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What is cognitive learning theory?

By Michael Feder

At a glance

  • Cognitive learning theory focuses on the internal processes surrounding information and memory.
  • Jean Piaget founded cognitive psychology in the 1930s as a reaction to the prevalent behaviorist school of psychology.
  • According to Piaget, a schema is the basic unit of knowledge, and schemata build up over a lifetime.
  • Understanding the cognitive orientation to learning is essential to providing a quality education. Equip yourself with powerful classroom skills with an education degree from University of Phoenix.

Whether they are teaching basic arithmetic to a grade school class or guiding graduate students through complex and advanced concepts, all educators have the same need:

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They must understand how students learn.

To answer this question, educators often use concepts derived from educational learning theories. Combining classroom experience with psychological concepts, educators can optimize the way they teach.


Cognitive learning theory, which focuses on the internal processes surrounding information and memory, is one of the most adaptable of the five major learning theories. Cognitive learning has applications for teaching students as young as infants, all the way up to adult learners picking up new skills on the job.

For educators, understanding cognitive learning can help them develop effective lesson plans. For everyone else, the theory’s principles are helpful for understanding how the mind works and how to learn more effectively.

Basics of cognitive learning theory

At the center of the cognitive learning theory sits the concept of cognition, which defines as “all conscious and unconscious processes by which knowledge is accumulated, such as perceiving, recognizing, conceiving and reasoning.”

“Knowledge,” as understood by cognitive theorists, is the cognitive processing of what something is and what something is not, from concepts as simple as a young student identifying animals from a picture book to something more complex such as weighing the pros and cons of eating meat.

Psychologist Jean Piaget developed the first cognitive psychology theories in the 1930s from his work with infants and young children. Behaviorism, which was the prevailing psychological theory at the time, focused solely on behaviors that could be observed externally. Behaviorists argued that these behaviors were a result of a subject’s interaction with external events and actions.

Piaget argued for something different. His research and writing focused instead on mental processes that occurred internally. He viewed human subjects as beings that not only react to the things around them but also process and store information related to those things.


What's the difference between cognitivism and constructivism?

Piaget’s work is also associated with the constructivist learning theory, which shares many concepts with cognitive learning. They both focus on the internal processes associated with learning, as opposed to outwardly observable behavior.

To make the distinction clear, constructivists emphasize learners actively participating in building knowledge. For cognitivists, active participation is not necessarily important. Much of the knowledge-building process happens passively, according to cognitivists. In practice, cognitivists are not as eager as constructivists to discard lectures and textbooks in favor of more participatory teaching methods.

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What is constructivism in education?

Accommodation and assimilation in cognitive psychology

Piaget saw human development as a  multistage process of building knowledge. From their first breath, infants learn basic motor functions, like learning to grasp objects. By adulthood, these functions are essentially second nature, and people can grapple with concepts that are very complex, like philosophy or mathematics.

To make a consistent psychological theory, Piaget sought to break knowledge (no matter how simple or complex) into a single, basic unit. From there, he could develop a theory of cognitive learning that could apply just as much to a baby’s first step to deep philosophical concepts they might develop later in life.

Piaget called this basic unit schema.

What are schemata?

Here is how Piaget defines a schema: “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.”

Let’s break this down with a simple example: A child recognizes a cow on a farm.

The “cohesive, repeatable action” is the child’s recognition of the cow. It is repeatable in that that the child will continue to recognize it (and animals identical to it) as a cow.

This action of recognition can be broken down into its components: The child doesn’t just see a cow. They see a thing that is alive, has four legs, is eating grass and makes a mooing sound. These acts of recognition, of course, can be broken down further. The child must have some concept of what a live thing is, how to count to four and so on.

For the child, all these various components form the “core meaning” of a cow. Even when the child leaves the farm, they will still have an understanding and concept of what a cow is and isn’t.

Of course, that is a basic example, but Piaget argues that schemata essentially form the basis of every human cognitive process. Returning to the, they are: 

1. Perceiving
2. Recognizing
3. Conceiving
4. Reasoning

In other words, you can’t say Piaget was not ambitious.

Over the course of human development, people form new and ever more complex schemata, which build off of other schemata. This is how we get from ideas as simple as recognizing a cow all the way to concepts as complex as, “Do cows recognize me?”

According to cognitivists, schemata form the basis of those and all other concepts.


How are schemata formed?

Piaget outlines a four-step process in the formation of schemata:

1. Assimilation
2. Disequilibrium
3. Accommodation
4. Equilibrium

Step 1: Assimilation

Assimilation is the cognitive process of associating new information to what is already known. This prior knowledge can be innate, like knowing how to breathe, or something learned previously.

To return to our earlier example, let’s say the child has only seen a cow in picture books. Seeing a cow in person gives them an additional sense of what a cow looks like and how it behaves. This will be “assimilated” into the schema that is the child’s recognition of the cow.

Step 2: Disequilibrium

Let’s say the child goes to the farm and recognizes a cow. They point out that it has four legs, eats grass and lives on a farm, all characteristics that this cow shares with the cow in the picture book.

Unexpectedly, however, instead of making the mooing sound that the child associates with a cow, the animal makes a “baa” sound. Upon further inspection, this cow has a big puffy white coat of fleece, very much unlike the cow in the picture book. The child’s cow-recognition schema did not include this sound or this coat, causing a disruption or “disequilibrium.”

Of course, we know that the “cow” is a sheep. How will the child come to this conclusion, however, and form their own sheep recognition schema?

Step 3: Accommodation

The child will attempt to resolve this disequilibrium through a process called “accommodation.” They will compare and contrast their concept of a cow with the mystery animal currently in front of them.

They will notice that though both a cow and this animal share many aspects (four legs, eating grass) they contrast in notable ways (different sounds, different coats.) Though they may not have a name for it, they will conclude that, despite some similarities, this animal is not a cow.

This might prompt the child to turn to a parent or caregiver, who will tell them that it’s a sheep. Subconsciously, the child will do two things at this point, both of which are components of accommodation. First, they will adjust their existing cow-recognizing schema to be able to recognize cows as not sheep. Then they will produce a new schema to recognize sheep by their specific attributes, and not by the attributes of a cow.  

Step 4: Equilibrium

By the end of this accommodation process, the child is equipped with a stable understanding of what a cow is and is not, as well as what a sheep is and is not. Upon seeing either of these animals, they will not need to readjust their schema.

That is, unless they encounter new information that causes disequilibrium and the whole process to begin again. In this way, schema-building is a constant, cyclical and lifelong process. This same process will allow the child to build and categorize their schemata to include more-complex concepts, such as how a farm works or the ethics of eating meat, which will (in part) rely upon the recognition schema they developed when they were young.


Cognitive learning theory in business

It’s easy to see how Piaget’s theories of cognitive development and psychology apply to children, but they have important applications in the adult world as well.

When creating learning and development programs for new employees, managers can utilize cognitive learning concepts to produce better outcomes. Some cognitivist-informed strategies might include:

1. Surveying employees about their knowledge of a subject
2. Implementing self-paced programs
3. Providing opportunities for employees to ask questions and communicate with one another
4. Allowing employees to share their thoughts on how the program can be improved

Whether in the form of surveys or Q&A sessions, incorporating employee input can help personalize training. This input emphasizes the importance of each employee’s individual knowledge, giving them a pathway to connect what they know to what they have to learn.

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Cognitive learning theory in education

Some students advance very fast. Some need more time on certain subjects. When educators take their students’ existing knowledge into account, they can better support each student’s individual learning journey.

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11 qualities of a good teacher

As a learning theory, cognitivism has many applications in the classroom. In each application, the main principle is incorporating student experiences, perspectives and knowledge.

For example, a teacher might:

1. Ask students about their experience with the lesson

2. Emphasize the connection between past ideas and new ones

3. Incorporate group discussions and Q&A sessions into the curriculum

4. Invite a variety of opinions about a given subject

This approach can not only help students learn, but it can also help them feel respected and listened to. That can make class exciting and encourage a passion for learning that continues throughout students’ lives.

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