Cognitive learning refers to an approach to learning that focuses on thinking skills, such as problem-solving, categorizing, critiquing, analyzing, and evaluating.
This approach sits in contrast to behavioral learning, which focuses on the ability to memorize facts rather than the ability to think things through.
In essence, cognitive learning is about learning to think rather than learning what to think.
This approach is based on the constructivist learning approach and cognitive psychology in education, founded by key theorists like John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Maria Montessori.
Cognitive Learning Examples
When engaging in cognitive learning tasks, we’re engaging in tasks that focus on the process of thinking, not just the outcomes. Some examples of such tasks include:
Problem-solving is a cognitive learning strategy that involves identifying issues and figuring out the best ways to resolve them.
This strategy prompts you to organize, evaluate, and act on information about a problem to formulate a solution.
It engages cognition in learning as it stimulates the brain to generate ideas, hypotheses, or alternative solutions that help to resolve a given problem.
Essentially, problem-solving cultivates the understanding and application of knowledge, a key aspect of cognitive learning.
Problem-Solving Example: A classic example of problem-solving in action is puzzle solving. When you’re faced with a jigsaw puzzle, you must analyze the individual pieces, consider their unique shapes and the image they contain, and determine how they fit together into a complete picture, engaging critical thinking and assessment skills.
2. Inquiry-Based Learning
Inquiry-based learning is a student-centered pedagogical approach that encourages learners to explore knowledge by posing questions, investigating them, and answering then them.
This method requires learners to seek out information actively rather than passively receive it. It facilitates cognitive learning by stimulating curiosity, fostering a deep understanding, and enhancing investigative skills.
The method fuels active learning, encourages students to think for themselves rather than simply repeating information they’ve memorized, and drives learners to make connections between their existing knowledge and new information.
Inquiry-Based Learning Example: An example of inquiry-based learning can be a science experiment in a classroom setting. Learners are given a scientific problem or phenomenon to investigate. They formulate their own hypotheses, conduct experiments, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions. This process helps bridge the gap between theory and practice and enhances their understanding of scientific principles.
3. Concept Mapping
Concept mapping involves making a visual representation of relationships among ideas. This encourages learners to visualize how to link newly acquired information with what they already know.
At the crux of concept mapping is the cognitive learning process of associating, analyzing, and synthesizing information.
This technique prompts students to visually represent complex concepts in hierarchical diagrams, thereby nurturing their ability to critically understand, interrelate, and retain information.
In essence, concept mapping improves how learners integrate new and old knowledge, making the learning process more efficient and effective.
Concept Mapping Example: An example of concept mapping can be seen in studying a broad subject like World War II. A student can create a concept map that includes key incidents, countries involved, significant persons, and outcomes, and draws connections between them. This visual representation can help students understand the complex web of events and people that made up this historical event, enhancing their ability to comprehend, remember, and communicate their understanding of the topic.
4. Evaluating Media Sources
Evaluating media sources may not be the first example of cognitive learning you think of, but it’s essentially a critical thinking skill that requires the application of a range of higher-order thinking tasks, such as critically analyzing and assessing credibility.
This technique prompts learners to discern reliable information from misinformation, bias, and propaganda, promoting good judgement and critical thinking skills.
The process encourages learners to question the source of information, its accuracy, objectivity, and timeliness, engaging their cognitive skills.
Defining the credibility of media sources not only enhances your comprehension of the subject, but also shapes your capacity to form informed perspectives based on accurate data.
Media Literacy Example: If a student is researching climate change, they would need to assess the validity of different sources of information. They may come across a variety of articles, documentaries, social media posts, and academic papers, each with its own perspective. Evaluating these sources—checking for the reputation of the publication, the credentials of the author, the timeliness of the source, and comparing the information with other credible sources—gives the student a well-rounded, reliable understanding of the topic.
Hypothesizing involves formulating an informed guess or prediction based on current knowledge and understanding. This requires a range of cognitive skills.
Hypothesizing stimulates your analytical skills, engages your problem-solving abilities, and promotes creative thinking.
It invites learners to think critically and make predictions before testing them. This active engagement with the learning material encourages a deeper understanding of concepts and ideas.
In essence, hypothesizing allows learners to apply their prior knowledge and logical thinking to predict outcomes, thereby enhancing their learning experience.
Hypothesizing Example: An example of hypothesizing in action would be students in a biology class predicting what might happen to a plant if it’s deprived of sunlight. Their hypotheses, which would be based on their understanding of photosynthesis and plant biology, would invite further exploration and experimentation, integrating their theoretical knowledge with real-world experiences.
Experimenting involves the systematic procedure that scientists and researchers follow to establish facts and reach new conclusions. It’s an essential part of cognitive learning because it requires the application of several cognitive skills such as observation, analysis, and synthesis.
Experimenting encourages learners to observe, question, hypothesize, predict, analyze data, and draw conclusions.
It relies on a methodical approach to test hypotheses and validate or invalidate them based on the results, fostering the learner’s ability to analyze, evaluate, and draw conclusions.
In essence, experimenting promotes the integration of theoretical knowledge with practical application, enhancing both understanding and retention in the process.
