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Random Thoughts on Instructional Design

Cognitivism and Online Learning

Overview of Cognitivism

It is our ability to think and adapt mentally to different environments and situations that differentiates us from animals. Many psychologists and researchers have proposed theories on thought and how human beings learn. Cognition is an active process where people seek out and are eager to acquire knowledge.


Cognitive theorists believe that learning involves our associations with the outside world and how we acquire and reorganize the information we receive. Like behaviorists, they believe in objectivism, which is the view that knowledge exists independent of us, and is transferred inside our minds. They believe that our external world is also independent of our minds, and there are things that are unconditionally true or false about our world. They believe that human thinking is akin to computer programming. Unlike behaviorists, “cognitive scientists are interested in how learners acquire knowledge and skills, rather than how behavioral responses are conditioned. (Seels and Glasgow, 1998) They see that the goal of instruction is to communicate or transfer knowledge to learners in the most efficient, effective manner possible.(Anglin, 1995) This is done by breaking down knowledge into simple building blocks; these then form the basis for instruction.


Key Concepts of Cognitive Theory

  • Schema: An internal knowledge structure
  • Three-Stage Information Processing Model: Sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory
  • Meaningful Effects: Meaningful information is easier to learn and retain
  • Serial Position Effects: Remembering items in a list
  • Practice Effects: Rote and rehearsing helps memory
  • Transfer Effects: Prior learning affects new learning
  • Interference Effects: Prior learning can interfere with new learning
  • Organization Effects: Putting learning into categories aids retention
  • Levels of Processing Effects: Words are processed at different levels from sensory to semantic.
  • State Dependent Effects: Learning in a certain context is easier to remember again than in a new context.
  • Mnemonic Effects: Strategies used to organize meaningless items into meaningful images or semantic contexts.
  • Schema Effects: If new information does not fit a person’s schema, it will be more difficult to remember.
  • Advance Organizers: These prepare learners for what they are about to learn, enabling them to make sense of the new material.

History of Cognitivism Research Methodologies


Cognitive theory as it applies to learning has a 2,000-year-old history. There are documented writings dating back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote on learning as it related to memory. Aristotle emphasized the use of mental imagery in his writings. Jump ahead 2,000 years and we see the birth of scientific psychology.


Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Wundt is thought by many to be the father of cognitive psychology when he opened the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. Wundt proposed a method called Introspection, in which trained observers were asked to pay careful attention to their own sensations and report on them while trying to be as objective as possible. The observers were encouraged to describe the sensations that they felt rather than the stimulus that produced the sensations (Matlin, 1989).


Jean Piaget

Cognitive psychology began to take hold in the 1950’s. Psychologists became disenchanted with behaviorism, which limited itself to objective, observable responses to specific stimuli. Behaviorism viewed learning solely in terms of behavior, whereas cognitive theory was interested in organization of memory and thinking (Seels, Glasgow, 1998). The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget proposed his theory on cognitive development. He stated that children pass through four stages of development.


  • The first stage is the Sensorimotor stage and it occurs between birth and the first two years. In this stage, babies gain a knowledge and understanding of their worlds through exploration and experimentation.
  • The second phase, the Preoperational stage, occurs between two and six years. This stage is marked by the use of symbolic thinking and a growth in the use of the imagination.
  • The third stage, Concrete-Operational stage, occurs between seven and eleven years of age. Logical thinking on specific and concrete objects marks this stage.
  • The fourth and final stage, Formal-operational stage, occurs at the onset of adolescence, and can continue through adulthood. The adolescent can now think in terms of abstraction and hypothetical situations.

Benjamin Bloom

Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues proposed the most common theory on cognitive development. Bloom’s taxonomy defines a set of objectives for learning: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.


  1. Knowledge is the observation and recall of information and includes knowledge of dates, locations and events.
  2. Comprehension happens when we have a firm grasp of the information and can apply that knowledge to new situations.
  3. Application is using the information. At this stage we can solve problems using skill or knowledge.
  4. Analysis is the ability to see patterns and to identify latent meanings.
  5. With Synthesis, we are able to use old ideas to form new ones. One can generalize, predict and draw conclusions
  6. In the final stage Evaluation, one can compare and discriminate between theories or ideas and judge the value of events.

