in both these theoretical perspectives.
While these shared elements align the two theories in some ways, key differences occur in the perception of the learner’s role. For example, cognitivism introduces a distinctive perspective, stressing the ‘active’ nature of the learner. Here, the focus shifts beyond simply giving answers to questions. Instead, mental activities like planning, goal-setting, and organizational strategies that precede the answering of a question are prioritized.
Interestingly, cognitive theories go even further, asserting that environmental cues and instructional components alone cannot completely explain learning outcomes in instructional situations. This is an important distinction to the ideas of behaviorism. Instead, cognitivism pays attention to how learners code, transform, store, and retrieve information. Furthermore, beyond the cognitive side of things, the psychological factors of learners are also considered. Thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes are recognized as influential elements woven into the experience of learning. So it is not just about what is presented externally. Cognitivism is equally about the internal landscape of the learner (5).
At the heart of the cognitive approach lies a transformative agenda, which is to change the learner. The emphasis is not on a transaction of knowledge. In contrast, the idea is to intentionally develop skills and strategies that empower the learner in their educational journey.
See also: Constructivist Learning Theory
What is the Role of Memory?
As previously mentioned, learning depends on memory, and so effective storage is key. Educators and designers play an important role in guiding learners to effectively organize information within their memory. The teacher’s task is not just to impart knowledge; they also need to help students improve their own memory and learn how to create organized spaces for holding information. However, this can be difficult due to the well-knows challenges of memory, like forgetting due to interference or absence of cues. This means that addressing these issues is integral to meaningful learning retention (6).
How Does Transfer Occur?
When a learner can skilfully apply new knowledge across varied contexts, the phenomenon of ‘transfer’ is said to be occurring. To do this, a learner must first develop an organized knowledge base built on rules and concepts. This focus on the dynamics of memory storage is a key characteristic of cognitivism.
Crucial to this development is the role of prior knowledge, acting as a guiding force that sets boundary constraints for recognizing similarities and differences in new information. To be clear, this is not just about storing knowledge in memory. The successful use of transfer also depends on retaining the practical applications or uses of that knowledge and recognizing how it can be applied in new contexts.
For example, think of ‘transfer’ like a chef using their cooking skills in different kitchens. To transfer knowledge well, learners need to organize what they know into rules and concepts, just like a chef organizes recipes. Imagine the chef skilfully moving from making French food to Asian dishes, noticing what is similar and different. Similarly, learners who are good at ‘transfer’ apply what they know in different situations by using their organized knowledge. This is like the chef using their cooking skills in new kitchens, showing how knowledge can be useful in different ways (7).
See also: Bloom’s Taxonomy
What Types of Learning Are Best Explained by This Position?
Cognitive theories are particularly effective in explaining complex forms of learning, such as reasoning and problem-solving, due to cognitivism’s focus on mental structures. Unlike behaviorism, which focuses on observable behaviors, cognitivism looks into the internal cognitive processes that drive learning. In the realm of complex learning, understanding intricate concepts, reasoning through problems, and applying knowledge in diverse contexts are mental activities that align with the key principles of cognitive theories. The focus on how information is received and processed within the mind allows cognitive theories to provide comprehensive insights into the processes involved in complex learning tasks.
However, despite theoretical distinctions, both cognitive and behavioral perspectives are similar in that their ultimate goal is to facilitate efficient and effective transferral of knowledge to students. To achieve this goal, both theories employ shared strategies: simplification and standardization. Knowledge is distilled into fundamental building blocks, with extra details discarded for streamlined transfer. Whether in workshops on management skills or other learning contexts, information is presented in a digestible format. For example, think about a situation where participants in a workshop on mastering effective communication skills are provided with information that is broken down into manageable parts for quick and easy understanding. In this type of class, behaviorists would concentrate on crafting an environment that enhances this transfer, while cognitivists would highlight the importance of using efficient mental strategies for processing the information.
