A Cognitive Approach

A Cognitive Approach

to Learning


  1. Identify and describe a three-stage information processing model including sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
  2. Identify and describe the factors that affect rote learning: meaningfulness, serial posi­tion, practice, organization, transfer and interference, and mnemonic devices.
  3. Identify and describe the metacognitive processes that affect meaningful learning:
  4. abstracting, elaborating, schematizing, and organizing.
  5. Identify and describe the metacognitive structures that affect meaningful reception learning, as set forth by Ausubel: advance organizers, signals, postlesson summaries
  6. and review questions.
  7. Describe mathemagenic activities: notetaking and answering adjunct questions.
  8. Describe the metacognitive strategies of monitoring and affecting.
  9. Identify combinations of the above that constitute study skills.

A Three-Stage Information Processing Model

As has already been proposed by Gagne in the preceding chapter, the processing of or acting on incoming information by the brain is not a single-step process. The information must first “get into” the brain and then must be kept or stored in the brain through a process called memory. Furthermore, it must be stored in such a way that it can be recalled or retrieved. Storing information in a retrievable form has been called semantic encoding by Gagne (1985) and others.

Sensory Register. The existence of three stages of information processing —(1) en­try via a sensory register (which is also referred to as perception), (2) storage in short-term memory, and (3) storage in long-term memory has been widely proposed (see, for example, Loftus & Loftus, 1976). The information we attend to and perceive with our eyes and ears is registered or received in our thinking process. It is then stored, tempo­rarily, in short-term memory before being transferred to long-term memory. If you car­ried out the experiment in Box 6.1, then during the 10 seconds that you were studying each list, you were committing it to your sensory register (along with any markings in the book that you or others have made and any background sounds, such as conversation or TV, that might be going on while you study).

Short-Term Memory. Information that a person focuses on and chooses to retain enters into short-term memory, at least for a brief period of time. Unfortunately, short-term memory has a limited capacity. If someone is introduced to six people at a party, he or she may remember the names of only a few of them. Of course, part of the problem here may be attention. George Miller (1956) has shown that the capacity of short-term memory is about seven units of information. Of the twelve “words” on the first list in the Box 6.1 experiment (actually they were not words but so-called nonsense syllables two consonants separated by a vowel), you probably were able to remember about seven of them, the limit of your short-term memory. Even though you may have repeated the list over and over to yourself in the 10-second period, a process known as rehearsal, this would enable you to reach only the upper limit of your short-term memory, again about seven or eight units of information.

However, people can expand their short-term memory capacity by increasing the size of each unit of information. This is called chunking. If someone were to combine an entire list of words into a meaningful chunk or sentence then it could be remembered along with six or seven more chunks or sen­tences as well.

In summary, we can store information for longer periods in short-term memory through (1) chunking, that is, by connecting smaller pieces together to make larger pieces, or (2) continuous or repeated rehearsal. For example, if you repeat over and over a phone number you heard at a party, you can remember it until you get borne and write it down; you can remember phone numbers you call frequently; you can remember phone numbers more easily if you can connect the numbers together.

Short-term memory is called working memory. It is the place where newly regis­tered information is mixed with previously learned information during reading, thinking, and problem-solving. People with good short-term memories can shift their focus repeat­edly from reading to thinking without having to reread the previous material to remember the gist of it. This is a major difference between skilled and unskilled readers (Cball, 1983).

Long-Term Memory. Information that must be remembered for longer periods of time is transferred to long-term memory where it may remain for most of a person’s life. The process of long-term memory storage is called semantic encoding because many psychologists believe that what is stored is not the information itself but some more efficient verbal representation of it. Thus, people do not usually store information in long-term memory by rehearsal or repetition, as was true for short-term memory, but by transforming the information into meaningfully and purposefully connected verbal chunks that have been referred to as semantic networks (E. D. Gagne, 1985). (An example of such a semantic network is shown in Figure 6.1.)

A semantic network is a set of interconnected and interrelated ideas in which one idea or element of an idea can trigger the memory of another idea. Entire sets of knowl­edge can be organized into such networks of ideas with common or shared elements. In this way, all of the ideas do not have to be in short-term or wording memory but can still be accessible to it.

