Cognitive flexibility hypertext

The educational technology and digital learning wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Cognitive flexibility hypertext is a learning environment designed according to cognitive flexibility theory.

This text presents essentially the foundations for cognitive flexibility hypertexts, a clear design model is yet missing

Foundations of the model

The Spiro et al. ground their model on 2 issues: Firstly a lot of knowledge to be taught is both complex and ill-structured and and second that such teaching remains a challenge. “Cognitive and instructional neglect of problems related to content complexity and irregularity in patterns of knowledge use leads to learning failures that take common, predictable forms. These forms are characterized by conceptual oversimplification and the inability to apply knowledge to new cases (failures of transfer). For learners to develop cognitively flexible processing skills and to acquire contentive knowledge structures which can support flexible cognitive processing, flexible learning environments are required which permit the same items of knowledge to be presented and learned in a variety of different ways and for a variety of different purposes (commensurate with their complex and irregular nature).” (Spiro, 1996)

Any effective approach to instruction must simultaneously consider several highly intertwined topics, such as:

  1. the constructive nature of understanding;
  2. the complex and ill-structured features of many, if not most, knowledge domains;
  3. patterns of learning failure;
  4. a theory of learning that addresses known patterns of learning failure.
(Spiro, 1996)

In particular, Spiro et al. a are concerned by oversimplification for which they identify several forms, e.g. the additivity bias (learners think that parts integrated into a whole retain the same characteristics), the discreteness bias (continuous processes are segmented into discrete steps), and the compartimentalization bias (highly interdependent conceptual elements are treated in isolation with taking into account interaction effects).

“The remedy for learning deficiencies related to domain complexity and irregularity requires the inculcation of learning processes that afford greater cognitive flexibility: this includes the ability to represent knowledge from different conceptual and case perspectives and then, when the knowledge must later be used, the ability to construct from those different conceptual and case representations a knowledge ensemble tailored to the needs of the understanding or problem-solving situation at hand.” (Spiro, 1996)

Rephrased by Godshalk et al (2004:211) Cognitive flexibility theory

as conceived by Spiro et al. (1987) suggests the following:

  • Using multiple case studies to insure that a variety of possible situations are presented.
  • Focusing on cross-case differences in how concepts and principles are applied.
  • Consideration of multiple perspectives (individual points of view) as an aid to understanding the connected nature of the domain concepts and promoting flexible knowledge building.
According to Spiro and Jehng (1990), this crisscrossing connection of concepts and cases is most readily accomplished using the ability of hypertext systems (such as the WWW) to explicitly link information. The key to deciding how to link concepts is to provide themes and perspectives that may be considered across the cases.

“In summary: Ill-structured aspects of knowledge pose problems for advanced knowledge acquisition that are remedied by the principles of Cognitive Flexibility Theory. This cognitive theory of learning is systematically applied to an instructional theory, Random Access Instruction, which in turn guides the design of nonlinear computer learning environments we refer to as Cognitive Flexibility Hypertexts.” (Spiro, 1996)

The architecture of a cognitive flexibility hypertext

Spiro et al. (1996) claim that good strategies for advanced teaching and learning in ill-structured domains are in many ways the opposite of what works best for introductory learning and in more well-structured domains as for example in the direct instruction model.

A few contrasts of design features:

introductory learning and well-structured domains advance learning and ill-structured domains
knowledge organization compartmentalization knowledge interconnectedness
generalization general principles with wide scope of application across-case variability and case-sensitive interaction of principles
representation single unifying representational basis multiple representations

Since it is impossible to teach each occurrence of ill-structured knowledge, Spiro et al. (1996) argue that “emphasis must be shifted from the retrieval of intact knowledge structures to support the construction of new understandings, to the novel and situation-specific assembly of prior knowledge drawn from diverse organizational loci in preexisting mental representations.”

Jacobson & Spiro (1993, 1995) derive five instructional principles from cognitive flexibility theory. These are:

  • Use multiple conceptual representations of knowledge (e.g. multiple themes, multiple analogies, multiple intellectual points of view).
  • Link and tailor abstract concepts to different case examples (illustration of concepts to demonstrate nuances of abstract conceptual variability).
  • Introduce domain complexity early (but still in a cognitively manageable manner)
  • Stress the interrelated and web-like nature of knowledge (variable thematic links across cases).
  • Encourage knowledge assembly (from different conceptual/thematic and case sources)
  • Promote active learning (provisions for learner control of navigation paths).

These theory principles then can be mapped to hypertext features as described in the experimental setup of Jacobson & Spiro (1995:307). There were 3 experimental groups. Both groups were exposed to the same "reading stage" (see below). After that one group was exposed to criss-crossing activities (the study stage below) whereas two others groups were exposed to drill and practise over facts and concepts taken from phase 1.

