Cognition and Instruction/Theories of Learning & Development

This chapter is about the origins of and influences on cognitive psychology.

Origins in Philosophy edit

Nature Vs Nurture edit

Nature versus nurture has been the debate on psychological development between theorists for over 2000 years and is commonly seen as rival factors. The debate is whether children develop their psychological characteristics based on genetics, which is nature, or how they were raised and their environment, which is nurture. It is difficult to say whether one theory has more influence over the other but “as of now, we know that both nature and nature play important roles in human development.”[1]

To break down each theory for a better understanding, nature refers to an individual's heredity, genetics, biological processes, and maturation. The coding of genes in each human cell determines the different physical traits humans possess. For example, height, hair colour, eye colour, etc., are gene-codes in a human's DNA. The theory of nurture refers to environmental contexts that influences development such as education, parenting, culture, and social policies.[2] Examples of nurture are more abstract attributes such as personality, behaviour, and intelligence.

Genetic characteristics are not always obvious, however, they become conspicuous through the course of maturation. Maturation can only occur with the support of a healthy environment. The theory of nurture “holds that genetic influence over abstract traits may exist; however, the environmental factors are the real origins of our behavior”.[1] Nature's partner is nurture and nature never works independently.[3] A good example is in the comparison of fraternal twins who were raised apart from one another, they will most likely have a significant amount of similarities in their behaviour. However, the environment each twin was raised in will greatly influence their behavior as well. Today, the environment and the biological factors are seen as critical and emphasized as complex co-actions.

Behaviourism edit

Behaviourism is a psychological approach directed towards the individual's behaviour; many of these behaviours are learned through conditioning and modeling.[4] Through experience, people develop their language, emotions, and personalities. Some theories that are relevant toward the behavioural development of people are operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and modeling.

Operant Conditioning edit

Operant conditioning is the type of learning that is determined and influenced by consequences. The consequences can be both positive and negative, as well as rewarding and punishing.[5] In the context of operant conditioning, positive does not necessarily mean a good thing; it means the addition of something following an action. For example, a child does not make it home before their nightly curfew so their parents punish them with requiring them to complete more house chores. In opposition, a negative consequence is the removal of something following an action. An example of negative reward is when a child does significantly well in school, receiving high report card grades, resulting in their parents removing the amount of house chores the child have to complete that day. Rewards influence the increase of certain behaviours while punishment should reduce the amount of the behaviours.

One of the most well-known researchers in this field is B. F. Skinner.[6] Skinner did work with several animal species and was very successful in his research. His perspectives were simple, but he believed that human beings were too complex for the classical conditioning approach (explained in the following section). One of his main studies was called the Skinner's Box, and found consistent results in rats, cats, and pigeons. The animals were put in the box with a button or lever to press, while hungry. The animals were rewarded intermittently whenever they pressed the button or lever. As a result, there was an increase in the behaviour (pushing the button) as they were rewarded. This has been proven in many studies, as well as in our daily lives. For example, look at how parents raise their children.

Role of Models edit

Modeling is one of the most commonly used form of teaching and is one of the most successful forms of learning. This type of learning works by imitation alone. Many people might also know of this by the term of vicarious learning; learning and developing behaviours by observing other people.[7] When we enter new situations, for example the first time in a formal restaurant, we follow the cues of the people around us. This is just one form of modeling seen easily in everyday situations.

Children are the best at this, even when we do not always want them to be. Children will mimic their peers and parents, things they watch on TV and hear in songs. Alberta Bandura was one of the first major researchers in this field of study.[8] He was working with children in an experiment called the Bobo Doll; in which children watched a model play with this doll, some in an aggressive way and others were neutral. After watching the video, the children were put in a room with a Bobo Doll and other decoy objects. More children were aggressive towards the doll and added novel actions into their play; such as using weapons and adding verbal aggression.

Conditioning and modeling are a few different approaches to the development of learning in the field of psychology. They have been studied for hundreds of years and are continually being explored for their accuracy and truths.

Cognitive psychology edit

Cognitive psychology focuses on mental activities and processes. This encompasses areas of mental activity such as learning, remembering, problem solving, and perception and attention.

Piaget's Genetic Epistemology edit

Vygotsky's Dialectical Epistemology edit

Attention edit

Attention is a cognitive function that is fundamental for the human behavior. It is the ability of selectively concentrating on external or internal information. Attention “is the prerequisite to learning and a basic element in classroom motivation and management”.[9]

For years, attention has been a subject of examination and there has been curiosity towards finding out where the origin of the sensory cues, signals, and the functions relate to attention.

Attention is a valuable skill most people possess, however it is a skill that oscillates. Attention can be performed unconsciously or voluntary. The level of concentrating is affected by one's surroundings and environment. There are also differences in attention such as selective attention: meaning one will select the most important information out of the given context. Also, there is divided attention: meaning separating ones focus in situations where two tasks are performing at the same time, in other words multi tasking.[10]

Although paying attention may seem as easy as getting rid of distractions, focusing, organizing, and prioritizing ones thoughts, it is not that easy for everyone. Children who are affected by attention disorders such as dyslexia or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experience symptoms that cause difficulty in their learning development. Early signs of attention disorder in children can make their daily lives and learning more challenging than the average child.