See also: Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura
What Basic Assumptions and Principles of This Theory Are Relevant to Instructional Design?
When designing learning experiences based on cognitivism, it is important to embrace certain fundamental principles. Firstly, the active involvement of learners is paramount. Therefore, it is important to create activities and tasks that prompt learners to actively engage, analyze, and apply knowledge rather than passively receive it.
Secondly, hierarchical analyses play a vital role. Recognizing and illustrating prerequisite relationships among concepts through cognitive tasks ensures that learners comprehend foundational concepts before progressing to more complex ones.
Similarly, the structure, organization, and sequencing of information are essential considerations. Careful attention must be given to the order in which learners encounter new concepts. This is because the sequence in which information is presented significantly influences how individuals build their mental frameworks and understand the relationships between different concepts. A well-thought-out structure helps learners to connect new information with their existing knowledge, creating a more cohesive and meaningful understanding of the subject matter (8).
Lastly, as in behaviourism, the creation of learning environments conducive to making connections is also important. Such environments should encourage students to relate new information to their existing knowledge, allowing for a holistic understanding. By integrating these principles into instructional design, one can create effective learning experiences that align with the core tenets of cognitivism.
See also: Backward Design
How Should Instruction Be Structured?
As mentioned, cognitive theories advocate for meaningful knowledge construction, urging instructors to help learners organize and relate new information to existing mental structures.
For effective instruction from a cognitive standpoint, emphasis should be placed on connecting lesson content to a student’s existing mental structures, or schema. Moreover, information should be strategically organized, allowing for connections between new and existing knowledge.
To make this work, the responsibilities of teachers and learning designers include understanding the diverse learning experiences of individuals, determining effective ways to structure new information based on prior knowledge, and ensuring feedback is given after practice.
For example, in a situation where a manager is teaching a new employee how to perform a cost-benefit analysis, instead of presenting this task in isolation, the manager might cleverly connect this new task to familiar processes like budgeting or decision-making. This cognitive approach taps into the new member of staff’s existing knowledge, making the learning experience smoother and more memorable. This is an example of helping a learner to navigate through a well-known path to understand and apply a new concept.
The cognitive approach not only reduces processing requirements but also enhances the effectiveness of recall cues (triggers that help retrieve information from memory). Furthermore, it recognizes the importance of context in learning, aligning with the idea that meaningful connections contribute to a more robust and lasting understanding.
See also: Instructional Design Models and Theories
The cognitivist perspective on learning puts forward the idea that learners actively engage in the learning experience through cognitive processes. Because of the diversity in learning objectives and student abilities in different contexts, instructional designers need a working understanding of various instructional theories. While there is no singular theory that universally applies, the principles of cognitivism offer valuable frameworks for instructional designers to construct effective learning environments tailored to the diverse needs of learners.
In short, cognitivism matters because it digs into how our minds work. In education and design, it is the backbone, shaping methods that not only ‘teach’ but actually get our brains working effectively.
- Winn, W. (1990). Some implications of cognitive theory for instructional design. Instructional Science, 19, 53-69.
- Garnham, A. (2019). Cognitivism. In The Routledge companion to philosophy of psychology (pp. 99-110). Routledge.
- Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance improvement quarterly, 26(2), 43-71.
- Al-Jarrah, T. M., Mansor, N., Talafhah, R. H., & Al-Jarrah, J. M. (2019). The application of metacognition, cognitivism, and constructivism in teaching writing skills. European Journal of Foreign Language Teaching.
- Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R. E., & Mainemelis, C. (2014). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. In Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles (pp. 227-247). Routledge.
- Olson, M. H., & Ramírez, J. J. (2020). An introduction to theories of learning. Routledge.
- Anderson, J. R. (2013). Cognitive skills and their acquisition. Psychology Press.
- Paas, F., Van Gog, T., & Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive load theory: New conceptualizations, specifications, and integrated research perspectives. Educational psychology review, 22, 115-121.