Cognitivism (psychology)

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In psychology, cognitivism is a theoretical framework for understanding the mind that gained credence in the 1950s. The movement was a response to behaviorism, which cognitivists said neglected to explain cognition. Cognitive psychology derived its name from the Latin cognoscere, referring to knowing and information, thus cognitive psychology is an information-processing psychology derived in part from earlier traditions of the investigation of thought and problem solving.[1][2]

Behaviorists acknowledged the existence of thinking, but identified it as a behavior. Cognitivists argued that the way people think impacts their behavior and therefore cannot be a behavior in and of itself. Cognitivists later argued that thinking is so essential to psychology that the study of thinking should become its own field.[2] However, cognitivists typically presuppose a specific form of mental activity, of the kind advanced by computationalism.

Cognitive development[edit]

The process of assimilating and expanding our intellectual horizon is termed as cognitive development. We have a complex physiological structure that absorbs a variety of stimuli from the environment, stimuli being the interactions which are able to produce knowledge and skills. Parents process knowledge informally in the home while teachers process knowledge formally in school. Knowledge should be pursued with zest and zeal; if not learning becomes a burden.[3]


Attention is the first part of cognitive development. Learning takes place when the student gives attention towards the teacher. Interest and effort closely relate to attention. Attention is an active process which involves numerous outside stimuli. The attention of an organism at any point in time involves three concentric circles; beyond awareness, margin, and focus.[4]

How does learning occur?[edit]

Cognitive theory mainly stresses the acquisition of knowledge and growth of the mental structure. Cognitive theory tends to focus on conceptualizing the student's learning process: how information is received; how information is processed and organized into existing schema; how information is retrieved upon recall. In other words, cognitive theory seeks to explain the process of knowledge acquisition and the subsequent effects on the mental structures within the mind. Learning is not about the mechanics of what a learner does, but rather a process depending on what the learner already knows (existing information) and their method of acquiring new knowledge (how they integrate new information into their existing schemas). Knowledge acquisition is an activity consisting of internal codification of mental structures within the student's mind. Inherent to the theory, the student must be an active participant in their own learning process. Cognitive approaches mainly focus on the mental activities of the learner like mental planning, goal setting, and organizational strategies (shell, 1980). In cognitive theories not only the environmental factors and instructional components play an important role in learning. There are additional key elements like learning to code, transform, rehearse, and store and retrieve the information. Learning process includes learner’s thoughts, beliefs, and attitude values(Winna, 1988).[5]

What is the role of memory?[edit]

Memory plays a vital role in the learning process. Information is stored within memory in an organised, meaningful manner. Here, teachers and designers play different roles in the learning process. Teachers supposedly facilitate learning and the organization of information in an optimal way. Whereas designers supposedly use advanced techniques (such as analogies and hierarchical relationships) to help learners acquire new information to add to their prior knowledge. Forgetting is described as an inability to retrieve information from memory. Memory loss may be a mechanism used to discard situationally irrelevant information by assessing the relevance of newly acquired information.[6]

How does transfer occur?[edit]

According to cognitive theory, if a learner knows how to implement knowledge in different contexts and conditions then we can say that transfer has occurred. (Schunk, 1991) Understanding is composed of knowledge - in the form of rules, concepts and discrimination (Duffy and Jonassen, 1991). Knowledge stored in memory is important, but the use of such knowledge is also important. Prior knowledge will be used for identifying similarities and differences between itself and novel information.[7]

What types of learning are explained in detail by this position?[edit]

Cognitive theory mostly explains complex forms of learning in terms of reasoning, problem solving and information processing (Schunk, 1991). Emphasis must be placed on the fact that the goal of all aforementioned viewpoints is considered to be the same - the transfer of knowledge to the student in the most efficient and effective manner possible (Bednar et al. , 1991). Simplification and standardization are two techniques used to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of knowledge transfer. Knowledge can be analysed, decomposed and simplified into basic building blocks. There is a correlation with the behaviorist model of the knowledge transfer environment. Cognitivists stress the importance of efficient processing strategies.[8]

What are the basic assumptions/ principles of the cognitive theory or relevant to instructional design?[edit]

A behaviorist uses feedback (reinforcement) to change the behavior in the desired direction, while the cognitivist uses the feedback for guiding and supporting the accurate mental connections (Thomson, Simon son. & Hargrave, 1992). For different reasons learners' task analyzers are critical to both cognitivists and behaviorists. Cognitivists looks at the learners predisposition to learning (How does the learner actives, maintains and directs his/her learning ?) ( Thompson et . al.,1992) Additionally, cognitivists examine the learner's 'how to design' instruction that it can be assimilated . (i. e ., what about the learners existing mental structures?) In contrast, the behaviorists looks at learners how to determine where the lesson should begin ( i. e., At what level the learners are performing successfully?) and what are the most effective reinforces ( i.e., What are the consequences that are mostly desired by the learner ?).

There are some specific assumptions or principles that direct the instructional design: active involvement of the learner in the learning process, learner control, meta cognitive training ( e.g., self-planning, monitoring and revising techniques), the use of hierarchical analyses to identify and illustrate prerequisite relationships (cognitive task analysis procedure), facilitating optimal processing of structuring, organizing and sequencing information (use of cognitive strategies such as outlining, summaries, synthesizers, advance organizers etc.), encouraging the students to make connections with previously learned material, and creating learning environments (recall of prerequisite skills; use of relevant examples, analogies).

