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Cognitive learning refers to the acquisition of declarative knowledge, the kind of knowledge that we can “declare,” such as people’s names, historical events, the meaning of words and the like.  Declarative knowledge is distinguished from procedural knowledge, which involves practicing some activity until it becomes automatic, such as playing a piano piece or riding a bicycle.

There is a plethora of websites offering examples of cognitive learning, many of which are not very helpful and some of which we find to be just plain misleading.

For example, “implicit learning” is found on several lists of types of cognitive learning.  Implicit learning is described as learning that is acquired by practice, like typing.  Typing is learned by rote practice until we can type without conscious thought and is, therefore, procedural knowledge, not declarative knowledge.

Another inapt example is “meaningful learning.”  Our brains don’t learn information that is not meaningful.  We have probably all had the experience of learning information for a test and then forgetting it later because it just didn’t have sufficient meaning for our brains to connect it to things we already knew.  In the absence of using the information in any meaningful context in our lives, the memory doesn’t survive.  Our brains remember what matters. So, all cognitive learning needs to be meaningful, not just one type.

True examples of cognitive learning need to fit some important criteria:

  1. The knowledge to be acquired is declarative, not procedural.
  2. The example explicitly addresses the cognitive skills involved in learning.
  3. The example demonstrates how the learning process is changed or enhanced to foster deeper and more enduring learning, based on knowledge of the individual learner’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

And relevant strategies can be defined as in a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

“Cognitive learning strategies are strategies that improve a learner’s ability to process information more deeply, transfer and apply information to new situations, and result in enhanced and better-retained learning.”

Here are some examples of cognitive learning that meet the criteria, including the cognitive learning strategies that work for three unique learners, given their stronger and weaker cognitive skills.

Example:  Sophia

Cognitive Strengths:  Visual Memory, Working Memory

Cognitive Weaknesses:  Processing Speed, Flexible Thinking

Learning Assignment:  Vocabulary Words

Cognitive Learning Strategy:

Sophia uses notecards on which she writes the word and draws a picture that represents the word to her.  On the reverse, she writes the word by itself.  She practices looking at the card and explaining to her dog what the word means by using the word to describe the picture.  As she becomes confident with a word, she removes that card from the stack so that she can work on the ones she doesn’t know as well.  When she becomes confident that she can do this for all or most of the words, she switches to using the back of the card and visualizing the picture and explaining what it means.  She follows the same process.  She practices her vocabulary words for a few minutes every day the week they are assigned, does another homework assignment and then practices vocabulary again.  Once a month Sophia runs through all of her cards.

Some of the Sophia’s strategies are general practices.  Practicing in short sessions over time is called spaced practice and helps reinforce new connections more effectively than one intense study session. Working on vocabulary for a few minutes, then doing another assignment is also supported by general research, and is a technique called interleaving.  You can think of interleaving as sandwiching other material in between working on her vocabulary.

Other strategies may sound like good general practice but actually are very specific to Sophia’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  Sophia has good visual memory. In fact, her visual memory is much stronger than her verbal memory, hence the strategy of drawing pictures.  Sophia will learn vocabulary more quickly this way than doing what teachers generally ask students to do … write the word, write the definition of the word and write the word in a sentence.  If the goals is to learn vocabulary then Sophia will be much more effective and efficient following her own cognitive learning strategies.  For another student, the strategies might look rather different.

Example:  Michael

Cognitive Strengths:  Abstract Reasoning, Visual Memory

Cognitive Weaknesses: Attention, Flexible Thinking

Learning Assignment: Math Computations

Cognitive Learning Strategy

Michael has a reminder programmed into his cell phone that goes off at 4:15 p.m. that it is time for him to start his homework.  Michael’s mother sits down with him and together they create a homework plan for the day.  Michael writes down each activity, from assembling all the materials he needs to each subject assignment, planned breaks every 20 minutes or so, and ending with putting all his homework into his backpack.  He estimates the amount of time he will spend on each activity.  He has been using this approach for a few weeks now and is getting much better at estimating how long things will take him.  Right after assembling the materials he needs for his homework, the next step on Michael’s plan is called “chill session.”  He calls it getting chill, but what he is doing is a musical rhythmic activity that requires steady, even pacing.  He will do this for 3 minutes.  Without this 3 minutes, Michael knows that focusing and getting started on his first homework task will take much longer.

The next activity, the actual math computations themselves.  As he does his math computations, he imagines what the numbers might represent – distances between cities, characteristics of his classmates.  He also knows that thinking about ways the computations can be applied conceptually strengthens his understanding of them.

Some of Michael’s strategies have pretty broad applicability – homework planning is helpful for many children, but some are quite specific to what he needs.  “Chill out” activities may not seem like a learning strategy, but for a child with limited attention an a fair degree of impulsivity, it is essential.  Michael has found an activity that works really well for him.

Example:  Jimmy

Cognitive Strengths:  Visual-Spatial Reasoning, Flexible Thinking

Cognitive Weaknesses:  Working Memory, Verbal Reasoning

Learning Assignment:  1-page essay

Cognitive Learning Strategy

Because Jimmy struggles with limited working memory, compared to other strong cognitive skills, he has a tendency to lose track of where he is in most writing assignments and he also loses the flow of ideas.  A typical cognitive learning strategy for students who produce work that jumps around or doesn’t flow is to create an outline before starting to write.  However, a traditional outline doesn’t help Jimmy very much because trying to reason and connect ideas in words is also a weakness (verbal reasoning).

Instead of a traditional outline, Jimmy pulls out a clean sheet of paper and draws a circle in the middle.  He draws an image that represents the main idea of his essay.  He draws spokes out from there for the ideas that he associates with the center image.  He draws other connections between the circles as he puts in additional information.  He color codes the areas of his mind map to indicate what paragraph they will go in. When he looks at his map and doesn’t see any obvious gaps or ideas that aren’t connected to something else, he starts writing his essay.  Having the mind map means he doesn’t have to try to keep track of so much information in his mind; it’s all there in front of him.  As he writes, he describes the connections among the ideas, putting his visual organization into words.   From time to time, he stops and talks about his drawing to himself, which helps him translate the ideas into a more narrative form.

Before he finishes his essay, Michael goes back over his drawing to make sure he didn’t miss anything.  He looks at his essay to see if anything looks funny – he finds one area where there is a big chunk of writing without any space in it.  He knows that that can mean he needs to break that section up into more than one paragraph.  Otherwise, everything looks balanced.

As in the other examples, Jimmy’s strategies have elements of general learning strategies, but some things that are very specific to his, such as his visual inspection of the essay.  Because of his strong visual-spatial skills, it only takes a moment where another student with stronger verbal reasoning skills may be more confident about their paragraph breaks as they write from a more traditional language-based outline.


For more information on how to develop and apply cognitive learning strategies, Contact Us.


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