In case it isn’t obvious, Jillian and I are fascinated by brain research that explores how people learn. Last week we looked at emotional learning. This week we’re taking a closer look at cognitive learning, which incorporates emotions and thought into the learning process. This theory gives less importance to the role of behavior and instead embraces the learner’s thought processes and other internal insights unique the individual.
Cognitive learning theory focuses on learning through understanding and meaning, as opposed to memorizing facts and figures. We observe, listen, touch, read, or experience new information before processing and then recalling it. Although it might seem passive, cognitive learning is quite active. The difference is that all the activity is going on inside the processing and storage areas of the brain.
Roger Schank, a leading visionary in cognitive science and learning, defines learning not as an accumulation of knowledge, but as an improvement in one’s own cognitive processes. In his book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools, he outlines twelve learning processes organized into three categories:
- Conceptual processes: prediction, modeling, experimentation, evaluation
- Analytic processes: diagnosis, planning, causation, judgment
- Social processes: Influence, teamwork, negotiation, describing
According to the ASTD Handbook, the cognitive view of how learning takes place is “based on how information is processed, stored, and retrieved in the mind, rather than on how behavior changes.” The approach helps learners remember information, comprehend how things work, and refer to new procedures when needed.
That’s a high-level view of cognitive learning theory. So how do we use cognitive learning theory to actually design training for adults? Here’s what the ASTD Cognitive Training Model recommends:
- Gain attention: Start with a relevant way to grab the learners’ attention right away. Focus the attention on the new knowledge to generate encouragement and excitement for learning.
- Recall and relate: Draw a connection between the information the learners already know and the new knowledge they’re about to gain. Highlight similarities between the old and new knowledge throughout the course.
- Structure content: Be clear about the desired behaviors and knowledge. Organize new information into bite-size pieces to avoid cognitive overload and to promote learning that will stick.
- Use visuals throughout: Along with organized on-screen text, graphics and animations may help introduce and support new content.
- Assimilate the old and new knowledge: Use real-life or realistic examples to demonstrate how the new knowledge works in a context that appeals to the learners.
- Strengthen the new knowledge: Engage learners by having them do something with their new knowledge, such as through interactive exercises, games, or on-the-job application of their new skills.