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Cognitivism: Your Guide to Cognitive Learning Theory

We’re back with a brand new learning theory to explore! This time we’re looking at cognitivism and cognitive learning theory. This theory focuses on the way your brain digests new information. 

When we learn something new, your brain is able to take that and apply it to future situations you encounter. 

Cognitive learning theory maintains that the way your brain processes information mirrors the process that a computer uses. Sounds weird, right?

Well by the end of this article, it’ll all make perfect sense. We’ll take you through the theory’s background, its strengths and its relationship with online learning. Let’s begin!

What Is Cognitive Learning Theory?

What is cognitive learning theory

Cognitivism is a psychological framework that arose as a response to behaviorism in the 1950s. 

Behavioural learning theory suggests we learn through conditioning, or through interaction with the environment around us. Cognitive learning theory, on the other hand, suggests that our cognitive processes have a role to play in determining knowledge and behaviour. 

In other words, it suggests that learning is influenced by both external and internal factors. 

You can actually trace cognitivism all the way back to Plato and Rene Descartes

Descartes is famous for the phrase ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ meaning ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This was an act of cognition — thinking about thinking. It has inspired countless others to explore how thought works and what this means about the world around us.  

One of the people most recognised for their work in this field is Jean Piaget. He was one of the first psychologists to make a systematic study of cognitive development. He developed the theory to suggest that learning is an active process and occurs in various stages.

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Stage One – The Sensorimotor Stage: 

This is the stage a human goes through from birth to two years of age. During this time, the brain doesn’t hold any memories, so the human lives solely in the present. However, towards the end of this stage that begins to shift. 

They achieve ‘object permanence’. This means they become aware that objects exist, even if you’ve hidden them from view. 

Additionally, a range of other cognitive abilities begin to materialise. This includes self-recognition, deferred imitation and representational play. A bit of speech also starts to crop up!

Stage Two – The Preoperational Stage: 

This stage takes place from the age of two to seven. During this stage, humans build on what they developed in the sensorimotor stage. They begin to think about things symbolically. However, the way objects are represented to them has no logic behind it. 

Piaget's stages of cognitive development relating to cognitive learning theory

As such, they are quite imaginative and grow their cognitive abilities through ‘dramatic’ play (or make believe). This kind of play is deemed to be one of the first demonstrations of metacognition in children (in other words, dual thinking — or thinking about thinking). 

Overall, thinking is still egocentric and rooted in how the human sees the world.

Stage Three – The Concrete Operational Stage: 

The third stage can be observed between the ages of seven and eleven. Humans start to regard objects with more logic. As a result, this stage is considered a significant turning point in cognitive development.

However, the concept of abstract thinking or hypothetical scenarios will still be difficult to grasp. 

Stage Four – The Formal Operational Stage: 

The final stage is when humans begin to reason more with abstract ideas. It also sees the development of scientific thinking and creating hypotheses when faced with a problem. 

There’s no need to conceptualise concepts like mathematics into questions like ‘if Mary has five apples, how many apples would be left if she gave away two?’ They understand it without you having to simplify it for them.

They require far less support and are able to resolve problems in a systemic way. This is a key definer of the formal operational stage.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has formed the base for the cognitive learning theories that we see today. Let’s take a look at this in more detail. 

What About Now?

What does cognitive learning theory like nowPsychologists and researchers have built on Piaget’s work over time. 

Additionally, revolutionary inventions like the computer have drastically altered the way we view the human brain. A computer processes information in stages where it receives information (input), stores it (encoding), and retrieves that information as directed (output). The brain works in a similar fashion. 

Cut to 2022 and the global cognitive assessment and training market is estimated at a whopping $1.4 billion. This growth is projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 17.4%. This means it’s due to reach an eye-watering $3.7 billion by 2028!

Technological advancements have been prevalent in all industries including healthcare. We’re now able to actively look at the brain with CT scans and MRIs. Consequently, we have a much better understanding of how it all works in there. 

Artificial intelligence is also aiding in this process. Technology is able to work in connection with you as a human, predicting your preferences and needs. This kind of adaptive approach has significantly altered the way we think about learning. 

