Cognitivism – In A Nutshell


There are different schools of thought regarding the best approach to education and learning (which are different). Cognitivism stands out as one of my favorites because this learning theory focuses on the processes involved in learning and (in my experience) tends to resonate with the learner considerably more than others. This is probably because Cognitivists concentrate more on the connections that take place during learning. Connections often lead to proper understanding and application.


One notable example of cognitivism in practice is using concept mapping to enhance learning. Concept mapping is a visual tool that helps students organize and connect complex information. By constructing a map of concepts and their relationships, students can gain a deeper understanding of the material and improve their ability to recall it later. This approach has been found to be especially effective for learning in STEM fields, where complex systems and processes can be challenging to understand through traditional memorization methods.

Another example of cognitivism in action is using simulations and interactive multimedia to promote active learning. Students can develop a more intuitive understanding of complex concepts and processes by engaging with course material through interactive media. For instance, in medical education, interactive simulations can help students understand the human body and its systems more concretely, leading to greater retention and deeper understanding.

The Power

Dr. Gregory McLeod states that cognitivism is an internal and active mental process that increases both mental capacity and skills to learn better (McLeod, 2003). He says that the primary assumption of cognitivism is that relevant context and knowledge must be present to compare and process the new information (McLeod, 2003). As such, instructional designers must consider the learner specifically in the design process, ultimately shifting the program design’s focus (McLeod, 2003).

Cognitivism finds strength in the idea that it provides meaningful learning that is relatable. Additionally, it is well-suited for higher-level education (McLeod, 2003). This could be seen as a weakness in some instances as it does not appear to be a solid fit for many youths. However, that is not the only weakness to speak of.

Potential Limitations

While cognitivism has many strengths, some potential limitations and challenges are associated with this learning theory. One apparent weakness is that learning might be complex if the prerequisite contexts or information are missing (McLeod, 2003). To overcome these weaknesses, the instructor must ensure that the learner has the necessary context before the lesson can begin (McLeod, 2003). This could be time-consuming.

Another primary challenge is the resource-intensive nature of personalized instruction. Cognitivism places a strong emphasis on designing learning experiences that are tailored to the needs and prior knowledge of individual learners. However, this level of personalization requires significant time and resources on the part of educators, which can be a challenge in large classes or with limited resources.

Another potential limitation of cognitivism is its focus on individual cognitive processes, which can overlook the social and cultural aspects of learning. By emphasizing individual knowledge construction, cognitivism may not fully account for how social and cultural factors can shape the learning process. For instance, a student’s prior experiences, cultural background, and social context can all impact their ability to learn and process new information. Educators should consider these factors when designing learning experiences and strive to create inclusive and culturally responsive learning environments.

My Thoughts & Application

With the preceding in mind, I will say that I concur that learning is greatly enhanced when the learner has some of the necessary context or knowledge to pull from. I enjoy this approach because it requires the instructor to invest in the learner by asking the necessary questions to establish the current knowledge base and ensure the current lesson is set correctly. It also seems that the instructor would need a solid understanding and appreciation for the learner as a person. As a result, this would establish a stronger relationship between the two, further enhancing the learning process. However, this approach becomes less effective as the student-to-instructor ratio increases. Conversely, it would likely reach peak effectiveness at the one-on-one level.

Either way, it should be self-evident that an advantage would be had if the learner could draw solid personal connections to the lessons provided. A personal connection tends to make the lesson stick. Learning should be more than just repetition and memorization. I believe cognitivism provides a solid avenue to ensure that true learning has taken place and to allow that lesson to last.

If you are interested in exploring more, you might want to read my article titled “Leadership, Learning, and Critical Reflection.


McLeod, G. 2003. Learning theory and instructional design. Learning Matters, 2: 38–40.