Cognitive Learning Basics

Before releasing my forthcoming articles on the seven principles of “How Students Learn,” I want to be sure all readers have at least a basic understanding of cognitive learning theory. Why? Every instructor at every level should and can apply the basics, and both they and their students will benefit. So, let’s move on to some definitions.

Cognition and Cognitive Learning Theory

The term cognition refers to the mental processes people use to gain knowledge and understanding, and cognitive learning theory is the area of educational psychology that attempts to explain how individuals use their brains to accomplish that.

Numerous books and articles have been published on cognitive learning theory, most of which is written in academese. In case you are not familiar with the term academese, Bryan Garner (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009) noted that “Academese is characteristic of academicians who are writing for a highly specialized but limited audience, or who have a limited grasp of how to make their arguments clearly and specifically” . Virtually all these publications go far beyond what you need to know to be an excellent college instructor. With a doctorate in education, I can usually decipher most of this “high level jargon.” However, sometimes I think these authors should have provided a decoder ring for normal people. (Note: I am not saying academics are clueless, but Gerald Graff did in the book on the right.)

I want you to be familiar with another term, the word schema (plural schemata). This refers to the way in which people organize information in the brain. If you use this word in conversations with academics, they will surely be impressed!

Learning and Remembering

Learning and remembering are two key aspects of cognition. When students cram for a test and regurgitate enough facts to pass, they often forget those facts. They temporarily stored the information in short-term memory, and that “pseudo learning” quickly fades away. You, however, want your students to really learn something, so you want to make it as easy as possible for them to store important information in their long-term memory. (Trust me, you really do!)

Remembering occurs when you mentally retrieve information you have stored in long-term memory. Sometimes that is difficult. The information is in your brain somewhere, but you can’t quite find it. As the expression goes, it’s on the tip of your tongue. For example, you might temporarily forget the name of your cousin’s new husband. My most memorable … no make that forgettable … experience was on my first date with my wife some 20 years ago. I forgot her name, but luckily she married me anyway. Now we laugh about that time when I addressed Emily as Elaine.

Now, using a very simplistic analogy, I will give you a brief introduction to cognitive learning theory.

Filing and Retrieving Information in Your Brain

Filing Cabinet

Imagine that your brain is composed of many, many tiny filing cabinets. Each filing cabinet includes information on a specific subject. For example, you might have one brain filing cabinet devoted to cooking, another devoted to golf, another devoted to algebra, and so forth. Each filing cabinet has drawers. Each drawer has hanging folders, and each hanging folder has a number of file folders. These files contain the sum total of all the declarative knowledge you have learned. (Note: Declarative refers to the knowledge you can say, write, read or hear as opposed to muscle memory that helps you do things like play sports.) Where am I going with all this?

Woman at Filing Cabinet

Now imagine that you are walking up to the tee box on a 176 yard par three hole. Fortunately your golfing filing cabinet is so well organized that you are able to quickly choose the correct iron to play. You do so with no awareness of the few nanoseconds it took for your brain to retrieve this information from drawer two, folder three, file two of your golf filing cabinet. But often, remembering gets more complex. (By the way, hopefully you have some muscle memory too.)

Imagine now that you are preparing a new recipe for stuffed green peppers. It requires that you sauté onions, a simple procedure that you rapidly pull from a folder in your cooking file cabinet. Then you realize that the recipe makes four servings, but you only want to make two. You quickly open the drawer in your algebra filing cabinet, access the folder on percentages, and pull out the file on fractions. Voila! You adjust the amount of each ingredient by 2 over 4, or in other words you cut it in half.

So far we have only addressed memory. Now image that you are taking a cooking course. Part of this morning’s lesson had to do with roasting vegetables. As your instructor lectured, you visualized doing this with a vegetable you know quite well, a green pepper. OvenThen you and your classmates tried it out in a classroom oven. What you did without thinking about it was to attach the new information about roasting vegetables to what you already know about peppers and ovens. Now assume you want to roast garlic tomorrow night. Rest assured that you will be able access what you learned about roasting temperatures, times and appearance because you attached that information to things you already knew. (Mmm. I can smell those garlic cloves already.)

