What is Cognitive Learning Theory?
Cognitive Learning Theory is a hypothesis about the way individuals learn new information that looks past whether a student got an answer right or wrong and instead examines how the student arrived at that answer. In essence, Cognitive Learning Theory states that the learner has agency in the learning process, the ability to construct a new understanding based on the information they are given, instead of passively regurgitating what they have been told.
The History of Cognitive Learning Theory-
Cognitive Learning Theory was proposed by Jean Piaget around 1936. Piaget was teaching children and became intrigued by the incorrect answers he was getting from the kids, which typically varied based on their age. He wondered how they arrived at a certain wrong answer and realized their learning ability was not identical; it varied based on what they had already experienced in life. Through his research, he discovered that children “construct an understanding of the world around them, experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment, then adjust their ideas accordingly.”
This means that a student getting a wrong answer is not simply a failure of memory; it is itself the very act of learning new information and testing it against the way they think the world works. It makes the learner an active participant in their own education, using their own experiences combined with the facts they are being taught. This discovery opened new doors into the way teaching was done.
Piaget’s Cognitive Learning Theory provided a new way for educators of all sorts to look at wrong answers; not just from children but from all learners. When using a worldview based around Cognitive Learning Theory, a wrong answer does not mean a learner is stupid or has failed to pay attention, it means the learner is adapting their worldview based on the new information and they have drawn a conclusion that does not necessarily fit the facts. The reason behind their drawing of that conclusion is what intrigued Piaget, and what he studied for most of his life.
Cognitive Learning and Bloom’s Taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a theory proposed in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom that expands on some of the ideas proposed by Piaget’s Cognitive Learning Theory. Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive learning establishes six tiers of comprehension or understanding. This taxonomy is typically displayed as a pyramid, with the widest base being the most simple part of the taxonomy (and therefore the easiest for learners to achieve) while the peak of the pyramid is the smallest and most difficult. The six are as follows:
This represents the base of the pyramid and it is the simple ability to regurgitate facts and figures.
At its most basic, this would be something like learning your ABC’s: what the shapes for each letter look like and the sound they make when spoken.
Moving beyond the facts, comprehension involves the creation of new ideas or “new knowledge” based on previously learned facts. This typically expresses itself through the learner creating new connections between previously unrelated facts.
Following the previous example, this would be the ability to read words not because the word was taught to the learner, but because they can break down a word into its constituent letters and deduce the pronunciation.
The application of the previous two tiers of the pyramid leads to the ability to problem solve. When presented with a new challenge that has not been seen before, a learner at the application stage will use the knowledge and comprehension they have previously gained to solve an issue or reach a new conclusion.
Proper application of learned knowledge would be the ability to spell a word a student had heard pronounced but never seen in writing.
Analysis at this point in Bloom’s taxonomy involves seeing relationships and understanding connections between the previous three tiers, and the ability to extrapolate that information and make decisions based on it.
With learning to read and write, this would take the form of understanding the nuances in the language, the exceptions to the rules; as well as understanding and learning rules that were not explicitly stated to them. For example, learning that words ending in -ing are all related to actions, which means they are a type of verb.
Synthesis is the act of creation and a learner who is able to successfully synthesize can take all the knowledge and experience they have had and create something new.
An example might be the creation of a new sentence, or a new word that is correctly pronounced despite not being a “real” word in the sense that it has a conventional definition.
Finally, the tip of the pyramid is Evaluation; the ability to defend one’s own ideas logically and consistently.
This might take the form of a student insisting that their made-up word is in fact correct, because it follows all the rules and conventions of correct spelling and punctuation.
Examples of Cognitive Learning: The Intersection of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Cognitive Learning Theory
Interestingly, it is at Evaluation, the tip of the pyramid, where Bloom’s Taxonomy and Cognitive Learning Theory intersect.
Imagine a student has arrived at a wrong answer (creating a word that is not real) but they have done so by correctly following Bloom’s Taxonomy (they are able to defend why their answer should be right based on the rules they have been taught). The word is spelled correctly and pronounced correctly, but it is not “real” because it has no traditional definition and has never been used before.
What is most interesting at this intersection is not that the student was “wrong” but how and why they reached that conclusion through their own mental processes. This is the learner having agency and the ability to come up with their own solutions. It is important to recognize here that a student’s wrong answer can still be a testament to the fact that they learned correctly.
Utilizing Cognitive Learning Theory In Your Instruction
Taking all of this information into account will lead to a greater understanding of a student’s educational progress. Cognitive Learning Theory, when tempered with Bloom’s Taxonomy, highlights the importance not just of getting the right answer, but of being able to explain why that was the answer that was arrived at.
As you might remember from your days in mathematics class, this is why the ability to “show your work” was emphasized. If you got the answer wrong but have a correct understanding of the process, you are still learning and on the right track. Cognitive Learning Theory allows an instructor to look past the binary of “correct/incorrect” and to peer into the mind of the learner.
Applications of Cognitive Learning Theory
An excellent way to apply CLT into your teaching strategies is to focus on comprehension and not just right or wrong answers. If possible, stay away from multiple choice (which only allows for binary right/wrong) and instead utilize discussion questions or prompts. Get the learners to talk about the conclusions they reached, and see if you can get them to discover on their own why those conclusions are either correct or need further evaluation.
Keep in mind Bloom’s Taxonomy if a learner is struggling, and try to identify where in that process they are stuck. If they are struggling to take the information they gathered and apply it in new ways (Application) you know where along the process to focus. And if a student has not gotten past Application, it is not useful to ask them questions pertaining to Synthesis or Evaluation.
Finally, to help learners throughout the process of education, consider reading about how to best help them take notes to improve Knowledge and Comprehension.