Symbol Systems and Cognitive Flexibility

A comparison of the Symbol Systems and Cognitive Flexibility learning theories
by Ross E.
IM 504, July 2014

Symbol Systems

  • Focuses on how symbols in media impact learning
  • Symbols showcase different elements of information in different mediums
  • Symbols impact how we decode and recode information in different mediums
  • Symbols allow learners to process information quicker
  • Symbols impact the amount of processing required by learner
  • Symbol used in a medium impacts the information learned from messages across all mediums

In short, symbols help us learn and process information quicker. They can help us shorten the learning process. Sesame Street is an example of teaching symbols in one medium that help users (students) in other mediums. They learn symbols which helps them in other mediums.

Cognitive Flexibility
We will face issues we are not prepared to handle. We can use our knowledge and experiences to help us create the knowledge we need to deal with new, unique situations. Doctors are examples of people who need cognitive flexibility. When faced with a medical emergency they have to be able to immediately help the patient instead of trying to remember how to deal with this type of situation. Ross getting a new cell phone is an example of not having cognitive flexibility.

  • Provide learners with multiple representations of information
  • Use case studies and focus on the context of the situation instead knowledge transfer
  • Do not oversimplify information
  • Think about constructing knowledge instead of memorizing information
  • Use multiple interwoven knowledge structures


  • Focus is on helping learners acquire skills and information needed for future success
  • Work well together-understanding symbols helps learner process new information and build off of current knowledge to help them in future situation.
  • Both have been applied to computers/Internet settings-technology is ever changing and uses symbols to present and transfer information


  • Symbol Systems is applied more to younger students. Often deals with language and basic information (think Sesame Street)
  • Cognitive Flexibility is often applied to complex situations and presumes a large amount of background knowledge (think medical)


  • Use language and symbols that is familiar to people across multiple mediums (what is similar between Tk20 and D2L? Use that to present symbols/information)
  • Present multiple representations (formats) of the processes involved to help learners
  • Structure information so learners are empowered to trouble shoot when problems happen or the system changes

Nickel, C. (2014). Rand Spiro-cognitive flexibility theory. Unpublished paper, Department of Educational Psychology, Michigan State University, Michigan. Retrieved from

Rui, Z. & Blasi, L. (2010) Learning through web-based multistoryline case studies: A design-based research. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 11(3), 175-182.

Salomon, G. (1977). Effects of encouraging Israeli mothers to co-observe “Sesame Street” with their five-year-olds. Child Development, 48(3), 1146-1151. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.ep1040279

Salomon, G. (1979). Interaction of media, cognition, and learning: An exploration of how symbolic forms cultivate mental skills and affect knowledge acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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. 57-75). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.