Saturday, January 23, 2010

Learning Theory: Cognitivism

Background Information

In the 1950’s, trainers began to look at the cognitive aspects of learning, as opposed to observable behavior. The Cognitivist theory focuses on “thinking, problem solving, language, concept formation, and information processing.” (Etmer, p. 57 from Snelbecker, 1983) There are two key assumptions that “underlie this cognitive or information-processing approach:
(1) that the memory system is an active organized processor of information, and
(2) that prior knowledge plays an important role in learning.” (Merriam, p. 285 through Gredler, 1997, p. 144)

Three concepts that cognitive strategies add are attention to the learner’s needs, an individual learning style, and the context of the lesson (making the lesson as realistic as possible). Additionally, Jean Piaget developed the four stage theory of cognitive development. David Ausubel came up with the Assimilation Theory which generally states that “learners assimilate new experience into one’s existing cognitive structure” (Merriam, p. 286 from Hill, 2002, p. 138). Albert Bandura also contributed the concept that learning can also come through discovery. Discovery is “in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence” and as a result, reconstruct additional new insights” (Merriam, p. 286 from Bruner, 1965, p. 606 – 608).

There are two other theorists that should be noted when discussing Cognitivism, and they are Jerome Bruner, and Robert Gagne. Bruner based his theory on three processes:
(1) acquisition of new information
(2) transformation, or the process of manipulating knowledge to make it fit new tasks; and
(3) evaluation, or checking whether the way we have manipulated information is adequate to the task” (Merriam, p. 286, from Knowles, p. 25, 1984).

Gagne and his colleagues Briggs, and Wagner (1992) theorized that there are eight types of knowledge, including:
• Signal Learning,
• Stimulus-response,
• Motor training,
• Verbal association,
• Discrimination learning,
• Concept learning,
• Rule learning,
• And problem solving. (Merriam, p. 286)

There is also a Social Cognitivism Theory that focuses on the idea that people learn by observing others. Merriam suggests that “much human learning occurs in a social environment. By observing others, people acquire knowledge, rules, skills, strategies, beliefs, and attitudes. Individuals also learn about the usefulness and appropriateness of behaviors by observing models and the consequences of modeled behaviors, and they act in accordance with their beliefs concerning the expected outcomes of actions” (Merriam, p. 288, from Schunk, 1996, p. 102).

When using behaviorist strategies, the learners are only responding to stimuli. When using Cognitivist strategies, the learners actively participate in the learning process. Knowledge is gained through the mental process of encoding and structuring information.

Instructors Role

According to an article by Ertmer and Newby, instructors must create instructional examples, demonstrations, illustrative examples, and matched non-examples in order to give the learner the opportunity to process information internally and commit it to memory. Instructors must give learners the opportunity to practice, and then provide feedback (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 58). According to Ertmer and Newby, in order to link new information with prior knowledge, instructors can also use:
• advance organizers,
• analogies,
• hierarchical relationships, and
• matrices.

Instructors should also:

• Place an emphasis on the active involvement of the learner in the learning process [learner control, metacognitive training (e.g., self-planning, monitoring, and revising techniques)]
• Use of hierarchical analyses to identify and illustrate prerequisite relationships [cognitive task analysis procedures]
• Emphasis on structuring, organizing and sequencing information to facilitate optimal processing [use of cognitive strategies such as outlining, summaries, synthesizers, advance organizers, etc.]
• Creation of learning environments that allow and encourage students to make connections with previously learned material [recall of prerequisite skills; use of relevant examples, analogies] (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 60).

Instructors need to make sure that their learners understand how to apply their knowledge to different contexts. When learners gain this knowledge, they are capable of higher thought and problem solving.

Instructors should break information down into its simplest form to make knowledge transfer easier. They should also remove irrelevant information in order to reduce the amount of information that is processed by the learner.

One strategy to help with this process is known as “Chunking” information. That is, grouping information into small, manageable sections (no more than ten to fifteen minutes each).

When to Use

Cognitivist approaches are best used to teach:
• Reasoning,
• Problem-Solving, and
• Information-Processing.


In the business of inventory management and accounting software training, there is a need for both training and education that spans the entire spectrum of learning. As I stated in a previous post, the learning theory continuum begins with Behaviorism – Beginner (teaching basic skills that are observable and measurable), then moves to Cognitivism - Intermediate (reasoning, problem-solving, and information processing), and ends with Constructivism - Advanced (higher thinking, process modification, and innovation).

There is a need for basic training, where learners must grasp basic skills and knowledge. A Behaviorist approach should be used for this type of information. However, untrained employees within their stores often make mistakes in areas such as receiving data entry. This could lead to problems with their cost of goods sold, and therefore, someone in their store will need to be able to troubleshoot, or problem-solve within the software.

To teach problem-solving skills (to users that require these skills), we could employ several of the tactics already mentioned in this blog. Something that many learners have found helpful has been the opportunity to engage in discussion about these issues with trainers, and with employees of other stores. To reduce Cognitive Overload, we could also employ job aids in the form of flowcharts and matrices. The learners should be given the opportunity to think about how they would handle certain situations, and should be educated on how different processes affect each area on the system.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72.

Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Chapter 11: Traditional Learning Theories. In Learning in Adulthood: A comprehensive Guide (pp. 278 – 280). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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