The ideas that are formed into semantic networks may be of two types (E. D. Gagne, 1985): (1) propositions or units of declarative knowledge, that is, knowledge about facts; and (2) productions or units of procedural knowledge, that is, knowledge about operations or how to do something. For example, the knowledge that the words was and were are verbs is declarative knowledge, whereas knowing which form of the verb to use with the singular pronoun i is procedural knowledge. We can represent procedural

Figure 6.1 ~The Propositional Network

Each proposition, indicated by a node-link structure, is linked to other propositions through com­mon ideas. Thus, all of declarative knowledge is interrelated in a vast network of propositions. (From E. Gagné, p. 74.)

knowledge as productions that are IF—THEN statements. An example: IF the subject of the sentence is I, THEN use the verb form was. IF the subject is you, THEN use were. So far, only semantic networks of propositions and productions have been de­scribed as a means of representing or encoding information in long-term memory. An alternative form of long-term knowledge representation is the schema. A schema is a mental image or code that can be used to organize or structure information. (See Box 6.2 for an example of processing information with and without a suitable schema.) Some theorists (for example, Paivio, 1979) contend that information is stored in long-term

Box 6.2 The Value of Having the Right Schema

Read the paragraph below and try to figure out what it is about.

With hocked gems financing him, our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter that tried to prevent his scheme. “Your eyes deceive’ he had said, “an egg not a table correctly typifies this unexplored planet:’ Now three sturdy sisters sought proof, forging along sometimes through calm vastness, yet more often over turbulent peaks and valleys. Days became weeks as many doubters spread fearful rumors about the edge. At last from nowhere welcome-winged creatures appeared signifying momentous success. Wading & Lachinan, 1971, p. 21fl

Now that you have read it, cover it up and try to remember what it said and what it meant. Did it sound to you like it was about “Star ~rs”? In fact, it was not, but in your effort to make sense out of it, you had to search for the right schema that would enable you to decade and then encode the content.

The real title of the paragraph appears in footnote ion page 120. Read the real title now and then reread the paragraph. Does it make more sense when you have the right schema to process it? Can you remember it better? Most people answer yes to both questions (Dooling & Lachman, 1971).

memory as both a semantic network and a schema. This is called the dual-code theory.  The advantage of a dual code is that if one form is lost or forgotten, the other will still remain. In other words, two memories are better than one.

Factors Affecting Rote Learning

The consideration of cognitive factors impacting on learning will begin with rote learning. Rote learning is learning by repetition and memorization. Saying something over and over to oneself, called vocalization or rehearsal, places greatest reliance on short-term or working memory. There are many kinds of information that are likely to be learned this way, especially in preparation for tests. The Box 6.1 experiment, an example of rote learning, will be used as much as possible to illustrate the various factors that affect the ability to learn by rote.

Meaningfulness. The more meaningful information is, the easier it is to memorize and retain. In addition, the more meaningful information can be made to be, the easier it will be to memorize and retain.

In the Box 6.1 experiment, this point is best illustrated by a comparison of your results on Lists 1 and 2. List 1 is made up of nonsense syllables (consonant—vowel— consonant nonwords). Nonsense syllables are meaningless. List 2 is made up of real words; words have meaning. Therefore, List 2 should be easier to remember than List 1, and you should have correctly recalled more words from List 2 than from List 1. Also, the story in Box 6.2 should be more easily remembered after you have figured out or discov­ered the right schema, because the right schema helps give the paragraph meaning.

            The memorability of information, such as a list of words, can be increased if you substitute more familiar, concrete words for unfamiliar, abstract words (Wittrock, Marks, & Doctorow, 1975). When you have new material to learn that involves new boy terminology or vocabulary, try to link the new terms to older, more familiar ones to make them easier to remember.

Serial Position. Serial position effects result from the location of an item in a list, be it
at the beginning, the middle, or the end. (These might also be called sequence effects.)
Those items that come first tend to be remembered best (called the primacy effect), as do
those that come last (the recency effect). When you are introduced to a group of people you do not know, you tend to “catch” the names of only the first few and last few people, while “losing” those in the middle. There is definitely a memory advantage for items having nothing before them (like those that come at the beginning) or nothing after them (like those at the end) over items surrounded by other items (like those coming in the middle). There may well be less interference at the two ends of a list than in the middle.

