Cognitive Learning Theory Essay

Cognitive Learning Theory Essay

Learning is defined as a change in the learner’s way of thinking. Cognitive learning theory is based on the fact that people are able to learn by watching what others are doing and that the processes of the human thought are the key point in understanding a person’s personality. This theory is basically interested in the way the brain develops a pattern that is based on the perceived world. This theory argues that there is a very great influence of ones behavior by the environment that the person grows in but on the other hand it argues that the individual is the most important factor in determining his/her moral development. The theory also argues that people learn by observing others and this observation is influenced by three factors; behavior, the environment and the cognition. These factors have been noted not to be independent but they really affect each other, for example the environment on which an individual is raised may influence the behavior of the individual. An individual’s learning may also be affected by the psychology of the individual and the factors that affect the understanding of the individual like the capability of the individual to accommodate and assimilate information. Cognitive theory is broadly involved in how people comprehend issues and materials around them and therefore it mainly deals with the capacity and the aptitude to learn. Cognitive learning theory forms the basis of constructivism which is a learning approach which calls attention to the role that the learner plays in constructing his own model of the material and behavior that he or she gains from the environment around the individual (Atherton, 2009). The cognitive theory replaced the behavioral theory in the early days and it mainly focuses on those inner mental activities that are aimed at opening the mind of the individual to enable learning to take place. The theory of behaviorism was abandoned as it was argued that people were not like animals that can be programmed to respond in a certain way but instead people are rational and therefore they require some participation for them to learn and their actions are as a result of thinking not like animals whose actions are as a result of environmental stimuli. In cognitive theory it is important to study the mental processes of the individual like the memory, problem solving capability and the knowing capability of the individual. The processes taking place in the learner’s head are only observed by the actions that the learner takes and therefore the cognitive theory of learning takes the mind as a computer whereby information is fed into the mind, processed and this leads to certain actions.


From the early 1960s the cognitive theory of learning has provided the major perspective through which research in learning has been carried out and this has resulted in the development of various learning theories like the evolutionary, Neurophysiologic and the functionalistic. Edward Tolman puts forward these ideas as related to cognitive theory of learning; for there to be learning it is not compulsory that there has to be a change in the behavior, for one to study behavior it has to be done at a local level, it is important to consider the intervening variables in the learning exercise, learning can take place in the absence of any kind of reinforcement, behavior is as a result of a certain purpose and learning eventually leads to a well organized body of information. Edward Tolman carried out a research using rats to understand the cognitive theory of learning and he observed that organisms usually develop a map of their environment which he referred to as a cognitive map. This map is basically an outline of where different components of the environment are located with respect to each organism. Gestalt then came up with the importance of learning, perception and problem solving as organizational processes of the mind. Gestalt argued that perception of the mind is quite different from the real situation, an organism generally organizes its own experience, organisms organize the experience in a particular manner that was previously learned and that it is difficult to assess the human experience in parts but instead it should be assessed as the overall experience. This theory also assumes that problem-solving involves structuring and re-structuring of the problem at hand until the mind develops a structure that will solve the problem. Piaget then carried out some research in epistemology using a clinical method where he gave different questions and tasks to different children and studied their specific responses. Piaget then came up with the following ideas about cognitive theory of learning. Piaget argued that human beings are processors of information and they are always actively involved in learning and at the same time interpreting the events that are taking place in their surroundings unlike animals that usually respond in a passive manner to the environmental conditions around them. Piaget also argued that knowledge can be seen as structures that are constantly changing with respect to development; this can be seen in children as they develop because they develop new schemes that are later linked with each other to form the cognitive structures. Piaget found out that cognitive development is as a result of the interactions that the learner has with the social and physical surroundings. Assimilation and accommodation are the two major processes that human beings interact with the environment and these processes are always constant. Accommodation is whereby an individual forms a new scheme that will help him deal with a new event or modifies the existing scheme to fit to the new event while in assimilation the individuals interact with the new event in a way that is similar to an existing scheme. Piaget then argues that people are always trying to understand the world around them and sometimes people are in a state of equilibrium whereby they can explain the events around them but at other times people are in a state of disequilibrium when they cannot explain the events around them but they then reorganize their minds to be able to understand the events around them and they therefore return to equilibrium.


Piaget then developed the four stages that an individual goes through in the cognitive learning theory and in each stage the individual has unique thought processes. The stages are:

Sensorimotor stage: This stage is that time from when a kid is born to when the kid gets to two years of age. During this stage the children are only sensitive to the things that are around them at any time and therefore anything that is out of sight to the child is also not in the child’s mind.

Preoperational stage: This is the period when the child is between two years and six or seven years of age. At this stage the child is developing the language and this shows that the child is developing very many new mental schemes in the mind. The major characteristic of this stage is that the child develops some logical thinking although it is not to the standards of the adults. An example of this stage can be shown in how the children cannot understand the conservation of a liquid and they tend to think that a bigger container has got a larger volume of the liquid although it had been demonstrated that the two containers have the same volume of the liquid.

Concrete operations stage: This stage starts when children are six or seven years old and continues until the children are about eleven or twelve years of age. At this stage the children start to think more logically in areas like the conservation of liquids and other related areas but the children at this stage can only apply their logics to objects and events that are concrete and observable.

Formal operations stage: This is a stage that takes place after the children are eleven or twelve years of age and it continues to progress after several years from this time. During this stage the child develops the capability to reason with abstract and in a hypothetical manner that is contrary to fact information (Ormrod, 1999).

Cognitive theory has also been affected by research in verbal learning. Verbal learning research is basically involved in the study of two types of learning namely paired social and serial learning. In serial learning people learn the first and the last items on a list and therefore they tend to forget those items that are in the middle of the list and the paired social learning is where individuals tend to study things in pairs and this means that when an individual recalls one item he or she then easily recalls the other item that belongs to the same pair. In cognitive learning theory the characteristics of the material being learnt normally affects the rate at which the individual learns the material, this means that if the items being learnt are easily pronounceable, concrete and meaningful then they can be easily learned than those that are not easy to visualize in the mind. In this theory people tend to impose meaning when they are learning new things and they also organize the information that they learn, another characteristic of this learning theory is that people use coding strategies to assist them in the learning exercise and people tend to learn general ideas more easily than exact words.


The cognitive theory assumes that: there are some learning activities that are quite unique to the human mind for example a very complex language, learning is likely to take place when the individual can link the new information to some previously learnt information, the knowledge of an individual is generally organized into numerous mental associations and structures of the mind, in this theory learning is mainly comprised of mental associations that are not reflected by any behavior change unlike the behavioral learning, the events that take place in the mind during the cognitive learning theory are the most important aspect of the learning theory, the individuals in this learning theory are actively involved in the learning exercise unlike the behavioral theory where individuals are passive and they are only controlled by the environmental conditions around them and the last assumption is that the constant observation of the individual’s behavior is the major objective in this theory of learning.

Cognitive learning theory is based on the information processing theory which focuses on how people perceive the environmental conditions around them, how the perceived ideas are out in their memories and how they retrieve the information that is stored in their memories. When learners acquire any information they organize it in their minds and try to make sense of the information at the same time and this is done in a unique way and therefore the cognitive theory brings out learning as a construction of the knowledge and not just receiving the information from the surrounding. Cognitive theory also stresses on the importance of the immediate surrounding in learning and behavior and it includes the area of proximal development. It also emphasizes on the issue of distributed intelligence which comes into practice when the learners discuss and think about ideas together with other people and this is more intelligent than when the learners do it alone.

The cognitive theory has got a number of educational implications which include;

  1. If any difficulties are encountered in the learning process this indicates an ineffective cognitive process and this is mainly seen in learners who are suffering from any disabilities. Therefore the facilitators of the learning exercise need to be aware that all the learners are trying to learn something no matter their disabilities.

  2. The processes involved in the cognitive theory affect the learning of the learners.

  3. Children tend to become more sophisticated in their thoughts as they grow.

  4. Due to the fact that all learners organize what they learn the facilitators of the learning exercise can improve the exercise by presenting the information in a more organized manner. This organization should have some link between the previously learnt information and the current information to help the learners come up with the mental connection.

  5. People tend to control their own learning and therefore the learners should select the information to be learnt and how the learning is to take place and not the teachers.

  6. In cognitive theory new information is easily acquired when the learners can link it with other information that they had previously learnt and therefore the teachers show clearly show how the new information relates to the previous information.


The cognitive theory of learning stresses a lot on the ability of an individual to perform morally and morally competent. Being moral competent is when an individual has the ability to perform a moral behavior while moral performance is when an individual’s moral ideas are followed in a certain situation. Moral competence is actually the growth of the individual’s cognitive sensory processes and therefore letting the individual become aware of what is wrong and what is right. Moral performance is mainly influenced by the rewards and incentives that come as a result of acting in a certain way.

In cognitive theory of learning there is the use of models to assist in the learning exercise and the models can either be those of media sources or those that are as a result of interpersonal imitation. The models are useful in that they help the learners in coming up with strategies and rules for conforming to different situations. The teachers play the role of a model in the learning process of the children and therefore they should be aimed at building high self-efficacy levels in the students and this can be done by recognizing the accomplishments of the students.


The cognitive theory of learning is applied in the current day in very many arenas which include; public health, education, marketing and mass media. An example of application of this theory is where producers of a certain commodity use celebrities to introduce their commodity to a certain group o9f people. Cognitive theory can also be applied in AIDS campaign targeting the teenagers where they are let to identify themselves with a certain recognized peer, develop a greater sense of self efficacy and then imitate the actions of this recognizable peer so as to learn the prevention methods of AIDS and this helps develop a community that is more aware and informed of the issues relating to AIDS. This theory can also be used in marketing where a celebrity is portrayed as using as certain commodity with an aim of marketing the commodity to those people who envy the celebrity (Katherine, 2005).

In conclusion, cognitive theory is currently the most important perspective used to describe and explain the human learning. The existing cognitive theory of learning stresses mental processes as argues that there are many issues of learning that may be quite unique to the human species. Cognitive theory has affected the educational theory by stressing on the role of the teacher in presenting the information to the students or learners in a way that facilitates the learning exercise.


Atherton, J. S (2009) Learning and Teaching; Cognitive theories of learning, Available online URL:, Accessed: 29th June 2009 at 10:26

Katherine Miller (2005). Communication Theories: Processes, Perspectives and Contexts Second Edition, New York, McGraw-Hill Publishers

Ormrod, J.E. (1999). Human learning, Third Edition, Upper Saddle River New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Publishers.

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