Cognitivism in Action

In my studies this week, we learned another Learning Theory (Behaviorism was last week): Cognitivism.  The two are not direct competition and adhering to one certainly does not preclude a teacher from incorporating the other.  Cognitivism is an “information processing theory,” (Laureate, 2008) and relates to the way in which the brain processes and stores information both short and long term.  It’s helpful to know the three types of memories that are stored permanently in the brain: declarative (facts), procedural and episodic (events) (Laureate, 2008).  There are four key facets to Cognitivism that will help to shed some light on how to better ensure that your students store the information you give them in their permanent memory.

Short Term Memory
It has been discovered that a student can process, “7 +/-2 pieces of information” (Laureate, 2008) at a time in his short-term memory, which would suggest that expecting them to remember all of the facts from a specific lesson shortly afterwards would be unrealistic.  One way of aiding your students would be to engage in summarizing after a lesson.  Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn and Malenoski suggest a tool called a summary frame, as they are “a series of questions that the teacher asks students, designed to highlight the critical elements of specific kinds of information and texts” (2007).  If you can teach students to pare down a body of knowledge to 7-10 essential facts or concepts, you will greatly increase the retention of that information.  Efficient note taking, and concept mapping software  (a kind of graphic organizer for visually relating information) are other ways to whittle down information to essential facts.

Network Model of Memory and Elaboration
A roadmap is an apt metaphor for relating the way a brain stores and retrieves information, each piece linked to many others, as if by roads.  The more connections you make to a student’s prior knowledge, emotions, and experience, the more likely you will impart something that is stored permanently in her brain.  When engaging in “Elaboration” activities, you are asking students to create mental associations between a new fact and a series of related prior information.  For example, if trains are being studied, students may discuss trips they’ve taken, books they’ve read on train robberies, or trains they’ve watched drive through their neighborhood.  All of these connections and associations deepen the new information in the memory.  Asking students to complete expositive, narrative or graphic organizers will give them an opportunity to relate facts, stories and images to the new lesson (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn & Malenoski, 2007). 

Dual Coding Hypothesis
This is the simplest of the facets of Cognitivism to grasp and relate to.  It simply states that by showing a student an image of whatever they are studying, it will increase the locations in which that fact is stored, as it will be stored in the visual part of their memory as well as the linguistic (Laureate, 2008).  It’s as simple as adding visuals to a lesson to increase retention.  But, I find that taking students on virtual field trips (as an Art teacher, I have taken my students on many virtual museum trips), not only add imagery and adhere to the dual coding hypothesis, but also create more of an ‘experience’ and probably store some information in that episodic part of their brains. 

The bottom line is, the richer the lesson, the more senses engaged, the greater the chance of true long-term knowledge retention. 


Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2008). Cognitive learning theories. Bridging Learning Theory, Instruction and Technology. Laureate Education, Inc.

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


About Megan Boyd

Teacher of Graphic Design I & II as well as Digital Photo. I live in Room B207.
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2 Responses to Cognitivism in Action

  1. Cristina Chico says:

    Megan, have you ever utilized concept maps in your art class? If so, how do you apply them to your curriculum. Your students must appreciate the virtual field trips (VFT), as they add another dimension to understanding concepts and facts. As I sifted through the VFT websites, I found that the museum sites are among the riches for supplying good graphics and history. Do you usually show the VFT before, during, or after a lesson?

  2. Megan Boyd says:

    Thanks for your comment! No, I’ve never used concept maps, per se. We’ve had brainstorming sessions wherein we list characteristics of things or we try to write down concepts on the white board as we have a debate about some form of Art or an artist’s work, but I’ve never used concept maps formally.

    Art museum web sites are most definitely an excellent resource, especially because most Art museum’s have a significant online presence and have photos of most of their permanent collections up on the web. The tough part is finding one that has a 3D view of the gallery, because then you can really appreciate the size and proportion of the Art. For example, the famous Van Gogh paintings are always smaller than my students expect them to be, and Georgia O’Keefe’s are bigger. Scale is important and a google image search can’t show that, but a virtual field trip can!

    Thanks again, Christina!

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