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University of Wyoming


Information processing theory which deals with how people perceive, learn, remember, and think about information.

Definition | Learning | Brief History | Major Tenets | Role of Learners
Role of Teacher | Terms Defined


Cognitivism is known as an information processing theory which deals with how people perceive, learn, remember, and think about information.

Cognitive science is an umbrella for other theories of learning such as constructionism, neoconstructionism, Gestaltism, flexible cognition.

The mental processes studied in cognitivism have resulted in efforts which study information processing, metacognition, transfer theories, computer simulations, creativity, artificial intelligence, concept formation, language acquisition, schema theory, etc.

Assumptions about Learning

  • Experiences are interpreted and given meaning.
  • Learning involves the reorganization of experiences.
  • The locus of learning for the cognitivists is internal.
  • The sum of the act of learning is greater than its parts.
  • There are patterns and forms of learning and diverse explanations for how cognition develops.

Brief History (Context)

The earliest roots of the study of cognition can be traced back to philosophy and physiology. Aristotle led a school of philosophers, the empiricists, who believed that all knowledge is gained through experience. Plato, in contrast, led a group called the rationalists who believed that knowledge can only be found through the mind. Immanuel Kant synthesized the two points-of-view by stating that some knowledge, a posteriori knowledge, was gained by experience, but other knowledge, a priori knowledge, was innate. Kant' s work had impact on the discipline of cognitive psychology which some regarded as philosophy and others as physiology. The work of William James and John Dewey in pragmatism contributed to the field. Gestalt psychologists in the middle of the twentieth century proposed that the center of learning was the individual opposing the work of behaviorists.

Major Proponents and Their Work

An early inspiration was John Dewey and his work. See next section: Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, David Ausubel, Jerome Bruner, Kurt Lewin, Robert Gagne,

Major Tenets

  • Under specific circumstances cognitive capacity can be increased
  • What the learner already knows influences learning.
  • Man is a rule forming being
  • Learning occurs by the generalization of insights stemming from experience
  • Social interaction develops cognition.

Incorrect assumptions about learning, based on cognitivism:

  • people predictably transfer learning f rom one situation to another'
  • learners are passive receivers of knowledge
  • learning is the bond between stimuli and responses
  • learners are blank slates on which knowledge is written
  • skills and knowledge, to be transferable to new contexts, should be acquired independently of their contexts for use.

Role of Learner

  • Imitate, model adult behaviors
  • Engage in experiences
  • Interact socially

Role of Teacher

Act as coach, encourager.

Design effective learning environments which include the following:

  • meanngful activities
  • model and explain own learning
  • provide tools for learning (real life contextual tools)
  • state need for learning
  • design progressively difficult tasks, diverse problems
  • organize projects, activities, experiments, apprenticeships, interactions

Design content which focuses on:

  • tricks of the trade, problem solving strategies that experts pickup from experience
  • cognitive management strategies: goal setting, strategic planning. monitoring, evaluating, revising
  • learning strategies: knowing how to learn, exploring, horizontal acquisition of knowledge, reconfigunng existing knowledge (Berryman)

Cognitivist Definitions (simplified)

Cognition: act or process of knowing

Cognitive Development: describes how thinking patterns change over time.

Metacognition: knowledge about our own thinking (Meta?) more comprehensive: transcending (metapsychology) used with the name of a discipline to designate a new but related discipline designed to deal critically with the original one.

Constructivism: learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. This "cognitive structure" provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to `'go beyond the information given."

Gestalt: a German word meaning pattern or shape. Gestalt psychologists emphasized the importance of organizational processes in perception, learning and problem solving and believed that individuals were predisposed to organize information in particular ways.

Epistemology: a branch of philosophy that focuses on the origins of knowledge.