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Using Cognitive Theories To Improve Teaching

"Learners are not simply passive recipients of information; they actively construct
their own understanding." If you agree, you are ready to consider cognitive theory
as the foundation for teaching.

Marilia Svinicki elaborates in an excellent article that distills cognitive theories of

learning. From this vantage point, the learner is at center stage. The instructor
becomes a facilitator of learning, rather than one who delivers the message ....
Cognitive psychology says that the learner plays a critical role in determining what
he or she get out of instruction. Svinicki then draws six principles from cognitive
theory that operationally define this perspective, with implications for applying the

Principle 1. If information is to be learned, it must first be recognized as

important. The more attention effectively directed toward what is to be learned,
the higher the probability of learning. This begins simply: instructors write key
ideas on the board; textbooks highlight the most important points. It becomes
more complicated as students within a given major must learn how a discipline
determines what is important. They can do that more readily if instructors make
those determinations explicit.

Principle 2. During learning, learners act on information in ways that make

it more meaningful. Instructor and students should use examples, images,
elaborations, and connections to prior knowledge to make information more
meaningful, to bridge from what is known to what is unknown. This makes it very
important for instructors to know what kinds of knowledge and experiences
students bring to the new learning situation.

Principle 3. Learners store information in long-term memory in an

organized fashion related to their existing understanding of the world. The
instructor can help students organize new information by providing an
organizational structure, particularly one with which students are familiar, or by
encouraging students to create such structures; in fact, students learn best under
the latter condition. Without instructor guidance, students either impose their own
structure-- most generally a structure that reflects an uninformed view things (and
often leads to misconceptions)-- or memorize the material minus any structure,
which leads to fast forgetting.

Principle 4. Learners continually check understanding, which results in

refinement and revision of what is retained. Opportunities for checking and
diagnosis aid learning. This point underscores a point made in the article, "Still
More on Student Questions"-- the need for instructors to give students time to
check on their understanding.

Principle 5. Transfer of learning to new contexts is not automatic, but

results form exposure to multiple applications. During learning, provision
must be made for later transfer. Svinicki elaborates this way:
The more (and the more different) situations in which students see a concept
applied, the better they will be able to use what they have learned in the future. It
will no longer be tied to a single context.

Principle 6. Learning is facilitated when learners are aware of their

learning strategies and monitor their use. The instructor should help students
learn how to translate these strategies into action at appropriate points in their
learning. In other words, the application of cognitive theory implies a responsibility
to teach both content and process. Students need to learn how to learn just as
much as they need to learn things.

In summary, Svinicki makes an interesting observation: There is a great deal of

intuitive appeal to the cognitive approach to teaching. It echoes our own experience
as learners and is easy to understand. Applying the approach is more difficult,
however, because we must give up our illusion of control. That change shakes the
foundation of content as the primary focus of our teaching. We are then faced with
the task of adapting to the needs of learners, a varied and unpredictable group.