Learning theories Part 2: Cognitivism
“Human behavior is assumed to be very complex and controlled primarily by a person’s internal mental processes and not by external stimuli and reinforcements.” from Dick & Carey, 2005
Cognitivism focuses more on the learner's internal processes and less on the environment, as behaviorism does. Based in cognitive psychology, it addresses the issue of how information is received, organized, stored and retrieved by the mind. Cognitivism concentrates on the mental activities of the learner that lead up to a response and acknowledges the process of mental planning, goal setting and organizational strategies (Shuell, 1986). Learners' experience, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and values are considered to be influential in the learning process, acting as filters, helping or hindering learning. This shift in orientation brought about a similar shift from procedures for manipulating materials presented to the learner and toward procedures for directing student thought processes and interactions with the materials (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Learning is described as changes in states of knowledge rather than changes in probability of responding.
Cognitivists see the mind as an information processing structure, with learning occurring through a series of brain activities, transforming information as it courses through a set of structures within the brain. Think back about the three learning networks in the brain. Of interest is the fact that cognitivists theorized these brain structures before imaging techniques were developed that actually mapped brain activity.
Cognitivism was the first theory to recognize that the brain filters out most of the sensory information arriving at its doorstep via our physical senses, selectively permitting awareness of information for processing. Without this selective perception, we would not be able to function - trying to process every bit of information impinging on our senses every instance of our lives.
Processing, according to cognitivist theory, occurs in stages and in different locations, or circuits, within the brain. The raw information (input) we attend to first moves into working memory, a sort of workbench or desktop where most of the action takes place. An important limitation of working memory is that its capacity is quite limited – 7 bits plus or minus 2, or the capacity to process 5 to 9 information bits (physically, memory traces) at once for a period of ten seconds or less. This small capacity is much enhanced by short-term and long-term memory, as was discussed in our look at the physical process of learning. Processing takes place through the continuous transfer of memory traces between the three types of memory. Existing knowledge is retrieved from and new information is encoded into long-term memory, though not immediately. An important caveat here is that the new information must be - meaningful - in some way to the individual for it to be stored - it must be "tagged" as something "relevant" by the hippocampus. Relevance considers logical, emotional, and survival aspects (each its own processing circuit!), occurring mostly at the unconscious level. The incoming signal is engaged by long-term memory when it matches in some way to the memory traces within long-term memory. It may happen quickly or slowly. Most of the incoming signal is sloughed off as irrelevant after having run through various sensate screens. After memory traces have been tagged, they are electrically and chemically transferred from the the hippocampus and into the cerebral cortex as long-term memory.
Like behaviorism, cognitivism emphasizes the role of environmental conditions that facilitate learning (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). This approach makes use of explanations, demonstrations, examples and non-examples, and practice with corrective feedback to guide and support accurate mental connections. Instruction is responsible for helping learners organizing incoming information in some optimal way. Understanding is seen as being composed of a knowledge base in the form of rules, concepts, and discriminations (Duffy & Jonasssen, 1991). The real focus of cognitivism, then, is on changing the learner by encouraging him or her to use appropriate learning and organizational strategies.
Because of the emphasis on mental structures, cognitivism is useful for more complex forms of learning such as reasoning, problem solving, building mental models, and information processing functions like math, accounting, and law (Schunck, 1991). However, we need to be clear that cognitivism, like behaviorism, seeks to transfer knowledge in an efficient and effective manner utilizing simplification and standardization. The instruction comes from an authority and embeds in the learner - at least at the beginning. Specialists take the cognitive strategies they have learned into their profession of interest.
Ertmer & Newby (1993) summarize cognitivism's basic principles and suggest applicable design strategies following them:
- Emphasis on the active involvement of the learner in the learning process. Using learner control over the pace of instruction, and teaching metacognitive skills (planning, self-monitoring, and revision strategies).
- Use of hierarchical analysis to identify and illustrate prerequisite relationships. Using task and content analysis procedures to structure content.