How should instruction be structured?[edit]

Cognitive theories emphasize mainly on making knowledge meaningful and helping learners to organizing relate new information to existing knowledge in memory . Instruction should be based on students existing schema or mental structures, to be effective. The organisation of information is connected in such a manner that it should relate to the existing knowledge in some meaningful way. The examples of cognitive strategy are Analogies metaphors. The other cognitive strategies includes the use of framing, outlining the mnemonics, concept mapping, advance organizers and so forth ( West, Farmer, and wolff,1991). The cognitive theory mainly emphasizes the major tasks of the teacher / designer and includes analyzing that various learning experiences to the learning situation which can impact learning outcomes of different individuals. Organizing and structuring the new information to connect the learners previously acquired knowledge abilities and experiences. The new information is effectively and efficiently assimilated/ accommodated within the learners cognitive structure ( stepich and Newby, 1988 ).

Theoretical approach[edit]

Cognitivism has two major components, one methodological, the other theoretical. Methodologically, cognitivism adopts a positivist approach and the belief that psychology can be (in principle) fully explained by the use of the scientific method.[citation needed] This is also largely a reductionist goal, with the belief that individual components of mental function (the 'cognitive architecture') can be identified and meaningfully understood.[citation needed] The second is the belief that cognition consists of discrete, internal mental states (representations or symbols) whose manipulation can be described in terms of rules or algorithms.[citation needed].

Cognitivism became the dominant force in psychology in the late-20th century, replacing behaviorism as the most popular paradigm for understanding mental function. Cognitive psychology is not a wholesale refutation of behaviorism, but rather an expansion that accepts that mental states exist. This was due to the increasing criticism towards the end of the 1950s of simplistic learning models. One of the most notable criticisms was Chomsky's argument that language could not be acquired purely through conditioning, and must be at least partly explained by the existence of internal mental states.

The main issues that interest cognitive psychologists are the inner mechanisms of human thought and the processes of knowing. Cognitive psychologists have attempted to shed some light on the alleged mental structures that stand in a causal relationship to our physical actions.

Criticisms of psychological cognitivism[edit]

In the 1990s, various new theories emerged and challenged cognitivism and the idea that thought was best described as computation. Some of these new approaches, often influenced by phenomenological and postmodern philosophy, include situated cognition, distributed cognition, dynamicism, embodied cognition. Some thinkers working in the field of artificial life (for example Rodney Brooks) have also produced non-cognitivist models of cognition. On the other hand, much of early cognitive psychology, and the work of many currently active cognitive psychologists does not treat cognitive processes as computational. The idea that mental functions can be described as information processing models has been criticised by philosopher John Searle and mathematician Roger Penrose who both argue that computation has some inherent shortcomings which cannot capture the fundamentals of mental processes.

  • Penrose uses Gödel's incompleteness theorem (which states that there are mathematical truths which can never be proven in a sufficiently strong mathematical system; any sufficiently strong system of axioms will also be incomplete) and Turing's halting problem (which states that there are some things which are inherently non-computable) as evidence for his position.
  • Searle has developed two arguments, the first (well known through his Chinese room thought experiment) is the 'syntax is not semantics' argument—that a program is just syntax, while understanding requires semantics; therefore programs (hence cognitivism) cannot explain understanding. Such an argument presupposes the controversial notion of a private language. The second, which Searle now prefers but is less well known, is his 'syntax is not physics' argument—nothing in the world is intrinsically a computer program except as applied, described or interpreted by an observer, so either everything can be described as a computer and trivially a brain can but then this does not explain any specific mental processes, or there is nothing intrinsic in a brain that makes it a computer (program). Detractors of this argument might point out that the same thing could be said about any concept-object relation, and that the brain-computer analogy can be a perfectly useful model if there is a strong isomorphism between the two.[citation needed] Both points, Searle claims, refute cognitivism.

Another argument against cognitivism is the problems of Ryle's Regress or the homunculus fallacy. Cognitivists have offered a number of arguments attempting to refute these attacks.[clarification needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mandler, G. (2002). Origins of the cognitive (r)evolution. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 38, 339-353
  2. ^ a b Lilienfeld, S.; Lynn, S. J.; Namy, L.; Woolf, N. (2010), Psychology: A Framework for Everyday Thinking, Pearson, pp. 24–28, ISBN 978-0-205-65048-4 
  3. ^ General Psychology (First edition, 2004 ed.). Neelkamal. p. 60. 
  4. ^ General Psychology (First edition, 2004 ed.). Neelkamal. p. 59. 
  5. ^ "Psychology" (PDF). 
  6. ^ "Teaching Cognitivism". 
  7. ^ "Learning Theories". 
  8. ^ "Teaching and Learning Cognitivism". 

Further reading[edit]

  • Costall, A. and Still, A. (eds) (1987) Cognitive Psychology in Question. Brighton: Harvester Press Ltd. ISBN 0-7108-1057-1
  • Searle, J. R. Is the brain a digital computer APA Presidential Address
  • Wallace, B ., Ross, A., Davies, J.B., and Anderson T., (eds) (2007) The Mind, the Body and the World: Psychology after Cognitivism. London: Imprint Academic. ISBN 978-1-84540-073-6

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