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Part of Western Governors University

March 12, 2020

Teaching & Education

What is cognitive learning?

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“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” -Voltaire

Think back to your time in school. Was there a concept or subject that just clicked for you? You understood it clearly, and it made sense. Now, think about a time at school when you couldn’t understand a concept or subject no matter how hard you tried. Teachers face both of these situations with learners every single day. Some learners struggle with more things than others, and it’s a teacher’s role to work to help students understand and learn. That can be a lot of pressure on a teacher. One way current and aspiring teachers can be prepared to help learners who struggle with is to consider different theories and tactics that could be helpful. As teachers work to understand more cognitive theories, they will have more tools at their disposal to create an environment full of knowledge and strategies for each unique student. If you’re working to get a teaching degree, it’s important to get knowledge about these different learning theories that could be important in helping you be the best teacher possible.

Cognitive understanding is an interesting learning theory that focuses on thought. Cognition encourages students to “think about their thinking” as a means to help them unlock a concept or subject they struggle with. Cognitive learning can help boost learner engagement and motivation as it gives them a new way to look at themselves and their brain. Cognition is the key to unlocking impactful knowledge and brain power for learners, increasing their skills. This guide will dive deeper into this theory and help teachers learn how to utilize it in their classroom. 

What is cognitive learning theory?

To understand cognitive learning theory, it’s important to learn the term “metacognition.” Metacognition is the awareness of your brain's thoughts and thought processes. This concept of knowing how you think is the basis for cognitive learning theory. 

This theory on cognition asks learners to look at thinking and mental processes, and how cognitive thinking can be influenced by external and internal factors. If your cognitive processes are working normally, it’s easier to learn. But if something is off with a cognitive process, difficulties can ensue. Cognitive learning can be broken down into social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioral theory.

The cognitive theory has an interesting and unique history. Plato and Descartes are two of the first philosophers to dive deeply into the theory of cognitive behavior and knowledge. Their ideas about knowledge and behavior spurred further thoughts on cognition. Researchers and psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt, William James, John Dewey, John Watson, and many others all researched and explored how the mind and thought works. Jean Piaget is highly looked to in the field of cognitive psychology for his research and insight on internal structures, knowledge, and the environment. Piaget is also known for his development levels that break down ages and comprehension abilities. More psychologists have come over time, and things like the invention of the computer have dramatically impacted how we understand the brain. As we’re able to actively look at the brain, we have a much better comprehension of it. Cognitive learning theory has adjusted and adapted as we learn over time, and every step in learning about this process is impactful in helping people every single day. 

The social cognitive theory.

Social cognitive theory is the idea that learning happens in a social concept and is impacted by the person, environment, and behavior. In social cognitive theory it is suggested that there are several factors that impact a person’s ability to perform and learn. Their internal thoughts, and external forces around them can both play an important role in their cognitive process. Social interactions, things they see around them, observed behavior, and how they interpret these things all impact behavior and learning. For example, a teacher can help students see the outcome of a certain behavior. They can show students that when they listen to instructions and follow quickly, there is more time at the end of the day for a reward. This gives students the motivation to follow that social behavior. 

The cognitive behavioral theory.

Behavioral cognitive theory is the idea that how we think, how we feel, and how we behave are all directly connected together. Simply put, this means that our thoughts determine our feelings and behavior. All of these cognitive elements can directly impact how students learn in a classroom setting. If a student believes they aren’t good at math, that it doesn’t come naturally to them for some reason, that they are dumb and won’t understand, they are likely to feel frustration and anger during a math lesson and perform poorly. The cognitive behavioral theory is closely connected to social cognitive theory—social cognitive theory identifies how external forces AND internal forces, your thoughts, impact your learning. Social cognitive theory utilizes behavior cognitive theory to explain learning. 

A diverse group of children happily play instruments with their teacher.

Cognitive learning strategies.

While you may now have a basic understanding of what cognitive learning theory is, it’s even more important to understand how to apply it in everyday life or the classroom. There are many types of cognitive learning and a wide variety of strategies you can utilize to help you maximize student achievement. Some of these strategies include:

  • Asking questions. When students are asked questions it gives them an opportunity to dive deeper into meaning. Questions based on a student’s response can help them dissect their learning and understanding in a certain area, getting deeper into their own thought process and understanding. 

  • Having opportunities to make errors. Giving students a simulation or hands-on problem gives them the opportunity to make mistakes, and then learn from them. A simulation that shows them where they went wrong can then help them correct. This helps them understand where in their thought process they were off, and they can go and reroute their thinking to get to the correct answer. 

  • Fostering self-reflection/self-questioning. Giving students opportunities for self reflection can be huge in helping them understand their mental process. Journal questions, quiet time, and self-analysis discussions can be great ways to encourage students to think about their thinking.

  • Thinking aloud. Teachers can themselves think aloud, showing students how they rationalize or work out problems. They can then give students that same opportunity. In group projects, in one-on-one interactions, and in presentations teachers can ask questions or make suggestions that can help students think aloud. 

All of these strategies can be crucial in helping students improve their writing skills, analytic skills, comprehension, retention, self-regulation, and more. 

Cognitive learning's place in the classroom.

While it may feel like psychology and experiments are extremely regulated and hard to implement, cognitive learning theory and real classroom learning go hand-in-hand. The findings that psychologists make in experiments can have direct impacts on how teacher’s work to help students learn. 

How to Use Cognitive Learning Strategies as an Educator

Teachers can use cognitive learning strategies to create a great learning environment for their students. You can create behavioral systems that rely on cognitive learning to encourage improved behavior. You can create a peaceful and informative classroom environment that helps make students feel confident in learning. You can help create an environment that relies on positive thoughts that can lead to better learning. It’s also valuable for teachers to work with parents to encourage positive learning environments that extend past the classroom doors. 

Cognitive Learning Activities:

Teachers can try some cognitive learning activities to increase learning opportunities for their students. Some activities teachers can try are:

  • Make a game of memorizing poetry or facts

  • Write a journal entry that asks students to think about what they learned that day or week

  • Students can demonstrate work in front of the class 

  • Have students create their own learning game as they work to master facts or a subject

  • Ask students to explain a problem to other students and teach it to them

  • Put a list of questions on the board and have students answer them to learn about their thought process

Teachers have a lot of pressure on them to help students learn the things they are supposed to. Focusing on learning theories can give teachers additional resources and strategies to help reach students and increase their understanding. If you’re pursuing a teaching degree, it’s a great idea to learn more about teaching and learning strategies to help you be a great teacher.

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