How often do you stop and think about how you’re learning? If you’re like most of us, the answer is probably ‘not often enough.’ At a certain point, learning becomes second nature, an automatic process like blinking or breathing. When this happens, we can neglect to think about the key processes and strategies underpinning our learning. Ultimately, this leads to diminishing returns.
Enter: cognitive learning theory. Cognitive learning theory centres around metacognition. That is, thinking about thinking or learning how to learn. When we engage in cognitive learning, learning becomes an ongoing and engaging lifelong pursuit, rather than a dull, automatic reaction.
So, we’ve decided to analyse cognitive learning theory. We’ll start by asking what cognitive learning theory is, before branching off to compare social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioural theory, and finally finishing with four benefits of cognitive learning theory.
This article will be the first in a two-part series on cognitive learning theory. Be sure to join us again in a fortnight when we’ll dig deeper into the topic by outlining strategies to apply cognitive learning theory, including implicit vs explicit learning and collaborative learning.
Ready to learn about learning? Start here.
To understand cognitive learning theory, it’s vital to understand two key terms: cognition and metacognition.
Cognition simply refers to thinking. It is the “mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.”
In contrast, metacognition means thinking about thinking. Doing so helps us understand how our thought processes influence our learning. Mastering metacognition means gaining a deeper understanding of your thoughts and mental processes.
Metacognition is central to understanding cognitive learning theory. 360 Learning explains that “by understanding the role of thought processes during learning, we can guide those thoughts to help us gain knowledge more effectively. We can manipulate the internal and external factors that impact our thinking to improve learning in ourselves and others.”
Behavioural psychologist Jean Piaget popularised the theory of cognitive learning, contrasting it against the more popular (at the time) behavioural learning theory. Cognitive learning theory focuses on internal mental structures and processes. In contrast, behavioural learning theory claims that learned responses to our external environment are more influential. To Piaget, this seemed backwards.
According to Western Governors University, “behaviourism focuses on the idea that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment. This learning theory states that behaviours are learned from the environment, and says that innate or inherited factors have very little influence on behaviour.”
On the other hand, Valamis notes that cognitive learning theory is “an active style of learning that focuses on helping you learn how to maximise your brain’s potential. It makes it easier for you to connect new information with existing ideas, hence deepening your memory and retention capacity.” Similarly, Indeed adds that cognitive learning theory is all about “more effective use of the brain.”
In other words, cognitive learning theory focuses less on what you’re learning and more on how you’re learning. It’s the difference between mindlessly memorising facts to pass a test and building sustainable, repeatable, and substantive learning patterns that will allow for long-term growth. By understanding how to learn, learners can confidently approach new tasks while also boosting their comprehension and problem-solving skills.
Thus, cognitive learning theory helps learners to join the dots between existing knowledge and new materials, leading to deeper, more comprehensive insights. With cognitive learning theory, you’re continuously adding new bricks to your pyramid of learning.
Generally, we can break cognitive learning theory into two main subsections: social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioural theory. Below, we’ll analyse and contrast these theories.
Academic researchers typically divide cognitive learning theory into two distinct sub-theories: social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioural theory.
According to 360 Learning, social cognitive theory “explores how social interaction affects learning cognition… it aims to modify the learner's environment to influence inner thought processes.”
In simple terms, this theory posits that we learn by observing others. External influences such as peers, teachers, managers, and parents all model behaviours from which we subsequently learn.
On the other hand, cognitive behavioural theory “examines how our thoughts influence our behaviour and feelings… a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions impact how they learn. In other words, their thought patterns and mindset affect how they pick up and retain information.”
Put simply, cognitive behavioural theory looks at how our thoughts impact our feelings which in turn influence our behaviour. For example, you’re less likely to make rational decisions when you're angry. Or, when you’re tired, you may not make sound judgements.
By being aware of this process, we can seek to control these influences. As Valamis puts it: “when we change our thoughts, we can change our emotions and then our behaviours.”
Essentially, social cognitive theory focuses on how the outside world and external influences impact our learning cognition, whereas cognitive behavioural theory focuses on how our internal thoughts impact our ability to learn.
Some concepts that impact social cognitive theory in the classroom or workplace include:
Conversely, concepts that impact cognitive behavioural theory in the classroom or workplace include:
Finally, it is worth emphasising that these theories are not mutually exclusive but rather, intertwined subsets of cognitive learning theory. Both internal and external factors greatly impact our ability to learn.
Now that we understand what cognitive learning theory is, it’s worth asking: what are the benefits of cognitive learning theory?
We’ve broken it down into four key benefits.
Cognitive learning theory can improve learners’ comprehension when attempting new subjects or tasks. With cognitive learning, students learn by doing. This hands-on approach allows learners to gain a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of new materials.
Cognitive learning theory helps us learn how to learn. As such, learners are better equipped to develop problem-solving skills that they can deploy later to think through challenging situations.
By promoting problem-solving and improving comprehension, cognitive learning theory can also boost learners’ confidence. Cognitive learning theory equips learners with the skills to handle challenging and complex problems, thereby making new subjects seem less daunting and empowering learners with the confidence they need to branch out.
Cognitive learning is ongoing, continuously adding new building blocks to your learning pyramid. So, using cognitive skills can promote lifelong learning by allowing learners to connect existing knowledge with new materials. Cognitive strategies also encourage a love of learning by making it exciting, engaging, and fulfilling.
Remember, we'll continue our deep dive into cognitive learning theory in a fortnight, asking: “What strategies should L&D teams use to apply cognitive learning theory?” Be sure to check back in then for more!