Cognitive learning is learning by experiencing, touching, listening, or otherwise perceiving. This is differentiated from other theories of learning, such as behaviorist, by the fact it requires only the learner's brain and a stimulus. Cognitive learning is based on Gestalt psychological theories and Jean Piaget's developmental psychology. Included in the spectrum of the term is all learning done by independent reading, such as anything learned from reading a website or book.
Imitation is one form of cognitive learning, and although it is simplistic, it depends solely on the observation of another person's behavior as being a good way of achieving an end. More complex types of cognitive learning include reading, listening, watching, and touching. Any learning that is done by experiencing can be classed in this category. This has led to many people classing this type of learning as "passive” learning, but while the body appears passive, the mind certainly is not.
The theories of Piaget and Gestalt psychology are at the basis of cognitive learning. The primary principles of Gestalt psychology are that people structure and organize their own experience, that perception is not the same as reality, and that human experience must be understood as a whole to be explained. Essentially, it states that the organism has more influence on the way it organizes and stores information than was previously thought.
Piaget's theories take this further, and state that humans understand new events by either "accommodation" or "assimilation." Accommodation is modifying or shifting understanding to suit a new event. Assimilation is using existing schemas to understand a new event.
The term "cognitive" refers to processes that occur in the brain. The name "cognitive learning" may seem somewhat repetitive, because all learning must at some point occur in the brain. To differentiate between cognitive learning and other types of learning, it is helpful to think about behaviorist learning. This type is dependent on classical and operant conditioning.
Behaviorist learning teaches the student things by issuing a reward or a punishment in response to a certain behavior. If somebody wants his dog to sit on command, he would tell it to sit, and then provide a treat when the behavior is displayed. The dog, in response to this positive reinforcement, would then repeat the behavior in order to gain another treat. Although some cognitive processes are obviously occurring, the learning is primarily due to innate response to the receipt of a reward.