Theory principles Hypertext features
The reading stage (i.e. a minimal "treatment")
Use multiple conceptual representations of knowledge Multiple cases and multiple dimensions of a complex concept
Link and tailor abstract concepts to different case examples Theme list and theme commentaries that accompany case presentations
Introduce domain complexity early
(but in a cognitively manageable manner)
Minicase organizational structure
The study stage (i.e. an experimental treatment or an instructional task)
Stress the interrelated and web-like nature of knowledge Have students reread minicases exemplifying different combinations of themes
Encourage knowledge assembly
(explicit demonstration of abstract and case-specific knowledge components)
Knowledge assembly from different conceptual and case source

Results of this study showed that the minimal hypertext/drill group had higher scores on factual knowledge but the transfer group was better in using/transferring the knowledge, which corroborates the hypothesis that simple instruction tends to create rigid knowledge representations and inert knowledge. We therefore can assume that the above table represents the core of a defendable instructional design model.

More precisely, DSchneider has the impression (but is not sure) that cognitive flexibility hypertexts should feature:

  • Links from concepts (complex themes) to full cases (e.g. a movie)
  • Links from concepts to sub-units of cases, i.e. mini-cases (e.g. a short movie sequence).
  • Optional links from sub-units to situated definitions (extra information / perspectives)
  • Optional links from concepts and extra information to related concepts (since each concept is ill-structured, understanding of a situation depends on more than one concept)
  • Rearranged instructional sequences, i.e. the system could adapt to the user
  • Concepts can be explored in multiple ways, i.e. there isn't necessarily a recommended navigation path.

“Implementing Cognitive Flexibility Theory is not a simple matter of just using the power of the computer to "connect everything with everything else."” (Spiro et al. 1996). E.g. the learner should not become lost in a confusing labyrinth of incidental or ad hoc connections. Therefore this wiki while it could be used as a basis for flexibility hypertext to teach educational technology is not yet a cognitive flexibility hypertext.

Hypertext design must not just reflect ill-structuredness of a domain but aim to train construction of new understandings in new situations. It's aims at a competence to build dynamically situated knowledge (situation-sensitive knowledge assembly).

On method to insure that instructional goal is described as "conceptual structure search".

Conceptual structure search

Content is automatically re-edited to produce a particular kind of "criss-crossing" of the conceptual landscape that visits a large set of case examples of a given conceptual structure in use. The learner then has the option of viewing different example cases in the application of a concept he or she chooses to explore. That is, the instructional content is re-edited upon demand to present just those cases and parts of cases that illustrate a focal conceptual structure (or set of conceptual structures). Rather than having to rely on sporadic encounters with real cases that instantiate different uses of the concept, the learner sees a range of conceptual applications close together, so conceptual variability can easily be examined. Learning a complex concept from erratic exposures to complex instances, with long periods of time separating each encounter, as in natural learning from experience, is not very efficient. When ill-structuredness prevents telling in the abstract how a concept should be used in general, it becomes much more important to show together the many concrete examples of uses.

E.g. in the KANE hypertext (Knowledge Acquisition in Nonlinear Environments) which explores thematic structure in Citizen Kane, the learner could see film scenes in a row, that illustrate different varieties or "flavors" of the "Wealth Corrupts" theme. Each of these scenes constitutes a case that illustrates this theme. Furthermore the learner then can consult case-specific particularized background informations (definitions). Furthermore, there are cross-references to other instances of the conceptual structure or even other conceptual themes that are related to the "wealth corrupts" topic and that can also explain the behavior of Citizen Kane. “Thus there is a double particularization in Cognitive Flexibility Hypertexts: the generic conceptual structure is particularized not only to the context of a specific case, but also to the other concepts simultaneously applicable for analyzing that case. That is, each case or example is shown to be a complex entity requiring for its understanding multiple conceptual representations, with the role of non-additive conceptual interdependencies highlighted.” (Spiro et al., 1996).

A light-weight version ?

DSchneider thinks that it may be possible to reuse a wiki like the present one to implement at least some features of the original concept:

  • There should be a short introductory articles for a given topic (e.g. "instructional design model".)
  • Such an article should point to small examples, both abstract and concrete (cases). E.g. to illustrate what we mean by instructional design model we should point to various different models, but also show concrete designs.
  • Each model and each design case should point to various learning and instructional theory that intervene.
  • Each example should have links to related examples.

Such a design is probably not effective for most learners, since a typical learner lacks to initiative to dig around until he manages to build up sufficient applicable knowledge. Therefore, we suggest to combine such an architecture with some project-oriented learning (e.g. design a course) or problem-based learning (e.g. design a course for a given topic and public) design or at least writing-to-learn (e.g. contrast design X with design Y) activity.


It is again important to point out that “Cognitive Flexibility Hypertexts Provide Building Blocks For Flexible, Situation-Sensitive Knowledge Assembly, Not Final Products Of Knowledge” as one of the afterword subtitles in the on-line version of Spiro et al., 1996) points out. In this sense, cognitive flexibility hypertexts are exploratory environments that will enhance constructivist thinking, i.e. it provides building blocks for knowledge for knowledge construction. Single cases (or their features) can not be transferred as such to new situations, but require selective assembly of subsets of representational perspectives met in particular situation.