It’s no longer enough to simply present information. You have to also think about how that information will be processed by the learner. Indeed, the way an individual interprets information can (and should) be considered to help personalise learning strategies. 

Cognitive learning theory can also be combined with other learning theories like social learning theory. Let’s delve deeper into this!

Social Cognitive Theory

This is quite similar to social learning theory. Social cognitive theory is the idea that learning takes place in a social context. Consequently, it’s impacted by not just the person learning, but the environment they’re in and the behaviour displayed. 

Social learning theory focuses on how we learn better with others and use observation, modelling and imitation to facilitate learning. The difference here is that there are several factors that impact a person’s ability to perform and learn. These include:

  • Their internal thoughts
  • External forces around them
  • Social interactions
  • Things the learner can see in their environment 
  • Observed behaviour

How these are taken in during a learner’s cognitive processes will influence their behaviour and learning. By considering thought processes, the theory highlights how a learner’s environment alone doesn’t determine these things. 

Social cognitive theory is a branch of cognitive theory as a whole. Let’s move back to cognitive learning theory and go over some of the different processes involved!

Cognitive Learning Theory Processes 

The First Process: Comprehension

First process of cognitive learning theory

With any cognitive learning strategy, you need to activate certain processes. The first of these is understanding and comprehension. 

All cognitive learning methods, techniques, and strategies stress how vital it is for learners to grasp the content that you’re teaching them. 

Learners shouldn’t just  learn for the sake of learning. They should focus on the why behind the learning content. Understanding and comprehension is sought out, rather than rote memorisation.

Comprehension is one of the most difficult cognitive skills that learners have to engage with. In turn, this makes it hard to teach. However, it’s imperative that you try. Naturally, learners with better comprehension will perform better. 

A study of 2.8 million students found that those who read 30 minutes or more per day with high comprehension (85% or more), were around twice as likely to achieve college and career readiness benchmarks than those who don’t.

The Second Process: Memorisation

Second process of cognitive learning theory

The second process that you need to activate in your learners is memorisation. Once a learner uses comprehension to understand a topic better, it gets stored into their long-term memory. Thus, it forms the foundation of the cognitive process. 

Learners recall the memories and skills that they gained from previous learning to apply to new situations they encounter (this tees up the next process nicely!). 

Considering long-term memories last for years, this is pretty helpful!

The Third Process: Application

Third process of cognitive learning theory

The final process is application. It’s important for learners to be able to actually make use of the content that they’ve absorbed. 

A cognitive learning approach allows learners to reflect on what they’ve learned. As a result, they can take those skills and apply them wherever they’re useful or relevant.

This brings to mind Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle. In this theory, learners move through a cycle where they engage in an experience (learning), reflect on this experience and then generate abstract principles that they can apply to future situations. 

This final stage is where learners test their new knowledge and apply it to the world around them.

Studies have found that reflective learning in the workplace can help a learner to make sense of learning and think of it as a tool for continuous improvement.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the different cognitive learning strategies you can use to activate these processes!

Cognitive Learning Theory Strategies

Learner-Centered Strategy

Learner-centered cognitive learning theory strategy

As you can likely guess, this strategy puts learners at the forefront and focuses on their experience. Piaget maintained that learning is the process of relating new information to information you already possess. 

He highlighted three components that are significant to a learner-centered strategy:

  • Accommodation: this means taking in new information by modifying what a learner already knows. 
  • Assimilation: this means arranging information inside the brain, alongside existing knowledge. 
  • Equilibrium: this means finding a balance between new information and existing information.

Personalised Strategy

Personalised cognitive learning theory strategyTailoring a learning experience to each individual learner helps individuals to advance at their own pace. It also ensures that they only receive content that’s relevant to them and their job roles. 

This can be done with artificial intelligence (AI). AI adapts and studies through learning algorithms so that the data itself is able to do the programming. 

On a learning management system (LMS) like Growth Engineering LMS, this is simple. In conjunction with Growth Engineering Authoring Tool, you can create learning paths designed for certain learners. Once assigned to the relevant pathway, learners will work their way through a training programme created specifically for them. 

