The term cognitive learning is used to characterize specific aspects or theories of learning and generally implies a view of learning that:
Cognitive Learning Theory makes the case that we can use what we know about the cognitive processes needed for learning and research on effective learning strategies to make learning more productive and efficient. In this context, what learners and teachers need to understand then, are the cognitive skills involved in learning, both generally and for that individual learner, and the types of learning experiences that are most effective in getting information through those cognitive processes, stored in long-term memory and available for use in practice.
Cognitive skills are the mental processes our brains use to take in, understand, organize, store, retrieve and use information. They include a variety of attention skills, visual processing, auditory processing, sensory integration, memory, executive functions and reasoning. Cognitive skills are the foundation of learning and account for an estimated 42% of the variance in academic performance.
The next thing we need to understand about cognitive skills is that every individual has cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and it is this that accounts, to an under-appreciated degree, for the dramatic variability of students’ ability to learn different types of information.
Thus, cognitive learning requires that teachers understand their students’ cognitive profiles and that each student understand their own cognitive strengths and weaknesses and develop the ability to practice the learning strategies that are best suited to their individual learning capacity. This can be accomplished with a short, affordable cognitive assessment like Mindprint, resulting in a student profile like the following.
This student’s strengths are her reasoning skills, especially visual or abstract reasoning. Thus, the top strategy in this area will help her use that stronger reasoning ability to understand what she is trying to learn and to solve problems (apply concepts). This student has stronger visual memory (memory for images, charts, graphs) than verbal memory (memory for language-based information). Knowing this, the student will focus efforts to acquire new vocabulary on pictures and images, rather than simply learning a definition. And finally, this student’s executive functions, particularly working memory, processing speed and attention, are likely to be a stumbling block in demonstrating her learning and the suggested strategy will help her stay on track by organizing her approach to homework.
In addition to adopting best-fit strategies according to a student’s learning profile, teachers and students also need to understand that cognitive skills can be developed. Whatever cognitive strengths and weaknesses we have, we can improve our capacity to learn by strengthening our cognitive skills.
Since each brain must process new information for itself, the role of the instructor (whether a teacher, a trainer, or an individual learning on their own), is to facilitate a learning experience that will result in efficient and effective learning for a variety of different individual brains. This is why cognitive learning focuses on the interaction of the student with the information/experience. Interacting with material in meaningful ways and in a variety of ways will help connect it to existing neural networks (or schemata) in stronger and more durable ways. Our brains did not evolve to learn meaningless information, so learning experiences need to emphasize enabling students to build meaning. This can be accomplished with activities that involve elaboration, rather than rote memorization (recall that cognitive learning focuses on declarative knowledge, not procedural knowledge where rote practice is, in fact, applicable).
Elaborative learning strategies could include activities such as:
While the term metacognition doesn’t always appear in discussions of cognitive learning, it does capture the essence of the approach. Cognitive learning requires metacognition or thinking about one’s thinking and one’s progress in the learning process. It requires understanding one’s cognitive skills and how to best use them in learning experiences and it requires an understanding of the learning process itself to make it deeper and more meaningful.
One definition of metacognition that captures this sense is provided by the TEAL Center (the Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy Center, a project of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE):
“Metacognition is one’s ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task, take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed. It helps learners choose the right cognitive tool for the task and plays a critical role in successful learning.”
This implies, like the discussion of cognitive learning above, the need to take into account individual learner variabilities, the characteristics of the learning task and the strategies one employs to facilitate the learner’s experience.
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