What Is Cognitive Learning?

Lee Johnson

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.

Cognitive learning is partly based on Jean Piaget's developmental psychology.
Cognitive learning is partly based on Jean Piaget's developmental psychology.

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.

Cognitive learning is different from behaviorist learning, which uses rewards and punishments to address student behavior.
Cognitive learning is different from behaviorist learning, which uses rewards and punishments to address student behavior.

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.

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Discussion Comments


@matthew23 - That is a good question. I'm not really sure what would be considered passive. There are a couple possible examples I can think of that are realistic.

First, I was thinking of maybe something like "discovery." If you think about walking around your neighborhood, no one ever tells you that there is a tree in front of this house and that another house is painted blue. You probably don't learn these things by knowingly trying to remember them. It just becomes habit that you expect the tree to be on the corner.

Another possibility might be remembering the words to a song. Most of the time, people don't sit down and look at the words to a song and try to memorize them. It just sort of happens after you hear the song enough. I have also noticed that I don't even have to be paying attention to music and I will remember some of the words from a song I just heard.

I don't know if those examples are right, but they seem plausible. Maybe someone else will know more about this subject.


So what exactly would be classified as passive learning? I know in classes they refer to passive learning as just sitting in a seat and listening to the teacher without any participation, but I don't think that is what passive learning in the sense of this article means. I can't find anything online about what it is either.

Any example I can think of seems like it would be classified as cognitive. The article talks about imitation, listening, and reading. What other ways are there to learn? The only thing I can really think of that would be passive is if you played a recording when you were sleeping. That way, your mind isn't focused on the activity, but there is a chance you might remember some of it. I'm starting to think maybe I'm on the wrong track about this, though.


I am very much a cognitive learner. I don't do well remembering things when I am reading them, but if someone tells me something or I can see a picture, I remember things much longer. I can even remember tiny details from things that happened several years ago - much more so than most people can.

I have noticed that my big weakness is in memorizing things that I can't link to other things. I guess that would fall into poor accommodation memory. I remember in high school when we had to learn the list of prepositions in English class.

I thought it was kind of a pointless exercise because it only tested your memorization, not your understanding of prepositions. I could always pick them out in a sentence, but had a horrible time learning the list. It did help me figure out that I am able to learn through repetition, though. I finally just started writing the prepositions down over and over and remembered most of them.


@oasis11 - I am with you. All through school, I always learned best when I had pictures and other visual communication.

I know some people that never had to go to class and could read assignments from a textbook and completely understand everything, but even when I went to all of the classes, I still might not fully grasp everything.

Whenever teachers and professors used pictures, though, I always learned things much quicker. One tests, if there was a question about a diagram in class, I could always visualize it in my head and recall what I needed to answer the question.


@Crispety - That is good to hear. I also wanted to add that some people are visual learners and really have to see the content directly in front of them in order to learn the concept.

I am one of those people. For example, whenever someone gives me directions, I always have to stop them and tell them that I need to write the directions down on a piece of paper. Seeing the directions on paper allows me to read the directions and visualize where I am going.

Some people can skip this step and because they have a stronger auditory learning style, and they process the information better when it given to them verbally.


I know that there are a lot of different cognitive learning styles and while some kids might be identified as gifted they could still have some cognitive weaknesses. For example, my son tested in the gifted range and the psychologist said that his reasoning skills were in the very superior range and it was among his biggest strengths.

She also informed me that his personal weakness was his working memory which was the lowest scoring category in his I.Q. test. She did tell me that if I were to have him use a program called “Jungle Memory” after about eight weeks or so it would close the gap in his working memory and his I.Q. will increase as a result.

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