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Memory Enhancement

Using Cognitive Theories To Improve Teaching

"Learners are not simply passive recipients of information; they actively construct their own understanding." If you agree, you are ready to consider cognitive theory as the foundation for teaching.

Marilia Svinicki elaborates in an excellent article that distills cognitive theories of learning. From this vantage point, the learner is at center stage. The instructor becomes a facilitator of learning, rather than one who delivers the message .... Cognitive psychology says that the learner plays a critical role in determining what he or she get out of instruction. Svinicki then draws six principles from cognitive theory that operationally define this perspective, with implications for applying the principles.

Principle 1. If information is to be learned, it must first be recognized as important. The more attention effectively directed toward what is to be learned, the higher the probability of learning. This begins simply: instructors write key ideas on the board; textbooks highlight the most important points. It becomes more complicated as students within a given major must learn how a discipline determines what is important. They can do that more readily if instructors make those determinations explicit.

Principle 2. During learning, learners act on information in ways that make it more meaningful. Instructor and students should use examples, images, elaborations, and connections to prior knowledge to make information more meaningful, to bridge from what is known to what is unknown. This makes it very important for instructors to know what kinds of knowledge and experiences students bring to the new learning situation.

Principle 3. Learners store information in long-term memory in an organized fashion related to their existing understanding of the world. The instructor can help students organize new information by providing an organizational structure, particularly one with which students are familiar, or by encouraging students to create such structures; in fact, students learn best under the latter condition. Without instructor guidance, students either impose their own structure-- most generally a structure that reflects an uninformed view things (and often leads to misconceptions)-- or memorize the material minus any structure, which leads to fast forgetting.

Principle 4. Learners continually check understanding, which results in refinement and revision of what is retained. Opportunities for checking and diagnosis aid learning. This point underscores a point made in the article, "Still More on Student Questions"-- the need for instructors to give students time to check on their understanding.

Principle 5. Transfer of learning to new contexts is not automatic, but results form exposure to multiple applications. During learning, provision must be made for later transfer. Svinicki elaborates this way:
The more (and the more different) situations in which students see a concept applied, the better they will be able to use what they have learned in the future. It will no longer be tied to a single context.

Principle 6. Learning is facilitated when learners are aware of their learning strategies and monitor their use. The instructor should help students learn how to translate these strategies into action at appropriate points in their learning. In other words, the application of cognitive theory implies a responsibility to teach both content and process. Students need to learn how to learn just as much as they need to learn things.

In summary, Svinicki makes an interesting observation: There is a great deal of intuitive appeal to the cognitive approach to teaching. It echoes our own experience as learners and is easy to understand. Applying the approach is more difficult, however, because we must give up our illusion of control. That change shakes the foundation of content as the primary focus of our teaching. We are then faced with the task of adapting to the needs of learners, a varied and unpredictable group.


"Using Cognitive Theories To Improve Teaching." The Teaching Professor April 1995: 3-4. Used with permission from Magna Publications, 800/433-0499.


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