Cognitivism focuses on the mental processes of the learner and how the mind receives, processes, stores, and retrieves information. Jerome Bruner’s work influenced not only constructivism but also cognitivism. One of his early studies with Leo Postman concluded that mental processes are “powerfully determined by” previous experience (Bruner & Postman, 1949). He later stated that “knowing is a process, not a product” (Bruner, 1966) and stressed the importance of teaching learners to learn. Albert Bandura argued that much learning is observational, but agency also plays a role. He also believed that self-efficacy, or one’s confidence in their abilities, affects which behaviors learners choose to imitate and their success in performing those behaviors (Bandura, 2005)
Memory refers to how the brain acquires, encodes, organizes, stores, and recalls information. When we learn, we receive data via sensory input. That information is encoded and organized by the working memory, which interacts with the long-term memory to associate new knowledge within existing knowledge structures or schemata. After encoding and organizing, the long-term memory stores the information for later recall. Cognitive Load Theory states that there is a limit to the amount of information that can be processed by the working memory at one time, thus creating a potential bottleneck in the memory process. By limiting extraneous information, instructional designers can minimize that bottleneck.
In a cognitivist classroom, the teacher acts as a guide, and learners take an active role. The teacher can present new information in a manner that is meaningful to a learner by relating it to similar experiences and existing knowledge. The new information and existing knowledge do not have to match exactly, but similarities should allow learners to put the new information within a familiar context (Ertmer & Newby, 2013).
Because of its emphasis on mental processes, cognitivism is well-suited for complex forms of learning, such as reasoning, analysis, and problem-solving (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). A limitation of cognitivism is that it relies on mental processes which we cannot directly observe. It also relies on active participation and intrinsic motivation of the learner, so if the learner is disinterested, learning might not be possible.
Instructional designers can apply cognitivism by doing the following:
- Use relevant examples and analogies so learners can make connections with previously learned material.
- Provide information in manageable pieces to allow learners to process new information effectively.
- Eliminate irrelevant details such as background music and decorative graphics.
Bandura A. (2005). The evolution of social cognitive theory. In K.G. Smith & M.A. Hitts (Eds.) Great Minds in Management (pp 9-35) Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://d37djvu3ytnwxt.cloudfront.net/assets/courseware/v1/e57a5dfc0367fe26ee4ff80c9433e74e/asset-v1:USMx+LDT100x+2T2017_2+type@asset+block/Bandura2005.pdf
Bruner, J. S. (1966) Toward a Theory of Instruction, Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.
Bruner, J. S. & Postman, L. (1949). On the perception of incongruity: A paradigm. Journal of Personality, 18, 206-223.
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71
Mellanby, J., & Theobald, K. (2014). Education and learning: An evidence-based approach. Wiley-Blackwell.
Michela, E. (2018). Cognitivism. In R. Kimmons, The Students’ Guide to Learning Design and Research. EdTech Books. Retrieved from https://edtechbooks.org/studentguide/cognitivism