Contemporary theories of learning: cognitivism

This is a type of learning which mainly uses cognitive processes, such as perception and reasoning, and in which the contribution of the learner is emphasized.[1]


This is the pre-eminent school within the cognitivist view of learning so naturally sees learning as a set of processes which occur in the mind.

Constructivists[2] stress the idea that the goal of education is to enable learners to understand by constructing that meaning for themselves. They contend that understanding comes about as part of a transformative process, whereby new knowledge and experiences transform pre-existing structures in the mind referred to as schema.

The diagram below depicts how that process takes place from a cognitivist standpoint.

2 diagrams. The first shows how, during rote learning, new information remains separate from what you already understand. The second shows how, in deep learning, new information is related to existing information in the brain and connections are made and new meaning is formed.
Rote vs deep learning (adapted from Petty 2009a)[3]

The emphasis within constructivist teaching is on the students themselves rather than the teacher, who adopts the role of facilitator. This method values an experiential approach to learning – learning by doing and using that experience to transform existing knowledge.

Constructivists are concerned with meaning and understanding so educational tasks should be devised in such a way as to allow these processes to occur. Teaching is designed to foster “deep learning” with learning outcomes and the associated classroom activities geared towards higher cognitive levels.

This table outlines characteristics and behaviours which contrasts the behaviourist and the constructivist approaches to learning.


Behaviourist approach

Constructivist approach

Learning environment:
Learning environment:
Teacher-centred Student centred
Teacher transmits information to students Meaning is formed by the learner
Knowledge resides with an expert Teacher observes, questions and facilitates
Knowledge is pre-defined Understanding is prioritised
Types of activities:
Types of activities:
Memorisation Active learning
Passive learning Formative assessment
Examinations Trial and error, experimentation, discussion
Practice, repetition, reproduction



The next section looks at specific cognitive learning models.


References for this page

[1] Oxford. 2006. The Oxford Dictionary of sports science and medicine. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP.

[2] Bruner, J.S. 1960. The process of education. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard. Also Marton, F. and Saljo, R. 1984. Approaches to learning. In: Marton, F et al. eds. The experiences of learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

[3] Petty, G. 2009a. Teaching today. 4th ed. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes, p. 5.