Description of Theory

The cognitive learning theory places emphasis on understanding thought processes, and how the mind processes and stores information. According to this theory, humans learn by organizing information, and finding the connection between existing and new information. Simply put, the cognitive learning theory focuses on how children and adults process information and how the way they think affects their behavior.



The cognitive revolution became popular in America amongst psychologists in the 1960s. The cognitive theory began to gain traction when psychologists starting thinking differently about behaviorism. Psychologists believed that behaviorism focused too much on single events and stimuli. Instead, they began to focus on the process of learning. Psychologists started to believe that human actions were in direct relation to their thoughts. This shift marked the change from looking at a person’s environment to their cognition.

Major Proponents and Theorists

Jean Piaget


Jean Piaget, a Swiss philosopher, natural scientist, and developmental psychologist, created the most famous and widely-accepted theories of cognitive development.

Piaget began his career as a biologist and developed an interest in science and the history of science. As he delved deeper into the thought-processes of science, he became interested in the nature of thought itself, especially in the development of thinking.

Piaget believed that a person understands whatever information fits into his established view of the world. When information does not fit, the person must reexamine and adjust his thinking to accommodate the new information. Piaget described four stages of cognitive development and related them to a person's ability to understand and assimilate new information:


Stage 1: Sensorimotor
(birth to about age 2)
During this stage, the child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex actions. Thought derives from sensation and movement. The child learns that he is separate from his environment and that aspects of his environment, his parents or favorite toy, continue to exist even though they may be outside the reach of his senses.

Stage 2: Preoperational
(begins about the time the child starts to talk to about age 7)
Applying his new knowledge of language, the child begins to use symbols to represent objects. Early in this stage he also personifies objects. He is now better able to think about things and events that aren't immediately present. Oriented to the present, the child has difficulty conceptualizing time. He takes in information and then changes it in his mind to fit his ideas.

Stage 3: Concrete
(about first grade to early adolescence)
During this stage, accommodation increases. The child develops an ability to think abstractly and to make rational judgments about concrete or observable phenomena, which in the past he needed to manipulate physically to understand.

Stage 4: Formal
This stage brings cognition to its final form. This child no longer requires concrete objects to make rational judgements. At his point, he is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning.

Lev Vygoysky


The Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky believed that learning is shaped by social influence and that our culture helps shape our cognition. In other words, social and cultural influences are key components to development. Vygotsky believed one's development is the result of one's culture. He also thought that learning happens before development can occur. According to Vygotsky, children learn specifically because of the history and symbolism represented in their cultures. He considered cognitive development a direct result from the input a child receives from others.


Related Theories

Additional Information-Processing Models:

Levels-of-Processing Theory
The more you attend to the details of a stimulus, the more mental processing you must do with a stimulus and the more likely you are to remember it.

Dual Code Theory
Information presented both visually and verbally is recalled better than information represented only one way.

Parallel Distributed Processing Model
Information is processed simultaneously in the sensory register, working memory, and long-term memory – what you see is heavily influenced by what you expect to see.
Connectionist Models

Knowledge is stored in the brain in a network of connections, not in a system of rules or in storage of individual bits of information – emphasis on experience-based teaching.

What Teachers Do

Teachers who structure their classrooms around the Cognative Learning Theory will:

  • Give lessons meaning in the students' lives - Meaningful information is easier to learn and remember. If a learner links relatively meaningless information with prior understanding it will be easier to retain.

  • Give the student practice time - Practicing or rehearsing improves retention especially when it is distributed practice. By distributing practices the learner associates the material with many different contexts rather than the one context afforded by mass practice.

  • Help the students sort out interfering information- This can occur when prior learning interferes with the learning of new material.

  • Help the student to organize information - When a learner categorizes input such as a grocery list, it is easier to remember.

  • Help student relate information to new contexts- If learning takes place within a certain context it will be easier to remember within that context rather than in that new context. Teachers must help the student apply the information to that new concept.