Go back to your results in Box 6.1. Chances are you always got the first two words on each list right, as the result of primacy. See if you also got the last two words on each list right. Chances are you did not. Sometimes more time is spent studying the beginning of a list at the expense of the words at the end, thereby giving the first few words the benefits of both primacy and recency. Remember, whatever is focused on last has the benefit of recency. If you practiced the list one and a half times, for example, the words in the middle would have been practiced most recently. Whatever word you had reached when you stopped would have the benefit of recency.

Practice. Practice may not necessarily “make perfect:’ but, in general, the more peo­ple practice the more they remember. If you were given 20 seconds to practice the words in the Box 6.1 experiment, rather than 10 seconds, you would have remembered more words although not necessarily twice as many. The corollary to this rule would be that the more you study, or the more times you read the assignment, the more of it you will remember.

However, there are two types of practice: massed practice, which is continuous, nonstop practice, and distributed practice, or practice spread over time with rest periods interspersed. When students study all night before an exam, they are engaging in massed practice. When they study two hours each night during the week before the exam, they are engaging in distributed practice.

Distributed practice has been shown to be more effective than massed practice, perhaps because it allows for the dissipation of fatigue, but also because it allows the learner to make associations or connections to more than one context (Glenberg, 1976). The implication is that “cramming” is a poor way to study because it represents massed practice. Frequent but short practice sessions with breaks in between are likely to lead to better memorization of information. In the Box 6.1 experiment, the instructions were intended to keep both the amount and the type of practice constant.

1Title~ to Box 6.2 paragraph: “Christopher Columbus Discovering America”

Practice contributes to memory. Going over or rehearsing key information before a test will make at easier to remember it later. But practice should be spread out or distributed over time, not all crammed into the night before the test.

Organization. Remember from an earlier discussion (pages 116—U7) that short-term memory was reported to have a capacity limited to about seven units of information. However, if several pieces of information can be organized into a single unit by means of a technique such as chunking, then more pieces of information can be remembered.

Consider Lists 3 and ~ in the Box 6.1 experiment. The words in List 3 all relate to the same topic, the house, so they possess some degree of topical organization or seman­tic organization by virtue of their common meaning. The words in List 4 have an even greater degree of organization. They form a sentence that provides structural organization so that each word can be directly connected to the words immediately before and after it. List 4 can be considered a single chunk, so it should be the easiest of all four lists to remember.

Your own performance on the four lists, therefore, should have become progres­sively better from List 1 to List 4 since the lists increase progressively in both mean­ingfulness and organization. These are two of the important factors that affect rote learning.

Taylor and Samuels (1983) have shown that children who are aware that reading kitchen material has been structured into main idea plus supporting detail can remember it better house than children who are not aware of the text structure. For another example of the effect of organization on the ability to remember, see Box 6.3.

Transfer and Interference. Transfer is the effect of prior learning on new learning. New information is easier to learn when other information has already been learned that room has much in common with the new information. The atomic weights of elements in chemistry will be easier for students to learn once they have learned the atomic numbers, garage because the two sets of information have some commonalities. This is called positive        transfer. However, sometimes prior learning makes new learning more difficult, as in floor learning to read Greek after learning English. Because some Greek letters look like the English letters to which they correspond (A and Alpha, for example), there will be posi­tive transfer. But some Greek letters look like English letters to which they do not correspond (Rho, the Greek letter R, looks like a P), so there will also be significant negative transfer.

            While transfer has to do with the effect of prior experience on learning something new, interference has to do with the effect of learning something new on remembering something from the past. Interference, as the name implies, does not have a positive side and a negative side, only a negative one. New information forces old information out of short-term memory, making the older information harder to remember. Hence, what is

These students haven’t mastered this task yet, but the more experience they have, the better they will get at remembering the words, by remembering patterns or “chunks”.


being learned may interfere with the ability to remember what has already been learned (although it may transfer positively—that is, help what will be learned next).

To prove this to yourself, take out a piece of paper and write down as many words as you can remember from List 2 of the Box 6.1 experiment. If you are like most people, you will remember fewer words than you did originally because what you have learned since then has interfered with your memory of List 2.

Let’s say you are trying to remember a list of numbers, such as a telephone num­ber, and a friend is teasing you by repeating random numbers aloud. The new numbers tend to interfere with the old ones, and may make you forget the phone number you are trying to remember or cause you to insert new, incorrect numbers in it so that you remember it incorrectly. When interference works backward like this, it is called ret retroactive. If, on the other hand, you are trying to remember a phone number and then you hear a second phone number and try to remember it as well, the first number may interfere with the second. This interference, working forward, would be called proactive. Proactive interference can also be considered negative transfer (described above).

Since rote learning depends so greatly on short-term memory, transfer effects are likely to be negative and interference effects are likely to be frequent. In massed practice situations, such as cramming for a test, last chapter’s notes will negatively transfer to memorizing this chapter’s notes (which is proactive) and memorizing this chapter’s notes

Box 6.3 The Chess Masters Study

DeGroot (1965) conducted a classic study using a group of people who were among the best chess players in the world. These people had qualified as chess masters by earning victory points in national and international competitions. In this study they played not against other chess masters but against amateurs, except they played against a number of amateurs at the same time. (You may have heard of such demonstrations, where one master plays a number of chess matches simul­taneously against local chess enthusiasts. The master walks up and down along a row of tables with an active chess game going on at each table. The idea is for the master to try to win every game.)

In the experiment, the masters were taken out of the room in the middle of the games and asked to correctly recall the location of the chess pieces on every board. The masters were re­markably accurate in their recall, much more so than the amateurs. Then, on another trial of the experiment, the chess pieces were placed on the board randomly rather than in the positions they would take as the result of actual moves. Suddenly, the masters had lost their advantage. Their recall of the random boards was no better than that of the amateurs.

Why could the masters remember the real boards so much better than the random ones? Obviously, it could not be a function of bow good their memories were or they would have remem­bered both equally; rather, it seemed to depend on bow they used their memories. It appeared that the masters “had recognized the structure of pieces on the board, coded it 12 memory in terms of the pattern, and used the coded pattern as the recall cue” (lhylor & Samuels, 1903, p. 518). In other words, the masters used their vast knowledge of the game to chunk the many pieces into a smaller, more memorable, number of units.

will interfere with remembering last chapter’s notes (which is retroactive). In trying to Charles minimize negative transfer and interference effects, it is helpful (a) to space out or distribute practice, (b) to focus on meaningful learning (the subject of the next section of this COUSIU book) rather than rote learning, and (c) to use mnemonic devices the topic that will be was covered next.

Mnemonic Devices. These are techniques or “tricks” for aiding memory by associat­ing less meaningful material with more meaningful or more memorable images, words, or sayings. Think about how you were taught to remember the musical notes that appear on the lines of the staff in treble clef. It may have been by being taught the mnemonic EGBDF, whose first letters correspond to the notes: Every Good Boy Does Fine. Chances are that you will remember this for the rest of your life because of the ease of learning and remembering the mnemonic phrase.

One of the most popular mnemonic techniques is the Peg Method, a useful way to remember numbered items in a list. Create the image of a rhyming word for each number and then form an image that combines the rhyming-word image with the word to be remembered. This technique is illustrated in Box 6.4. The rhyming words serve as the “pegs” or “hooks” on which the numbered words to be remembered are “hung!’ Of course, to use this technique you need to create for yourself and commit to memory a set of pegwords and images that you are sure you can remember. Research has shown that mnemonic techniques that rely on images to connect old words to new words make those new words easier to remember than they would be without the mnemonic images (McDaniel & Pressley, 1984).

Metacognitive Processes Affecting Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning is less automatic than rote learning. It requires the use of systematic processes for coding and storing information in long-term memory and for retrieving it. These processes are called “metacognitive” because they represent ways of acquiring thoughts rather than the thoughts themselves. These processes are described below.

Abstracting. This represents the technique of extracting the main point or gist of a passage or section of text, and we do it by skimming the passage for an overview and then writing down the phrase or sentence that best describes what the passage is about. The purpose of abstracting is to reduce the written material or text to an amount that can be understood and retained. Hence, the first principle for learning information from a text­book is to reduce the information to a manageable amount by picking out the most essential elements. The key ideas here are (1) to make more into less and (2) to have the “less” capture the essential meaning of the “more!’

The product of abstracting is an outline or a summary of main points. This outline or summary itself can sometimes be abstracted to form a shorter, more concise outline or summary. The idea is to continually reduce information by making each outline “richer” in essential information than the one that preceded it. Creating a final product short enough to be contained within short-term memory would be a desirable result.

The idea of abstracting is somewhat analogous to creating a juice concentrate or freeze-dried coffee. Each represents the essence of what it started out as, but in consid­erably reduced form. However, importantly, the reduction has not been at the expense of  essential ingredients; these have been retained. When the original substance is desired, water is added to the concentrate and, presto, the original is restored. With textbook information, the essential parts can be abstracted to form a “knowledge” concentrate. Later, these bits of information can be expanded to reproduce a more detailed account of what has been read.

Elaborating. This process is somewhat the opposite of abstracting in that it produces more information rather than less. However, the additional information produced is dif­ferent from the original in that, by virtue of having been produced by the learner, it is clearer to him or her than was the original. Moreover, the new version of the original idea or concept is typically more concrete, realistic, and familiar than the old. The elaboration can be an example, an illustration, a drawing, an analogy, a metaphor, or a rewriting of the idea in the reader’s own words. Weinstein and Mayer (1985) describe elaborating as making connections between new material and more familiar material.

A good example of elaborating appears in the preceding subsection under abstract­ing. In order to facilitate understanding of the idea or concept of abstracting, the meta­phor of preparing food concentrates such as frozen juice or freeze-dried coffee was used. The idea of abstracting or reducing ideas to their essence was elaborated upon or ex­panded on in a different form in that it was likened (or made analogous) to the idea of

Box 6.4    A Mnemonic System for Remembering Numbers

1. WAND                     6. SICK
2. TOOL                       7. CHEVRON (gas station emblem)
TREE                        8. APE
4. FORE!                      9.
5. FIFE                          10.

If you need to remember, for example, that the fourth item his list Is the word ~u (see List 2 on page 120, which you studied lithe Box 6.1 memory experiment), visible a gaffer hitting a soda can (instead of a golf ball) and shouting “Fore!” Images of action that connect the above “number pictures” with “pictures” of the words or ideas to be remembered make the connections easer to code into long-tern memory.

reducing food substances like juice or coffee to their essence. Presumably, the elaboration in the form of a metaphor or an analogy helped make the description of abstracting more understandable.

When text material is read, it must be understood if it is to be learned, expounded on, and used. Moreover, since there is invariably too much information to be memorized verbatim, it must be understood if it is ever to be reduced or abstracted into its essential points. For this reason, elaborating on each new point helps to ensure that it is under­stood. This point is supported by Weinstein (1982), who found that students trained in elaboration (including rewriting the author’s explanations in their own words) did better on tests than students who were not given this training.

How would you elaborate on the concept of “elaborating”? Does it seem to you like stuffing a pillowcase to make a pillow, or is it more like the cuckoo bird that springs out of the clock to cluck the hours so that you can hear the time in addition to seeing it? Is it the string you tie around your finger to help you remember something, or a pink elephant that can’t be lost or hidden? Finding a way to help see a point increases the chances of both understanding it and remembering it. Maybe it is more like a bedtime story used to help children understand why they are being punished. Or it might be like the electric bulb that goes off in someone’s head when something difficult has finally been brought to “light.” Try elaborating on the sentences in Box 6.5.

Schematizing. A schema (plural, schemata) (introduced on page 118 and in Box 6.2) is a framework or code for structuring information so that it can be both understood and stored in long-term memory. If information is coded, then when it is ready to be used, it can be found. Schemata, therefore, are a critical component of the metacognitive process used in learning meaningful material. In fact, in abstracting, it is schemata that help to diagnose what the main points of the passage to be outlined are, and what information can be disregarded. Moreover, the purpose of elaborating is to try to find or uncover the proper schema to use in making sense out of or decoding the text. Schemata are like mental forms or templates that are used to help us understand and retain what is be­ing learned.

