What is Situated Cognition?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2019
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Situated cognition is a theory about human learning that suggests people need to learn in context because knowledge and physical actions to reinforce that knowledge cannot occur separately. This is a radical shift from many traditional approaches to pedagogy, where educators provide instruction in a classroom environment and expect students to acquire knowledge and skills in the classroom that they can apply elsewhere. This theory has its origins in research dating back to the late 19th century, and became especially popular in the late 20th century.

In a simple example of how situated cognition works, many students learn about fractions in school. They usually experience abstract learning, where they work through problem sets and simple examples, like pie charts, to understand how fractions work. However, they may not be able to transfer this knowledge to real life to solve problems involving fractions, like how to adjust a recipe or determine the correct dosage for medication. If, on the other hand, students learn about fractions by performing real-world activities, like baking, they can internalize the knowledge and learn how to use it.


Proponents of situated cognition argue that real life is complex and often presents people with tasks that are poorly defined, complicated, and unique. If people only learn in a classroom environment, it can be difficult to apply their understanding of concepts, including complex ones, to experiences in the real world. Life can also require higher order thinking, sometimes on multiple levels, and this is very different from the classroom, where things are usually logical, orderly, and presented one at a time.

Research on situated cognition supports some aspects of the theory, as do many human traditions. For example, for many trades, the preferred method of training is apprenticeship, where people learn by watching, performing tasks, and teaching junior apprentices as they develop more skills. Many people would be reluctant to visit a doctor who only trained in a classroom, illustrating that many people understand situated cognition even if they may not have a name for it; many people assume it is not possible to perform complex tasks from theoretical knowledge alone.

For educators, situated cognition can have very important implications when it comes to deciding how to teach students. Providing students with real world experiences or accurate simulations could be an important part of showing them how to use critical thinking skills and apply knowledge. Students who struggle in traditional classroom environments may find learning by doing more engaging, and could potentially experience improvements in knowledge acquisition.


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