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Cognitive Theories


The cognitivist paradigm essentially argues that the “black box" of the mind should be opened and understood. The learner is viewed as an information processor (like a computer).


Key Concepts

The cognitivist revolution replaced behaviorism in 1960s as the dominant paradigm. Cognitivism focuses on the inner mental activities – opening the “black box" of the human mind is valuable and necessary for understanding how people learn. Mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving need to be explored. Knowledge can be seen as schema or symbolic mental constructions. Learning is defined as change in a learner’s schemata[1][2].

A response to behaviorism, people are not “programmed animals" that merely respond to environmental stimuli; people are rational beings that require active participation in order to learn, and whose actions are a consequence of thinking. Changes in behavior are observed, but only as an indication of what is occurring in the learner’s head. Cognitivism uses the metaphor of the mind as computer: information comes in, is being processed, and leads to certain outcomes.

Additional Resources and References


  1. Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective.Performance improvement quarterly, 6(4), 50-72.
  2. Cooper, P. A. (1993). Paradigm Shifts in Designed Instruction: From Behaviorism to Cognitivism to Constructivism. Educational technology, 33(5), 12-19.

Functional Context Theory (Sticht)

Summary: Functional Context Theory is a cognitive learning theory that was developed specifically for educating adults in businesses and the military.

Originator: Thomas Sticht

Keywords: Job task analysis, knowledge base, literacy, learning strategies, instructional strategies

Functional Context Theory (Sticht)

There are various styles of learning requiring educators to learn about their students so that they can choose the most appropriate learning theory upon which to develop their instructional strategies. The functional context theory is considered a cognitive learning theory. The theory is based on the premise that students learn best when instruction is based on prior knowledge base, making use of long-term memory[1]. Instructional strategies must be developed that require students to make use of their language and problem solving skills[2].

Although the functional content theory is a cognitive theory, it is in direct opposition to other major components of cognitive theories that hold the premise that learning occurs in stages and is totally separate and apart from any environmental influence.

Sticht stresses that learning has everything to do with a person’s environmental influences. Instead of developing in life’s predetermined stages, instructional strategies must be developed that are based on their relevance to the students and their own personal experiences[2]. Importantly, according to Sticht’s functional context theory, learning is accomplished through the context of the students’ activity, giving them the ability to transfer their classroom learning successfully to their daily work tasks.

Using this theory, educators combine literacy and other of the most basic skills, such as reading, in order to incorporate them with content learning. In 1975, Thomas Sticht developed this theory strictly for the education of adults[3]. His learning theory was tested in the development of a functional content course for enlisted Navy personnel. The goal of the program was to improve reading and math skills as pertaining to their specific job duties A job task analysis was conducted in order to find out exactly what level of reading and math skills soldiers needed to successfully complete their job tasks.

The results of the program enabled the development of technical manuals and instructional materials that the Navy could use to train their enlisted personnel. The purpose of the functional content theory of learning is to ensure that all instruction is based on a prior knowledge base, making instruction inclusive of knowledge and skills that students can actually apply successfully in the work place.

A very important component of the function content theory is literacy. The purpose is to improve adult literacy through the improvement of content, helping students use and improve their problem solving and critical thinking skills. Assessments are designed that are valid to the learning material, requiring context and content that will supply specific measurements directly related to the learning materials.

The assessment of learning success using the function content theory is not to be based on grades, but rather, on the specific content learning and, distinguishing between academic learning and function learning.

Sticht has used his functional content theory to develop instructional material for the health care industry, as well as a very diverse variety of jobs where specific content related learning is necessary. Programs have and instructional materials have been developed for office workers and mechanics. There are really too many fields to list.

The premise is that adults are not going to be interested in spending time learning something that is not relative to their work. By the time one adulthood is reached, people tend to know exactly what they want and they require context specific training.

The function content theory is coupled with the importance of adult literacy[4]. Reading and math literacy are important tenets of learning and job success. Without good literacy skills that are related to an individual’s work task, success cannot be expected.

Function content goes hand in hand with situated learning theory, which also is based on the premise that learning is best accomplished when it is based on the student’s previous knowledge and current situation. Academic learning involves the learning of facts needed for school success, but functional learning involves learning reading and math skills directly related to a real world job situation.

As early as 1861, teachers were working on developing experience specific instruction for freed slaves after the civil war. They strove to develop content learning that was based on the previous lives of the freedmen in order to help them learn, adding new knowledge to their previous knowledge base. Instead of beginning the education of the freemen at the level at which a child begins education, the materials were developed based on the current living environment of the freed slaves.

Adults must not be educated like school children are educated, rather, their education must be developed based on current life situations. World War II soldiers were educated through the use of materials that related to current job tasks. The basic principles of the theory first came to light during his time period in America’s history.

Although Sticht’s functional content theory is in opposition to other cognitive theories it is widely used for adult literacy education, preparing students for real world jobs. The use of function content has spread widely throughout adult literacy and vocational programs, preparing adults for real world job situations to enable them to be successful at their chosen vocation.

Thomas Sticht’s extensive research into those principles used to train WWII soldiers has made a he impact on adult education. The impact on instructional strategies now used in adult vocational and literacy education. The Functional Literacy Program used the principles that underlie the basic tenets of the cognitive sciences.

The immense impact Sticht’s research has had on adult education has created a ripple effect throughout adult educational programs, making teaching and learning more successful and effective.


  1. Sticht, T. G. (1987). Functional Context Education. Workshop Resource Notebook.
  2. Sticht, T. (2000). Functional Context Education: Making Learning Relevant.
  3. Sticht, T. G. (1975). Reading for Working: A Functional Literacy Anthology.
  4. Sticht, T. G. (1988). Adult literacy education. Review of research in education,15, 59-96.



