Cognitive Learning In the Workplace

Cognitive Learning In the Workplace

Cognitive Learning In the Workplace

Cognitive learning is an involved, active form of learning that concentrates on improving the brain’s functioning and the individual’s problem-solving skills.

The cognitive learning process relies on three steps:

  1. Understand why you are learning this lesson
  2. Build on what you already know to develop a deeper understanding
  3. Apply the new learning in a real-life situation and reflect on the results

Instead of taking the traditional approach to learning, memorization of new information, cognitive learning is a process of consideration, application and reflection.

What Is Meant By a Deeper Understanding?

A deeper understanding of a topic is when all the pieces slot into place and there is a realization of the entirety of the subject matter.

It goes beyond learning something in isolation to view the topic from a wider perspective.

It allows for investigation, reflection and the creation of new ideas and solutions.

Is Cognitive Learning New?

If we take cognitive learning as learning through doing, or learning from our mistakes, then cognitive learning obviously is not new.

People have been learning in this way for centuries.

However, the theory of cognitive learning (CLT) was first defined in the 1930s by Swiss educational psychologist, Jean Piaget.

Piaget theorized that learning was developed through building on the foundations of existing knowledge and in connection with both inner and outer influences on the learner.

Centered on the learner, Piaget’s approach relied on:

  • Accommodation – The way in which the learner adapts what they already know to accommodate new knowledge
  • Assimilation – How the new knowledge is organized alongside existing knowledge in our minds
  • Equilibration – The balance of new knowledge with existing knowledge

CLT was further developed in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Named after educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, this set of three hierarchical models was based on a series of conferences held between 1949 and 1953. Bloom’s Taxonomy was first published in 1956.

Bloom’s Taxonomy lays out a hierarchy of six levels of cognitive learning. Starting at the bottom of this hierarchy, the six levels are:

  • Remember – The learner has an existing mental bank of knowledge that they can access and describe
  • Understand – The learner is able to interpret that knowledge and express it in their own words
  • Apply – The learner can apply what they have learned to a task or problem
  • Analyze – The learner develops a deeper understanding so that they can compare or measure different aspects of the subject matter
  • Evaluate – The learner is able to draw conclusions from their analysis and knowledge
  • Create – The learner can generate fresh ideas, approaches or designs

In the 1960s, David Ausubel, an American psychologist, added the third element of cognitive learning – understanding why you are learning something new.

Ausubel believed that for learning to be effective, it had to be meaningful.

More than simply learning a topic because a teacher told them to, the learner required an understanding of how this new knowledge fitted into a bigger picture.

How would it benefit them to learn this and how could it be applied to the real world?

Thirty years later, Thomas J. Shuell, a professor of counselling and educational psychology, expanded on Ausubel’s meaningful learning to outline its five principles:

  1. Active – The learner must engage with the learning process.
  2. Constructive – The learner must express what they have learned in a new format/their own words.
  3. Cumulative – What is learned builds on what is already known, instead of replacing it.
  4. Self-regulated – The learner must organize their own learning process.
  5. Goal-orientated – The learner must learn in a way that both builds towards a goal and is individual to them.

Through the findings of Piaget, Bloom, Ausubel and Shuell, we have a modern model of cognitive learning that can be applied in the workplace.

Examples of a Cognitive Learning Approach

The cognitive learning approach can be useful in a wide variety of learning situations because of the varying skills and competencies it involves.

Examples of cognitive learning include:

Implicit and Explicit Learning

Where explicit learning begins with the individual’s intention to learn something new or deepen their understanding, implicit learning happens automatically or by accident. Knowledge is gained and retained unconsciously.

For instance, you may seek to improve your typing speed and, as part of the process, become familiar with Microsoft Word or a similar word processing software.

Meaningful and Discovery Learning

The process of meaningful learning asks the learner to apply newly learned information to what they already know to build a deeper understanding.

By comparison, discovery learning involves the seeking of knowledge on a completely new subject that the learner is unfamiliar with.

It cannot be related to existing knowledge because the learner knows nothing about the subject.

Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

Cooperative learning is the process of learning as a group and must include four factors:

  • Simultaneous interaction – All the learners contribute and take part in the learning process.
  • Positive interdependence – The learners work together in a constructive manner.
  • Individual responsibility – Each learner is responsible for their own learning.
  • Equal participation – All the learners are of equal importance and must play their part in the learning process.

One benefit to cooperative learning, beyond attaining new knowledge on the subject taught, is that the group will often learn to work in a team .

Collaborative learning is similar to cooperative learning in that more than one individual works together.

The difference is subtle, however, because in this instance, learning is gained through the investigation of a problem or situation, rather than receiving learning from an instructor.

Non-Associative Learning

Non-associative learning is the way in which you respond to continued exposure to a factor.

Habituation non-associative learning is where your reaction becomes less; for instance, you become accustomed to the noise of a busy factory.

