Definition of Cognitive Tools
Cognitive tools are educational technologies that help students learn. They enable students to think more deeply about a topic or perform at a higher level than we would without them.
A cognitive tool does not do the thinking for students but provide strategies and guidance to help students to process information more efficiently.
Cognitive Tools Definition
Now here are a few explanations of the idea of “cognitive tools” from educational scholars:
- Korres (2019, p. 7) argues that cognitive tools are “computational tools that can function as intellectual partners of the students, while they are engaged in discovery learning/constructivistic activities.”
- Drew (2019, p. 1) argues, “Educational technologies become cognitive tools when they not only make tasks easier to achieve, but also support learners to organise and reorganise their thoughts.”
- Nesbit (2019, p. 101) calls cognitive tools “computer-based, learner-centered aids for knowledge construction.”
It’s hard to classify what is and isn’t a ‘cognitive tool’, but if you use the above definitions, we can do it. So, let’s use the above definitions to explore some different types of tools to see if they are or are not cognitive tools…
Categories of Cognitive Tools
A cognitive tool will do one of the following two things:
- It will help us think about things more deeply than if we didn’t have the tool; or
- It will help make us smarter even after we’ve stopped using it.
Cognitive Tool Examples
A calculator isn’t necessarily a cognitive tool. But it can be if you use it right!
Sometimes a cognitive tool is defined by how you use it, not what it is.
If you use a calculator just to solve the question for you, it hasn’t met our important definitions outlined at the start of this article. It hasn’t helped you get smarter!
But if you use a calculator to help you think more deeply? Now we’re onto something!
Here’s how you can use a calculator to think more deeply:
- Using a Calculator as a Cognitive Tool: If you’re doing complex algebra, you can use the calculator to do the simpler sums so you can spend more time focusing on the hard bits! The calculator will help by getting all the easy stuff out of the way. Because of the calculator, you will be less distracted and more focused on the task at hand: learning how to solve that pesky mathematical puzzle. So long as you’re using the calculator for lower-order tasks and personally focussing on the higher-order tasks, it’s acting as a cognitive tool. It’s helping you to think!
This is the lesson we’ve learned here:
Don’t use calculators to teach addition, subtraction and multiplication. But, use it as a tool to help you put together the pieces when solving a harder mathematical puzzle.
2. Mind and Concept Maps
Mind maps and concept maps are visual representations of our thoughts. They usually look something like this:
These maps involve us drawing lines between ideas to show connections between them.
So how are they cognitive tools?
Well, a lot of academic research tells us that mind maps are amazing for helping you to sort and organize ideas in your head. They help you to see relationships between concepts and visualize the answers that we couldn’t do without the maps in our hands!
That’s because we can’t create these complex maps with our heads alone. Yes, we make connections between ideas in our heads all the time. But because humans can only really hold about 7 ideas in our head at a time, our brains are terrible at making big, complex concept maps with more than a few connections.
By using cognitive tools to draw representations of our thoughts, we can work our way through complex ideas that we couldn’t just do in our heads.
Here are some great free Mind Map and Concept Map websites you can use:
I’ll leave you to explore them in your own time…
3. Microworld Games
Microworld games are computer games that mimic real-life. They’re worlds in which digital learners can experiment with variables within the world to test the results of their inputs.
The cool thing about microworld games is that they often have rules – like basic rules of physics – which allow for a great deal of lifelike experimentation. This lets learners ‘play’ in world-like environments to test out scenarios and learn relationships between actions and consequences.
An Example from a Study:
Scholars in Taiwan recently created a microworld using the RPG Maker game making software and tested it on Year 6 students. They made a microworld in which students can change inputs of speed and time to test the results of a ‘race’.
The students could run the game, see whether their character won the race, then change the inputs to try again.
Did this meet our definition of a cognitive tool:
- Did the tool help the students think more deeply?
- Might it have left residual effects in the form of improved skills?
According to the authors of the study, Yes!
They conducted a quasi-experimental design with an experimental group and a control group. From the test, they found the students in the group who used the game had measurably improved post-test scores.
Here, then, the tool at least meets our second requirement for a cognitive tool: improved learning performance!
4. Smart Watches
Smart watches are some of the most interesting cognitive tools on the market today.
We can use smart watches to help us to work our way through cognitively taxing tasks. If calibrated correctly, the watches can provide scaffolded support through providing prompts, directions, questioning and hints that help students to progress their learning.
The cool thing about smart watches is that all of this learning can be done while students are participating in authentic, real-world environments.
