Learning Theory – Cognitivism

Posted by: Nesha Milicevic


“Cognitivism – Learning is a Mental Process

The cognitivist theory essentially teaches us that that the “black box” of the mind should be opened and understood. The learner is viewed as an information processor (like a computer) with its input, throughput and output, and this is where the term “information processing” originated. The cognitivist theory replaced behaviorism in 1960s. It focuses on the inner mental activities, and argues that the mind uses prior knowledge to process new information. People are rational beings that require active participation in order to learn, and whose actions are a consequence of thinking. Changes in behavior are observed, but only as an indication of what is occurring in the learner’s head. Mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving, need to be explored and used as valuable tools to better understand how people learn. Cognitivism uses the metaphor of the mind as information comes in, is being processed, and leads to outcomes. The three areas of research that are considered to have relevance to adult learning are: cognitive development, memory, and instructional design.

Piaget (1936) was the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development with his four-stage model of development. His studies start with a theory of child cognitive development, observational studies of cognition in children, and a series of simple but ingenious tests to reveal different cognitive abilities. The model starts with the infancy stage (sensory-motor response to stimuli), through the early childhood stage (representing concrete objects into symbols and words), and the being able to understand concepts and relationships in middle childhood, to being able to reason hypothetically and think abstractly (formal operation). The theory is trying to explain the mechanisms and processes by which the infant, and then the child, develops into an individual who can reason and think using hypotheses. According to Piaget, cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of biological maturation and environmental experience.

William Perry developed a theory that is based on his studies of the cognitive and ethical development in undergraduate students.  According to Perry, college students go through four stages of mental and moral development: dualism (belief that every problem is solvable), multiplicity (two types of problems: solvable and answer not known yet), relativism (all solutions to problems must have reason), and commitment (acceptance of uncertainty as part of life). The four stages are then further divided into nine positions.
King and Kitchener developed a seven-stage “reflective judgment” theory to describe the cognition that includes the recognition that real uncertainty exists about some issues. The Reflective Judgment Model describes development in reasoning about such issues in late adolescence through adulthood.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1958) further developed Piaget’s theory by introducing the six stages of moral development that are grouped into three levels: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality.

The concepts of cognitivism truly represent how we think and how we gain knowledge. It involves everything, starting with examining learning, memory, problem solving skills, and intelligence. The theorists try to understand how problem solving changes throughout different life cycles, and how cultural differences affect the way we view our own academic achievements, language development, and more.

Learners should be presented with tasks that are tailored to their developmental phase. Tasks should be motivating, and they should have ample opportunities to explore things on their own, and learn through discovery. They should also be encouraged to learn from each other.

The role of the Instructor is to assess the current stage of the Students cognitive development and only assign tasks for which they are prepared for. It is important that the Instructor is more concerned with the process of learning rather than the end product.  They should act as guides to the Students learning processes, and the curriculum should be adapted accordingly.



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