Learners love personalisation. In fact, a survey conducted by Learning Technologies found that 77% of L&D professionals see the correlation between personalised learning and increased engagement. 

Furthermore, a whopping 94% of businesses cite personalisation as vital to their success. 

Meaningful Experiences Strategy

Meaningful experiences cognitive learning theory strategy

Typically, instructors employ rote learning to teach new ideas to their learners. This is a memorisation technique based on repetition where learners try to memorise specific new items as they are encountered. 

However, this isn’t a great method to use if you want to see actual comprehension. Alternatives to rote learning include spaced repetition, active learning and of course meaningful learning. 

This approach means that an instructor teaches content that is actually valuable to the learner. There needs to be a description on why the content is important. It also should be taught in a logical sequence so that each new piece of information builds on previously established knowledge. 

Appealing to a learner’s sense of Epic Meaning, or sense of purpose, does a lot of good. McKinsey found that 70% of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. This increases motivation and motivated employees are a staggering 87% less likely to resign!

Learning Through Discovery Strategy

Learning through discovery cognitive learning theory strategy

Psychologist Jerome Bruner built on Piaget’s research. Through his own study of cognitive learning in children, he found that humans are often able to reach answers on their own (without any external help). 

He encouraged the use of past experiences and knowledge to discover new facts and information.

Using this approach increases a learner’s self-confidence. And feeling competent and assured in your job can only be a formula for success. Indeed found that a huge 98% of workers said that they perform better when they feel confident! 

Additionally, 96% of respondents said they’re more likely to remain at a company when they feel confident.

As you can see, there are various cognitive learning strategies that you can use. But what are the benefits of these approaches? Let’s explore!

Benefits of Cognitive Learning Theory

1. Increased Problem Solving Abilities

Cognitive learning theory increases problem solving abilities

Cognitive learning theory works with a learner rather than dictating to them. It wants learners to really understand the content, rather than simply being able to recite it. 

As a result, it isn’t about giving learners the answers. It’s about asking questions, experimenting and finding solutions. Using an authoring tool like ours, you’re able to create content that equips learners with the skills they need to solve problems on their own. 

This increases a worker’s independence, which in turn strengthens their team. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link! And employees think so too. Around 75% of employees regard collaboration and teamwork in the workplace as vital. 

They’re right too. Feeling less isolated at work can improve productivity by 21%.

2. Enhanced Comprehension

Cognitive learning theory enhances comprehension

With cognitive learning approaches, learners receive the space to get to grips with concepts before rushing ahead to the next topic. A hands-on approach to learning means deeper understanding, which will inevitably transfer into their work. 

The more competent learners feel the better. You can enhance competence on your LMS by optimising content according to each learner’s skill level. The more an employee’s competence grows, the more intrinsically (internally) motivated they feel. 

Motivated employees are happier and more productive. And with the cost of replacing an employee currently at $5,000, this is something you need to ensure. 

3. Encourages Long-term Learning

Cognitive learning theory grants us more ownership over our own development. And we are more likely to engage with something we’ve come to understand on our own. 

Cognitive learning theory encourages long-term learning

Additionally, cognitive learning theory builds on what learners already know. They build on concepts and apply previous knowledge to new situations. This makes it a perfect formula for continuous learning and engagement. 

It’s your job to facilitate this with your learning platform. That’s easier than ever these days with the use of mobile learning. With Growth Engineering Learning App, effective learning is just a few taps away. And with people spending five to six hours on their phones daily, some of this time should be dedicated to learning!

Luckily, modern learners love mobile approaches. In fact, 43% of learners have said that mobile learning has boosted their productivity!

Final Words

Cognitivism and cognitive learning theory built on behaviourism to better reflect the way we process information. By combining internal and external factors, we now have a more holistic model of learning. 

Focusing on cognition is a great way to encourage certain traits in your learners. For example, enhanced problem solving, increased comprehension and elevated confidence in their work. These all come together to boost business impact. 

And that’s something we can all get behind.

Do you want to find out how to craft the perfect learning programme for your audience? Get in touch with us today for a demo of our new Impact Suite!

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