But what about your friend who didn’t attend class this morning? You copy your notes into an email and send it to him. He reads the instructions for roasting vegetables and thinks “piece of cake.” (Sorry for that idom.) No need to practice.

I happen to know that your instructor will begin the next class with a pop quiz on roasting vegetables. Who will pass? You? Your friend? Both of you? I am betting on you, because you stored the information in your long-term memory by attaching it to what you already knew. You solidified that knowledge and made it easy to retrieve because you actually roasted a green pepper in class. You also have the mental images of what you did and even the olfactory memory of how it smelled.

Putting Cognition Principles to Work

As an instructor, you want to create an environment in which your students can learn. Learning is their job, but you want to make it as easy as possible for them. Part of what you should do is to apply cognitive learning theory to how you go about teaching.

A good book on the subject of cognition.

I love Ruth Clark’s book, Building Expertise – Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement. Dr. Clark wrote this using very little academese, and when she did she defined the terms she used. I recently feared I lost her book and was ready to buy a new copy before searching through my reference library one last time. As you can see, there is a newer edition available.

If you want to purchase just one reasonably priced “how-to” reference on cognition, make it this one. If you teach a technology course, you will find this book very helpful. But don’t be fooled about the word “training” in the subtitle. Many college professors could learn a thing or two from experienced trainers. I once hired an HVAC instructor whose experience was mainly in industrial training. He turned out to be one of the most talented teachers I ever observed when it came to applying cognitive learning principles in the classroom. By the way, you can buy a used version of Building Expertise : Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvementand save quite a bit of money.


I will now highlight three of Clark’s down-to-earth techniques. This is advice you can apply even if your are teaching a graduate course. In fact, I took doctoral courses from a number of professors who did just that.

  1. Don’t Overloading Working Memory – When students’ working memory gets filled up, learning stops and forgetting begins. Clark explains the concept of chunking, to combat this. Chunking involves breaking information into smaller bits or chunks. Every wonder why telephone numbers are listed like this: (555) 123-4567? Three chunks! I am sure you get the idea. So, break down information into smaller chunks. I suggest chunk your lesson plans. By that I mean, change what your doing frequently. Never lecture for more than 20 minutes at a time. Show a video, start a class discussion, or give the class exercise to work on in groups before you go back to lecturing. If nothing else, a break before continuing your lecture can help your students.
  2. By-Pass Working Memory – (Note: You may hear the terms working memory and short term memory interchanged, but there is a distinction Working memory places information in short-term memory. Think of short-term memory as a file cabinet that is continuously being purged.) Clark advises giving trainees job aids. Commercial airline pilots use job aids in the form of check sheets that guide them through pre-flight procedures. The authors of most math and science textbooks give students a number of learning job aids that range from sample problems to sophisticated online learning resources. As an instructor you can minimize your students’ reliance on working memory during class time by flipping your classroom. I wrote a short article entitled The Khan Academy and the College Classroom which will give you a sense for what this means. Basically, instructors provide students’ job aids in the form of learning experiences outside the classroom and then guide them through problem solving sessions in class.
  3. Build Schemata – You already know what schemata are, right? Remember, they refer to the ways in which people organize information in their long term memory. In my example of cooking stuffed peppers, you had a schema that linked your need to use only a fraction of the recipe ingredients with your algebra file on how to use fractions to calculate percentages. You now know enough cognitive learning basics to come up with ways to help your students build schema. So, I am going to stop right here. Use the comment section below to share your ideas, and let me know if I can publish them for everyone to see.
  4. constructivism. Rich learning experience occur when learners teach themselves by discovering, or constructing, learning for themselves. I hope you consider yourself a rich learner. 🙂

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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