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Cognitive Learning

Cognitive Learning

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Identify key characteristics of cognitive learning.

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what's covered
This lesson will discuss learning within psychology, which refers to an internal as well as an external process that results in changes in a person's behavior. You will learn about:

  1. Types of Learning
  2. Ways to Learn

1. Types of Learning

There are two essential types of learning: associative and cognitive:

1. Associative learning is learning that occurs by connection of external stimuli within the environment to responses and the behaviors of the individual.


You see something, you do something.

Associative learning includes the behaviorist approach to psychology and the ideas of classical and operant conditioning.

2. Cognitive learning is the internal mental process that results in things like thinking, understanding, and the construction of knowledge. This is usually what we refer to when we think about learning: the activity that's going on in places like schools.

The idea of a cognitive map is an example of how cognitive learning is different, that highlights the internal process.

With a cognitive map, when you walk through a place, you don't just continue to make the same wrong turns over and over until you find where you need to go each time; you can learn the correct directions. The associative learning field might refer to this kind of learning as a trial-and-error process.

In contrast, the cognitive learning field might argue that this process is creating an internal idea of what the space looks like.


Experiments with rats show that those that were placed within a maze that they were familiar with went through the maze much faster than rats that hadn't gone through the maze before. This is because they had created a cognitive map of the maze and learned its structure.

This is also why you can internally visualize a place as well as receive directions from others when you haven't ever seen a place before: you're creating that idea of what the space looks like, and you can also read and create maps. This means that you're visualizing what's occurring inside your mind.

term to know
Cognitive Map
An internal mental representation of spatial knowledge that allows a person to learn how to navigate a place

2. Ways to Learn

What are the actual best ways to learn? A behaviorist or associative learning approach to learning might argue that rote learning would be best.


When you learned your multiplication tables, you may have been encouraged to simply memorize the tables. This is also referred to as parroting, cramming, or regurgitating.

Is this a good way to learn? There are generally fairly negative connotations attached to this kind of learning.

Pros Cons
It’s used for quick, efficient learning, especially for ideas that are more factual or formulaic, like math, science, or grammar rules. It doesn't tend to lead to a long-lasting understanding and learning. It’s a lot less flexible; you will initially only know how to use your knowledge within a certain context.

Critical thinking creates more longer-lasting learning and more comprehensive learning. Critical thinking is when the student uses the information in meaningful ways, like doing problems and practice work or actually applying the information in some kind of way.

Discovery learning is an approach that uses critical thinking. Discovery learning is learning that's based on understanding and insight. It makes a student an active participant in the learning process so that they're not just memorizing repetitively. This means that they have to learn the information well enough to use it and apply it in other situations. This makes it a lot more likely for the student to remember it over a longer period of time as well as to be more flexible with the use of the knowledge so they can apply it to lots of different situations.

term to know
Rote Learning
Learning through repetition and memorization without making connections to meaning

There are several types of learning: associative and cognitive. Each has its use, as well as its drawbacks. Of the many ways to learn, critical thinking methods such as discovery learning are the most valuable, but rote learning does have its place in certain subjects.

Good luck!

Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Erick Taggart.

Terms to Know
Cognitive Map

An internal mental representation of spatial knowledge that allows a person to learn how to navigate a place.

Rote Learning

Learning through repetition and memorization without making connections to meaning.