Infographic 1
Infographic 2
Learning Situation
Observation Checklist
Knowledge Base Front Page




Instructional design theory based on Cognitivism (Pavlov, infographic 2)
Link from Infographic 2:
(1) Chapter from the American History textbook to illustrate Meaningful Reception theory
(2) Course on Greek and Roman Mythology online to illustrate Gangé’s Nine Events of Instruction



The teacher says, “Before we start, I will collect your home essays,” and then goes to each student and picks up his or her paper. Having collected them, he says, “Thank you. Now let’s talk about grammatical changes in Spanish adjectives. Please open your textbooks on page 93 for grammar reference.” Students open their textbooks and the teacher asks a female student to read the rule. She reads it, and then the teacher comes up to the blackboard, takes a piece of chalk, and asks, “What’s the Spanish for ‘hard-working’?” Some students raise their hands, the teacher chooses one of them. One student translates: “Trabajador,” and the teacher replies, “Correct, very good!” He writes this Spanish word on the blackboard and spells out all forms of this adjective (singular/plural, masculine/feminine). He underlines the endings of adjectives and says, “Do you see the difference? This is what happens to an adjective depending on the noun that it describes”. He then asks, “Does anybody have questions?” The students shake their heads in the negative. He repeats the same activity with two other adjectives.

He then says, “Okay, now I want you to work in pairs of two and complete exercise 3.6 on page 94, where you have to insert the correct form of adjectives. We will then check answers together in 5 minutes.” Students work in groups of two. They discuss, some turn the textbook page back to the grammar reference in order to re-read the rule, and then discuss again. After 5 minutes the teacher says, “Alright, now let’s check this exercise together. Who wants to read sentence one?” A student rises his hand and reads the whole sentence with the correct form of the adjective. The teacher then says, “Correct,” and proceeds to another sentence. If a student is incorrect, he says, “This sentence is a bit tricky. It should be [and gives the correct answer].” When the exercise is over, the teacher asks, “Is everything clear to everybody? Any questions?” Some students say no, others just sit and watch. The teacher then says, “Okay then, it’s easy, right? [Smiles.] You will practice more in your homework tonight.”

Let’s take a look at this learning situation from the point of view of cognitivism.


The learning situation in cognitivism is viewed from the point of view of activities in mental structures (schemas) of learners as well as from the viewpoint of an instructor, using the terminology from Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction theory. The learning situation is divided in two blocks: One is when the instructor explains the topic and two when students do an exercise and then check how well they did it. The instructor gains the attention of students by asking them to hand in their homework (= we start the class) and then informs students of the objective (= we learn a new grammar rule). He organizes information and instruction in a way that one of the students read the rules out loud in order to accommodate to the new information they did not study before. In order to activate prior knowledge, the instructor asks students to translate three adjectives for him, which he then spells out on the blackboard in order to organize new information in a visual way. By showing how adjectives change, he then makes a remark that there is an important difference between all those endings—this is making learning meaningful to students (= learn it, this rule will make your speech correct). By giving students an exercise, the instructor aims for students to practice and rehearse new information in small groups (in which they also verbalize it both in writing and orally), and by checking the exercise together the instructor elicits performance from students and provides feedback. By giving a positive concluding remark, the instructor gives a positive assessment of the students’ work.



Cognitivist observation check-list consists of 10 observation areas that are broken down into 33 smaller observation bullet points. To view the checklist, please click to open the enclosed document below:

Cognitivism observation checklist_YP.pdf

Screenshot of the observation checklist



I was excited to learn what cognitivists have to say about learning and how it occurs, because behaviorism totally captivated me. Cognitivism evoked ambiguous feeling in me: On the one hand, I noticed that my whole learning process has always been closely connected to remembering and then recalling information; on the other hand, I was not convinced that group work and peer interaction are productive to gaining knowledge or that.

I’ll start with the latter position—what I found far-fetched. I speak solely from my experience as a learner, because that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life. When theorists speak about activating prior knowledge, this is always very confusing: What kind of prior knowledge can we activate in students during classes which are totally new in both topic and subject matter? That was always stressful for me when a teacher started a class by asking a question something like “What were the events in Western Europe in the 14th century?”—and that was when we were 6th graders. I had never read or heard about it, and the teacher was waiting till somebody responds anything. At that moment, I was afraid that praying that the teacher would not pick on me. In other classes, too, a teacher would start a literature class by citing a poem by a famous author (of whom I barely heard or whose poems myself or anybody else have never encountered) and asks to identify the author. Silence was not tolerated, and again it was all too stressful. This is troublesome even today in classes here in the grad school, when we had to draw a mind map of what we know about, say, Instructional Design and then present it before the class. That’s simply not activating prior knowledge, for me this is activating anxiety—successfully.

Speaking of group work or peer interaction, I strongly disagree that this was ever a way to go in my learning. I remember classes when we broke up in groups and learned part of a topic, then presented it to other groups and listened to what they have to say. We were supposed to learn, but I thought it a waste of time and always had to re-read those parts for myself. When Piaget said that peer interaction may create tensions and spur learning from peers, oftentimes it turned into shouting matches or mild resentments, because at a young age it was hard to control emotions if you spoke to someone of your age on a topic you disagreed. Plus, because as a young learner you simply lack deep knowledge and do not see a bigger picture, you can learn distorted things which are not always easy later to forget and replace by more precise information. Also, group discussions sometimes go in all sorts of directions and not on the assigned topic, again, it’s hard to speak of productivity.

On a good side, cognitivism did a great job in this differentiation between human and non-human learning. It’s also true that some learning results in no change of behavior. The better information is organized, the better its processing, storing, and retrieval. Visualizing information, verbalizing content, practicing new materials, revising them, and enacting new knowledge in some way are all things that, indeed, work greatly in learning. I think this is because we strengthen the connections between our schemas by frequent repetitions. I also relate to Piaget’s theory of equilibration, that is, in a combat with one’s own discomfort that results from encountering new perplexing, counter-intuitive information (disequilibrium) we are encouraged to reconcile things and regain the state of equilibrium. For example, quite recently I read Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare and was astonished that I’ve never even thought about Brutus who was one of those who kill Caesar as a positive character, as the one who seeks a better life for all Romans versus for his own economic or political well-being. It spurred me to go back and read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives to make sure that hat Shakespeare is talking about is at least historically not far from the truth. I was rebellious at first—how? am I being deceived? what is this? Surprisingly, Shakespeare follows Plutarch very closely. This situation helped me learn a piece of history that I have never even questioned. My idea was “Oh, Brutus kills the friend who trusted him most of all, bad guy.” This very shallow thought has completely changed now from a knee-jerk reaction to a more informed “wait, we may want to consider this…” Cognitivism helped me explain how this has happened to me from the point of view of my mental representations.

To conclude, I think cognitivism is a very insightful theory into the inner processes of our brain. It takes into account mental processes which are pivotal to learning—such as attention, memory, engagement, will. If you don’t have them, learning is unlikely to occur, even with the best efforts on behaviorists’ part. All textbooks that I use here in the graduate school are designed with the basis in cognitivism, and I find those textbooks extremely great and valuable. They make the process of information input as easy as it can possibly be, and after those sessions on cognitivism in class I believe the output upon request will be just as easy.


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Master’s Program in IDD&E (20152016)
School of Education, Syracuse University
Email:       Syracuse, NY, USA (UTC –4)