Learning Theories – Cognitivism

Welcome to the second blog in our Learning Theories series.
This one is all about Cognitivism. 

Cognitivism came about as a direct response to Behaviourism (see our previous blog here). It’s the idea that learning happens when we actively process new information and relate it to pre-existing knowledge, rather than just respond to stimuli. With a cognitivist approach, teachers or instructors should facilitate learning, rather than directing it.  

For this reason, it’s more suited to concepts that require higher levels of learning, such as analysis, evaluation and problem-solving.  

There are more cognitive learning theories out there than we could write about here, but we will touch on a couple that have had an impact on the way we think about learning today. 

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development 

First up is Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Though he focused on children’s development, the theory is still very much relevant to adult learning. He suggested that we go through a process of development; as we add new knowledge, we build upon existing knowledge and adapt to accommodate new information.  

So, what does this mean for developing learning content? 

  • New information should build on pre-existing knowledge. To do this we need to know our learners.  
  • Learning points should be broken down (chunked) and sequenced in a logical order 
  • We should build in opportunities to question learners in order to challenge existing ideas or understanding, leading to development of new insights, or the adoption of old ones. 

Blooms Taxonomy 

Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed in the 1950s and was revised in 2001. Bloom believed there was a hierarchy of learning and he came up with a model to classify learning into levels of complexity, from simply remembering at the bottom to evaluating and creating at the top. He argued that learners need to progress through each of the levels in order for deeper learning to take place. 

There are so many ways we can use this model in the development of L&D materials, from how we structure programmes, to the kind of activities we should include. Some of our ideas are listed below: 

  1. Programme Structure 
  • Sequence modules logically to ensure learners have a solid understanding of the basics before moving onto more complex thinking. 
  • Evaluate existing programmes against the model to check how effective they are, or to identify any gaps.  
  • Build in opportunities to review prior learning and check understanding.  
  1. Programme Content 

Think about what you want learners to know or do and select activities that correspond to the level of cognitive thinking required: 

  • If you need employees to simply recall information, then activities that help them remember or understand are enough (think one-page summaries or overview videos).  
  • If you want employees to have a deeper understanding of the information, or do more with that information, then activities that encourage them to analyse, evaluate or even create will be necessary (think ‘putting it into practice’ activities like problem-or scenario-based learning). 

The key takeaway here is that by understanding how people learn, you can develop effective, engaging learning programmes that help your business get to where it needs to be. 

Keep your eyes peeled for our next blog on Constructivism.