What is Cognitivism?

Cognitivism is a learning theory that emphasizes the active mental processing of information. Cognitivism came about as a result of the rejection of the passive view of learning that behaviorism suggested, in which one learns only as a result of reacting (output) to one’s environment (input). The cognitivism theorists suggest that while the environment is important to learning, there is more involved than simply inputs and outputs. They believe that the mind is also involved in synthesizing and analyzing information and formulating ideas, and in so doing, producing thoughts that are not related to any inputs. Cognitivism holds that one has to consider the thought processes going on in the mind which results in learning, that is, the cognitivism, hence the name of the learning theory. They also stress that individuals are actively involved in the learning process. The theorists suggest that learning occurs when individuals relate new information to schemata, or structures of information already stored in the brain. Part of the learning process involves organizing the new information as well as becoming capable of more sophisticated thought as new information is built. In cognitivism, the mind is likened to a computer into which data, or information, is relayed and then processed, and then leads to outcomes, or new knowledge.

Some of the educational implications of cognitivism include:
  • as children grow, they become more capable of sophisticated and complex thoughts (four stages)
    Not-so sophisticated thought
  • people control their own learning, contrary to the views of behaviorism
  • learners organize the new information that they receive
  • new information is more easily learned when the learners can associate the information with material that they have already learned (schema).

Some of the critical concepts of cognitivism include:
  • Schema – the internal structures of knowledge. If new information does not fit with an individual’s schema, it will be more difficult to remember and learn.
  • Meaningful information – If information is not meaningful, it will be more difficult for the learner to remember and learn.
  • A Dual-Store Model of Memory. There are many types of input and information that a person receives into his/her memory at any one time.
  • Three-Stage Information Processing Model (See figure 1):
1. Sensory Register/Memory: Information is constantly processed through the sensory registers. The individual receives information or sensory input into the sensory register and filters it. Only important or interesting information goes from register on to short-term memory.
2. Short-Term Memory (STM): The short-term memory begins to process the information. The information can be stored in the STM for up to 20 seconds (or more if rehearsed). The STM can store up to 7 pieces of information, or more than that if the information is chunked. The learner makes a conscious decision to work with a particular piece of information and continues to process that piece of information
3. Long-Term Memory and Storage (LTM): The information that the learner had deemed important has eventually been transferred or encoded into the LTM for later retrieval.

Figure 1. Three Stage Memory (Information Processing) Model

Cognitivism terms as they relate to information processing:
  • Learning is the acquisition of new information, while memory is the recalling of previously learned information.
  • Storage is the process of putting new information into one’s memory.
  • Retrieval is the process of pulling information out of one’s memory that has been stored there for future use.
  • Encoding is the process of storing information in one’s memory and modifying it in some manner.

Background of Cognitivism & Major Theorists and Proponents of Cognitivism

Cognitive psychology emerged in the late 1950s and soon after, cognitivism began to take over as the primary theory of learning. However, long before the 1950s the seeds of cognitivism were being sown. Behaviorism was the main theory of education before cognitivism. (Skinner, Pavlov ) Cognitivism resulted as various theorists began to reject behaviorism. While still acknowledging some role of behavior, a number of psychologists believed that the mental processes, or cognitivism, had to be considered in order for learning to take place.

Edward Toman

Edward Tolman (1886-1959) was a behaviorist whose work reflected a cognitive perspective. For example, he proposed that one could learn without a change in behavior. Tolman also had the idea that learning occurred as a result of organized information in the mind, clearly a cognitive perspective. He believed behavior was purposive, or intentional, and also that one’s expectations could have an affect on behavior. For these reasons, behavior required a cognitive process. Tolman was a pioneer of what is today known as cognitive psychology.

Criticism of behaviorism also came from the Gestalt psychologists in Germany. These included Marx Werheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka. Gestalt means “configuration” or “pattern” in German. These psychologists looked not to the environment as behaviorists did, but to the mental processes of individuals, that is, to their cognition, their process of knowing. The Gestalt psychologist focused on organizational processes of perception, learning and problem solving.

Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was also highly instrumental in drawing attention away from behavior and toward the mental processes of the brain. Piaget was not a child psychologist, but studied children, including his own children, and their intellectual development. He came to believe that they way the children thought was very different from the way adults thought. He believed that their knowledge was formed by their interactions with their environment, and that learning takes place when the children interact actively with the environment at a level appropriated to their cognitive abilities. He stressed the active involvement of learning. He proposed that there were four distinct stages of cognitive development. The four stages included the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operations stage, and the formal operations stage (four stages). Piaget hypothesized that each of these stages were qualitatively different from the others. For example, one of the qualitative changes that occurs from concrete to formal operations thinking is the capacity to engage in abstract thinking. So a concrete operations child, if asked to describe love, might think in concrete expressions such as hugs and kisses, whereas a formal operations child would use more abstract notions such as commitment, passion, or mutual affection. Through his studies of children, Piaget made a lasting contribution to the fields of psychology and education by showing that the thought processes of children are significant.

Lev Vygotsky

After Piaget, other psychologists continued to emphasize the mental processes taking place in the learning experience, thereby pushing cognitivism forward. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) incorporated the social aspect to learning. He proposed that the cognitive processes begin with social interactions which children can internalize and use independently once they have processed them. (In fact, Vygotsky is most well known for his social development theory from which constructivism arose.) Vygotsky also had a keen understanding of the significance of the relationship between the student and teacher, and viewed the student as having an active role in the learning process. He developed the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) This refers to the area of learning in which the students requires some assistance and in which the greatest cognitive development takes place, and hence the most learning occurs. Along with this, he believed that children often accomplish more challenging tasks with the help of someone more advanced than they.

Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner (1915- ) was a cognitive psychologist during the critical period of the 1950s and 1960s when the trend moved from behaviorism to cognitivism and during which time cognitive psychology was born. He was very influential in the development of educational programs. In fact, he wrote The Process of Education in which he lays out a number of educational programs. He wrote many other publications which have been useful in education and understanding how children learn. Having been influenced greatly by Vygotsky, Bruner developed a theory of cognitive growth that focused on the child’s environment and experience. He viewed children as active problem solvers. Bruner believed intellectual ability occurred in stages with step-by-step changes. It was his opinion that a child’s knowledge base could be built upon in increments in a spiral-type fashion.

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura (1925- ) further believed that the behaviorism premise that environment causes behavior was far too simplistic. He did not believe that this explained learning. His bobo doll studies showed that children can learn by observation (usually known as social learning theory). Although the study focused on the aggressive behavior of children, it was significant because it led to a great deal more research on observational learning. This is an important aspect of cognitivism, obviously, because observing what someone else is doing is a cognitive activity and defies the traditional behaviorist learning theory. (The bobo doll study can be seen in the background of the photo to the right.)

Cognitivism resulted from various theorists rejecting the behaviorist view that learning is a response to ones environment. Their theories centered on the view that learning is achieved through active cognitive processes. Since the 1960s cognitivism has been the major perspective from which other learning theories evolved.

Other Learning Theories Related to Cognitivism

Other theories related to Cognitivism include Constructivism, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Load Theory, and Mutualism. Lev Vygotsky was the greatest proponent of Constructivism. Although Vygotsky was greatly influenced by Piaget and believed that cognition, or the mental processes, were instrumental for learning to take place, he proposed that social interactions played a highly significant role in the way that children learned and constructed knowledge. So while Constructivism does also suggest, like Cognitivism, that children learn by actively building on prior knowledge, there is a greater focus on social environment and social interactions and how these affect the ways in which children construct their knowledge. Another more recently developed theory that relates to Cognitivism is Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. This theory combines the perspectives of biology, psychology, and neuroscience to examine the relationship between changes in the brain and the cognitive processes and behavior patterns of the developing child. Building on Miller's theory of Cognitivism, Cognitive Load Theory posits that schemas, or groups of knowledge, are the cognitive structures that comprise an individual's knowledge base. Mutualism is a theory which has grown out of Cognitivism and which is similar to it in a number of respects. This theory, however, responds to elements of learning which Cognitivism ignores, namely consciousness and organic causation. Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory is also related to Cognitivism. Piaget’s theory is most similar to Cognitivism in that similiarly, it relies on the assumption that the way in which the brain responds to the presentation of new information is fundamental in understanding how we learn and develop. It is different from Cognitivism in that it focuses more on how the brain relates new information to known information and thus creates meaning and understanding. Cognitivism, or Information Processing, focuses more on how new information is recognized, processed, and committed to memory through automatic and uncontrolled mechanisms and processes in the brain.

What Cognitivist Teachers Do

Cognitivist teachers teach, at least in part, by presenting information in a way which calls upon students' previously acquired knowledge. Cognitivist teachers' objectives are to help students acquire new knowledge by using techniques which enable them to bring their "attention" to the information presented by stimuli, "encode" the information by attaching it to previously acquired information within the short-term memory, and finally store learned information in and "retrieve" learned information from the long-term memory. Teachers who remember.jpgsubscribe to the Cognitivist theory of learning will utilize processing strategies in order to help students learn information and retain information once it is learned. Utilizing learning techniques such as mnemonic devices to help shift information from short-term memory into long-term memory is one processing strategy that could be effective according to Cognitivist theory. Like Constructivism, Cognitivism would also advocate for attaching new knowledge to prior knowledge in order to facilitate its commitment to long-term memory. Thus, using metaphors and analogies to relate new information to old information is an effective processing strategy for teachers to utilize. Rehearsal of information can also be effective in helping students maintain newly acquired information, given that this strategy helps information in the
short-term memory become committed to long-term memory.

What Cognitivist Learners Do

Cognitivist learners learn by selecting information to be learned, thus engaging sensory registration, processing and manipulating information into knowledge, utilizing short-term memory, and finally, by committing knowledge held in short-term memory to long-term memory where it is stored and from which it can then be retrieved. A student learning about any subject first responds to the subject through sensory registers. During this first stage of images.jpglearning, our senses inform us about the stimuli we are being exposed to. Next, our short-term memory takes information from the sensory registers, holds the information, and begins to process and manipulate the information presented by the stimuli into meaningful knowledge. Finally, our short-term memory transfers converted, processed, manipulated, or "encoded" information to our long-term memory, where it will be permanently stored and can be retrieved from in the future. This process of learning is quite similar to the way in which computers respond to, encode, store and retrieve information.

Some Examples of Cognitivist Learning and Instruction

As mentioned in the sections above, there are three important elements in the cognitive learning process. The fourth and final element of the process involves the verification that learning has occurred.

1. Sensory Input into Sensory Memory (The information to be learned is presented to and recognized by the student.)
2. Sensory Memory transferred to Short Term Memory (The recognized information is encoded and understood in its own context.)
3. Short Term Memory attached to Schema and transferred to Long Term Memory (The encoded information is related to other, previously known information. The information is now understood its own context, and in relation to other information.)

4. Learned information becomes own Schema and is confirmed through the relation to new Sensory Input. (The original information is used to encode and to understand a new piece of information, thus beginning the process anew.)

  • Learning a new language:
A French teacher tells her students that she will be teaching them basic grammatical structures. (Sensory Input into Sensory Memory.) She then begins to describe male and female nouns, reflexive verbs, etc in a specific context (i.e.- shopping at a supermarket.) (Sensory Memory Transferred to Short Term Memory.) The students relate these grammatical structures back to the English language, relating equivalent words when applicable, and contrastingfrgrammar.gif grammatical structures between English and French. (Short Term Memory transferred to Long Term Memory.) Once internalized and related to their native English language, the students can recall the French grammar and relate it to new situations, other than shopping at a supermarket. (Learned information becomes Schema and related to new Sensory Input.)

  • Learning to ride a motorcycle:
2004_10_12_bikepics-226815-full.jpg A riding instructor tells his class that today the students are going to learn how to shift out of first gear and into second. (Sensory Input into Sensory Memory.) The instructor proceeds to tell the students to pull in the clutch lever, slide their toes on their left foot under the shifter and pull up while simultaneously slightly pulling on the throttle with their right hand. (Sensory Memory Transferred to Short Term Memory.) Having driven a manual transmission car before, the new rider notices that the process of engaging the clutch, shifting, and engaging the throttle (or accelerator,) are virtually the same for a car as they are for a motorcycle. During the next weeks class session the student sits down on the motorcycle, starts it, pulls forward and smoothly shifts from first gear to second. The student then applies this knowledge to shifting again, and moves from second to third, and third to fourth gear. (Learned information becomes Schema and related to new Sensory Input.)

Some Examples of Technology-based Cognitivist Learning and Instruction

The cognitive learning process can be easily facilitated through the use of educational technology. In the following example you will see how technology can both assist the completion of cognitive learning, as well as provide an excellent example for how the cognitive learning process works.

A father would like to learn how to edit photos, and create slide shows with music and captions to send to his daughter away at college, so he purchases CD-based learning software designed to teach him to do just that on his Windows PC. He puts the CD into the disc drive, and an animator teacher introduces digital photography and photo editing. (Sensory Input into Sensory Memory.) The teacher then walks through the steps necessary to edit photos and create slide shows. (Sensory Memory Transferred to Short Term Memory.) Having had his digital pictures enlarged, enlarged cropped and made black and white at his local Walgreens, as well as having made scrapbooks in the past, the father relates this knowledge to editing his own digital photos and creating his own slideshows. Slowly but surely, he begins to edit his photos and create a slide show for his daughter. (Short Term Memory transferred to Long Term Memory.) Weeks later, that same father is using his Apple computer and work, and is asked to make a photo slide show for the office holiday party. Recalling the learning software he purchased, he opens up the Apple based photo programs and successfully creates a photo slideshow on the Apple computer even though it is different from the Windows program he originally learned. (Sensory Memory Transferred to Short Term Memory.)