Learning theories series : #2 Cognitivism
How do we learn? Which elements are taking part in this process? There is no single answer to these questions, but researchers have tried to answer nonetheless. In this series of posts I’ll talk about the 5 main learning theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, Socio-Constructivism and Connectivism. I’ll give you some concrete examples on how to apply them in a digital learning environment. In this second post of the learning theories series we’ll talk about Cognitivism.
What is Cognitivism?
As we’ve seen in this post dedicated to behaviorism, Behaviorists were not concerned on what “goes on” in the mind of the learner. They were interested only in observable behaviors. In the 1970s, Cognitivism came to light in strong opposition to behaviorism. For Cognitivists, behavior is a result of a mental (cognitive) process that happens in our brain. Some argue that Cognitivism is an “information” management theory. According to Cognitive theory the students receive an information, this information is “processed” and “organised” in schemes and then it is “retrieved” upon recall. An important part is played by memory and, therefore, whatever knowledge the students previously have, and how they “add” new information to old ones.
For cognitivists, memory plays an important role. It is seen as made of two main instances: long-term memory on the one hand and short-term memory (also called working memory) on the other. Long term memory is also a process that happens in 3 steps:
- Encoding: we select, filter and give meaning to new information.
- Storage: we store this information in our brain, either as “short-term” or “long-term”. The former is “immediate” memory that only stays in for a few seconds. The latter stays “fixed” in our brain.
- Retrieval: we retrieve this information when needed.
Behaviorists resort to feedback as reinforcement to change students’ behavior. Cognitivists use feedback as a way of “guiding” and helping students organise information in their memory.
For Cognitivist the role of the school is to help learners develop their learning skills. The teachers mediate the learners internal processes and mechanisms, favouring the organisation and the hierarchisation of knowledge; the externalisation and updating of mental representations. They take into account learners’ previous knowledge and foster conceptual change (activating prior knowledge; creating cognitive conflict).
The students are active participants in their learning process, they develop their previous knowledge and build upon it. Their motivation is related to the value they award the task and the perceived degree of “control” they have on it.
Learning environments are conceived to facilitate this information-processing operations inside the learners’ mind. The following principles should be used:
Make them active participants and give them control of their learning.
Use hierarchical analyses
Facilitate the structuring and organisation of new information.
Help them illustrate and identify relationships with previous knowledge, use relevant examples and analogies ot mind maps.
If you wish to use a cognitivist approach when designing your next course, remember that everyone relates to content differently. A good approach is carefully sequencing your course material and reviewing what you’ve covered already. Give your learners the opportunity to be active participants in their own learning. Don’t forget to stress out why the content they’re learning is relevant for them and how it relates to their practice. Write an introduction or provide learners with background information for every new content.
BASIC PRINCIPLE: New information is build upon existing knowledge in an organised manner
TEACHER/TRAINER: Builds pedagogical progression, provides content, helps the learner to take ownership of the content
LEARNER: Active, must take ownership of the content
HOW: Learning by demonstration, problem solving; concept mapping; reflective activities; tutorials; smart tutors
WHEN: There is no subject of predilection for cognitivism. However, you can use the following good practices: test previous knowledge at the beginning, provide tools and plan activities that help students make connections with previous knowledge, analyse mistakes made by learners
Sources, references and links
Other than speaking for my personal experience, all the references and resources that I used to write this article are available here:
- Applying Cognitive Learning Theory to Your Corporate Learning Strategy in the blog LearnUpon
- Bourgeois, É., & Frenay, M. (2006). Les théories de l’apprentissage: un peu d’histoire. Apprendre et faire apprendre, 21-36.
- Foulin, J. N., & Mouchon, S. (1998). Psychologie de l’éducation. Nathan.
- La place des 5 grandes théories de l’apprentissage dans la formation, White book, in the blog Sydologie
- Vienneau, R. (2011). Apprentissage et enseignement: théories et pratiques. Gaëtan Morin.
How do we learn? Which elements are taking part in this process? There is no single answer to these questions, but researchers have tried to answer nonetheless. In this series of posts I’ll talk about the 5 main learning theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism,...