  • Encourage students to form visual images- Images will help their minds capture the materials they are studying.

  • Break complex skills into simpler tasks- This allows students to practice skills one at a time.

  • Organize the learner in advance of lesson - Advance organizing helps prepare the learner for the material they are about to learn by providing material that will enable the student to make sense out of the lesson.

  • Create mnemonic devices - Mnemonics are strategies used by learners to organize relatively meaningless input into more meaningful images or semantic contexts. For example, the notes of a musical scale can be remembered by the rhyme: Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit.

  • Assess thought- Instead of assessing whether students get the right answers, cognitivist educators try to assess underlying thought processes by
    examining how students reached certain answers.

What Students do


Based on Cognitive Learning Theory, during learning experiences students will:

  • Use a three-stage information processing model - input first enters a sensory register, then is processed in short-term memory, and then is transferred to long-term memory for storage and retrieval.
    • Sensory Register - receives input from senses which lasts from less than a second to four seconds and then disappears through decay or replacement. Much of the information never reaches short term memory but all information is monitored at some level and acted upon if necessary.
    • Short-Term Memory (STM) - sensory input that is important or interesting is transferred from the sensory register to the STM. Memory can be retained here for up to 20 seconds or more if rehearsed repeatedly. Short-term memory can hold up to 7 plus or minus 2 items. STM capacity can be increased if material is chunked into meaningful parts.
    • Long-Term Memory and Storage (LTM) - stores information from STM for long term use. Long-term memory has unlimited capacity. Some materials are "forced" into LTM by rote memorization and over learning. Deeper levels of processing such as generating linkages between old and new information are much better for successful retention of material.

  • Create schema - An internal knowledge structure. New information is compared to existing schema. Schema may be combined, extended or altered to accommodate new information.

  • Forget information- This is found to be due to students' inability to retrieve information, information reconstruction error, decay of mind, or failure to store information.
Information Processing Model

Examples in Action

As outlined in the previous section, students' experience in a classroom structured around the Cognitive Learning Theory will typically evolve three important learning steps:
  • Sensory Registry or Sensory Input - Input from the students' senses are received.
  • Short-Term Memory - Sensory input is selectively transferred to the Short-Term Memory.
  • Long-Term Memory and Storage - Short-term memories are attached to Schema and are organized in the Long-Term Memory.

Within the context of Education and Schooling, we often include a fourth step in the cognitive learning process:
  • Confirmation - Retrieval of previously learned information is established by relating it to the new sensory registry. Within schooling, these new sensory inputs most typically include:
    • Tests
    • In-class discussions
    • Written homework and papers

1. Learning Geometry
In a typical Geometry class, the teacher begins the lesson by telling the students they will be learning to construct duplicates of given line segments and duplicates of given angles. (Note: Construction denotes accurate drawings made with the use of a compass and straightedge only.)

This introduction provides Sensory Registry. The teacher then formally demonstrates how to perform these tasks, moving the sensory input into the Short-Term Memory. Only then does the teacher hand out the compasses and straightedges to the students and
have them create their constructions. This hands-on work, and the feedback the students receive from the teacher, facilitates the transfer of the information to the Long-Term Memory and Storage.

Equil_Triangle.pngOnce these relatively basic skills are established, the teacher can then ask the students to use them to solve more complex problems, such as constructing an equilateral triangle of a given size. As a result, retrieval of previously learned information is established by relating it to new sensory registry - or more concisely, Confirmation.

2. Driver's Education (Firsthand Account)
Before each time that I take my fifteen-year-old son out to drive, we talk about where we are going to go and what problems we might encounter along the way. This allows him to take in the information about what to expect during our lesson. Then, as he is driving, I gently remind him of what we has discussed as they become realized - the route, the challenges, familiar milestones, etc.

