Ryan Valley
ETEC 512


Cognitive theories stress the acquisition of knowledge and internal mental structures . . . [they] focus on the conceptualization of students’ learning processes and address the issues of how information is received, organized, stored, and retrieved by the mind (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 51).

What is quintessentially cognitivist ?

Cognitivist educational theories emerged from behaviourism’s inability to account for or explain internal mental processes related to learning. Early cognitivists were interested in understanding and describing how external stimuli is processed and stored for future recall, which represented a shift from thinking about learning as a simple cause and effect physical reaction (Yilmaz, 2011). Importantly, cognitivists had also come to see learners as active participants in the learning process rather than merely subjected to it. According to Ertmer and Newby (2013) “educators began to de-emphasize a concern with overt, observable behavior and stressed instead more complex cognitive processes such as thinking, problem solving, language, concept formation and information processing” (pp. 50-51). 

Cognitive learning theories focus on conceptualizing learning processes while recognizing that learners are active and engaged:

Early Influences

Notable early influencers of the cognitivist movement include Piaget, Vygotsky, the Gestalt psychologists, and Edward Tolman in the early 20th century (Yilmaz, 2011). Piaget and Vygotsky are seen as instrumental in the development of both cognitivist and constructivist theoretical perspectives, emphasizing the importance of the relationship between context and learning processes, and the Gestalt movement in Germany brought attention to the importance of perception, and how “objects or events are viewed as organized wholes . . . people use principles to organize their perceptions” (Schunk, 2012, p. 175). Early cognitivists laid the groundwork for many critical concepts such as schema as a way of describing how new data is organized based on past knowledge and experience, and challenging the assumptions of behaviourism. 

It is against this backdrop of the early 20th century that the two main cognitive theories I will focus on in this presentation came to fruition: Social Cognitive Theory and Information Processing Theory. 

Major Cognitivist Learning Theories

Digital Instructional Practices

“Cognitive theories emphasize making knowledge meaningful and helping learners organize and relate new information to existing knowledge in memory” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 54)

Ertmer and Newby (2012) describe a variety of approaches to cognitive instruction. I have adapted their examples to create a tip sheet for instructors who wish to take a cognitive approach to their educational technology practice.

  • Recognize and treat learners as active participants; “learner control, metacognitive training (e.g., self-planning,
    monitoring, and revising techniques)” (p. 53). On an LMS this could mean allowing them access to their dashboard so they can see their progress.
  • Chunk information into its most essential elements, eliminate irrelevant information
  • Streamline learner creation or adaption of mental models through clearly structured sequencing “use of cognitive strategies such as outlining, summaries, synthesizers, advance organizers, etc.” (p. 53)
  • Find out what your learners already know so you can effectively connect new concepts. Online this could be a discussion forum, pre-assignment or a survey
  • Know your learners’ attitudes and motivations around learning
  • Get to know how your learners maintain and direct their own learning
  • Let learners practice and give them tailored feedback (projects, recall, retrieval, quizzes)

Discussion Prompts

Which aspects of your practice are rooted in cognitivism?

To what degree do you use principles based on SCT or IPT?


Anderson, J. R., Bothell, D., Byrne, M. D., Douglass, S., Lebiere, C., & Qin, Y. (2004). An integrated theory of the mind. Psychological Review, 111(4), 1036-1060. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.111.4.1036

Bandura, A. (2011). Chapter 17: Social cognitive theory. In P. A. M. van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychological Theories (pp. 349-373). London: Sage. 

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71. https://doi.org/10.1002/piq.21143

Mayer, R. E. (1996). Learners as information processors: Legacies and limitations of educational psychology’s second metaphor. Educational Psychologist, 31, 151–161

Orey, M. (2002). Information Processing. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology (pp. 25-26). A Global Text. 

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

Yilmaz, K. (2011). The cognitive perspective on learning: Its theoretical underpinnings and implications for classroom practices. The Clearing House, 84(5), 204-212. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2011.568989

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