Cognitive learning - how learners learn_Blog header
Mary Crooks Luteyn

Cognitive learning – how learners learn

Let’s start with the basics – what is cognitive learning?

It sounds like a bunch of jargon, right? Basically, cognitive learning is the process the brain takes to learn.


Why is it useful to know?

Knowing how we learn helps us as learning designers to create more interesting, engaging and effective learning experiences.

With the advances in neuroscience we know a lot more about how the brain works and how this in turn translates into learning processes, for example, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) Dan refers to in the video below. We can now apply this knowledge to make the learning experiences we create even more meaningful.


What analogy would you use to explain cognitive learning to someone else?

This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but being a geography nerd I like the analogy of someone learning about a new place. What do I mean? Basically, you develop this mental map of a place in your head. That map differs for every person. Who you are, what you’re interested in, the skills you have, the environments you’ve previously explored will all affect that map.

When you first arrive in a new place you may have a variety of tools (GPS, a paper map, a guide book, the research you’ve done). You will start with a few locations (perhaps if you’re a tourist, your hotel and a couple of attractions). You use different methods of transport (walk, bike, train, subway, taxi) and connect those locations together. This starts to fill in the blanks. You have experiences (like the good ones I have from biking across France, meeting new people and bad ones – being stung by bees, getting lost and a better-forgotten encounter with dubious cheese) and these experiences give that space meaning and emotional connections. This makes them easier to remember. Let’s break this down more concretely for learning.


What motivates people to learn?

Our brains are wired to find meaning, so start with the big picture – ‘Why?’ (why should they do the learning and what’s in it for them). Show the relevance, being clear about how it relates to their role. In viewing the 'whole,' a cognitive process takes place – the mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realising the whole (Gestalt theory) which means the learning is more likely to stick and be applied in the right way and at the right time.

A motion graphic is a great example of how we introduce new learning (the whole) within an organisation. The learning that follows is in logical bites (the parts).

Check out this motion graphic show reel we created for the future of learning.


How do people learn?

Know your learner

Whatever your learning is, health and safety, earthquake preparedness, call centre soft skills, what your learners bring to the table influences what and how they learn. To create effective learning you need to know your audience.

We approach learning with existing knowledge, skills and experiences. So, it’s important when designing learning that we take our learners’ specific context into account to create a more meaningful experience. We’re taking situations learners are already familiar with and building on them in a way that deepens those connections and embeds the learning.

David Ausubel’s Meaningful Learning Theory states “to learn meaningfully, students must relate new knowledge (concepts and propositions) to what they already know.”

Use appropriate tools

Using the right tools for the learning (mobile, online, board games, workshops, or journals etc), helps the learner to focus on what you want them to take away rather than making them cognitively work to make the connections to their learning environment. Which tools and experiences we use depends on the learning’s purpose.

Allow the learner to learn from their mistakes

Effective feedback is often essential to acquiring new knowledge and skills.

Good feedback is:

  • specific and clear
  • focused on the task rather than the learner
  • explanatory and focused on improvement rather than merely verifying performance
  • aimed to show the consequence of decisions.


How do people retain information?

Structure the learning

The structure and focus of the learning helps us as learners fill in the blanks and connect information together into a bigger picture. Multi-step procedures identify and label the sub-steps required. This practice makes learners more likely to recognise the underlying structure of the problem and more able to apply the problem-solving steps to other problems when they come across them.

Use stories and emotion

The narrative, examples and interactions give the learning meaning. The experience we create around the learning (a great facilitator, a terrible user interface) impacts how we feel about that learning, how likely we are to retain what we’ve learnt and if we’ll apply it once we’re back on the job.

Vary the learning

Interleave (i.e. alternate) practice of different types of content. For example, if learners are learning four types of operations, it’s more effective to interleave practice of different problem types, rather than practising just one type of problem, then another type of problem, and so on.

Repeat and add to the learning over a period of time

Learning is cumulative. This is a key tenet of The Spiral Process (Jerome Bruner). To embed and deepen our learning we need to review what we’ve previously learnt and add to it over a period of time. This strengthens the connections to new material as it’s introduced, making it relatable to what we already know, more meaningful and easy to absorb.

Practising skills and embedding knowledge is better spaced out over time, with the learner reviewing content over weeks or months. This helps them retain it over the long term. Trying to remember something makes memory more long-lasting; use low- or no-stakes quizzes to do this, quick reference cards, reminder emails or prompts with self-tests.


How do we make sure the learner can apply what they’ve learnt?

Learning happens through doing and we need to involve that learner and give them control. We do this by creating meaningful experiences where learners apply the learning to challenges they’re currently facing. The transfer of knowledge or skills to a new problem requires knowledge of the problem’s context and underlying principles. Use of a variety of realistic situations and scenarios gives the learner appreciation for the context of a problem and the consequences of their decisions.


So, what does all this mean?

There’s more to this than meets the eye. As the science evolves, so will we and the learning experiences we create.



Want to know a bit more?

Take an Implicit Association Test

Subsumption Theory (David Ausubel)

Cognitive Psychology (Jerome Bruner)

Learning Library

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