He builds his skills and confidence as we travel and as our conversation (Sensory Input) comes to be realized (Short-Term Memory) and he must act appropriately (Long-Term Memory and Schema). Eventually, our pre-planned route runs out, and he must navigate us back home. In this way, he must take what he has previously learned and use it to create his own Schema - and learning is Confirmed.

3. Basic Montessori Method
We see this same three-step (or four-step) process in educational approach fostered by Dr. Maria Montessori, particularly in the teaching of young children. In its simplest form, students:
Maria Montessori

          • Watch a demonstration of a task - Sensory Input.
          • Rehearse the task with the help of the teacher or an older student - Short-Term Memory.
          • Replicate the task on their own - Long-Term Memory and Schema.
          • Teach other students - this Confirmation step is typically reserved for older students.

Examples in Action Using Technology

In the Cognitive Learning Theory, the use of educational technology can be an invaluable tool. In fact, the overall view of the human mind as a "black box," and that people are rational beings whose actions are the consequences of thinking, is very well-suited to technological use.

1. Learning Social Sciences (Questioning Citizenship)
In a tenth-grade U.S. History class, the teacher presents some introductory material on U.S. immigration. The teacher focuses mainly on the statistical data, such as number of immigrants from each county and their occupations, which are from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Woven into the presentation - particularly when occupation is discussed - is the question about the jobs of current U.S. citizens being lost to new immigrants. This provides Sensory Registry. The teacher then leads the students into a discussion about legally acquiring U.S. citizenship, focusing on what immigrants should know prior to be "accepted". This interaction helps move sensory input into the Short-Term Memory.

Then, once the students have aired their expectations of would-be immigrants, the teacher can ask them if they could pass a Naturalization Test. And because the teacher has arranged for the class to have access to the computer lab, they can go online right now and take the self-test on the USCIS website! By design, the shock of having to take a surprise test serves to help awaken the Long-Term Memory and Schema within the students' brains. What's more, the interactive nature of the self test is well suited to allowing the students to question their preconceived notions of what should be asked of legal immigrants. This drives the fourth step in our process, Confirmation.

2. Money & Banking (Firsthand Account)
During my time as an Economics Instructor, I used technology in much the same way to help my college-level students better understand the inverse relationship between interest rates and the price of bonds. In particular, that rising interest rates are - by definition - the equivalent of falling bond prices. And vice versa.
Classically, instructors have used a seesaw or teeter-totter visualization to explain this relationship.

While this may be a good memory aid, at adds very little to the students' understanding of HOW this relationship works. After introducing the concept, and providing the obligatory seesaw metaphor (Sensory Registry), I worked through a few problems of the type they would be expected to solve on any Money & Banking exam (Short-Term Memory).

Then, so that the more challenged students could prove this relationship to themselves, I provided them with a relatively simple Excel program that I had constructed based on a simple one-year bond. The students were then encouraged to use this program on their own (to create Long-Term Memory and Schema) using examples I provided, as well as market interest rates available in the Wall Street Journal. And while Confirmation was not a formal part of this specific process, students who used this program routinely stopped by my office hours to confirm they "got it".

3. Learning the Truth Behind Calculus
Like the aforementioned Economics example, many introductory calculus students struggle with comprehending the meaning of what they are doing. The methodical steps of generating first derivatives and finding maximums and minimums are challenging, to be sure, but they are just that - methodical.
In frustration, students often ask, "what does this really mean?" Or, "how does this apply to real life?" Within the Cognitive Learning framework, these students are saying, "we understand the input we received, and we can memorize it, but how can we create Schema so that it can be better stored and confirmed?"
Most teachers have ready-made, static examples of how valuable it can be to see first derivatives as an instantaneous rates of change However, hands-on use of educational technology can give students a multi-media, interactive experience - and this can create more accessible memories in the students' black box.

That's where resources like Interactive Mathematics come in! At, they have several media-rich presentations - from basic algebra to higher-level calculus - from which students and teachers can benefit. To use this site, you must first download the LiveMath Viewer.