Cognitive tool

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  • Cognitive tools refer to learning with technology (as opposed to learning through technology). Jonassen (1994) argues that “technologies, from the ecological perspective of Gibson (1979), afford the most meaningful thinking when used as tools”.
  • Cognitive tools are generalizable computer tools that are intended to engage and facilitate cognitive processing. [...] Cognitive tools can be thought of as a set of tools that learners need in order to serve cognitive apprenticeships. [...] They scaffold the all-important processes of articulation and reflection, which are the foundations of knowledge construction. They (gag, can I say it?) empower the learners to think more meaningfully and to assume ownership of their knowledge, rather than reproducing the teacher's. The major problem if we accept this conception of technologies is what to do with all of the instructional designers... (Jonassen 1994).
  • Cognitive tools help learners with complex cognitive learning activities and critical thinking. These tools are learner controlled in the sense that they construct their knowledge themselves using the tools rather than memorizing knowledge. In this perspective, computer systems are "partners" that stimulate learners or groups of learners to make maximum use of their cognitive potential.
  • “Because of the interactive nature of technology and the power of its information-processing capabilities, Jonassen (1996) proposes that when students learn with technology, it becomes a "mindtool." He defines mindtools as "computer-based tools and learning environments that have been adapted or developed to function as intellectual partners with the learner in order to engage and facilitate critical thinking and higher-order learning" (p. 9). Using commonly available software (databases, spreadsheets, electronic mail, multimedia, hypermedia, and others), learners employ technology to both construct and represent knowledge. This concept is similar to Pea's (1985) conception of a cognitive technology as " . . . any medium that helps transcend the limitations of the mind, such as memory, in activities of thinking, learning, and problem solving" (p. 168).” (Boethel and Dimok, 1999: 17).
  • “Cognitive tools are technologies that learners interact and think with in knowledge construction, designed to bring their expertise to the performance as part of the joint learning system.” (Kim and Reeves (2007:224)

See also: Cognitive artifact and instrumentation

Why a cognitive tools approach ?

According to Shim and Lee (2006), Lajoie (1993, p. 261) summarized that cognitive tools can benefit learners by serving the functions as follows:

  1. Support cognitive processes, such as, memory and metacognitive processes
  2. Share the cognitive load by providing support for lower level cognitive skills so that resources are left over for higher order thinking skills
  3. Allow the learners to engage in cognitive activities that would be out of their reach otherwise
  4. Allow learners to generate and test hypotheses in the context of problem solving

Let's continue with a longer quotation from Reeves (1999) keynote speech at Ed-Media 1999:

The foundation for the use of interactive learning systems as "cognitive tools" (the "with" approach) is "cognitive psychology." Computer-based cognitive tools have been intentionally adapted or developed to function as intellectual partners to enable and facilitate critical thinking and higher order learning. Examples of cognitive tools include: databases, spreadsheets, semantic networks, expert systems, communications software such as teleconferencing programs, on-line collaborative knowledge construction environments, multimedia/ hypermedia construction software, and computer programming languages. In the cognitive tools approach, interactive tools are given directly to learners to use for representing and expressing what they know (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996). Learners themselves function as designers, using software programs as tools for analyzing the world, accessing and interpreting information, organizing their personal knowledge, and representing what they know to others. The basic principles that guide the use of interactive software programs as cognitive tools for teaching and learning are:

  • Cognitive tools will have their greatest effectiveness when they are applied within constructivist learning environments.
  • Cognitive tools empower learners to design their own representations of knowledge rather than absorbing representations preconceived by others.
  • Cognitive tools can be used to support the deep reflective thinking that is necessary for meaningful learning.
  • Cognitive tools have two kinds of important cognitive effects, those which are with the technology in terms of intellectual partnerships and those that are of the technology in terms of the cognitive residue that remains after the tools are used.
  • Cognitive tools enable mindful, challenging learning rather than the effortless learning promised but rarely realized by other instructional innovations.
  • The source of the tasks or problems to which cognitive tools are applied should be learners, guided by teachers and other resources in the learning environment.
  • Ideally, tasks or problems for the application of cognitive tools will be situated in realistic contexts with results that are personally meaningful for learners.
  • Using multimedia construction programs as cognitive tools engages many skills in learners such as: project management skills, research skills, organization and representation skills, presentation skills, and reflection skills.
  • Research concerning the effectiveness of constructivist learning environments such as microworlds, classroom-based learning environments, and virtual, collaborative environments show positive results across a wide range of indicators.
In summary, thirty years of educational research indicates that various interactive technologies are effective in education as phenomena to learn both "from" and "with." Historically, the learning "from" or tutorial approaches have received the most attention and funding, but the "with" or cognitive tool approaches are the focus of more interest and investment than ever before. Preliminary findings suggest that in the long run, constructivist approaches to applying media and technology may have more potential to enhance teaching and learning than instructivist models (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996). In other words, the real power of interactive learning to improve achievement and performance may only be realized when people actively use computers as cognitive tools rather than simply interact with them as tutors or data repositories.