Robert Gagne

Robert Gagne attempts to explain cognitive development as the acquisition of new capabilities that result through learning. His theory of learning provides no explanation of an individual’s development except to say that it becomes more extensive and complex with age. His basic ideas of learning are that


  • Intellectual growth is the result of learning
  • Learning becomes increasingly more complex
  • Development appears stage-like
  • Information is processed through different types of learning tasks: signal response, stimulus response, chaining, verbal chaining, multiple discrimination, concept learning, principle- or rule-learning problem solving.
  • Material learned in one area will transfer over to another area
  • Some learning involves prerequisite knowledge
  • Learning is not dependent upon internal mechanisms but upon conditions of direct instruction. These conditions of learning are as follows:
    1. Getting and maintaining instruction
    2. Preparing for instruction
    3. Presenting material
    4. Prompting and guiding learning
    5. Providing conditions for response
    6. Providing feedback
    7. Prompting and measuring retention
    8. Enhancing transfer

General Implications for Learning and Instruction (orientation towards learning and instruction)


I have explained from a conceptual perspective, the cognitive psychological theory; how it has been defined and the major theories and their progeny. Now I will explore how cognitive theories have been applied to the field of education. In doing so we focus on several aspects of educational research but have attempted to discuss what we consider to be some of the more unusual applications of the theory. For example we discuss cognitive learning theories in post-secondary education rather than in young children or high school students. Later we focus on teacher behavior and how it effects cognitive learning. We hope that you will find both our discussion and our later presentation helpful. Our goal in these notes is to explain and help you understand the theory and concepts. In our presentation we hope to apply cognitive learning theories to help you learn this material.


The theories of learning have generally been applied to elementary and secondary school children, and less often to post-secondary education. There may be many reasons, historically for this development but one is hypothesized to be the lack of training, in the field of education, by most post-secondary school Instructors/Professors. This lack of training may be more evident in courses such as science and engineering which require a great deal of knowledge in the subject matter. But recent studies involving college students support the theorem that educational theories can aid educators in understanding how college students cognitively learn, how they process, format and accept information, and how they then move towards knowledge.


For many years behaviorist theories were used in educational research to measure teaching styles and techniques. More recently cognitive theories have received greater attention and have assumed a leading role, while not supplanting the behaviorist theories. Cognitive theories suggest that the use of the concrete before the abstract may have advantages as the students begin with a concept that makes sense to them, and then the instructor builds from their understanding towards hers. (Spencer, 1999)


The Cognitive Learning Paradigm was conceived from cognitive psychological theories, as an alternative to the traditional behaviorist model. The cognitive model stresses the thought processes of the learner and assumes that prior knowledge, attitude, motivation, and learning style, affect the learning process. Further cognitive studies have revealed that the specific cognitive approach that is most similar to the way we learn becomes our learning cycle. In this theory we proceed from inductive to deductive learning as we proceed from exploration to concept introduction to application of that information. It seems we learn best when concepts or terms are introduced after we have had an opportunity to explore the subject. The student focused learning paradigm adopts this individualistic, explorative, approach to learning. It also incorporates modern cognitive theory, which includes the idea that the knowledge element of the cognitive theory must be knowledge developed by the student through the learning cycle, not merely knowledge absorbed like a sponge from the teacher or the text.


While the cognitive learning paradigm has been praised, dispute still exists as to how precisely the learning occurs. There are several differing views of cognitive learning. This becomes quite evident in the struggle between situated and traditional cognitive theories. The controversy seems to center on how knowledge travels from the teacher or the text to the student. Does knowledge and learning occur by exposure and absorption over a period of time or is true learning obtained mainly by rote repetition. (Moore, 1998)


One of the more interesting ways cognitive theories have been applied to educational research involves the attempt to determine whether there is a relationship between a teachers behaviors towards students and the students cognitive learning process. Cognitive learning theory is applied in this context as researchers try to identify what teacher behaviors may possibly influence a student’s academic achievement. One study, looked at how “confirmatory” the teacher acted. Confirmatory activity was defined in terms of the use of humor by the teacher, and the teacher’s level of intimacy, caring etc. towards the students. The researchers specifically examined how achieving a high score on these confirmatory behaviors would, if at all, effect the cognitive learning process. The researchers believed that a high teacher confirmatory score could lead to increased cognitive learning. The specific hypothesis proffered by the researchers was: There is a positive relationship between perceived teacher confirmation and college students cognitive learning. The researchers also studied the relationship between perceived teacher confirmation and affective learning, and whether a relationship existed among all the variables. The research question posed was what are the relationships, both direct and indirect, among the three variables, teacher confirmation, cognitive learning, and student’s affective learning.


