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Cognitivism is based on the idea that information is actively processed in the mind of a learner and that changes in behaviour happen as a result of searching for the relationships that exist between the various kinds of information learned. To a cognitivist, learning is a process of “gathering together relevant pieces of information together until they begin to form a complete picture” (Bates, 2016, p39). As in a jigsaw, each individual piece has relatively little meaning until connected with enough other pieces for a picture to emerge.

Cognitivism grew in part from the mounting dissatisfaction many had with the perceived inadequacies of behaviorism, which many believed was too focused on achieving specific outcomes while ignoring what was going on in the learner’s head. It was also developed in response to the emerging need to “develop people capable of deeper understanding and reasoned thinking” (Bates, 2016, p40).


John Dewey (1859-1952) believed that education should not be divorced from life in general, and that changes in behaviour happen when a learner is able to relate the behaviour to their experiences. He argued that behaviour modification should be viewed in the context of both the individual and their environment – not separated from it.

He coined the phrase intelligent action as a foundation for education, and described the three attitudes that form it:

  • open-mindednessfreedom from pre-conceived notions or prejudices
  • absorbed interest: wholehearted engagement in learning
  • mature approach: accepting responsibility for consequences of actions taken in learning

He advocated that education should be learner-centred, encouraging them to take a personal interest in the subject. Learning experiences should include opportunities for independent learning & social involvement, and respect the viewpoints of each learner.


Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is one of the most influential cognitive theorists. He believed that people construct knowledge rather than receive it, and this general idea is at the heart of most cognitive theories.

“He suggests that the construction of knowledge is based on the individual’s experiences which, in turn, are influenced by their emotional, biological and mental stage of development.”

– Bates (2016, p48)

He argued that there are four stages of development:

Age rangeStageDescription
0-2sensorimotorLearning takes place through touch and feel.
2-7pre-operationalThe ability to arrange objects logically starts to develop, they begin to use language to make sense of reality. Increased linguistic skills open the way for greater socialisation and communication with others.
7-12concrete operationalThe ability to think logically about objects and events starts to become more structured, although only on concrete objects and events.
12+formal operationalAbstract thinking and verbal reasoning start to develop and children reach affective and intellectual maturity. They begin to appreciate others’ points of view as well as their own. “Although children [are] still in a position of having relatively little knowledge, their thought processes [are] as well developed as they [are] ever likely to be” (Pritchard, 2014. p20).
Bates (2016) summarises Piaget’s main ideas as follows:
  • People react differently to learning according to their stage of cognitive development
  • Teachers should take an active, mentoring role towards their learners
  • Learners should be encouraged to learn from their peers
  • Learners should be allowed to learn from their mistakes
  • The focus should be on the process of learning as well as the outcome
  • Teachers should respect each learner’s interests, abilities and limits

The basic principle underlying Piaget’s theory is the principle of equilibration: “all cognitive development progresses towards increasingly complex and stable levels of organisation” (UC Berkeley, p6). This happens through a twofold process of:

  • assimilation: the process whereby new knowledge is incoporated into existing mental structures
  • accommodation: the process whereby mental structures are altered to cope with the new experience that has affected or altered existing models (Pritchard, 2014. p21)

In this way, external experiences have an impact on what is already known, either by reinforcing or contradicting existing knowledge.


William G. Perry (1913-1998) was a researcher at Harvard who focused on the cognitive development of college-age students. His generalised study gave a more detailed account of development in post-adolescents than Piaget’s work had, as well as developing a more fluid, less static view of the transition from one developmental stage to the next.

Perry rejected the notion of stages (as described by Piaget, Freud etc) as being too static, instead introducing the concept of positionality. He laid greater emphasis on the idea that learners approach knowledge from a variety of standpoints, arguing that gender, race, culture and socioeconomic class influence our approach to learning just as much as our stage of cognitive development.

“We interpret the world from a different position and each person may occupy several positions simultaneously with respect to different subjects and experiences. The developmental process is a constantly changing series of transitions between different positions.”

– UC Berkeley, 2016. p7.


Perry illustrates the idea of different kinds of position like this:

… a lecturer announces that today he will consider three theories explanatory of ________.

Student A has always taken it for granted that knowledge consists of correct answers, that there is one right answer per problem, and that teachers explain these answers for students to learn. He therefore listens for the lecturer to state which theory to learn.

Student B makes the same general assumptions, but with an elaboration to the effect that teachers sometimes present problems and procedures, rather than answers, “so that we can learn to find the right answer on our own…”

Student C assumes that an answer can be called “right” only in the light of its context, and that contexts or “frames of reference” differ…

Whatever the lecturer then proceeds to do, these three students will make meaning of the experience in different ways which will involve different assessments of their own choices and responsibilities.

– Perry, 1999, p2.

Perry identifies nine basic positions, of which the three main examples are dualitymultiplicity and commitment:

  • Duality is the most basic position. The world, knowledge and morality are assumed to have a dualistic structure: right or wrong, true or false, good or bad. Students see teachers as authority figures who impart right answers, and “the truth”. The role of students is to receive those answers and demonstrate that they have learned them. Most students have passed beyond this stage by the time they arrive in university, and those who haven’t quickly do so due to the pluralistic culture of modern universities.
  • Multiplicity is the next major position. The world, knowledge and morality are accepted as relativistic in the sense that truth is seen as relative to a frame of reference rather than absolute. Learners see that things can only be said to be right or wrong within a specific context. Teachers are seen as expert guides rather than authority figures imparting “the truth”. Peers are accepted as legitimate sources of learning. This position involves a much more extensive restructuring of the learner’s existing knowledge.
  • Commitment is the final major position. Commitments that learners have developed together with their recognition that knowledge is relative leads to the realisation both that each person partly determines his or own fate, and the recognition that commitments and identity are constantly evolving.