- Emphasis on structuring, organizing, and sequencing information to facilitate optimal cognitive processing. Teaching cognitive strategies such as outlining, summarizing, advance organizers, and concept mapping.
- Creation of learning environments that allow and encourage learners to make connections with previously learned material. Asking learners to recall prerequisite knowledge, using examples and analogies.
Major design tasks for the teacher and designer include:
- Understand that individuals bring various experiences to the learning situation that impact learning outcomes.
- Determine the most effective way to organize and structure new information in order to tap previously learned knowledge, abilities, and experiences.
- Arrange practice with feedback so that new information is effectively and efficiently assimilated and/or accommodated within the learner's cognitive structure.
Specific cognitive processes
Schunck (2012) provides a thorough look at specific cognitive learning processes, summarized here.
- Knowledge acquisition is the process of acquiring facts, information, concepts, understanding, insight, etc., processed in short-term memory and eventually stored in long-term memory. It involves a complex process of perception, attention, mental processing and organization, practice, and forming associations with existing knowledge, and the formation and expansion of schemas (mental models). Knowledge is stored in verbal, visual, emotional, olfactory, tactile, motor, and kenesthetic forms, each functionally independent but closely interconnected. There are different forms and types of knowledge., summarized in Language of learning. Knowledge encoded in two or more forms is remembered better, and so has important educational implications.
- General and specific skill acquisition. The acquisition of general skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and self-regulation facilitates learning and using specific skills and domains. Specific skills involve unique features and are domain specific, therefore there may be little overlap between learning specific skills. As we see in the discussion of expertise, it is highly domain specific. A basic model for teaching any kind of skill includes (1) provide relevant information, (2) asking learners to perform task-relevant behaviors and processes, (3) identify errors, and (4) correct errors. Added to this basic approach are elements are scaffolding and providing corrective feedback.
- Conditional knowledge is understanding when and why to employ forms of declarative and procedural knowledge. Knowing when to skim a text and knowing what to do when a machine repair fails to solve the problem are examples. The value of conditional knowledge lies in its effectiveness in goal accomplishment. Without this knowledge, performers are vulnerable to performing unnecessary tasks, taking extra time, and failing to use better alternatives to accomplish the goal. As such, conditional knowledge is critical to self-regulation and success in accomplishing work.
- Metacognition refers to the deliberate conscious control of cognitive activity. Thinking about one's thinking, essential for such tasks as writing, presenting information, persuasion, language acquisition, perception, problem solving and much more. It is a cognitive self-regulating activity involving (1) understanding what skills, strategies, and resources a task requires, and (2) knowing how and when to use these skills and strategies to successfully complete the task. Metacognitive activities constitute the strategic application of declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge to tasks. For more on metacognition, see the Multitasking brain and metacognitive activities.
- Concept learning is the process of differentiating, grouping, and labeling objects and events according to their characteristics or attributes. It helps us form mental representations or prototypes, select and add examples, and to discriminate examples from nonexamples. Teaching concepts can be accomplished by presenting and describing a typical example possessing all essential attributes, presenting an example and nonexample together and identifying differences, and taking learners through a four-stage discovery of concrete attributes of a single example, followed by identifying relevant and irrelevant attributes of several examples, generalizing attributes into classifications and subclassifications, and finally formal understanding and declaration of the concept, its properties and variations.
- Problem solving refers to efforts to achieve a goal for which there is not an automatic or previously identified solution. Regardless of content area and complexity, all problems have certain commonalities. There is the initial state, the goal, barriers to be overcome, actions to be taken, and monitoring to see the results. Problem solving approaches include trial and error, insight (gathering information, a period of time to ponder the problem, identifying possible solutions, and testing them to verify that the problem is solved), heuristics (using rules of thumb that usually work), brainstorming, drawing analogies, and others. As we gain expertise, our problem solving methods grow more intuitive and sophisticated.
