North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

What is cognitive learning?

Posted on: September 28, 2022
Illustration of a person turning on a lightbulb inside a big head

When comprehension, memory and application converge, cognitive learning occurs.  

Maximising our mind’s potential to focus and absorb information, it is a style of learning meant to make more effective use of the brain – leading to improved problem-solving skills and faster retention.

What is an example of cognitive learning?

Explicit and implicit learning are often cited as two core examples of cognitive learning. Explicit learning refers to knowledge acquired through conscious effort; implicit learning implies the opposite.

Every time you actively attempt to seek new understanding or information, you are exhibiting explicit learning. Whether it’s undertaking a new skill, enrolling onto a course, or even memorising word pairs, the present and conscious pursuit of knowledge is what distinguishes explicit learning from other forms of cognitive learning.

Implicit learning, on the other hand, is less intentional. The acquisition of knowledge may occur more passively – or even accidentally – such as information gained through a conversation, or skills acquired through repetitive action over a long period of time. The ability to touch-type on a keyboard or learning directions to a place are prime examples of this learning mode.

Other examples of cognitive learning in action include:

Meaningful learning

Meaningful learning is all about application and recall. The cognitive learning approach teaches that the more we are able to relay new information to a previous learning experience or an existing knowledge base, the more we can fully absorb and understand it. An example might include understanding the new update features of a software tool or learning a new way to prepare and cook with a particular ingredient.

Discovery learning

Whenever we drop into research mode, we’re displaying discovery learning. Studying up on new subjects, concepts and processes engages the inquiring parts of our brain. This could take the form of conducting an interview, performing an experiment or reading a manual.

Receptive learning

Partaking in a lecture, training session or webinar are prime examples of receptive learning. This cognitive learning occurs whenever a speaker delivers new information on a specific subject to an active listener. 

Non-associative learning

A key component of non-associative learning is time. Also labelled as habituation and sensitisation, this form of learning takes place through the adaptation to new knowledge the more we are exposed to the source. 

Sensory information is a good indicator of non-associative learning – whether it be an increased awareness of a ringing office phone (an example of sensitisation) or gradually becoming used to the loud tick of whir of a machine (an example of habituation) until it fades into the background.

Emotional learning

Emotional learning is a marker of our ability to relate to and interact with the world around us. Social awareness and self-management skills are key components of this type of learning, while the ability to exhibit empathy, communicate and cooperate effectively and see a situation through another’s perspectives are all examples of emotional learning in action.

Experiential learning

Learning-by-doing is at the forefront of experiential learning. It’s categorised by a “hands-on” approach. According to psychologist, David Kolb, this type of learning occurs through a cognitive cycle of four stages: (1) a person has a concrete experience, followed by (2) an observation of/reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalisations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test a hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

Examples might include an intern shadowing a superior, a child learning to ride a bicycle by trial and error, or a person growing a garden to learn more about vegetation.

Cooperative and collaborative learning

Interacting with others, particularly within a work or education setting, can often result in us levelling-up our performance. Project work is a prime example. The search for a shared or objective truth through negotiation emphasises social interaction, while making space to embrace both group and individual strengths.

Observational learning

Also termed ‘shaping’ or ‘modelling’, observational learning is a key component of social cognitive theory, emphasising how learning can occur within a social context. This learning mode is perhaps most prominent in childhood, when we observe how others are rewarded or reprimanded for their behaviour, for example. Watching the demonstration of a new skill – and then imitating the demonstrated actions to acquire that new skill – is an example of observational learning.

What are the types of cognitive learning?

Cognitive learning theory uses metacognition—“thinking about thinking”—to understand how thought processes influence learning. Modern psychology outlines two core subsets of cognitive learning theory: social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioural theory.

Social cognitive theory

Understanding the cognitive contributions of observational learning – such as conceptions, judgments and motivations – is one of the key components of social cognitive theory. Through analysing and acknowledging how another’s actions and behaviours influence and inform our own, we can begin to understand how both our environment and socialisation directly impacts the ways that we acquire knowledge.

Albert Bandura introduced the most prominent perspective on social cognitive theory, which is built upon the core concepts of:

  • Reciprocal determinism: Refers to the dynamic interactions between an individual (with their learned experiences and beliefs), environment (external social context), and behaviour (responses to stimuli to achieve goals). This is underpinned by factors such as self-efficacy, outcome expectations and self-evaluation. For example, a student who believes they have the capacity to pass an exam is more likely to put in the time and effort to study than a student who feels incapable of success. These beliefs about their abilities will either be confirmed or invalidated by the actual outcome of the test. This experience will go on to affect their future beliefs and behaviours toward studying.
  • Positive and negative reinforcement: An internal or external response to a person’s behaviour (such as a punishment, reward or praise) affects the likelihood of repeating or discontinuing the behaviour. These reinforcements can be self-initiated or a product of the individual’s environment.

This learning process is underpinned by factors such as self-efficacy, outcome expectations and self-evaluation.

  • Expectations: Expectations refer to the anticipated consequences of behaviour – such as health implications after smoking, knowingly cheating on a test or training hard for a competition. Anticipation of these consequences can impact whether or not we carry out the action. Outcome expectations are largely built upon our previous experiences.
  • Self-efficacy: Self-efficacy comprises an individual’s confidence in their ability to perform an action, and the barriers, facilitators and past experiences influencing this confidence. Self-efficacy is often said to be task-specific, meaning that people can feel confident in their ability to perform one task but not another. For example, a student may feel confident in their ability to pass an exam but not feel as adept in their ability to make friends – based on formed experiences and beliefs.

This theory has a wide-ranging application, from understanding personality development and treating psychological disorders, to informing education and organisational training programmes, health promotion strategies and advertising campaigns. On a more granular scale, the theory often observes how people regulate their behaviour to develop goal-orientated habits.

Cognitive behavioural theory

This subset of cognitive learning theory examines how an individual’s thoughts, feelings and actions – such as self-awareness, aspiration, curiosity and vulnerability – influence how they learn. It is a key theory in understanding how our thought patterns and mindset can impact how we absorb information, such as the link between a motivation to learn and cognitive retention.

What are the benefits of cognitive learning?

The positive effects of cognitive learning modes are far-reaching, boosting an individual’s confidence to undertake new tasks, enhancing problem-solving skills and improving key cognitive functions such as comprehension and retaining information.

Deeper than that, cognitive learning ultimately provides a vital structure for life-long learning, encouraging abstract thinking, fostering creativity and innovation, and equipping learners with the application skills to expand their ever-evolving knowledge base.

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