That stance lets the author conclude that “the extent of knowledge prespecification found in CFHs is limited to rough guideposts or starting points for thinking about the domain, with an emphasis on their flexibility rather than rigidity of structuration and use.” or by referring to Wittgenstein “meaning is partially determined by rough patterns of family resemblance and then filled out by interactions of those patterns with details of their specific contexts of use (Wittgenstein, 1953). It is for the learner to construct understandings that grasp these patterns of family resemblance and context-dependency; CFHs assist in this learner-based constructive activity.”

This approach is "middle road" between rigid rigid prestructuration and rigid prescription of routines for knowledge use, and discovery learning in a totally unstructured environment at the other extreme. In addition, as in most modern instructional designs, teacher/systems control is meant to fade out as the learner progresses.

A very general statement that DSchneider likes in the Spiro et al. (1996) paper is that “instruction must be as complicated as is necessary to achieve the established goals of learning, given the constraints imposed by the features of the knowledge domain that is the subject of learning.”. In support of this statement the authors cite previous research showing that initial simplifications of complex subject areas can impede the later acquisition of more complex understandings (Feltovich, Spiro, & Coulson, 1989; Spiro et al., 1989).


General links

(more are needed)

  • Graddy, Duane B. Cognitive Flexibility Theory as a Pedagogy for Web-Based Course Design, Teaching Online in Higher Education Online Conference 2001, HTML


  • Godshalk, Veronica M., Douglas M. Harvey, Leslie Moller (2004). The Role of Learning Tasks on Attitude Change Using Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext Systems, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13 (4) 507-526. [1] (Access restricted).
  • Coulson, R.L., P.J. Feltovich and R.J. Spiro. "Cognitive Flexibility in Medicine: An Application to the Recognition and Understanding of Hypertension." Advances in Health Sciences Education, 1997, 2, pp. 141-61.
  • Feltovich, P.J., Spiro, R.J., & Coulson, R.L., (1989). The nature of conceptual understanding in biomedicine: The deep structure of complex ideas and the development of misconceptions. In D. Evans & V. Patel (Eds.), Cognitive science in medicine: Biomedical modeling. Cambridge, MA: MIT (Bradford) Press.
  • Graddy, Duane B. Cognitive Flexibility Theory as a Pedagogy for Web-Based Course Design, Teaching Online in Higher Education Online Conference 2001, HTML
  • Harvey, D., Jonassen, D., & Clariana, R. (2000). Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext and the Role of the Learning Task. In Kommers, P., & Richards, G. (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2000 (pp. 423-428). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. HTML/PDF (Access restricted).
  • Jacobson, M and A. Archodidou. (2000). "The Design of Hypermedia Tools for Learning: Fostering Conceptual Change and Transfer of Complex Scientific." The Journal of Learning Sciences, 2000,9, pp.149-199.
  • Jacobson, M. J., & Spiro, R. J. (1995). Hypertext learning environments, cognitive flexibility, and the transfer of complex knowledge: An empirical investigation. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 12(4). DOI 10.2190/4T1B-HBP0-3F7E-J4PN
  • Jacobson, M. J., & Spiro, R. J. (1993). Hypertext learning environments, cognitive flexibility, and the transfer of complex knowledge: An empirical investigation. Technical Report 573, Center for the Study of Reading, PDF (This paper is preprint of the above).
  • Jacobson, M.J., Maouri, C., Mishra, P., & Kolar, C. (1996). Learning with Hypertext Learning Environments: Theory, Design, and Research. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 5 (3/4), 239-281.
  • Jacobson, M.J., & Spiro, R.J. (1995). Hypertext Learning Environments, Cognitive Flexibility, and the transfer of complex knowledge: an empirical investigation, ???
  • Jonassen, D., D. Dyer, K. Peters, T. Robinson, D. Harvey, M. King, and P. Loughner. "Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext on the Web: Engaging Learners in Meaning Making," B. Khan, Web-Based Instruction. Englewood, Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publishing, 1997.
  • Spiro, R.J, Feltovich, P.J., Coulson, R.L., & Anderson, D.K. (1989). Multiple analogies for complex concepts: Antidotes for analogy-induced misconception in advanced knowledge acquisition. In S. Vosniadou & A. Ortony (Eds.), Similarity and analogical reasoning (498-531). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Spiro, R. J. & Jehng, J. C. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the nonlinear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education, and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology (pp. 163-205). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Spiro, R. J., Feltovich, P. J., Jacobson, M. J., & Coulson, R. L. (1992). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism, and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In T. M. Duffy & D. H. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 57-76). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Spiro, R. J., Feltovich, P. J., Jacobson, M. J., & Coulson, R. L. (1996). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism, and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. I Simpósio Investigação e Desenvolvimento de Software Educativo. An earlier version of this chapter originally appeared in two parts in the journal Educational Technology (1991, 11 (5), 24-33 and 1991, 11 (7), 22-26). The two original papers were reprinted in T. Duffy & D. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction (pp.121-128), 1992; Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum. HTML reprint