What is Cognitive Learning Theory and How Do I Use It? (Examples Included)

young man thinking cognitive main

Psychologists have been studying how children learn for centuries. Various learning theories have been touted as the secret to maximizing student success over the years. Presently there are 5 major theories that are highly respected and taught in college teaching programs: 

1. Cognitive Learning Theory

2. Behaviorism Learning Theory

3. Constructive Learning Theory    

4. Humanist Learning Theory  

5. Connectivism Learning Theory  

Today we’ll take a deep dive into the first one, Cognitive Learning Theory. What is it? How do I implement this theory in my classroom? What are some concrete examples?

Cognitive Learning Theory addresses the question: how do students learn? It studies their thought processes and aims to teach children to think about their thinking. They should be active participants in their learning. The role of the teacher is to guide students to use prior knowledge in order to assess what they need to build new connections.

What exactly is Cognitive Learning Theory?

Cognitive Learning Theory studies how we learn. It is a broad-based theory that analyzes the process of taking in new information. According to cognivitists (I think I made up a new word) we learn through both internal and external stimuli.  Metacognition, a fancy word for being aware of our thought processes, is a key component

There are five principles to all learning: remembering, understanding, applying, evaluating, and creating. Below is a breakdown of each principle and some activities students can do that correspond to each.


If you’ve looked at Bloom’s taxonomy lately you know that recall is the lowest level of learning. That being said, it’s rather obvious that we need to remember stuff. So even though recall is not up there with analysis and assessing on the rigor ladder our kiddos need it.

There are 3 levels of memory, sensory memory, short-term or working memory and long-term memory. Much of what a student is exposed to each day gets stored in short-term memory and is gone within 24 hours. 

It’s important when planning a unit or lesson to consider, “What do I want my students to remember 10 years from now?” That’s what should drive your essential questions. 


It’s relatively easy to get most of my class to remember the M.A.I.N. causes of World War 1.

Me: “Alicia, what does MAIN stand for?”

Alicia: Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and ummmm – nationalism!” (Alicia is proudly smiling)

Me: “Can you explain to me how imperialism helped to cause World War 1?”

Alicia: “Uh, imperialism is when a strong nation controls a weaker one.”

Me: “Yes, good definition! But how does that cause a war?”

Alicia: (Silence)

Understanding entails being able to interpret the “why” as opposed to the “what”. According to Cognitive Learning Theory students needs to have habits in place that allow them to overtly think about what they know and connect new ideas to prior knowledge.


Using newly learned information is what cements it in our long-term memory and deepens understanding. Let’s stick with the MAIN causes of World War 1. Here’s how the lessons might play out:

Step 1: Slide presentation, brief lecture and student notetaking on the MAIN acronym. This facilitates memory and begins the understanding for some.

Step 2: A 10-minute video about MAIN with an accompanying question: Why was imperialism a cause of World War 1? Now students are receiving repetition to help with long-term memory, getting visual learning and another voice explaining the concept. Understanding should be achieved by most students.

Step 3: In groups students are presented with a map of Africa. Each student represents a different European nation and must compete for control of parts of Africa. This is where the kids are applying their knowledge.

This theory encompasses the “science of learning” paradigm that I’ve been seeing all over social media and in forums. You can read about it here.

Evaluating and Creating

To reach this highest level of learning students have had external stimuli (lecture, video, group interaction). In order to successfully evaluate educational content, a child must be cognizant of their own thinking patterns. How do they make connections? What do they know and what must they still learn to create a logical conclusion?

A teacher can facilitate this kind of overt thinking through guiding questions. Walk them through what they remember and understand. Then ask them to make their thinking visible.

Me: “How did imperialism affect Africa?”

Class: “It was divided among European nations without regard to former boundaries and ethnic tribes.”

Me: “How did imperialism in Africa affect European nations?”

Class: “They gained control of most of Africa.”

Me: “How did they affect the European countries’ relationship with each other?”

Class: “Well, Britain got more land and Germany got into the game late. Competition caused tensions between the countries.”

Me: “Based on our discussion you should be able to write a response to the question: Why was imperialism a cause of World War 1.” 

How to implement Cognitive Learning Theory in your classroom.

To recap. Cognitive Learning Theory states that external and internal forces drive learning. The teacher’s role is to first assess prior knowledge and then guide students toward taking ownership of their own learning.

Assessing student knowledge is an ongoing task. Formative, or informal assessments, happen constantly with warm-up questions, checks for understanding throughout the lesson, exit tickets and homework. Summative assessments include quizzes, exams and projects.

Here are some ideas for using Cognitive Learning Theory in your classroom:

1. Journaling. You can ask students to quick-write responses to questions that encourage them to think through their ideas. “What would you fight and die for?” “If you were president, what is one way you would improve the country?”

2. Class and group discussion. You can do a 2-minute turn-and-talk or a formal debate. Students learn by communicating with others.

3. Show them how to make connections. One example of this is to have them compare the causes of the American Revolution or the French Revolution to Black Lives Matter. Students can analyze how civil rights violations across time and space have many commonalities.

4. Asking students to make their thinking visible. When a child answers a question, probe deeper, asking them to justify their answer or to cite another point of view.

5. Simulations. Many topics lend themselves to some type of recreation. Again, it can be a short introduction or an in-depth multi-day activity. 

Going back to World War 1 (are you sick of it yet?) a colleague creates trenches in his class. When the students enter they sit in the trenches. He turns off the lights, plays war sounds and throws paper balls at them. It’s a five-minute activity at the beginning of class. Then they discuss and write down their reflections of the experience.


In many ways, the findings of psychologists such as Jean Piaget, who researched cognitive learning, is rather commonsensical. As teachers, we unconsciously assess prior knowledge and guide students to new understandings every day. The longer you teach the more innate it becomes.

I do find it useful, however, to periodically make my own thinking visible. Asking yourself “why” frequently will make your planning more intentional. “Why am I using this reading passage?” “Why am I choosing this activity?” “What skill am I trying to improve?” “What content is most important for students to understand?”

Being able to give clear answers to such questions will help to ensure the best possible learning experience for your students.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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