This longer quotation (sorry) summarizes key features of the "cognitive tool approach" formalated in the late nineties: Learner empowerment, project-orientated authentic and "meaningful" learning, computer as a partner and variety of tools.

Problems and challenges

(needs to be completed)

Use of cognitive tools often requires expertise that learners don't necessarily have.

In addition, assessment of what is learned is often done in a different context which is debatable if one adheres to the idea that cognitive tools are also professional tools, i.e. related to practise that has to be learnt.

On the other hand, some cognitive tools (e.g. simulations) can have the effect that the learner just learns the tool (video game effect) and not something that he can transfer.

Cognitive tools and the joint learning system

Building on top of Salomon's (1991,1993a, 1993c) concepts of distributed cognition, Kim and Reeves (2007:207) argue that “the learner, tool, and activity form a joint learning system, and the expertise in the world should be reflected not only in the tool but also in the learning activity within which learners make use of the tool.”

Interestingly enough, there has been a similar argument by Rabardel in terms of instrumentation: “An activity consists of acting upon an object in order to realize a goal and give concrete form to a motive. Yet the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct. It involves mediation by a third party: the instrument [...] An instrument cannot be confounded with an artifact. An artifact only becomes an instrument through the subject's activity. In this light, while an instrument is clearly a mediator between the subject and the object, it is also made up of the subject and the artifact.” (Béguin & Rabardel, 2000, P.175). In other words, instrumentation is related to action, i.e. how a technical object is used within an activity and how it affects cognitive schemas.

Activity theory, based on soviet micro-sociology and psychology also stresses the role of instruments within an activity system. Participants in an activity are portrayed as subjects interacting with objects and other subjects to achieve desired outcomes. Human interactions with each other and with objects of the environment are mediated through the use of tools, rules and division of labour.

Common to these approaches is the idea that human cognition relies on the (situated) environment. In this perspective cognition is distributed, although in various forms and to various degrees. Kim and Reeves (2007:216) argue that “A cognitive activity usually reflects some aspects of all three cognitive distributions: social, symbolic, and physical. For example, brainstorming for ideas as a team exemplifies social distribution of cognition among people. Drawing a diagram on the board to visualize their discussed ideas reflects their dependence upon the symbolic and physical distribution.”. Note, that some researchers may not agree that symbol systems should be conceptualized as part of distributed cognition, since most cognitive actities rely on symbol processes. On the other hand, technology like computers or paper do allow for symbolic representations that would not be used without these media. The is topic that has been hotly debated in the media debate (initially Clark vs. Kozma).

Computer programs are both symbolic and physical tools, i.e. they represent things and do this and therefore extend our cognitive powers in various ways. These programs have affordances, i.e. properties upon which one can act. These may be intended by the designers or not, be perceptible or not, etc. In most cases, they require engagement from the user and various degrees of expertise.

According to Kim and Reeves (2007:218):

In summary, the theoretical assumptions about cognitive tools based from the distributed cognition view are:

  1. Cognition is distributed between learner(s) and a cognitive tool;
  2. The way in which cognition is distributed is first determined by the intentions of tool designers, i.e., tool affordances; and
  3. It can then affected by how the learners decide to use it in specific situations.

Typologies of cognitive tools

Jonassen & Carr

According to Kim and Reeves (2007:226), Jonassen and Carr (2000) suggested the following classes of "mindtools":

Lajoe and Derry 1993a and 2000

Kim and Reeves (2007:226) noticed that over two different volumes of Computers as Cognitive Tools, classification has shifted to take into account new learning paradigms.

  • Modelers (e.g., TAPS; Derry and Hawkes, 1993). "Modelers" is defined in terms of ITS research, i.e. whether the software would model the student
  • Nonmodelers (e.g., HyperAuthor; (Lehrer, 1993),
  • and the the ones merging the two (e.g., DARN; Schauble et al., 1993)
  • Tools supporting knowledge-building activities (e.g., SCI-WISE; White et al., 2000)
  • Tools supporting new forms of knowledge representations (e.g., DNA; Shute et al., 2000).

