Cognitive Learning Theory for Adults | Theories & Principles

Cognitive Learning Theory for Adults | Theories & Principles

Everyone can benefit from applying cognitive learning theory. Using cognitive psychology in learning has major positive effects. On a personal level, it allows you to gain knowledge and learn new skills. On an organisational level, it can lead to a more robust learning culture.

What is Cognitive Learning Theory?

Cognitive learning theory is the belief that an individual’s mental processes (also called cognition or inner thought processes) play a huge role in their learning of new skills, different concepts, and complex tasks. Therefore, the theory suggests that to improve our learning, we must improve our cognition.

Cognitive Learning Theory Concepts

The cognitive learning process consists of the following major components:

  1. Attention – This can be conscious (actively trying to pay attention) or unconscious (paying attention involuntarily).
  2. Perception – This is how we perceive what we are paying attention to. For example, how we grasp new concepts or form our initial conception of a particular subject.
  3. Memory – This involves creating a connection between our perception and our long-term memory (existing knowledge gained from previous experiences).
  4. Comprehension – This is how we construct new knowledge based on our perception, our memory, and the connection between them.
  5. Problem Solving – This involves applying the new knowledge gained from using cognition.
  6. Decision Making – Through solving a problem or performing a particular task, we are able to form our own conclusions regarding it.

employees cooking

5 Principles of Cognitive Learning Theory

The 5 principles of cognitive learning theory are:

  1. The experiences of the learner are important to their learning.
  2. Learners use cognition to understand their experiences.
  3. By using cognition to understand their experiences, learners construct knowledge.
  4. Learners construct knowledge based on their existing knowledge.
  5. A social setting that creates learner experiences is conducive to learning.

Cognitive Learning Theories

Theory of Cognitive Development – 1936

This theory was first conceptualised by psychologist Jean Piaget in 1936. It is one of the 3 main cognitive theories of learning, along with Vygotsky’s theory and the informational process theory.

For Jean Piaget, both internal and external factors affect the cognitive processes of an individual. Internal factors such as a person’s thoughts and external factors such as social interaction are crucial to how an individual develops their understanding of the world.

When an individual is placed in a social setting, they are exposed to new experiences. They understand these new experiences by connecting them to their previous experiences. This process, known as assimilation, allows them to construct knowledge based on existing knowledge gained from previous experiences.

However, according to Piaget, a key factor in helping the individual form an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the world is the changing of existing knowledge. Though it’s used as the jumping-off point, it still needs to be modified to fit with what was recently learned. This process is known as accommodation.

Also included in Piaget’s theory are the 4 stages of development:

  1. Sensorimotor stage – Gain experience through exploration.
  2. Preoperational stage – Start creating knowledge through engagement.
  3. Concrete operational stage – Consolidate knowledge through elaboration.
  4. Formal operational stage – Use knowledge through application.

employee working in warehouse practisig cognitive behavioural theory

Cognitive Behavioural Theory – 1955

Cognitive behavioural theory is actually an adaptation of cognitive behavioural therapy. The latter in its earliest form was developed by Albert Ellis in 1955. This original form is known as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). According to a study (Oltean et al., March 2017) that assessed the validity of REBT, central to its theory is the ABC model.

  • A – Activating events (experiences)
  • B – Beliefs (thought processes regarding activating events)
  • C – Consequences (our behaviour)

This model proposes that our behaviours are not direct results of our experiences. Instead, how and what we think about those experiences are greater influences on our behaviours.

But what does this mean for cognitive learning?

Exhibiting rational behaviours is an application of cognitive learning. We can only perform a task in a rational manner if we understand how to do it in a rational manner.

Social Cognitive Theory – 1986

Albert Bandura redefined his social learning theory as social cognitive theory in 1986. Both versions of the theory suggest that individuals learn by observing:

  • the behaviours of others
  • the positive and negative reinforcement given to others as a result of their behaviours

If a person observes that certain behaviours lead to less negative reinforcements, they are highly likely to imitate those behaviours and change their own in the process.

In the first version, however, learning is fully dependent on social observation. Social cognitive theory, on the other hand, implies that learning is dependent on both social observation and our use of cognition during the act of social observation.

Difference Between Theories

The difference between the learning theories is the approach to the social context. For Piaget, both the social context and cognition are important to learning. For Ellis, his theory focuses on using cognition to overcome the social context and learn positive behaviours. In the social cognitive theory of Bandura, while cognition is important, the social context is more prominent in facilitating learning.

Benefits of Cognitive Learning

Here are 3 research-backed benefits of cognitive learning:

It makes educational interventions more effective.

A case study (IntechOpen, July 2023) showed that when cognitive development perspectives are used in educational interventions, there are “improvements in learning and a reduction of anxiety and stress.”

Frank L. Greitzer, a former chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), authored a conference paper which states that applying cognitive principles “leads to a training experience that is more interesting, relevant, and effective–not only for electronic learning, but also for traditional classroom-based instruction.”

It allows for implementation in various settings.

Research on cognitive theory states that a “strength of the cognitive approach is that it has many practical applications.” According to a conference paper co-authored by Greitzer, cognitive learning principles “apply to a broad range of training topics and contexts.”

It gives more control and credit to the learner.

According to a journal article, cognitive perspectives help shape learner-centred instruction. In a comparison of traditional learning and cognitive learning, a criticism of the former is that it does not attribute changes in performance to student mediation.

hardhat wearing employees studying plans

Cognitive Learning Examples

The types of cognitive learning are explicit, implicit, non-associative, rote, meaningful, associative, observational and experiential.

Explicit Learning

Explicit learning is about making a conscious effort to learn. For example, in discovery learning, this conscious effort is in the form of discovery or exploration. Essentially, explicit learning involves actively seeking the means to acquire knowledge.

Implicit Learning & Non-Associative Learning

Implicit learning is when the learner does not know that they are learning. It also includes non-associative learning, in which individuals learn through repeated exposure. This means that no action is immediately required of the learner.

Rote Learning

Rote learning is when students learn by memorising information. This is accomplished through repetition, which involves the learner repeatedly exposing themselves to the information and then repeating it.

Meaningful Learning & Associative Learning

Both involve connecting the various parts and aspects of the learning process. But while associative learning is about connecting them to each other, meaningful learning is about connecting them to the learning process as a whole.

Observational Learning

Observational learning is similar to non-associative learning in the sense that it does not require reinforcement for learning to occur. The difference between them is that the former requires the act of observation from the learner and the latter does not.

Experiential Learning

In this type, learning is achieved through first-hand practical experience. It also involves self-reflection on what was experienced or done. Experiential learning is based on how the learner performs and what they think of that performance.

employee learning using cognitive theories from supervisor

Cognitive Learning Strategies

Learning strategies based on cognitive learning theory include anchored instruction, cognitive apprenticeships, multiple representation and split-attention principle.

Anchored Instruction

Anchored instruction is a cognitive learning strategy developed by John Bransford of the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CGTV). It primarily involves the use of simulations to provide realistic contexts. To use anchored instruction:

  1. Create a story based on a real-life situation.
  2. Outline the problems that the story might lead to.
  3. Present the story in a series of interactive videos.
  4. Encourage the learner to add possible problems.
  5. Ask the learner to solve problems within the context of the story.

Given the nature of anchored instruction, it’s best used to improve problem-solving skills.

Cognitive Apprenticeship

Cognitive apprenticeship is a cognitive learning strategy that was developed by Allan Collins and other researchers. In essence, it is guiding the cognitive process of the learner. There are many ways to use cognitive apprenticeship:

  • Option 1: Actively encourage the learner to identify and solve problems on their own.
  • Option 2: Demonstrate and explain how to solve a problem or perform a task.
  • Option 3: Ask the learner to solve the problem or perform the task in front of others and explain how they went about doing it.
  • Option 4: Observe the learner when they solve the problem or perform the task and give advice.
  • Option 5: Actively encourage the learner to analyse their performance in comparison with the performance of the trainer and/or other learners.

Multiple Representation Principle & Split-Attention Principle

The multiple representation principle was proposed by Richard E. Mayer, Richard B. Anderson, and Roxana Moreno. It recommends the use of multiple mediums (such as imagery and audio) in the learning process. Meanwhile, the split-attention principle states that there is a correct way to use these mediums for the most effective learning. For example:

  • If information is spatial (visual representation), use imagery.
  • If information is linguistic (non-visual representation), use audio.

According to both principles, if learners need to take in both spatial and linguistic information, using both imagery and audio at the same time shouldn’t be a problem.

However, there is a problem with on-screen text. Found in most learning materials, on-screen text is linguistic information presented visually. Based on the two principles, it isn’t an effective way to learn due to how our brains process linguistic information.

On transitioning from 100% on-screen text to more audio and less on-screen text, a case study (Swann, March 2013) found that there was a substantial increase in learner engagement for extrinsically motivated trainees (i.e. those who are assigned or required to take training).

desk worker using multiple representation principle for learning

Cognitive Learning Theory in Training Programs

Training organisations can use cognitive learning theory to make training more effective for different audiences:

Deskless Workers

1. Deskless workers in team settings

Trainers can facilitate non-associative learning by putting the experts and novices together. Trainers can also incorporate social observation and reinforcement in training classes.

2. Lone deskless workers

For deskless workers without any nearby colleagues, trainers can enhance their experiential learning by requiring the lone deskless workers to regularly self-assess their own performance.

WFH Employees

Trainers can use anchored instruction to improve their problem-solving skills. If their work involves both spatial and linguistic information, trainers can add imagery and audio to their online training courses.

New Employees

If their work is highly technical or conceptual, trainers can divide the learning of a new skill into parts. Trainers can then give opportunities for employees to connect these parts to their learning of the new skill. This ensures that they have a deeper understanding.

On-the-go Employees

If the work involves meeting new people and participating in new activities on a regular basis, trainers can use this theory of Ellis to help employees quickly adapt to new experiences and learn from them.

Experienced Employees

New information is a constant in some industries. This can be a challenge for experienced employees since they might be used to old ways of thinking. Using the theory of Piaget, trainers can refine their internal processes so that old ways of thinking don’t have to be totally discarded.

cognitive learning theory in training with solar equipment installation

Other Learning Theories

Now that you’ve learned all about cognitive learning theory, how it improves the cognitive process, and the application of cognitive learning strategies, read up on the different learning theories such as:

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