Critical Thinking edit

Critical thinking is “reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.” It is the ability to think rationally and surely.[2] When thinking critically, the goal is not to solve the problem but to obtain more knowledge and better understand the problem. The purpose of critical thinking allows people to evaluate information and authorizes them to make informed choices and decisions. Someone who possesses critical thinking skills are able to gather, interpret, and evaluate information to make informed decisions. They can construct arguments, solve problems systematically, see and understand the importance of ideas and the connections, and they can reflect on their own beliefs and values.[11]

Critical thinking should not be mistaken for problem solving because it differs in two ways. When problem solving, the process involves solving well-defined problems from a specific domain. However, critical thinking usually involves better understanding of ill-defined problems in several domains. Lastly, critical thinking differs from how it is being evaluated. Most problems that involve problem solving are external states, while critical thinking involves internal states.[2]

Information Processing Theory edit

In the early 1950s, researchers developed a model called the Information-processing model to understand how the human mind processes information.  Although there are other models such as the Modal Model, the Information-processing model is known to be the best and most researched. This model consists of three main branches: sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.[12]

Sensory memory processes information for a very short period of time from about 0.5–3 seconds. The process is so short; one can only remember five to nine discrete elements. An example of sensory memory is when one tries to remember a phone number for a brief period of time, just enough time to write it down. There is only a limited amount of information that can be processed in sensory memory because its main purpose is to screen the most relevant incoming stimuli at the given time.

After the process of sensory memory, the information will either be transmitted into working memory or be forgotten. In the process of working memory, “information is assigned meaning, linked to other information, and essential mental operations such as inferences are performed”.[12] An example is when one is learning to drive a car; one must perform the task repeatedly until it become automatic, which leads to long-term memory.

Working memory and sensory memory are limited capacity for information, whereas long-term memory has no limitations. The purpose of long-term memory is to “provide a seemingly unlimited repository for all the facts and knowledge in memory”[12] and is said to have the capability to hold millions of pieces of information at a time.

Constructivism edit

Constructivist theories revolve around the belief that learning is a constructive process. Humans generate knowledge and meaning from the interaction between their experiences and their ideas. New information is built upon prior knowledge, and people are constructing their own representations of knowledge based off that prior knowledge as well as new information.

Individual and Social Learning edit

Individual learning places the emphasis on learning in a more independent manner, while social learning shifts the focus to learning on a wider scale, through the social interaction between both peers and teachers. A large part of constructivist learning is that it acknowledges the uniqueness of each individual.[13]

Social learning helps individuals learn in a way that individual learning cannot. Vygotskian theory includes the notion of collaborative learning among individuals, to share understanding of material. The zone of proximal development, according to Vygotsky, is "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers".[14] By using peer-to-peer interactions, students may better understand material through the support of classmates or those who are on the same learning ‘level’, than that of someone who has a higher skill level.[15] An example of this would be that of a typical math classroom, where one student who is performing poorly in class, asks for clarification on certain methods and formulas from a fellow student who is performing better. The higher performing student understands how to communicate ideas more to the level of a typical student, hence the zone of proximal development.

Nature of Learning (Responsibility and Motivation) edit

The learners themselves hold a certain amount of responsibility when it comes to learning and understanding material. They must be involved with the learning process, even more so than the instructor. Acquiring and comprehending the material in their own terms is the responsibility of the student, not simply rote memorizing what they have learned. The only person that can pin point the strengths and weaknesses of a student, is the student themselves. The responsibility of making sense of information and trying to find sources of motivation ultimately falls on the shoulders of the student. In regards to the classroom environment, the concept of shared responsibility is a good way to encourage students to perform to the best of their ability. Focusing in a certain direction to give a clear purpose, and giving students the chance to reflect on themselves as well as to collaborate helps students in accomplishing their goals.[16]

Motivation also builds upon the learner's responsibility, affecting their potential for learning and confidence of self. Hard-to-grasp, extremely challenging work has shown to often discourage the learner from understanding new information and work that is too easy often bores the learner. For this reason, it is important for teachers to find that sweet spot that challenges the learner just enough, and provides the buffer and motivation to learn new material.

Role Of Facilitators edit

Following a constructivist view, the role of facilitator is not the same as a teacher. Avoiding the lecture style of most teachers, the role of a facilitator is to encourage discussion and ask questions. The main difference here for the student, is to take part in the active learning process and not sit idly as the teacher speaks.[17] Encouraging peers to interact with each other, take part in class discussion, and giving guided questions as well as other methods, all fall under the role of the facilitator. Creating rapport with the students and knowing when to give and when to stop scaffolding is essential in aiding the student to think for themselves without giving them too much assistance. For example, instead of blatantly giving away the answer to a math problem, a possible means of scaffolding could include asking the student to try a method they went over in an earlier class or possibly guide the student slowly through the problem and letting them solve a certain part before going onto the next.

