7. Cognitivism

7.3. Applications of Cognitivist Learning Theory

Cognitive approaches to learning, with a focus on comprehension, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, generalization, evaluation, decision-making, problem-solving and creative thinking, seem to fit much better with higher education than behaviourism, but even in school/k-12 education, a cognitivist approach would mean for instance focusing on teaching learners how to learn, on developing stronger or new mental processes for future learning, and on developing deeper and constantly changing understanding of concepts and ideas.

Cognitive approaches to learning cover a very wide range. At the objectivist end, cognitivists consider basic mental processes to be genetic or hard-wired, but can be programmed or modified by external factors, such as new experiences. Early cognitivists, in particular, were interested in the concept of mind as computer, and more recently brain research has led to a search for linking cognition to the development and reinforcement of neural networks in the brain.

In terms of practice, this concept of mind as computer has led to several technology-based developments in teaching, including:

  • Intelligent Tutoring Systems, a more refined version of teaching machines, based on breaking down learning into a series of manageable steps, and analysing learners’ responses to direct them to the most appropriate next step. Adaptive learning is the latest extension of such developments.
  • Artificial Intelligence, which seeks to represent in computer software the mental processes used in human learning (which of course if successful would result in computers replacing many human activities – such as teaching, if learning is considered in an objectivist framework).
  • Pre-Determined Learning Outcomes, based on an analysis and development of different kinds of cognitive activities, such as comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • Problem-Based Learning, based on an analysis of the thinking processes successful problem-solvers use to solve problems.
  • Instructional Design approaches that attempt to manage the design of teaching to ensure successful achievement of pre-determined learning outcomes or objectives.

Cognitivists have increased our understanding of how humans process and make sense of new information, how we access, interpret, integrate, process, organize and manage knowledge, and have given us a better understanding of the conditions that affect learners’ mental states.