The Application of the Cognitive Learning Theory to Instructional Design

Article excerpt

Cognitive scientists distinguish between two major types of knowledge, declarative and procedural. Declarative knowledge is knowledge about the world and its properties. Procedural knowledge is knowledge about how to do things. Cognitive scientists also refer to metacognitive knowledge, which is knowledge about one's own knowledge, skills, and abilities (McGilly, 1994; Kintsch, Tennyson, Gagne, Muraida, 1991).

ORGANIZATION OF KNOWLEDGE/SYSTEMS APPROACH

Knowledge can be stored in memory in a variety of forms. One way is in isolated and disconnected pieces of information, often the result of learning by rote. Much of the knowledge that students acquire in school seems to be in this form. In contrast, knowledge can be organized into large, interconnected bodies, where pieces of knowledge are conceptually linked to other pieces. This network of interconnections can extend and link to other information to broaden the range of cognitive activities, including answering a wide variety of domain-specific questions, drawing analogies, making inferences, and generalizing to new content areas (McGilly, 1994).

Although commonalities exist to some extent, students use their own modes of cognitive processing to acquire, retain, and retrieve information. This implies that acquisition and performance depend upon how the learner manipulates subject matter/content. The ways that a student selects, encodes, organizes, stores, retrieves, decodes, and generates information are called "cognitive styles" when they affect learning and performance (Dillon & Pellegrino, 1991). The dilemma arises whether to design instruction to capitalize upon cognitive processing strengths or to design instruction to strengthen cognitive processing weaknesses. Educators may agree that learning occurs most efficiently when strategies are designed to suit the learner's needs (Ledford, 1996). The chief task here perhaps is ascertaining the specific needs of the learner and then designing instruction to accommodate not only that learner's needs but the needs of those learners in his/her group as well.

Organization of knowledge has long been an issue with many learning theorists. Gestaltists believed that the organism adds something to experience that is not contained in sensory data, and that something is organization. Wertheimer, Kohler, and Koffka were founders of this learning theory which states "the whole is different than the sum of its parts." We experience the world in meaningful wholes. These theorists maintained that our perception is broken up into organized wholes, or Gestalten, and these should be the basic subject matter of psychology (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1992).

The ability to bring together many complex elements systematically to form a "whole" is a fundamental characteristic of the systems approach to teaching and learning. The concept of a systems approach is critical to the design of justifiable instruction. Many circumstances in many disciplines ranging from business to education use this holistic approach in studying problems because it orients thinking in a way conducive to problem solving (Ledford, 1996).

Cognitive Process Learning

The cognitive learning principles have strong potential for educational applications. An information-processing approach shifts attention away from the products or outcomes of learning towards the processes involved in learning and teaching. McGilly (1994) recounted the findings of a research team who identified six expert strategies a student needed for reading with comprehension. Understanding the purpose of reading, activating relevant background knowledge, allocating attention to relevant rather than irrelevant content, evaluating content for internal consistency and compatibility with prior knowledge, monitoring comprehension as reading progresses, and drawing and testing inferences. This team developed an instructional technique called reciprocal teaching where initially the teacher leads and models instruction, then gradually allows the students to assume responsibility for their own learning. …