– UC Berkeley, 2016. p9.

Schema theory

“Human beings understand the world by constructing models of it in their minds.”

– Johnson-Laird 1983, quoted in Pritchard 2014 (p22)

Mental models have been described in various forms by psychologists since the 1920s, and are widely considered to be a reasonable means of describing the way that learning happens. Mental models, or schema, are theoretical stores for a huge number of items of knowledge, or frameworks with many nodes and even more numerous connections between nodes.

At each node in a schema, there is a piece of information or an idea. It could be an image, sound, smell, feeling, action, etc. Each node is connected to many others by links that are formed by there being a meaningful link between the connected items.

Links are personal, and the same items appearing in the schemas of two different people could have completely different links for different reasons. It is the adding of nodes to schemas, and the formation of new connections with other nodes, that constitutes learning.

The more connections there are within schemas, the more construction has taken place and the more learning has taken place.

In summary, units of knowledge, understanding and skill are schemas – a way of referring to conceptual knowledge held in a person’s long-term memory. An adult may have hundreds of thousands of schemas that would be interrelated in a very large and complex number of ways. New schemas are created constantly, and existing schemas are updated just as often.

Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) theory

This theory describes the stages in the process by which people process information. Schunk (1996) suggests four stages, where people:

  1. attend to events
  2. encode information to be learned and relate it to knowledge in memory
  3. store new knowledge in memory
  4. retrieve it as needed

CIP theory uses the metaphor of computer systems with inputs and outputs, focusing on the processing that happens in-between these stages:

Various processes can keep information “alive” or help to transfer it from one stage of memory to the next, including rehearsalchunkingencoding and retrieval.

Stage theory

Stage theory is one of the most popular theories of this kind in the cognitivist tradition.

It proposes that information is processed serially, in three stages with the final stage being long-term memory: our permanent (or close enough!) information store.

Our senses are constantly taking in information, which is then stored for very short amount of time in the sensory store. It is transferred for a somewhat longer time to short-term memory, where, depending on the processing that takes place, the information (or some degree of it) can be assimilated or accommodated into long-term memory.


The capacity of short-term memory is an important factor when designing instructional experiences, specifically in chunking. In instructional design terms, a chunk is a single item in working memory. The size and organisation of this chunk will determine how easily & effectively it is processed.

Content that is chunked is more meaningful, making it easier to understand. There are three key steps in chunking for e-learning:

  1. Start at the highest level: determine how modules are formed from chapters, which are made up of topics, etc.
  2. Chunk at the screen level: one screen = one chunk of related information. Packing too much onto one screen is unlikely to be effective for instruction.
  3. Use working memory chunks: evaluate in terms of working memory, and be critical of what content you are including. Remove anything that is unnecessary.

Mayer’s principles

Many of the points above became the foundation for Professor Richard Mayer’s Twelve Principles for Multimedia Learning (2001).

View of knowledge

Cognitive constructivists argue that knowledge is actively constructed by learners. Knowledge is made up of active systems of mental representations that learners have built through past learning experiences. Each learner interprets experiences and information in light of their:

  • extant knowledge
  • stage of cognitive development
  • cultural background
  • personal history, etc.

Learners use these factors (among others) to organise their experience and to select and transform new information. Knowledge is therefore actively constructed rather than passively absorbed, dependent on the standpoint from which the learner approaches it.

View of learning

Learning is presented as a process of active discovery. The role of the instructor is not to drill knowledge into students through repetition, or by deploying systems of rewards or punishments. Instead, they are to facilitate discovery by providing needed resources and guiding learners as they try to assimilate new knowledge to old. Learning is active mental work, not passive reception of teaching.

This means therefore that teachers must take into account the knowledge that learners already have when deciding how to construct a curriculum and to adapt approaches based upon it.

View of motivation

In contrast to the extrinsic approaches of behaviorism, cognitivism sees motivation as intrinsic: that learning is its own reward. Learners have to accept the limitations of their existing knowledge, and the need to modify or expand upon their existing beliefs. Without an internal drive from the learner to do so, extrinsic motivators such as grades, gold stars or house points are unlikely to make them want to do this.


Recent thinking has gone beyond Piaget’s views of developmental stages. The exactness of the stages of development have been criticised. Children may well pass through all the stages identified by Piaget, but not necessarily at the ages he identified. It remains, however, a useful developmental trail if nothing else.


Bates, B. (2016). Learning Theories Simplified. Los Angeles: Sage.

Piaget, J. (1968). Six Psychological Studies. Anita Tenzer (trans.), New York: Vintage Books.

Pritchard (2014). Ways of Learning: Learning Theories and Learning Styles in the Classroom. 3rd edition. Oxford: Routledge.

UC Berkeley (2016). Learning: Theory and Research, a teaching guide for Graduate Student Instructors. [Online], available from: