Learning and Cognitivism: Theory and Research

Teaching methods that are cognitive in nature aim to assist students in assimilating new information to existing knowledge. They enable them to make the appropriate modifications to their existing intellectual framework to accommodate that information. 


Led by dissatisfaction with behaviourism’s strict focus on observable behaviour, educational psychologists such as Jean Piaget and William Perry demanded an approach to learning theory that paid more attention to what went on “inside the learner’s head.” They developed a cognitive approach that focused on mental processes rather than observable behaviour. Knowledge comprises symbolic mental representations, such as propositions and images, together with a mechanism that operates on those representations. This notion is the backbone of most cognitive theories. Learning is a manifestation of something that is actively constructed by learners based on their existing cognitive structures. Therefore, the acquiring of knowledge is relative to their stage of cognitive development; understanding the learner's existing intellectual framework is central to understanding the learning process. 


While behaviourists believe that knowledge is a passively acquired behavioural repository, cognitive constructivists argue instead that knowledge is actively built by learners. According to cognitive constructivists, any account of knowledge makes essential references to cognitive structures. Knowledge contains active systems of deliberate mental representations derived from past learning experiences. Each learner has a different interpretation of experiences and knowledge, keeping in mind their contemporary knowledge, their stage of cognitive development. Factors like cultural history and personal background also affect these interpretations. Learners use these factors to systematize their experience and to learn and transform new information. Knowledge is therefore actively assembled by the learner rather than passively absorbed; it is essentially dependent on the viewpoint from which the learner looks at it. 


Because knowledge is consciously assembled, learning is manifested as a process of active discovery. The role of the teacher is not to drill lessons into students through constant repetition, neither is it to coax them into learning through carefully chosen rewards and punishments. Rather, facilitating discovery by guiding students as they try to assimilate new knowledge to old and customize the old to accommodate the new is the actual role of an instructor. Teachers must thus carefully consider the knowledge that the learner currently possesses while deciding how to formulate the curriculum and to present, sequence, and structure new material. 


Cognitivist teaching methods aspire to help students in comprehending and adding new information to existing knowledge, and enabling them to make the suitable modifications to their extant intellectual framework to accommodate new facts. Thus, while cognitivists allow for the use of “skill and drill” exercises in the retrospection of facts, formulae, and lists, they maintain that strategies which help students to actively assimilate and accommodate new knowledge are more important. For instance, asking students to explain newly taught material in their own words can help them in assimilating it by encouraging them to re-word the new ideas in their existent vocabulary. Similarly, providing students with sets of related questions to formulate their reading makes it easier for them to connect it to old material by highlighting certain parts and to assemble the new material by providing a clear organizational structure. Because learning is self-motivated in the cognitivist framework, cognitivists such as A. L. Brown and J. D. Ferrara have suggested methods which require students to monitor their own learning. For instance, the use of ungraded tests and study questions enables students to monitor their own understanding of the material. Other methods that have been suggested include the use of learning journals by students to monitor progress and highlight any recurring difficulties, and to analyze study habits. For more detailed views of educationists Jean Piaget and William Perry on cognitive constructivism, read our next article.