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Cognitive Theorists Dialogue

Gloria Butcher


University of the West Indies Open Campus

Graduate Program: Instructional Design and Technology

EDID6501-Learning Theory and Instructional Design

March 21, 2016


Cognitive Theorists Dialogue

Cognitive theories explain the value of the brain as an extraordinary network of

information processing in the learning process. “Learning occurs through internal processing of

information” and is dependent on “how new information is presented (Euro Med Info, n.d, para.

2) Consequently, this paper will provide information from an investigation of the following

cognitive theories: Cognitive Information Processing, Meaningful Learning, Schema Theory, and

Situated cognition.

Cognitive Information Processing

The cognitive information processing theory makes comparison with the way a computer

processes information and the way learners input and process information from their

environment (Driscoll, 2005). This theory suggests that the information received from the

environment is processed, stored in the memory and later used in reality. Information processing

is rooted in the work of Atkins and Shiffrin (1968 cited in Driscoll, 2005) who argued that

memory is facilitated in a multistore and multistage process. When the brain receives

information, the information undergoes a chain of transformations until it is stored permanently.

Driscoll (2005) describes the stages as follows: sensory memory –the first stage where

information is held briefly; the working memory also referred to as consciousness, hold only

limited information for a limited amount of time -learners actively engage in thinking about

something. For example, when reading, a person can only focus on a small portion of the text at

a time; next is the long term memory which is like a permanent repository for information-here

information is transferred from the short term memory and is remembered. Based on this theory,

the long term memory is able to store unlimited information (Driscoll, 2005).

Implications for instruction

Based on the way information is imputed, stored and retrieved, learners can experience

difficulty during instruction. For example, during transfer learners must exercise the ability to

differentiate between important and unimportant information; this is selective attention. Hence,

instruction should be organized to signal important information. For example, I have asked my

students to keep a small note book handy, during the day as we go through different concepts, I

would say “here is the principle”-this serves as a signal. When students hear this phrase they take

note of what was said in their note books. This strategy facilitates selective attention and

appropriate pattern recognition.

Further, to facilitate automaticity necessary for retrieval, variable practice can be applied.

For example, the teacher can provide much practice to aid overlearning. However, practice

should be applied in varying contexts, so that learners are able to apply multiple cues. For

example, this term my students had difficulty applying the concept of fractions, instead of giving

them a number of practice sheets, I had them make fraction models, write recipes, make word

problems using their recipes as well as share food items in the class.

Another strategy which can help support the working memory is to apply chunking which

is breaking down skills or information into manageable parts to support the limited intake that is

native to the short term memory. For example, when teaching strategies for comprehension, I

focus on one strategy at a time; over time students build up their store of strategies to apply when


Meaningful learning and Schema Theory

David Ausubel introduced the theory of meaningful learning as a process which

facilitates the linking of new information to current related components of an individual’s


knowledge structure (Gurlen, 2012). This theory holds that in the teaching learning process,

background knowledge has to be activated before learning can take place. The acquisition of new

knowledge is dependent on the knowledge and experiences learners bring to the learning event.

Ausuble made distinction between rote learning memorization and meaningful learning; in the

former, learners made no connection between what was memorized and their previous


Meaningful learning was synthesized with Schema theory (Gurlen, 2012), since both

advocate the pivotal role of previous knowledge in learning (Driscoll, 2005). However, unlike

meaningful learning, Schema theory proposes that all knowledge is organized in units which

hold information (Driscoll, 2005; McVee, Dunsmore and Gavelk, 2005). These units or schemata

represent the knowledge the learner has with regard to concepts and their relationship to one

another. Hence, learning takes place as learners make sense of what they are learning by

activating schemata stored in their memory. Schema based processes follow that there is

accretion or the adding to an existing schema; tuning- modifying existing schema; and,

reconstructing- developing new schema (Driscoll, 2005). New information is interpreted

according to the way it fits into the learner’s schemata; if there is a misfit of new information

with prior knowledge there can be miscomprehension.

Implications for instruction

Meaningful learning and schema theory propose that the first function of instruction is to

help learners connect what they know to what is to be learnt. Providing learners with advance

organizers (materials prepared in advance of introducing the new concept) is pivotal to helping

them bridge the gap between previous knowledge and the new knowledge or activating

appropriate schema. The use of graphic organizers such as KWL organizer is an effective way of

activating or building background knowledge (Lewis, 2010). Before the learning event, learners

identify general ideas relating to the concept. Also teachers can review the unit in advance and

identify the previous knowledge required. Further, re-teaching can be done to help build

appropriate schema.

Both theories stress the importance organizing materials and content. Content should be

organized in a way that supports the connection between the learner’s previous knowledge and

the new knowledge. This kind of organization helps with the process of adding to existing

schema-accretion in schema theory and subsumption in meaningful learning.

Situated Cognition Theory

Situated cognition argues that all knowledge acquired is situated within activities

that are socially, physically or culturally based (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 2007-2016;

Driscoll, 2005). Hence, a learner cannot acquire knowledge separated from the context in which

the knowledge is collected. Knowledge is viewed as lived practices and cannot be alienated from

doing. Whereas meaningful learning and schema theory emphasizes prior knowledge, situated

cognition emphasizes the sociocultural aspects of learning.

Implications for instruction

Since this theory situates learning in real-world context and requires the learner to

interact with a competent other to acquire knowledge, the facilitator must model skills and

behaviors for the learner. For example, facilitators can model active reading by verbalizing their

thoughts as they read. Facilitators can then ask learners to verbalize their thoughts as they read.

Modeled writing and reading can also be used. Modeling allows the expert to demonstrate a task

or a concept so that learners can see how it is done (Pappas, 2015). Coaching can also be used

where after performing the task immediate feedback is given. For example, in social studies

students can learn how to create digital presentations to share their assignments. First, the

facilitator creates a PowerPoint using a digital board modeling the process step by step. Then

scaffolding is applied until students are able to perform the skill on their own. These strategies

will support the emphasis placed on learning through interaction with an expert in order to

acquire new knowledge which is one of the important aspects of situated cognition called

cognitive apprenticeship (Browns, Collins and Duguid, 2016).

Summation of Similarities and differences

Cognitive information processing, meaningful learning, Schema theory, and situated

cognition are similar because they emphasize inner mental processing of information for the

acquisition of knowledge. However, added to the differences mentioned before, each of the

theories have different assumptions about how mental processing takes place.


Brown, J. S., Collins, A., Duguid, P. (2016) Situated cognition. Retrieved from

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Euro Med Info. (n.d). Behavioral, cognitive and humanist approaches. Retrieved from

Gurlen, E. (2012). Meaningful learning. Journal of Education and Future, 21-35.

Retrieved from


Lewis, A. (2010). Activating strategies for use in the classroom. Retrieved


McVee, M. B., Dunsmore, K., Gavelek, J. R., (2005).Schema theory revisited. Review of

Educational Research, 75 (4), 531-566. Retrieved from


Pappas, C. (2015). The quintessential of the situated cognition theory and its application

to e-learning course design. Retrieved from


Wiseman, D. G. (2008). Schema theory: Using cognitive structures in organizing

knowledge. Retrieved from