- Transfer refers to "applying knowledge in new ways, in new situations, or in familiar situations with different content". Transfer also explains how prior learning affects subsequent learning, in that learners always bring relevant knowledge and experience into the current setting. Having learned to use one piece of software processor, learning a new one involves many of the same actions. The more similar the required activities, the more transfer. Some forms of transfer are simple (near transfer) and nearly automatic while others require higher-order thinking to accomplish (far transfer). The ability to skim memos is easily transferred to skimming web pages, while transferring algebra skills to calculus takes instruction and much mental effort. Analogies, strategies, and structured recall can be used to increase transfer.
The essence of cognitive theory resides in “cognitive strategies.” We all develop and use cognitive strategies naturally, some more effectively than others. Effective strategies can be taught directly or indirectly. The most common approach in education is to teach them indirectly, by including specific strategies within content presentations, plus assignment, discussion and assessment instructions. Here is a list of the most common cognitive strategies. Take some time to review them, and then we will look at some examples of how they’re used.
Simplification - Knowledge can be analyzed, decomposed, and simplified into basic building blocks (Ertmer & Newby, 1993) and shared in chunks to match learners' ability to comprehend (see Efficiency in learning). Eliminating extraneous or overly complex information increases comprehension for novice learners.
Organizing Strategies – structuring information in memory so that it is most easily accessed.
- Grouping similar information together (creating categories)
- Connecting new information with existing knowledge (using analogies, metaphors, facilitating recall)
- Developing graphic organizers (visualizing information)
- Outlining content
Elaborating Strategies – establishing associations in memory between new information and previously acquired information.
- Mental imagery (visualization and mental rehearsal)
- Analogies (the human brain is like a . . . ) See five applications for analogies.
- Keyword association (password XKT089 > execution takes place on August 9)
- Paraphrasing (in your own words . . .)
- Generating personal examples
- Generative note taking (learner adds own thoughts to lecture and book notes)
Rehearsing Strategies – assist the encoding and retrieval of information that is not easily structured or elaborated. Practically speaking, rehearsal is similar to memorization, although rehearsal most often involves multiple skills applied at the same time.
- Reciting a poem or story
- Rehearsing a play
Comprehension Monitoring – the learner determines whether he or she understands.
- Self-questioning - creating and answering comprehension questions
- Answering application questions others have created (e.g., instructor)
Affective Strategies – self-motivational skills to help learners maintain an attitude conducive to learning.
- Time management skills to manage time, reduce stress, and gain a sense of personal control
- Stress reduction techniques such as meditation, recreation, exercise
- Positive self-talk - "You can do this. Just slow down." Recent evidence suggests that using "You" instead of "I" brings better results (need citation)
Teaching cognitive strategies
Here we have just a few examples (Smith & Ragan, 2004) of how you can instruct students to use specific strategies within your content area, including discussion, assignment, and assessment instructions. When students use these strategies successfully, they carry them forward to new learning situations.
- Guided discovery. Through questioning, the instructor leads learners to discover a particular strategy.
- Observation. Observing a model demonstrate the use of a cognitive strategy.
- Guided participation. The instructor guides learners through the steps of using a strategic procedure while learning specific content or completing assignments. This can be seen in the use of milestone assignments leading up to a completed product or outcome.
- Direct instruction in the use of specific cognitive strategies. The instructor not only teaches the strategy but also provides learners with when and where the strategy should be used. Evidence suggests that this approach is the most effective and transferable.
Check for understanding
Here are four sets of instructions for students. Identify the strategy being utilized in each. Answers are below.
These people contributed significantly to the development of cognitive learning theory:
- Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980)
- Warren McCulloch (1898 - 1969)
- George Kelly (1905 - 1967)
- Robert Gangé (1916 - 2002)
- Walter Pitts (1923 - 1969)
- Create a chart: (organizing, grouping)
- Cite three passages: (elaboration, personal examples)
- Interspersing your presentations: (comprehension monitoring)
- Create a journal: (affective, positive self-talk)