Cognitive Learning Theory



As outlined in “Human Learning”:

  • “Some learning processes may be unique to human beings.
  • “Learning involves the formation of mental representations or associations that are not necessarily reflected in overt behavior changes.”
  • “People are actively involved in the learning process.”
  • “Knowledge is organized.”
  • “Objective, systematic observations of people’s behavior should be the focus of scientific inquiry; however, inferences about unobservable mental processes can often be drawn from behavior.” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 162-163)


“Many cognitive theories focus on how people think about (i.e., process) the information they receive from the environment- how they perceive the stimuli around them, how they “put: what they’ve perceived into their memories, how they “find” what they’ve learned when they need to use it, and so own…collectively known as “information processing theory” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 163).



Constructivism – Cognitive theories emphasizing the idea that individuals do not just passively absorb information, but, rather, interact with information constructing their own individual meanings from it to form knowledge.  See the Constructivist Learning Theory page for more information.


Contextual Theories –
cognitive theories that place emphasis on the context (immediate environment) in learning. Additionally, “Contextual theories suggest that learners often think and perform more “intelligently” when they can draw on a variety of environmental support systems that enable them to make sense of new situations and help them tackle challenging tasks and problems” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 165).  Examples include: situated learning, situated cognition, distributed learning, and distributed intelligence (Ormrod, 2008).


Situated Learning
linking knowledge to “social relationships-situations of coparticipation,” (Smith, 1999, p 7).
More specifically, “(1) Learning is in the relationships between people – As (2) Educators work so that people can become participants in communities of practice; and, (3) There is an intimate connection between knowledge and activity” (Smith, 1999, p. 1).


How Does Learning Occur?

Objectivistic – knowledge is acquired;
Learning is based on the informational processing theories involving physical acquisition, processing, and organization of knowledge, neural structures, in addition to environmental conditions.

“Knowledge acquisition is described as a mental activity that entails internal coding and structuring by the learner. The learner is viewed as a very active participant in the learning process” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 58).

“Structured, computational” (Davis, et al., 2008. P. 1)

“Learning, or encoding, occurs when information is stored in long-term memory. Information initially enters the information processing system through a sensory register after it is attended to, after which it is perceived by being compared with information in long-term memory and then enters short-term or working memory. This information can stay activated, be transferred to long-term memory, or be lost” (Ormond, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 96).


What Factors Influence Learning?
Emphasis focuses on the “mental activities of the learner” such as “mental planning, goal setting, and organizational strategies” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 58).  Additional key elements include “the way that learners attend to, code, transform, rehearse, store and retrieve information. Learners’ thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and values are also considered influential” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 58).


Environmental conditions are still important, such as “instructional explanations, demonstrations, illustrative examples and matched non-examples are all considered instrumental in guiding student learning” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 58), but the “real focus of the cognitive approach is on changing the learner by encouraging him/her to use appropriate learning strategies” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 58).


Factors that help encoding are meaningfulness, elaboration, organization, and links with schema structures” (Ormond, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 96).  “Existing schema, previous experiences” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).



“People control their own learning; Memory is selective; Attention is essential for learning; People can only process a limited amount of information at a time; and the limited capacity of working memory is not necessarily a bad thing” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 191-192).



“Meaningful learning can occur only when students have prior knowledge to which they can relate new ideas; Students are apt to engage in meaningful learning when they are explicitly encouraged to do so; Students learn more effectively when a lesson begins with an advance organizer; Students often need guidance in determining what things are most important to learn; In as many ways as possible, students should interconnect the new ideas they are learning; Generally speaking, students learn and remember new material more effectively when they elaborate on it; Visual aids enhance long-term memory storage; A variety of instructional strategies promote acquisition of procedures; Students learn new material more effectively when they have sufficient time to process it well; End of lesson summaries promote learning and retention; Periodic review and practice enhances learning and, Learning quickly does not always mean learning better” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 223-230).


What is the Role of Memory?

“Encoding, storage, retrieval” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).
“Learning results when information is stored in memory in an organized, meaningful manner. Forgetting is the inability to retrieve information from memory because of interference, memory loss, or missing or inadequate cues needed to access information” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 59).


“Memory receives information and through associative networks links it with other information in memory” (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 96).



“Memory is related to the ability to recall previously acquired information” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 167).


Dual-Store Model of Memory
– information is brought in the sensory register, encoded in working memory and then stored in long-term memory.


Levels of Processing Model
– information is processed at various levels from superficial to more meaningful, which relates directly to retention and ability for retrieval.


Activation Model
– information is stored, but in order for retrieval to occur the memory needs to be activated or attended to.



  • “The internal organization of a body of information facilitates its retrieval.”
  • “How something is retrieved at one time affects how it will be retrieved later on.”
  • “Information that must be retrieved within a particular context should be stored within that context.”
  • “External retrieval cues minimize failure to retrieve.”
  • “Questions about previously learned material can promote both review and further elaboration.”
  • “Taxonomies of objectives can be useful reminders of the various ways in which students might be asked to think about and apply what they have learned.”
  • “Retrieval can take time.”
  • “Classroom assessments promote retrieval and review; they also influence storage processes.”
  • “Long-term memory can probably never be a totally reliable record of information” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 299-306).


