Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive Learning Theory is actually a set of theories that stem from the term metacognition. Cognitive Learning Theory asks us to think about thinking and how thinking can be influenced by internal factors (like how focused we are, or how distracted we've become) and external factors (like whether the things we are learning are valued by our community or whether we receive praise from others when we learn).

Cognitive Learning Theory comes from the field of psychology and has roots going back to the beginning of Western philosophy. Important voices in this area include: Plato, Descartes, William James, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget.

Cognitive Learning Theory is a well-developed area of educational theory, but here are two ideas that will get people started thinking about these ideas:

  • Social Cognitive Theory/Theories: This perspective argues that learning is inherently social and happens in a social context. From this point of view, a learner's social interactions with their peers, instructors, and others impact learning directly. An instructor who works to provide a positive social experience with regular opportunities for students to see that learning is valued and that others around them are engaged in the process will be successful at encouraging learning.
  • Behavioral Cognitive Theory/Theories: This perspective argues that a person's thoughts determines their actions and feelings, and ultimately their ability to learn and their enjoyment of learning. For example, students who believe they "don't like to read" will find reading more difficult, and students who believe they are "good at art" will try harder and enjoy art more.

These two ideas work together well. Social Cognitive Theory focuses on both internal and external impacts on learning while Behavioral Cognitive Theory explores the impact of internal forces alone. They are not mutually exclusive ideas.

Learning activities that align with Cognitive Learning Theory include:

  • Asking students to journal: Journaling leverages internal interests and motivations. Journaling also provides a "safe space" to take risks without the "threat' of external judgement.
  • Providing opportunities for students to teach and learn from each other: Peer-to-peer interaction provides a social context that illustrates that learning and knowing are valued in the group.
  • Modeling thinking through problems in front of others: It can be both socially and personally (externally and internally) challenging to admit to not knowing or understanding something quickly. When instructors/teachers/trainers model working through problems/questions in front of learners, it can help to normalize the fact that learning and understanding takes time and is a process. Over time, having other learners in the group also have the opportunity to work through problems in front of others will strengthen the social norm that learning is a process and does not need to happen quickly or automatically.