Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cognitive Learning Theory - and its teaching implications

Cognitive learning theory explains the process of learning by describing how we acquire, organise and use knowledge (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). The theory focuses on internal mental activities to understand how people learn and emphasizes that students are active in the learning process through efforts to mentally organise and store knowledge (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

As outlined by Eggen & Kauchak (2010) Cognitive learning theories are based on the following principles:

Learning and development depend on learners experiences.
Learners are mentally active in their attempts to make sense of those experiences.
Learners construct knowledge in the process of developing an understanding of their experiences. Learners do not record knowledge.
Knowledge that is constructed depends on knowledge that learners already possess.
Learning is enhanced in a social environment.

It is interesting to note that both cognitive learning theorists and constructivists agree on the principles that learning is: dependent on past experiences and knowledge, that learners construct knowledge and that learning is enhanced in a social environment (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Central to the theory of Cognitive learning is how information is processed internally; as such, the rest of this blog topic will cover how the human memory works and the teaching implications of this for the effective teacher.

Various theorists, such as R. Atkinson & Shiffron (1968, as cited by Eggen & Kauchak, 2010) have utilised an allegory of a computer to illustrate how the human memory works, often described within the context of information processing theory, which as described by Eggen & Kauchak (p 198, 2010) is “how information enters our memory system, is organised and finally stored”.


Above is an example of an interpretation of a human memory model, the model has 3 major components: Memory Stores, Cognitive Processes and Metacognition. The importance of memory stores for the teacher is in knowing how information is received, filtered and stored and its limitations. The effective teacher needs to be aware that:

Sensory Memory: briefly holds incoming stimuli (sound, taste, touch, visual, smell) until further processing can take place, once meaning is attached it will transfer it to the working memory for processing. If information is not immediately processed it will be lost, as such a teacher needs to present one stimulus at a time, e.g. one question one answer at a time (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Working Memory: is the factory of the memory stores, it is where learners consciously process and construct knowledge (Paas et al., 2004; as cited by Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). The important consideration for the effective teacher is in its limitations, with studies demonstrating that it can only work with two to three items simultaneously (Sweller et al., 1998, p. 252; as cited by Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). As such the effective teacher needs to limit the amount of information presented and/or utilise ways to reduce the cognitive load on the working memory by:

Chunking information - it is recognised that the working memory’s limitations is based on the number of pieces of information being processed not the size of/or complexity of the information being processed, as such by combining separate bits of information into larger meaningful units allows the working memory to process the information (Sweller et al, 1998; as cited Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Achieving Automaticity – when something becomes that familiar you do it without thinking, freeing up the working memory as it does not need to actively process it, e.g. writing with a pen (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Using Distributed Processing - combining visual and verbal explanations assists students in being able to deal with more pieces of information, as different parts of the working memory are used in tandem each reducing the load on the other (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

To maximise the ability of the working memory the effective teacher needs to present information using both visual and verbal methods, and by presenting the information as a whole topic, then breaking it down into smaller bits.

Long-term memory - is thought to have an endless storage potential, the issue for teachers is that if the information is not stored correctly then the learner is not able to retrieve it. The effective teacher needs to be able to present the information in a format that capitalises on the strengths of long-term memory, such as:

Make it personal: It is known that when people have strong emotional ties to an event they are more likely to remember it (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). The effective teacher can capitalize on this by personalising the content or by creating an emotional impact, e.g. when learning about animals by taking the students to the zoo, the teacher is both personalising and creating emotional ties to the information (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Make it meaningful: information should be taught as interconnected ideas this makes the information more meaningful and reduces the load on the working memory (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Do it without thinking: students need to obtain automaticity on how to perform tasks (procedural knowledge) and need to be allowed time to practice to be able to achieve this, it is also important that this occurs in real-life context as it is known to benefit learning (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

To facilitate storage of information into long-term memory the effective teacher should present the whole topic, attempt to personally or emotionally involve the learners for example through drawing on individual experiences or including excursions, and allow students time to be able to practice procedural knowledge to automaticity.

The Process
The issue for the effective teacher is that the learning process occurs internally, as such teaching strategies need to be implemented to ensure that cognitive activity is occcuring (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).
As outlined by Eggen et al, the cognitive process requires:
  • Learners to actively focus on the incoming stimulus.
  • Meaning to be attached to the incoming stimulus.
  • Information to be encoded correctly for later retrieval.
A framework of teaching strategies that encourage cognitive processing are provided in the following flowchart. (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010)

The effective teacher needs to focus on achieving and maintaining attention. As learners develop, managing attention becomes easier as older students are better able to filter distracting stimuli and are more aware of conditions that assist with maintaining attention (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010), e.g. sitting up the front of the class or consciously focusing on what the teacher is saying. This is known as being metacognitive, to assist students in achieving metacognition the effective teacher should model this behaviour, for example; using statements such as, I need the radio off at home to be able study, or I need to make sure that I have had a good nights sleep to be able to concentrate in class (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

To facilitate the theory of Cognitive learning, the effective teacher's classroom would need to encompass the following teaching strategies as outlined by Eggen & Kauchak (2010), an example has been provided to illustrate this theory in practice:

  • Gain attention and check for prior knowledge.
    Classroom Example, if studying the human anatomy the class could start with the students forming groups, sketching an outline of a students body onto butcher paper and then attempting to draw organs on the sketch based on the students prior knowledge. This activity gains attention and allows the teacher to uncover prior knowledge and any misconceptions.
  • Ask questions.
    To ensure that the information is being perceived correctly, throughout the class, ask questions to clarify understanding, get students to explain and illustrate understanding of human anatomy through drawing it on the butcher paper.
  • Present information both visually and verbally.
    In this example, through utilising the drawing to represent the anatomy and discussing the activity this has been achieved.
  • Help students encode information into long-term memory.
    As the students are actively involved in the activity of drawing the anatomy this increases the likelihood of meaningful connections being made.
  • Model Metacognition.
    The effective teacher in this example could model metacognition by suggesting that when she tries to remember where organs belong, she thinks of personal experiences such as when she visits the doctor and the doctor checks her heart rate.

As described in the example the impact of employing cognitive learning theory in the classroom does not require much effort, what it does require is planning of how the lesson will be presented to maximise cognitive activity, and questioning and modelling techniques which once a certain level of experience is achieved will become an automatic process. Technology will enhance the teachers ability to gain and maintain attention, through the internet and new media the effective teacher will be able grab the students attention exciting and enthusing the learner with the possibilities that knowledge can bring. Moving into tomorrow's classroom the difficulty for the effective teacher will be in managing students attention from the distractions of personal technology, mobile phones and ipods; technology that is banned (thankfully) in many classrooms of today.



Eggen & Kauchak P. & Kauchak D. (2010). Educational psychology: windows on classrooms (8th. Ed.). French's Forest: Pearson. as retrieved 26th January, 2010. as retrieved 24th January, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. As with all theories there are variations, proponents and opponents, whilst cognitive learning theory gives the teacher an insight into the workings of the human memory it is also important to remember its limitations.

    The effective teacher needs to consider cognitive processes within the classroom, and use it as part of the bigger picture of reflection in achieving a classroom environment that fosters safety and learning.