Gestalt Theory (von Ehrenfels)

Summary: The Gestalt theory of learning originated in Germany, being put forth by three German theorists who were inspired by the works and ideas of the man who gave the learning theory its name. Graf Christian von Ehrenfels was a learning theorist who took the holistic approach to learning by putting forth the idea that learning takes place as students were able to comprehend a concept in its entirety, rather than broken up into parts[1].

Key Terms: holistic, mechanical response, phenomenology, Isomorphism, factor of closure, factor of proximity, trace factor, factor of similarity, figure ground effect

Theorists: Graf Christian von Ehrenfels, Wertheimer[2][3], Kohler[4], Koffka[5], insight learning

Gestalt Theory

The term “Gestalt,” comes from a German word that roughly means pattern or form. The main tenet of the Gestalt theory is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; learning is more than just invoking mechanical responses from learners.

As with other learning theories, the Gestalt theory has laws of organization by which it must function. These organizational laws already exist in the make-up of the human mind and how perceptions are structured. Gestalt theorists propose that the experiences and perceptions of learners have a significant impact on the way that they learn.

One aspect of Gestalt is phenomenology, which is the study of how people organize learning by looking at their lived experiences and consciousness. Learning happens best when the instruction is related to their real life experiences. The human brain has the ability to make a map of the stimuli caused by these life experiences. This process of mapping is called “isomorphism.”

Whenever the brain sees only part of a picture, the brain automatically attempts to create a complete picture. This is the first organizational law, called the “factor of closure,” and it does not only apply to images, but it also applies to thoughts, feelings and sounds.

Based upon Gestalt theory, the human brain maps elements of learning that are presented close to each other as a whole, instead of separate parts. This organizational law is called the “factor of proximity,” and is usually seen in learning areas such as reading and music, where letters and words or musical notes make no sense when standing alone, but become a whole story or song when mapped together by the human brain.

The next organizational law of the Gestalt theory is the “factor of similarity,” which states that learning is facilitated when groups that are alike are linked together and contrasted with groups that present differing ideas. This form of Gestalt learning enables learners to develop and improve critical thinking skills.

When observing things around us, it is normal for the eye to ignore space or holes and to see, instead, whole objects. This organizational law is called the “figure-ground effect.”

As new thoughts and ideas are learned the brain tends to make connections, or “traces,” that are representative of the links that occur between conceptions and ideas, as well as images. This organizational law is called the “trace theory.”

The Gestalt theory placed its main emphasis on cognitive processes of a higher order, causing the learner to use higher problem solving skills. They must look at the concepts presented to them and search for the underlying similarities that link them together into a cohesive whole. In this way, learners are able to determine specific relationships amongst the ideas and perceptions presented.

The Gestalt theory of learning purports the importance of presenting information or images that contain gaps and elements that don’t exactly fit into the picture. This type of learning requires the learner to use critical thinking and problem solving skills. Rather than putting out answers by rote memory, the learner must examine and deliberate in order to find the answers they are seeking.

When educators are presenting information to the students using the Gestalt theory of learning, they must ensure that their instructional strategies make use of the organizational laws presented earlier in this article.

The Gestalt theory of learning came into the forefront of learning theories as a response to the Behaviorist theory. Other theories have evolved out of the original Gestalt learning theory, with different forms of the Gestalt theory taking shape. The field of Gestalt theories have come to be acknowledged as a cognitive-interactionist family of theories.

The Gestalt theory purports that an individual is a whole person and the instructional strategies used to teach them will help to discover if there is anything that is mentally blocking them from learning certain new information. Teaching strategies are used to present problems as a whole and to attempt to remove any mental block from the learner so that new information can be stored.

Designing instructional strategies that take into consideration the learner’s past and current experiences and perceptions is the key to teaching new information. In Gestalt learning theory, when the learners come across information or concepts that are not organized, the mind organizes it in an attempt to enable the learner to recognize and apply the concepts being taught.


  1. Ehrenfels, C. V. (1937). On Gestalt-qualities. Psychological Review, 44(6), 521.
  2. Wertheimer, M. (1938). Laws of organization in perceptual forms.
  3. Wertheimer, M., & Riezler, K. (1944). Gestalt theory. Social Research, 78-99.
  4. Köhler, W. (1970). Gestalt psychology: An introduction to new concepts in modern psychology. WW Norton & Company.
  5. Koffka, K. (2013). Principles of Gestalt psychology (Vol. 44). Routledge.

Flow (Csíkszentmihályi)

Summary: Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that is both appropriately challenging to one’s skill level, often resulting in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. This can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction.

Originators & proponents: Mihály Csíkszentmihályi[1][2]

Keywords: anxiety/stress, challenge level, creativity, engagement, expertise, happiness, immersion, flow, focus, learning, motivation, satisfaction, self-regulation, skill level

Flow (Csíkszentmihályi)

Flow is one of eight mental states that can happen during the learning process which Csíkszentmihályi outlines in his flow theory. In addition to flow, these mental states include anxiety, apathy, arousal, boredom, control, relaxation, and worry; they result when a learner experiences a combination of skill and challenge levels of a task in non-optimal combinations.


Cognitive Apprenticeship (Collins et al.)

Summary: Cognitive Apprenticeship is a theory that attempts to bring tacit processes out in the open. It assumes that people learn from one another, through observation, imitation and modeling.

Originator: Collins, Brown and Newman

Key Terms: Modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection