MET:The Cognitive Approach

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This page originally authored by Cristina Gandila (2007)

A learning theory describes what goes on inside the learner's head when learning occurs. Learning Theories themselves do not offer guidance in how to teach something. To identify useful methods for particular situations, then an instructional-design theory is needed. In contrast to learning theories, instructional-design theories are more directly and easily applied to educational problems. They describe the specific events in the environment or methods of instruction that are outside the learner and which facilitate learning. The theories of learning and human development are useful for understanding why an instructional-design theory works. Learning theories function as the foundation, while the instructional-design theories as the structure built upon it.

The Instructional Design

The Instructional Design [1], also known as Instructional Systems Design (ISD), is the analysis of learning needs and systematic development of instruction. Instructional Design Models typically specify a method that, if followed, will facilitate the transfer of knowledge, skills and attitude to the recipient or acquirer of the instruction.

Instructional theories

They play an important role in the design of instructional materials, as they help shape and define the outcome of instructional materials:

1. Behaviorism [2]

2. Constructivism [3]

3. Social Learning [4]

4. Cognitivism

The Cognitive Learning and the Instructional Design Theories

Cognitive Approach to Learning

The Instructional Design Theory

Learning and instructional design theories (The Elaboration Theory [5])have had the most significant impact on the principles of instructional design.

According to Charles M. Reigeluth, an instructional design theory is a theory that offers explicit guidance on how to better help people learn and develop (Reigeluth, 1999, p.425-459). He describes this theory as an orientation towards design, focusing on the means to attain goals for learning and development. This theory is prescriptive as it is concerned with the identification of methods of instruction, with the ways to support and facilitate learning, as well as with the situations in which these methods should and should not be used. Thus, this theory indicates that methods are situational and not universal in application.

The methods of instruction can be broken into more detailed component methods, which are meant to provide more guidance to the educators. Outcomes are dependent on the situation. Also, the methods are probabilistic rather than deterministic, which means that they increase the chances of attaining the goals rather than ensuring attainment of the goals. Thus, the goal of an instructional-design theory is to attain the highest possible probability of the desired results.

The current instructional design practice has been strongly influenced by the cognitive learning theories. Cognitive learning theory is compatible with the primary principles of constructivism. As opposed to the behaviorist theories, cognitive learning theory places much more emphasis on factors within the learner than on factors within the environment.

The Cognitive Learning Theories

The educational psychologists, who have influenced the cognitive approach, believe that children actively construct knowledge in a social context. Lev Vygotsky proposed that all learning takes place in the “zone of proximal development”(SPD) [6]. According to Vygotsky, SPD is the difference between what a child can do alone and what he/she can do with assistance. By building on child’s experiences and providing moderately challenging tasks, teachers can provide the intellectual scaffolding to help children learn and progress through the different stages of development. As he put it, the SPD is "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers "(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

The Cognitive approach emphasizes students’ability to solve real-life, practical problems. Students need to work in groups rather than individually, and they need to focus on projects that require solutions to problems rather than on instructional sequences that require learning of certain content skills. The job of the teacher in constructivist models is to arrange for required resources and act as a guide to students while they set their own goals and teach themselves.

Cognitive learning theories focus on the learner, thus explaining learning in terms of cognitive processes, structures, and representations that are believed to operate within the learner.

Under the Cognitive theory, learning theory has been influenced in major ways:

  • learning is an active, constructive process;
  • learning is a process of relating new information to previously learned information;
  • knowledge is organized; people control and organize their own learning;
  • a main concern is shown for analyzing learning tasks and performance in terms of the cognitive processes that are involved.

The ADDIE Model

The most common model used for creating instructional materials is the ADDIE Model, an acronym, which stands for the 5 phases contained in the model. They represent a dynamic and flexible guideline used for building effective training and performance support tools:

1. Analyze: to analyze learner characteristics, tasks to be learned, learning environment, etc.

2. Design: to develop learning objectives, to choose an instructional approach.

3. Develop: to create instructional or training materials.

4. Implement: to deliver or distribute the instructional materials.

5. Evaluate: to make sure the materials achieved the desired goals.

Cognitive Educational Instructional Design Models

1. Cooperative/Collaborative Learning: students work in teams to master academic materials; teams are made up of high, average, and low achievers, and are racially and sexually mixed; reward systems are group-oriented.

2. Cognitive apprenticeship/Worked examples practice: a learning-through-guided-experience which facilitates teaching the processes that experts use to handle complex tasks. Students observe experts carrying out a task that they themselves have to fulfill based on their observations. While being observed, students receive hints, feedback, reminders. Being forced to do exploration, students are pushed into a mode of problem-solving on their own.

3. Exploration/Discovery learning: since students are more likely to remember concepts they discover on their own, they are required to interact with their environment by exploring and manipulating objects or by performing experiments. This learning method is most successful if students have prerequisite knowledge and undergo some structured experiences.

Influential authors

  • David Ausubel [7]
  • Benjamin Bloom [8]
  • Jerome Bruner [9]
  • Dick, W. & Carey, L.
  • Robert M. Gagné [10]
  • David Jonassen
  • Charles M. Reigeluth [13]

See also

  • Constructivism. Learning Theory [15]
  • Cognitively Guided Instruction reviewed on the Promising Practices Network[16]


  • Reigeluth, C.M., (1999). What is instructional-design theory, and how is it changing?. In C.M. Reigeluth (ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, volume II. (pp. 425-459). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Further reading

  • Cognitive science [17]
  • CogWiki, a wiki for Cognitive Science [18]
  • Elaboration theory[19]
  • Learning Theory [20]

External links

  • Key Theorists and Theories [21]