Sensitization non-associative learning means that your reaction increases. For example, working on a production line, you find it easier to identify and remove faulty items.

Cognitive Learning In the Workplace: Definition, Benefits and Examples
Cognitive Learning In the Workplace: Definition, Benefits and Examples

Receptive Learning

Receptive learning is passive learning, where the learner is receiving new knowledge from textual or spoken material. This might be through reading a book or attending a lecture.

Emotional Learning

Emotional learning is developing the skills to handle your own emotions but also the emotions of others.

The term generally used for this skill is emotional intelligence .

Understanding how to relate to others, what behavior is appropriate in certain situations and recognizing stress in oneself are all examples of emotional intelligence.

Experiential Learning

This is the process of learning through your experiences.

Experiential learning is the process of assimilating knowledge through doing and exposure, but also reflecting on that experience and drawing lessons from that reflection.

Observation Learning

Observation learning is learning by imitation.

Observing those who have the skills or training we would like to possess and then imitating that person can be a highly effective way to gain new knowledge.

Benefits of Cognitive Learning In the Workplace

Now that you know the what and the how of cognitive learning, here is the why.

So, what are the benefits of using cognitive learning in the workplace?

Enhance Learning

Cognitive learning builds on existing knowledge to create a deeper understanding.

Learning in a way that immerses the learner in the subject matter has been shown to improve the rate of learning, retention and overall comprehension of the subject.

Improve Problem Solving

Due to the levels of analysis, adaptation and reflection involved in this educational approach, cognitive learning improves problem-solving skills .

Build Confidence

Cognitive learning aims to build a deeper understanding in the learner.

Having this deeper understanding which was developed in an immersive learning experience has been shown to build confidence.

Increase Speed of Learning

There are three factors of cognitive learning that can increase the speed of learning:

  • First, the fact that the learner is building on existing knowledge means that the learning journey does not start at zero.
  • Second, cognitive learning improves the learner’s problem-solving and adaptation skills.
  • Third, the learner develops an understanding of their own learning process and the best approach for them personally.

Promote Lifelong Learning

As cognitive learning builds on existing knowledge and allows the learner to take on new knowledge more effectively, it can encourage employees to continuously develop their knowledge and skills .

Higher Levels of Satisfaction in the Learner

Compare these two scenarios:

  1. A teacher tells a class of high school students about a chemical reaction, with no handouts, no white board presentation or no practical session.

  2. A class of high school students create that chemical reaction for themselves and reflect on the results.

The second scenario has a higher chance of teaching those students about the chemical reaction because they have seen it for themselves, have hands-on experience of carrying out the experiment and can therefore reflect on the results in their own words.

Cognitive learning improves the learning experience by immersing the learner in the subject matter.

An Example of Cognitive Learning In Action

A land and water testing laboratory begins to use a new mobile app that will allow customers to report samples submitted, track the progress of their samples through the testing process and view the final results.

As the customer-facing element of the business, the sales and customer services departments are asked to learn about the new mobile app.

Here is how taking a cognitive learning approach improves that training experience:

  • Understand why you are learning this lesson – It is explained to the employees why the mobile app was developed and how it will benefit the business, the employees and the clients.

  • Build on what you already know – The employees know how the current process works. The training expands this to show how the mobile app fits into the current sample gathering and testing process, and indeed improves that process.

  • Apply the new learning in a real-life situation and reflect on the results – The employees are allowed hands-on experience with the mobile app from the point of view of a customer, a client-facing employee and laboratory staff. At the end of the training, they answer a questionnaire about their views on the mobile app. At a later stage, once the mobile app has been in place for a few months, a second session is held where the sales and customer services departments can reflect on the performance of the mobile app.

In this scenario:

  • Understanding why they have been asked to learn about the new mobile app and how it will benefit all involved avoids the feeling that this is simply another chore being forced on employees by management. The employees can see how the mobile app will make their lives easier and allow them to provide a better service to their customers.

  • Finding out how the mobile app will fit into the part of the testing process they already know about while also learning about the other parts of the process provides employees with a wider understanding of how the business works and the importance of their part in that business. It removes the feeling of working in isolation from the other departments involved in the process.

  • Having both hands-on experience of using the mobile app and using it from differing points of view helps the employees to understand how their customers will use the mobile app and the problems customers may face. Taking part in the questionnaire and the later training session provides a chance for employees to develop their skills of reflection and assessment, and places importance on their opinions. They feel a valued part of the business.

Final Thoughts

Cognitive learning in the workplace can help to build a motivated workforce beyond training itself by:

  • Giving each employee a wider understanding of how the training fits in with the business itself, how it benefits them professionally and how it may help them to reach their career goals

  • Building on what the employee already knows, thus placing value on their current knowledge and skills and giving them the confidence they need to learn something new

  • Providing the opportunity to learn through experience and reflect on the results, thus improving their problem-solving skills


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