To a certain degree, it is also important for the teacher to create a positive teacher-student relationship, as this can impact the learner's belief of self, which is especially critical for high-risk students.[18] Frequent negative feedback from the teacher can often give the student a negative view of themselves, and as such, it is important to show the student what they did right, rather than what they did wrong.

Constructivism In The Classroom edit

Constructivism in classroom settings, usually follows the pattern of switching focus from the instructor to the students. The main value that constructivism follows is problem solving. The teacher acts as a guide to provide the students with the opportunities needed to understand material. There is an emphasis placed on the cultural backgrounds of students and the social interaction or collaborative learning among each other. Interaction discussions are usually facilitated and directed by the teacher, clarifying confusing concepts and materials to the students by acting as the overseer. Situated learning can also follow this form of facilitation, which can be defined as learning being applied within the context it is learned. For example, culinary students cooking in the kitchen as they listen to the instructor who oversees their work, rather than sitting in a classroom taking notes on the culinary arts.[19]

Some methods of utilizing constructivism in classrooms are reciprocal teaching, cooperative learning, anchored instruction as well as encouraging group discussion and teamwork.[20] Reciprocal teaching involves the creation of a collaborative group among 2-3 students, plus a teacher, and take turns discussing the topic at hand. This creates a zone of proximal development. Cooperative learning is similar in that higher skilled students help other students by working in their zone of proximal development. Anchored instruction involves creating lessons revolved around a topic of interest to the students. Doing this engages the student and encourages more thoughtful engagement in discussions when discussing a topic students feel strongly about.

Influences from Humanistic Psychology edit

Humanism is a more personal approach to learning which focuses on the learner's ability to self-actualize, as well as, their own natural desire to fulfill their potential.

Facilitation Theory edit

The facilitation theory was coined by Carl Rogers. His beliefs were that humans were naturally curious and that every human being is ‘good’ by nature. Learning is a process that is done through experimenting and interacting through activity. His facilitation theory views the teacher as the facilitator and not as a walking textbook. As a result of this, it is important that the teacher has the proper rapport and attitude when teaching students. Rogers states that there are three qualities, also known as core conditions, that are needed for proper facilitation.[21] The first condition is called realness, which is the teachers' ability to act as themselves and not another persona. The second is trust, and the teacher's ability to actually care for the student. The final requirement is the teachers' ability to empathize and visualize themselves in another person's shoes.

Self-Determination Theory edit

Conclusion edit

There are many different types of theories involved in the learning and development process that all focus on different beliefs and views. These theories are primarily explained by the interactions of learners, the building of knowledge upon prior experiences, and the ability to construct understanding in an attempt to realize and accomplish learning within a classroom environment.

Cognitive Science edit

Neuroscience edit

Glossary edit

Attention - the act or faculty of attending, especially by directing the mind to an object.

Behaviourism - A school of psychology that regards the objective observation of the behaviour of organisms (usually by means of automatic recording devices) as the only proper subject for study and that often refuses to postulate any intervening mechanisms between the stimulus and the response

Cognitive load - Refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.

Collaborative learning - A situation in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together.

Constructivism - A theory of knowledge that argues that humans generate knowledge and meaning from an interaction between their ideas and experiences.

Modeling - A standard or example for imitation or comparison

Object permanence - knowing that an object still exists, even if the object is not in sight.

Operant conditioning - A process of behaviour modification in which a subject is encouraged to behave in a desired manner through positive or negative reinforcement, so that the subject comes to associate the pleasure or displeasure of the reinforcement with the behaviour.

Situated learning - Learning that takes place in the same context it can be applied in, such as workshops, kitchens, field trips to archaeological digs, etc. .

Zone of Proximal Development - is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help

Suggested Readings edit

  • Driscoll, M. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 2nd ed, Chapter 10
  • Hartley, P., Hilsdon, J., Keenan, C., Sinfield, S., & Verity, M. (2011). Learning development in higher education. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N.. (1998). Individual and Social Aspects of Learning. Review of Research in Education, 23, 1–24.

References edit

  1. a b Sarah Mae Sincero (2012). Nature and Nurture Debate. Retrieved Apr 05, 2016 from
  2. a b c Bruning, R., & Schraw, G., & Norby, M., (2011). Cognitive Psychology and Instruction, 5th ed.
  3. McDevitt, T.M., & Ormrod, J.E.(2010). Nature and Nurture. Retrieved from
  5. McLeod, S. A. (2015). Skinner - Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from
  7. McLeod, S. A. (2016). Bandura - Social Learning Theory. Retrieved from
  11. Lau, J., & Chan, J. (2004-2016). What is critical thinking. Retrieved from
  12. a b c Schraw, G., & McCrudden, M. (2013), Information Processing Theory. Retrieved from
  13. Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N.. (1998). Individual and Social Aspects of Learning. Review of Research in Education23, 1–24. Retrieved from    
  15. McLeod, S. (2010, December 25). Zone of Proximal Development - Scaffolding | Simply Psychology. Retrieved February 27, 2016, from 
  17. Education Theory/Constructivism and Social Constructivism in the Classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from 
  20. Education Theory/Constructivism and Social Constructivism in the Classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from 
  21. Facilitation Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from