Experimental Research Example: An example of experimenting could be a physics lab where students are asked to predict the trajectory of an object launched from a spring-loaded launcher. After setting up the experiment and collecting data on several launches, students can analyze and interpret their data to understand how real-world observations align with theoretical projections. This engages cognitive learning by prompting students to apply, analyze, and assess their understanding of physics principles.
7. Critical Analysis
Critical analysis means dissecting information or ideas into basic parts to understand their structure, context, purpose, and implications.
This process encourages the learner to understand, interpret, and critique information, while also assessing the validity of arguments and the reliability of evidence.
In its essence, critical analysis requires learners to engage in higher cognitive operations such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, fostering a deep understanding of the material.
Investigating the validity, reliability, and relevance of arguments, evidence, and claims helps to develop more comprehensive conclusions.
Critical Analysis Example: For instance, a history student studying the causes of a significant event, like the French Revolution, can engage in critical analysis by examining multiple perspectives, assessing their sources, and piecing together the factors contributing to this momentous event. This analysis requires the student to not just acknowledge the facts, but to deconstruct them, assess their validity, and synthesize a comprehensive picture of historical cause and effect.
8. Abstract Reasoning
Abstract reasoning involves the ability to process and manipulate complex ideas and relationships, going beyond memorizing facts to make generalizations, identify patterns, and understand underlying concepts.
Key to cognitive learning, abstract reasoning stimulates your brain to think about information on a deeper and less concrete level, encouraging the development of higher-order thinking skills.
Through abstract reasoning, learners extract principles and ideas from specific instances, enabling them to apply their knowledge to new and various contexts.
In essence, abstract reasoning cultivates the ability to perceive relationships, recognize patterns, and manipulate abstract ideas, thereby enhancing the overall learning experience.
Abstract Thinking Example: A student learning algebra uses abstract reasoning to understand that an equation like y = 2x means for every unit increase in x, y increases by two units, irrespective of the specific numbers involved. The student is reasoning with symbols and concepts—x and y, rate of change—not just concrete numbers. This mental manipulation of abstract ideas helps in understanding, representing, and solving abstract mathematical problems.
9. Decision Making
Decision making entails choosing among alternatives based on the evaluation of available information.
Involving several cognitive steps, decision making calls upon your ability to process and evaluate data, consider alternatives, and foresee potential outcomes.
Beyond just being a functional skill in day-to-day life, decision making in a cognitive learning context enhances your critical thinking ability and promotes the use of strategic thinking.
By employing decision-making processes, learners are encouraged to assess, analyze, and integrate multiple pieces of information, contributing to a more active and engaged learning experience.
Decision Making Example: Consider a business student engaged in a simulation exercise where they must decide the best marketing strategy for a new product. The student must evaluate a range of variables such as target market, budget constraints, competition, and potential return on investment. This forces them to integrate different pieces of information, engage in strategic thinking, and make educated decisions, thereby enhancing their cognitive learning.
10. Logical Reasoning
Logical reasoning involves deducing conclusions from valid propositions. It requires an understanding of logical principles and the application of logical thought.
This technique prompts learners to systematically follow a train of thought to reach valid conclusions, integrating a variety of cognitive skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
Logical reasoning enhances a learner’s understanding, decision-making abilities, and problem-solving skills, while cultivating a deeper understanding of the material at hand.
By engaging in logical reasoning, individuals can more effectively analyze relationships among propositions, draw logical conclusions, and make well-informed decisions.
Logical Reasoning Example: For instance, a computer programming student uses logical reasoning when writing code. They must understand the problem, plan a resolution, write the code, and then test it to see if it produces the desired outcome. If the code doesn’t function as intended, the student has to locate the bug, understand its underlying problem, and then correct the error— a process that requires logical reasoning at every step.
A Full List of Cognitive Learning Methods
Theory Underpinning the Cognitive Learning Approach
1. John Dewey
John Dewey is considered one of the early proponents of cognitive learning theories, articulating the processes involved in thinking, knowing, and problem-solving.
He promoted an active, student-centered approach to education, emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and problem-solving, key components of cognitive learning theories.
His ideas contributed to the shift from teacher-centered rote memorization to student-centered active learning, known widely as progressive education.
Dewey suggested that students learn best when they are actively involved in their learning process. He believed that learning should be applicable to real-life situations, stimulating learners to understand and then apply their knowledge, thereby strengthening their cognitive skills.
His work paved the way for the development of constructivism and problem-based learning, both of which are hallmarks of cognitive learning theories.
In essential terms, John Dewey’s education philosophy and theories underscore the link between thinking and doing in education, setting the foundations for modern interpretations of cognitive learning.
2. Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, revolutionized our understanding of children’s cognition in learning with his theory of cognitive development.
Piaget proposed a stage theory of cognitive development, arguing that children progress through distinct stages of cognitive growth, each characterized by unique ways of thinking and understanding the world.
His theoretical framework outlines four developmental stages: the sensory-motor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage.
Piaget emphasized the role of active discovery in learning. He believed that children construct their own knowledge of the world through experiences and interactions, a concept that became key to cognitive learning theories.
Moreover, Piaget highlighted the process of “schema” development and adaptation through assimilation and accommodation, shedding light on how learners continually modify their understanding of the world in response to new experiences.
In essence, Jean Piaget’s contribution laid the groundwork for our understanding of cognitive learning, emphasizing the role of active exploration, systematic stages of development, and the continuous process of constructing and restructuring knowledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]