Iiyoshi Hannifin and Wang 2005

Robertson, B., Elliot, L., & Robinson, D. (2007). summarize the Roles of Cognitive Tools, Examples, and Specific Technologies with the following table adapted from Iyoshi, et al, 2005. It lists the 5 roles of cognitive tools followed by examples and specific technologies that demonstrate each role.

Roles of Cognitive Tools Examples Specific Technologies
I. Information Seeking:

These tools allow student to retrieve and identify information through learning situations that require the seeking of information.


Search engines


Alta Vista

II. Information Presentation:

These tools enable information to be presented in a meaningful and appropriate representation.

Graphic Organizers

Concept Maps



III. Knowledge Organization:

These support students by allowing them to use a tool to establish relationships among information by structuring or restructuring information by manipulating information.


Presentation Tools
Notebook Tools



IV. Knowledge Integration:

Such tools allow students to connect new information to prior knowledge therefore students are building a larger array of information.

Mapping tools


Online discussions

Video streaming
Podcasting (

Source: Cognitive Tools, Copyright: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5

Jonassen 2006

Shim and Li (2006) summarize Jonassen's (2006) Cognitive tools for teachers with the following table:

Type Description Examples
  1. Are useful for supplementing the learning of concept-rich content, such as that in geography, social studies, and the sciences
  2. Support the storage and retrieval of information in an organized manner Structure is inherent in all knowledge, so using a database that helps learners to structure what they know will facilitate understanding.
Database management systems (DBMSs)
Concept Map
  1. Are spatial representations of concepts and their interrelationships that simulate the knowledge structures that humans store in their minds (Jonassen, Beissner, & Yacci, 1993).
  2. Are also effective for planning other kinds of productions and knowledge bases.
  1. Are computerized, numeric record-keeping systems.
  2. Qualitatively change educational processes that require manipulation or speculation with numbers and are easy to adapt and modify
  3. Support speculation, decision making, and problem solving, and they are often used in what-if analyses.
  4. Are versatile tools that are most effective in solving quantitative problems
  5. Three primary functions: storing, calculating, and presenting information
Simulation Tools
  1. Represent abstract ideas visually, enabling students to use their most highly developed sensory system.
  2. Support performance in investigative projects, so they are scaffolds that enable students to complete projects
  3. Help students to understand and express ideas that they otherwise might not be able to.
Structured Computer Conference
  1. Two types : asynchronous communication and synchronous communication
  2. Support student s to construct their knowledge
Email, Bulletin board service, Discussion board
Source: Cognitive Tools in the classroom, Copyright: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5


From these various classifications, Daniel K. Schneider thinks that one could distinguish these broad categories of cognitive tools.

This classification is not based on principles, but rather on what I feel are typical clusters of usage in schools. In our experience (need some more serious data here), the most popular tools are the ones that are both easy and familiar from other context and of use for non-educational purposes.

the following is under construction and needs to be expanded ...

A more systematic and thoughtful classication scheme has been developed by Kim and Reeves (2007). The authors identify the following dimensions:

Tool interactivity
  • delivery of information, e.g. multimedia presentations, forum messages
  • task offload or support, e.g. a calculator, error checker
  • support of individual's cognitive activities

Note: The authors insist that in any case cognitive tools should be considered partners that interact with learners to create knowledge and require higher-order thinking from learners.

Tool specificity - Levels of expertise (according to Patel and Groen)
  • general, domain independant expertise (such as creativity)
  • specific domain-dependant (precise knowledge and processing strategies of particular domain)
  • generic domain-dependant (general domain knowledge, applicable to various sub-domain problems)
Tool specificity - Structure of expertise
  • knowledge, e.g. facts or abstract rules
  • functions, e.g. information search, rule execution, decision support
  • representations, e.g. concrete (isomorphic), abstract (symbolic)


This section should index related articles that refer to specific kinds of tools (not complete yet !)

Cognitive tools can be really simple, e.g. a Word processor that will allow a teacher to scaffold a student's activity planning process (one can write outlines, use the text as a mirror, etc.). Among teachers, paper-based tools like interactive notebooks or organizers are also very popular, e.g. see creationgs on Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers

Forum + argumentation

  • CSILE was a research system that now is commercialized as Knowledge forum
  • Fle3 is a free pedagogical platform that builds on ideas of CSILE

Collaborative hypertexts

  • This Wiki is also used in teaching, e.g. students participate through writing activities. During the summer semester 2006 a few students participate in a course that will only be offered once and that features only writing activities.

Tools for organizing ideas

Tools to organize writing activities

Professional tools

Simulation and microworld building

Productivity tools



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