An Example from a Study:
A recent study published in the journal Educational Technology & Society used watches to help English Language Learners succeed in authentic English language contexts.
The authors (Shadiev, Hwang & Liu, 2018) got students to use their smart watches while ‘out and about’. One of the coolest elements that showed the watches as cognitive tools was this:
[Students used] the speech recognition tool to speak in English and get feedback about pronunciation. (Shadiev, Hwang & Liu, 2018, p. 223)
The watches weren’t doing the learning for the students: the students still had to do the speaking. They would still have had to come up with the right words to say, but had that buffer of getting the added support on how well they said it.
Here, you can see the smart watches would have been valuable in helping the students think more deeply about their language learning.
So, what were the results?
According to the authors, they believe:
Using wearable devices, such as smart watches, during language learning can facilitate language practice in authentic contexts and, therefore, foster learning outcomes (Shadiev, Hwang & Liu, 2018, p. 226).
5. GPS Mobile Apps
This is another great mobile technology that can act as a cognitive tool.
GPS mobile apps are a lot like smart watches, but usually more powerful and have more dynamic interfaces.
Students can navigate their surrounds and – when they reach locations on their GPS maps – unlock activities to complete.
Again, we need to think about whether the apps will actually help students to learn better than if they didn’t have them. The tools can’t give the students the answers, they need to help stimulate deep thinking. Remember, that’s our threshold for calling it a ‘cognitive tool’.
Here’s another great study, also published in the Educational Technology & Society journal:
The authors of this study (Jong, Chan, Hue & Tam, 2018) got students to navigate to ‘exploratory spots’ on their GPS-enabled tablets before prompting students to conduct “context capturing via photo-taking and video-recording gadgets, environmental surveys, as well as audio-recording interviews with the locals”.
Here’s a screenshot of what their interface looked like:
The authors show us that the tool didn’t give students answers, but provided them with ‘scaffolds’, or prompts, to promote learning:
The digital gadgets (e.g., voice navigation, context capturing, video blogging) in GAMES […] assisted them in conducting the sub-tasks more efficiently and effectively (Jong et al., 2018, p. 288).
What’s not a Cognitive Tool?
We use tools in our lives every day to achieve tasks. But, they’re not always cognitive tools.
Here are some examples of tools that aren’t cognitive tools:
- A calculator when used to answer the sum 5 x 5;
- Google when used to search for the answers to a quiz.
These are great tools that make our lives better. But they aren’t being used as cognitive tools. Neither of them are necessarily employing the affordances of technology to make us smarter!
Remember, we need to go back to our definition of a cognitive tool: a cognitive tool helps us think more deeply.
- The calculator example: sure, it may solve a problem for you. But did you think harder? No. The calculator did all the thinking for you instead! A cognitive tool shouldn’t stop you from thinking, it should help you think more!
- The Google search example: sure, it helped you pass the quiz. You might have even won a prize for it! But did you get any smarter? No! Google did all the thinking for you!
A cognitive tool doesn’t think for you. It thinks with you. We call this distributed cognition.
So now it’s time to have a look at some cognitive tools in action!
What is the Future of Cognitive Tools?
The cognitive tools metaphor can successfully focus the teacher’s mind on the purpose of educational technologies. The central point of having technologies in the classroom is so they can help students learn.
But as technologies get more and more complex, can we move beyond cognition-based learning? Here are some future avenues for extending the cognitive tools metaphor:
- Artificial Intelligence: AI ChatBots like ChatGPT can be used as cognitive tools if you enter prompts that help you to think at a higher-level about your work.
- Social-Cognitive Tools: How do educational technologies help us to learn more socially? What avenues are there for using the internet to improve our cognition through deeper social connections with ‘more knowledgeable others’?
- Emotive-Cognitive Tools: How do educational technologies tap into our emotional states? Could they read our emotions and provide us scaffolded supports to help us through times when school makes us depressed, demotivated and deflated?
- Physio-Cognitive Tools: Can wearable technologies use our physical states to help us learn? In sports sciences, we have seen this for decades: we use biometric feedback to help us learn more about our bodies and make smarter decisions.
How Can I Learn More?
The cognitive tools concept has its origins in the social-constructivist learning theory (Think: Vygotsky). Key scholars from the theory include Pea, Solomon and Jonassen. If you’re a student writing an essay on the topic, an accessible short scholarly introduction to the theory is provided in this open access academic article on the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology website.
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]