Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive learning theory asserts the premise that information is processed through three stages.  Sensory input of information is stored in short-term memory, but through rehearsal (or practice), information is then stored in one’s long-term memory (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011).  This is the ultimate goal of education.  Teachers do not wish for students to simply remember information for a test; they wish their students to fully understand and to be able to recall information even after a significant period of time.  An additional component of cognitive theory is Palvio’s dual coding hypothesis (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011) which states that information is stored as both images and text.  This is important information for teachers, as it helps to explain how students should be given information and why advanced organizers are a good teaching tool.  Finally, the primary mechanism for storing information into long-term memory is through elaboration, connecting new information to old information by activating prior knowledge.  Elaboration builds multiple connections to stored information (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011).  Because of this understanding of cognitive learning, teachers must utilize various teaching tools and strategies to help students retain information and store it in long-term memory.

Firstly, one excellent learning tool is an advanced organizer which helps students “classify and make sense of the content they will encounter, particularly new content that is not well organized in its original format” (Pitler, Hibbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007, p. 73).  Often times a student can get lost in the overwhelming amount of new pieces of information in a lesson.  Quality lectures, on the contrary, ask students to activate prior knowledge and connect new info to a concept already mastered as they “limit the information presented to a small number of core ideas that are thoroughly but not redundantly explained (Feldon, 2010, p.16).  If the new information cannot be connected to old information, then the student will have a more difficult time recalling the info when it is needed.  An advanced organizer, one that visually shows connections between the new material, can help students’ comprehension of the lecture material.  Advanced organizers should focus on the important parts of the lesson, not on extraneous material.  Organizers that allow students to add extensions to a limited number of main ideas permit students to focus their learning on the important material while they are making connections.  Because the amount of information is limited and because the information is connected to prior knowledge, students will make a greater number of connections and the information will have a greater chance of being stored in long-term memory.

Secondly, using cues and questions is another effective teaching strategy.  In the classroom, students should be clear about what they are to learn; concepts to be mastered should not be hinted at but directly stated.  Therefore, using technology to give students a preview of the unit or lesson is appropriate.  One way to do this is to provide an essential question and then have students brainstorm answers.  Using an online brainstorming tool, the class can make contributions, evaluate their collective answers, and then move forward by choosing different threads to research.  The online tool provides an effective visual for learners, while also allowing students to make connections to a new topic using prior knowledge.

Finally, many students have trouble taking notes.  They tend to write down everything a teacher says, and then they try to memorize their notes for the test.  Students needs to be taught how to take effective notes, that they need to delete trivial and redundant information, use superordinate terms, and provide a topic sentence if one is not provided (Pitler et al., 2007).  Students also need to be taught different forms of note taking, for example a “combination note format” (Pitler et al., 2007, p. 124).  Using summary frames is another way to help students process information.  Giving students a graphic to fill in as they read a chapter or watch a video helps them to make connections between the ideas presented.  This is a much more effective tool than an ordinary outline.  The material is organized, key topics are already highlighted, and there is little room for extraneous information.

A understanding of cognitive learning theory allows teachers to create effective lessons so that new information will move from short-term memory and into long-term memory through rehearsal.  Teachers need to provide multiple opportunities for students to make connections with new material by activating prior knowledge.  Technology can be an incredible asset in this regard.  With the use of spreadsheets, advanced organizers, and online brainstorming tools, teachers can help students to make sense of new information and master important concepts and skills.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer.) (2011). Program five. Cognitive Learning Theory.     Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Feldon, D. F. (2010). Why Magic Bullets Don’t Work. Change, 42(2), 15-21.
Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom     instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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10 Responses to Cognitive Learning Theory

  1. Dennis Tierney says:

    Hi Rachel,

    Another great blog post. Here are a few of my thoughts on this week’s topics. Graphic organizers are productive because they gives students practice in identifying the main idea, the topic and the most general, inclusive term under which domain the rest of the attributes or concepts fall. I also find concept mapping valuable since it mimics the hierarchical structure that are brain create when accommodating new knowledge. The win-win placement of a visual depiction plus labels also validates the dual coding approach. Finally, reciprocal teaching offers students a collaborative exercise in summarizing and developing focus questions.


    • Rachel says:

      Thank you! I also like graphic organizers and use them frequently. I have a new one to try that connects all the characters in MACBETH to one another. It is a great way to show the characters’ connections, to help students remember the plot, and to review the story in a very fun way. I am going to try to make it a game and have some kind of prize.

      Each year I teach transcendentalism and I have a very organized, linear outline. Next year, I will be using a concept map instead. It is a much better idea to help students make connections regarding some weighty ideas.

  2. Eryn Schmidt says:

    I believe the key using any or all of the learning theories is to know as much about them as possible, and find ways to incorporate all the different learning theories. I don’t believe there is just one that fits all, just like their is no one program for students to be successful. A student’s strengths come from genetics, experiences, support systems,etc are what make them such unique individuals and therefore they all learn in a different way. Each learning theory supports a different kind of learner. The more tools we can put into our students toolbox the more likely they will be successful.

    • Rachel says:

      Eryn, I completely agree. I have never settled on just one way to reach students. As a mother, I have seen the differences in my own kids. What works with one does not work with the other. Over the year, I have added more and more strategies to my list, all of them coming from different learning theories. I agree very much with your last sentence; the more tools we can give our students, the more likely they are to succeed.

  3. Debbie VanOtteren says:

    Rachel, the beauty of technology is that we do not have to settle on just one way to reach students. The variety and creativity is only limited by the individual student. Well, I guess the teacher could be a limiting factor, too. As teachers, we need to make technology available to the students, giving them the tools and resources they need to be creative in their learning. We also need to be able to assess what the students have learned. This is the difficult part for me. Teaching this way is more time-consuming, at least in the beginning. There is such a learning curve for me, before I can even begin to teach it to my students! Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Rachel says:

      I love the idea of allowing students to be creative and have a real say in directing their learning. Using tech has always been a positive experience for me. I am hopeful that our school budgets will continue to allow us to infuse more tech and, therefore, more creativity into our plans. I agree about the learning curve. I got really lucky this year. I used google Docs for the first time and thought I knew what I was doing. Alas, that was not the case, but luckily I had a student who helped me out:)

  4. Rhonda Vobr says:

    Rachel, I enjoyed your post and agree whole heartedly with the point you made about summary frames. Many students have no idea how to start taking notes other than trying to write down everything that is said or written. The summary frame tells them what to listen for and then provides only so much room to write in so the students get the hint to write short bits of information.The different organizers that were listed in our reading this week look like they will be fun to try and since they incorporate the use of technology, most students will look at the lesson as more fun than work.

    • Rachel says:

      I have found that in addition to being unable to take proper notes, my students also have a hard time with outlines. I have often assigned an outline as homework prior to a paper. What I get is a paper with Roman numerals next to the paragraphs. They don’t always have an idea about how to organize what they want to say, not do they know how to organize what WE say. Summary frames are a good idea.

  5. Pingback: Learning Theories Mash-up | Sharon Vogt: EDTECH Learning Log

  6. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for magnificent information I was looking for this info for my mission.

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