Researchers like Anderson (1984) have discovered how important schemata are. Most directly, schemata help learners (1) understand what they read and (2) focus on the

Box 6.5 Elaborating

Make believe that you are reading a story and you come to the following two sentences:



As you read these sentences, think of how you might elaborate on them. Write three or four more sentences that come into your bead that help make these two sentences into a story. Then kick at footnote 2 an page 129 to see the elaborations that a researcher came up with.

most important parts. Less obviously, schemata also help learners (3) figure out what is implied but not directly said (in other words, read between the lines), (4) search through memory for what other information they must know in order to understand what is being read, (5) pick out the main points for long-term storage (which, as has already been said, is abstracting), and, finally, (6) 611 in the gaps in memory when the main points are recalled later (a form of elaborating). Schemata, therefore, are important learning and thinking tools.

There are some very important general schemata that are used over and over to process information effectively. Sometimes these are referred to as structures because they help the reader to structure or interpret what has been read. Other times they are referred to as levels of processing because they help the reader go beneath the surface of the text to extract its true meaning.

Meyer (1975) has identified a set of five structures that can be used for processing

or schematizing text in order to extract the main point or meaning:

antecedent/consequent— structure that shows a cause and effect relationship between topics (for example, drinking before driving causes accidents); comparison points out similarities and differences between topics (for ex­ample, the effects of drinking and taking drugs on driving are similar);

collection brings together and lists the components of a topic (for example, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine are all mind-altering substances);

description gives a general statement along with supporting details or ex­planations (for example, the effect of drinking and driving is illustrated by the number of traffic fatalities in drunk driving cases); and

response presents a problem and solution or question and answer (for ex­ample, government can solve the problem of drunk driving by making the penalties for it more severe).

To see how these five structures actually work, read the material in Box 6.6 and try to use each one of the five structures to describe the passage or some aspect of it. Then check your answers against those given at the bottom of page 130.

The value of using the structures (or schemata) to process information is that doing so makes it possible to abstract the main point more easily and to code, store, and retrieve it in memory (Meyer, Brandt, & Bluth, 1980). Learning and remembering seem to work much better when there is a focus on exactly what is to be learned and remem­bered, and when there is a mechanism, such as a structure or schema, that can be used to provide that focus.

Organizing. This involves imposing a structure on the material rather than trying to discover the “structures” within it. To organize the material, the reader subdivides it into sections and subsections. An additional feature of the imposed organization is that the parts, sections, or headings have a hierarchical relationship: Smaller parts fit into, or, when taken together, make up larger parts. For example, note how this book has been “organized!’ The major headings are parts, which in turn are made up of chapters and then sections. Sections have been further divided into subsections. You can get a “pic­ture” of the organization of this (or any) book by looking at its table of contents.


       Recall from Chapter 4 Gagne’s learning hierarchies. These represented organiza­tional structures that were derived from an analysis of a final or terminal learning task. The type of organization referred to here is a less formal one, in which the idea is simply to separate information into subsets that relate to a common point or idea. However, both Gagné’s analytical approach to organization and the one here based on commonality of ideas are intended to make learning easier and more complete.

       When information is organized, it is put into subsets, which enhances or adds to the capacity of working memory to store it. Glynn and DiVesta (1977) gave some college students the following outline for a passage on Minerals:

I.  Metals

A. Rare metals

1.  Silver

2.  Gold

B.   Alloys

1.  Steel

2.  Brass

II.  Stones

A. Gem stones

         1. Diamonds

2.  Ruby

B. Masonry stones

         1. Granite

         2. Marble

Other students read the passage without the outline. Afterward, both groups tried to recall what they had read. Both groups recalled general ideas equally well, but the group with the outline recalled specific details better than the group without it.

Sometimes the material to be learned is already well organized, in which case it will be easier to learn (Thorndyke, 1977). However, when it is not organized well enough to be clear, organizing or reorganizing it yourself will make it easier to understand and remember. Organizing or reorganizing textbook material is a way of chunking it and schematizing it to make it easier to process. Consider, for example, the Supertanker passage in Box 6.6. One way of organizing it is shown in Table 6.1.

In the next section of this chapter, more will be said about organizing and organiza­tion effects as specific instruction aids in the context of meaningful reception learning.