Cognitivism Theory and Constructivism Theory by Deb Allen

Cognitivism Theory

The cognitivism theory began in the late 1950s. Psychologist and educators began looking at “complex, cognitive processes such as thinking, problem solving, language, concept formation and information processing.” (Snelbecker, 1983). The cognitive learning theory was a shift from the behavioral theory. These theorists wanted to resolve the issues in student learning by looking at “how the information is received, organized, stored and retrieved by the mind.” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993) In the cognitivism theory, thinking and learning can be compared to that of computer information process as our thinking and learning process done by the human mind is much like a computer process. In the cognitivism theory, the learner is a very active participant in their learning process.
When designing for a cognitivism theory a designer would want to use instructional explanations, demonstration, illustrative examples as in the cognitivism theory the environmental condition play a factor in the learning process. Having an active participant, the designer would want to use practice items with a corrective feedback. “The real focus of the cognitive approach is on changing the learner by encouraging him/her to use appropriate learning strategies.” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993) In the cognitive theory, memory plays an important role. The goal is to use techniques to help learners relate the new information they have been given to prior knowledge. A designer would want to create a learning situation where the transfer of information takes place. This transfer of information must be stored in memory and the knowledge of the uses of that information stored so that learners are able to apply the knowledge in a different context.

Cognitive theories are used for reasoning, problem-solving and information processing. Learners are able to analyze the information, decompose it and simplify it into basic building blocks. Cognitivist enjoy the use of feedback to guide and support accurate mental connections. (Thompson, Simonson, & Hargrave, 1992) Within the cognivist theory, the learner is looked at to determine their predisposition to learning, the learner is an active learner, and use is given to the hierarchical analyses so that learning is structured, organized and sequential. The learner is bringing some learning experience from the past to the table to increase their knowledge base. “In education, cognitivism focuses on the adequate transmission of knowledge of the objective reality of the world from a teacher (expert) to students.” (Leonard, 2002) The objective is for the students to be able to have the same mental construct of the objects as that of the instructor.


Constructivism Theory

Another theory is called the constructivism theory in which the approach to learning and understanding “is a function of how the individual creates meaning from his or her own experiences” (Jonassen D. , 1991b) The roots for the constructivism theory begin in the philosophical and psychological viewpoints and is shown in the works of Piaget, Bruner and Goodman. Constructivism is a branch of Cognitivism; however, most “cognitive psychologists think of the mind as a reference tool to the real world and constructivists believe that the mind filters input from the world to produce its own unique reality”. (Jonassen D. H., 1991a)

The cognitivists and behaviorist believe that knowledge is “mind-independent and can be “mapped “into a learner.” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993) Whereas, the constructivists believe that want we learn stems from interpretation of the experiences. “Therefore, in order to understand the learning which has taken place within an individual, the actual experience must be examined.” (Bednar, D. Cunningham, T.M. Duffy, & J.D. Perry, 1991)

The interaction between the learner and the environment is crucial to the constructivist theory. An example is a learner learning new words through everyday life as opposed to learning that word by reading the dictionary. For the constructionist theory, the learner learns from having knowledge engrained in a situation. With each new activity the learner absorbs more information and knowledge. The learner elaborates and interprets given information. Continued use of the new information, an activity, and context helps the learner; therefore, memory is always being changed with the new information. A key to information for the constructionist is to have varied learning tools for the learner such as situating tasks in real world context, use of cognitive apprenticeships, presentations of multiple perspectives, social negotiation, uses of examples as real “slices of life, reflective awareness and providing considerable guidance on the use of constructive processes. (Ertmer & Newby, 1993)

Using the constructivist theory students are shown how to construct knowledge, collaborate with other and come up with multiple perspectives on a problem. The learner would have some prior knowledge and experience; with this knowledge and experience the learner begins to “test out their hypotheses, build their own set of content to solve a particular set of problems posed by the instructor.” (Leonard, 2002) The learning takes placed in team-based collaborative environments. The instructor becomes a catalyst, a coach, and a program manager.

Under the umbrella of the constructivism theory are many other learning theories such as Len Vygotsky’s social development theory, Jean Lave’s situated learning, Piaget’s developmental learning theory and Bruner’s discovery learning theory. The constructivist approaches uses internships for the fields of lawyers, doctors, architects and business.


Although both the cognitivism theory and the constructivist theory has some similarities there are some marked differences. “Both cognitivists and constructivists view the learner as being actively involved in the learning process, yet the constructivists look at the learner as more than just an active processor of information; the learner elaborates upon and interprets the given information.” (Duffy & Jonassen, 1991) Another difference in cognitivism and constructivism is that “constructivism is not concerned with the willfulness, creativity, and autonomy of the learners that constructivism considers in its focus on the learning processes. In constructivism, learners build their own meaning from new knowledge that they help construct. In cognitivism, learners have their knowledge built by someone else, an expert who job it is to convey as best as possible the mental construct that describes the objects being studied.” (Leonard, 2002)

Key differences in cognivists and constructivists “is that the constructivists see knowledge as extremely relativist, where nothing can be taken for granted or regard as objective truth. The cognitivists, on the other hand, focus on what they regard as the accurate transmission of objective knowledge (i.e., of the objective reality of the world) from the teacher (who is the expert) to students (who are not).” (Leonard, 2002)


Bednar, A., D. Cunningham, T.M. Duffy, & J.D. Perry. (1991). Theory into practice: How do we link? . Instructional technology" Past, present, and future.

Duffy, T., & Jonassen, D. (1991). Constructivism: New implications for instructional technology? Education Technology 31(5), 3-12.
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 51-72.

Jonassen, D. (1991b). Objectivism vs. constructivism: Do we need a new philosphical paradigm. Educational Technology Research and Development, 10.

Jonassen, D. H. (1991a). Evaluating constructivistic learning. Educational Technology 31(9), 28-33.

Leonard, D. C. (2002). Learning Theories. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Snelbecker, G. (1983). Learning theory, instructional theory, and psychoeducational design. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Thompson, A., Simonson, M. R., & Hargrave, C. P. (1992). Educational technology: A review of the research. Washington DC: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.