The stages of cognitive learning involve comprehension as the first step, followed next by retention of knowledge. The researchers focused on these two stages in evaluating the above relationships. The researchers measured cognitive learning by asking the student’s to rate, on a numerical scale, how much they had learned. They also used a questionnaire that probed the student’s comprehension and retention, based on specific types of learning. The researchers employed latent variable path analysis using structured equation modeling, which hypothesized paths from teacher confirmation to cognitive learning and from affective learning to cognitive learning. The statistical results supported that a positive relationship existed between affective learning, which is the development of a positive or negative attitude towards the teacher, and cognitive learning. With regard to cognitive learn as the sole variable, a statistically insignificant direct relationship was shown between teacher confirmation and cognitive learning. Most importantly to this analysis, a significant indirect relationship between teacher confirmation and cognitive learning was shown to exist. The conclusion drawn from this research is that teachers attitudes and behavior do and will, effect students cognitive learning processes, albeit indirectly. So, the conclusion from this study is that regardless of the age of the students, teachers who are more kind, caring and considerate, will see their students achieve higher levels of cognitive learning. (Ellis, 2000)


Cognitive theories have always had implications in learning and instruction, because educators historically have tried to measure cognitive learning, positing that it is a valid measure of student learning. Learning has been defined to be a combination of affective, psychomotor and cognitive learning, the latter being of interest in this peer teaching module. (Bloom, 1956, p 7). Cognitive learning according to Bloom is learning that results from  recall or recognition of knowledge, and the development of intellectual abilities and skills. This learning theory has been divided in to six elements as follows: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Cognitive learning, as defined above, has always been at the center of educational research, because structured education has been based on teaching, testing and measuring cognitive learning.


Through the years, researchers have predominantly tested cognitive learning through the use of quantifiable, objective methodology. The problem arises when researchers attempt to measure how a somewhat intangible variable, in this case termed instructional communication, in the previous study teacher confirmation, effected cognitive learning process identified by Bloom. Historically, methods such as survey research, which is often used to study communications and related behavior, have not proven effective in studying cognitive learning. So the researchers in this study used a learning scale developed in 1996, by Frymier to assess cognitive or objective learning based on the level of instructional communication displayed in the classroom. This study, like the preceding study, found a correlation, this time both direct and indirect, between levels of communication, or the absence of such communications, and student performance. Once again the conclusion reached was that it does matter how teachers interact or fail to interact with their students. (Frymier & Houser, 1999)


Educational technology has become a popular subject in educational literature and research, as well as in the administrative offices of most schools. As noted earlier, cognitive learning theory has now surpassed behavioral theory, in educational research and theory, so it is only logical to look to cognitive learning theories to evaluate educational technology. One research paper identified the five types of educational research, then identified which cognitive stage was promoted by each type. For example does Web based educational technology promote knowledge, comprehension or both? The evaluation of educational research, in this research context, was defined as the attempt to determine whether a new medium will effect learning. Since the answer to this general question is generally yes then the researchers turn to evaluation and comparison of each type of technology. The question is which of one or more technologies is superior. To answer this question it is natural to use cognitive learning as a measure of the success of a particular educational technology.


Cognitive theories, in conjunction with behavioral theories have played a significant role in Instructional Technology (IT) research, and in the more recent years cognitive theories have played an even larger role. As the IT field grew, it became obvious that to measure the success of any technology the technology needed to be studied in conjunction with its effect on learning and so the cognitive theories came to the forefront. Currently in educational technology, behavioral and cognitive theories are still used in tandem, as evaluative tools. Cognitive theories are well suited as a means to evaluate IT because cognitive theories postulate a positive relationship between increased interactive participation by the students and learning. Cognitive theories have been used to support the theory that IT is most successful when it involves synchronous rather than asynchronous communications between student and teacher. Cognitive theories of learning have been used to establish that interactive IT is the method that will most likely increase learning. Further cognitive theories have been used to establish that providing the learner with control over the technology, rather than having decisions made by the computer with the student as a passive participant, will advance learning.


Cognitive learning theories include the way we process the information presented to us. So to evaluate IT we need to know how information presented through different types of IT, is processed by the learners, and which aspects or attributes in the process are most significantly effected by educational technology. The cognitive learning attributes include  prior knowledge, motivation, mental effort, and individual learning styles, (See: The use of technology in the delivery of instruction: Implications for accounting educators and educational researchers.), with prior knowledge being the attribute that is most significant in the cognitive theories. Under this theory our ability to acquire and retain information is quite complex, but prior knowledge helps us by giving us the framework in which to embed new information. Motivation as an attribute, can be used to compensate for low levels of prior knowledge and for those with equal amounts of prior knowledge, the more highly motivated, the better one will perform. The cognitive attribute of mental effort is positively correlated with motivation, the more motivated the more effort one will expend, and in the context of IT, the more likely one will be to perceive technology as easy rather than difficult to use.


Specific types of IT have been evaluated based on cognitive theories. Intelligent tutorial systems, which are akin to educational expert systems, using case based learning projects, achieved high marks in the prior knowledge cognitive learning attribute, because students were able to apply to apply what they had learned in one setting to another setting. Based on this cognitive learning attribute, researchers have suggested that in creating these intelligent tutorials it is necessary to consider the learner’s prior knowledge base. Educators should then build these models based on what is known about the student population.


Computer assisted teaching (CAT) methods have also been evaluated using cognitive theories. CAT is defined as teaching that introduces multiple different types of media including multimedia, graphics, sound, hypertext, hypermedia, and the world wide web. It is hypothesized that the basis and rational for computer assisted teaching, which involves multiple channels of communication, is found in several cognitive theories and several of the learning stages. For example, the stimulation of several of the senses increases the activity of long term memory, a trigger for memory under cognitive theories. Similarly, under cognitive theories if as seems to be the case with CAT, the material tested is closely aligned with that presented for learning, then this triggers the cognitive schemata of prior knowledge, thus increasing learning.


Distance learning has also been evaluated based on cognitive learning theories. Distance learning includes two-way interactive television, web based instructional design, both synchronous and asynchronous, video conferencing and satellite television.


Several studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of distance learning technologies on the cognitive learning process. One study compared conventional classroom and satellite training on specific job procedures. Based on the results the researchers found satellite training to be an effective cognitive learning tool. Researchers have also studied the instructor skills needed to produce positive cognitive learning in students. The results in this case are similar to others discussed in this paper. In addition to technical, subject competency and general knowledge skills, the instructors must posses interpersonal communication skills and organizational skills.

Implications for Instruction

Cognitive strategies include highlighting or underlining text the learner considered important, outlining materials, mental rehearsal of information, organizing information in some meaningful ways, using mnemonics or visual imagery and engaging in other activities to facilitate learning and remembering (Seels, Glasgow 1998). Some examples of mnemonics include  Every Good Boy Does Fine for learning the lines of the music scale; HOMES for learning the lines of the Great Lakes, FOIL, for First, Outside, Inside, Last, when multiplying quadratics in algebra.


In the cognitive domain, it is important to take into consideration the differences between left-brained and right-brained thinkers. Those that are left-brained tend to be more adept at interpreting text-based materials. Left-brained thinkers are logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective and tend to look at parts. The left hemisphere of the brain also controls language. Right-brained thinkers are better at interpreting visual images. Right-brained thinkers also tend to focus more on aesthetics, feeling and creativity. Knowing whether the student is left-brained or right-brained might aid in deciding the best way to present information to the learner.



Cognitive learning theories have existed for many years. They involve ways to connect new learning to prior learning and they use memory and thinking in the process of learning. They also help to make new information meaningful so that this new knowledge becomes embedded in memory. Cognitive theories also personalize the knowledge learned. Knowledge becomes internalized and then is distinguished from knowledge that simply exists in the external environment.



About Learning Theories: Right Brained vs. Left Brained Thinking (

Anderson, Angela, Yates, Gregory C.R.; (1999, Dec), Clay modeling and social modeling: Effects of interactive teaching on the young children’s creative artmaking. Educational Psychology; 19(4), 463-469.

Anglin,Gary J., (1995), Instructional Technology, Past, Present, and Future, (2 nd ed.) California: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Bootzin, Richard R., Bower, Gordon H., Zajonc, Robert B. & Hall, Elizabeth (1986). Psychology Today: An Introduction (6 th ed.) New York: Random House

Bryant, Stephanie M., Houton, James E.; (2000, Feb); The use of technology in the delivery of instructions: Implications for accounting educators and education researchers. Issues in Accounting Education; 15(1), 129-162.

Ellis, Kathleen; (2000, Apr); Perceived teacher confirmation: The development and validation of an instrument and two studies of the relationship to cognitive and affective learning. Human Communication Research; 26(2), 264-291.

Farrell, John, J., Moog, Richard, S., Spencer, James, N; (1999, April); A guided inquiry general chemistry course. Journal of Chemical Education; 76(4), 570-574.

Frymier, Ann Bainbridge, Houser, Marian L.; (1999, Spring); The revised learning indicators scale. Communication Studies; 50(1), 1-12.

Gagne, R.M. (1977). The Conditions of Learning. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Lovett, Marsha, C.; ( 2000, Aug); Applying cognitive theory to statistics instruction. The American Statistician; 54(3), 196- 211.

Matlin, Margaret W. (1989). Cognition (2 nd ed.) Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Moore, Beverly J.; (1998 Fall); Situated cognition versus traditional cognitive theories of learning. Education; 119(1), 161-171.

Ricketts, Jennifer; Wolfe, Frederick; Norvelle, Eric & Carpenter, Edward; (2000, summer); Multimedia: Asynchronous distributed education – a review and case study. Social Science Review; 18 (2), 132-146.

Seels, Barbara & Glasgow, Zita (1998). Making Instructional Design Decisions (2 nd ed.) Merrill

Spencer, James N.; (1999, Apr); New directions in teaching chemistry: A philosophical and pedagogical basis. Journal of Chemical Education; 76(4), 566-569.

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This entry was posted on June 14, 2005 by in Distance Education.

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