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Cognitivism refers to a class of learning theories that are based on some sort of rational information processing model of the human mind.

An information processing view of learning

According to Wilhelmsen et al. (1998):

The cognitivistic school "went inside the head of the learner" so to speak in that they made mental processes the primary object of study and tried to discover and model the mental processes on the part of the learner during the learning-process. In Cognitive theories knowledge is viewed as symbolic, mental constructions in the minds of individuals, and learning becomes the process of committing these symbolic representations to memory where they may be processed. The development of computers with a strict "input - processing - output architecture" from the 1960s and up till today certainly have inspired these "information-processing" views of learning.

In sum the cognitive approach & cognitive theories emerged as a new perspective employing " information-processing ideas" rather than the behavioristic assumptions that the learner is determined by his environments and so passively adapts to the circumstances.This cognitivistic view emphasized the active mental processing on the part of the learner. However knowledge was still viewed as given and absolute just like in the behavioristic school.

Cognitivism and some variants of constructivism adopt a rationalist stance, i.e. the idea that learning processes can be at least somewhat described in terms of general information processing principles.

Mental models

An other strand of research concerns the architecture of mental knowledge representations ( e.g. semantic networks).

Typical educational research that grew out of this is for example:

Cognitivism and instructional design

“Underlying the information-processing approach is the assumption that the senses and the brain follow complex but very systematic laws and that we can facilitate learning to the extent we can determine those laws” (Alessi and Trollop, 2001:19).

Many cognitivists are also objectivists, i.e. view meaning as existing externally, that is, independent of the individual learner.

See also: Cognitive constructivism.


  • Alessi, Stephen. M. & Trollop, Stanley. R., (2001) Multimedia for Learning (3rd Edition), Pearson Allyn & Bacon, ISBN 0-205-27691-1.