How Does Transfer Occur?

“Duplicating knowledge constructs of ‘knower’” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).


“Understanding is seen as being composed of a knowledgebase in the form of rules, concepts, and discriminations. When a learner understands how to apply knowledge in different contexts, then transfer has occurred” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 59).


“Transfer occurs through the process of spreading activation in memory, where information is linked to other information such that recall of information can produce recall of related information. It is important when learning that cues be attached to information so that the learning may be linked with different contexts, skills, or events.” (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 96).


“Transfer is more likely to occur when information is stored in multiple networks so that students understand the uses for various skills and knowledge” (Ormrod, et al., p. 145).



“The presence or absence of cues in the transfer situation will influence what relevant knowledge, if any, is retrieved to working memory” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 397).



As learning is context specific or “situated” it is “unlikely to result in transfer to new contexts, especially those very different from the ones in which learning originally occurred” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 397).



  • “Meaningful learning promotes better transfer than rote learning.”
  • “The more thoroughly something is learned, the more likely it is to be transferred to a new situation.”
  • “The more similar two situations are, the more likely it is that something learned in one situation will be applied to the other situation.”
  • “Principles are more easily transferred than discrete facts.”
  • “Numerous and varied examples and opportunities for practice increase the extent to which information and skills will be applied to new situations.”
  • The probability of transfer decreases as the time interval between the original task and the transfer task increases.”


“Transfer increases when the cultural environment encourages and expects transfer” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 399-401).


What Types of Learning are Best Explained by this Theory?

“Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).
“Complex forms of learning (reasoning, problem-solving, information-processing)” (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 96).


How is Technology Used in this industry?

“Learner control, metacognitive training (e.g., self-planning, monitoring, and revising techniques; Cognitive task analysis procedures; Use of cognitive strategies such as outlining, summaries, synthesizers, advance organizers, etc.;  Recall of prerequisite skills; use of relevant examples, analogies” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 59).


Online Learning aka eLearning (formal and/or informal) utilizing Course Management Systems (CMS) and/or virtual worlds such as the AET Zone (“Emerging,” 2002).


“Constructivist-focused, online teaching: interactive learning, collaborative learning, facilitating learning, authentic learning, learner-centered learning, and high quality learning” (“Emerging,” 2002, p. 1).


“Technology tools provide “the means through which individuals engage and manipulate both resources and their own ideas. Some kinds of technology tools can extend memory and make thinking visible. Good examples include brainstorming and concept mapping software such as Inspiration(r). Others help to represent knowledge and facilitate communication. For instance, the Collaborative Visualization or CoVis Project provides visualization software designed to help students collect and analyze climatological data and visualize effects due to greenhouse gases and other phenomena. Finally, some tools, like simulations mentioned above, enable learners to experiment with modeling complex ideas. NetLogo, for example, provides a programmable modeling environment for simulating natural and social phenomena, such as how segregated neighborhoods can arise, not from any specific bias, but from the simple desire of people to live near others who are like themselves” (Driscoll, 2002, p. 1).


CSILE (or Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environment aka Knowledge Forum) is one example of software that supports a networked, multimedia environment in which students collaborate on learning activities. They do this by creating ‘notes’ to express their ideas or integrate outside information about a topic. Then they read and respond to the notes of others, all of which builds a communal database producing shared knowledge about the topic or problem.  CSILE also facilitates connections between schools and the scientific community, allowing practicing scientists to serve as mentors to students. Other projects, such as Kids as Global Scientists, also bring students and various experts together in virtual communities through Internet links. Such a dialogue-based approach to learning creates a rich intellectual context, with ample opportunities for participants to improve their understanding and become more personally involved in explaining scientific phenomena” (Driscoll, 2002, p. 1).


Additionally, the Horizon Report, “introduces six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use in learning-focused organizations within three adoption horizons over the next one to five years” (Johnson, Levine, & Smith, 2009, p. 3) in the areas of “mobiles, cloud computing, geo-everything, personal web, semantic aware applications and smart objects.



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Deubel, P. (2003, March). An investigation of behaviorist and cognitive approaches to instructional multimedia design. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 12(1), 63-90. Retrieved December 7, 2010 from multimedia_design.htm

Driscoll, M. (2002). How people learn (and what technology might have to do with it). Retrieved from 2003-3/learn.htm

Emerging theories and online learning environments for adults. (2002). In Theories of Educational Technology. Retrieved November 24l, 2010, from

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 59-71. Retrieved from

Jenkins, J. (2006). Constructivism. Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration. Retrieved from Retrieved November 6, 2010, from

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Ormrod, J. (2008). Human Learning (5th ed.). New Jersey, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

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Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Cognitive learning processes. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 98-145). New York: Pearson.

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Constructivist theory. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 182-222). New York: Pearson.

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