Cognition: Understanding How People Learn

Pre-existing knowledge

Findings from cognitive sciences suggest that people construct new knowledge based on what they already know and believe. Students bring to classroom a range of prior knowledge, experiences, and beliefs (some of them are false or immature), which significantly impact how students perceive, organize, and interpret what we teach in classroom. Abundant evidence demonstrated that if we as instructors do not address students’ false beliefs or misconceptions, they may negatively affect students’ learning outcomes.

Therefore, as teachers we need to be aware that lecturing course content does not always lead to desired learning. When designing instructional strategies or class activities, attention needs to be paid to students’ prior knowledge and beliefs, and continuously monitoring of students’ developing ideas is necessary. In the mean time, we also need to teach students to be aware of their misconceptions and monitor their own changing conceptions.

The nature of expertise

Experts are different from novices in many ways. Understanding expertise helps us to understand what the results of successful learning look like, which has implications for our teaching practice. Cognitive psychologists compared novices and experts and drew the following conclusions:

  • Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.
  • Experts possess more content knowledge, and the knowledge is organized and integrated.
  • Experts represent problems by abstract, “deep structure” rather than by surface features.
  • Experts’ knowledge is chunked together in memory, and cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability, i.e., it is “conditionalized.”

For more information about how people learn, please refer to the following resources:

  • Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at: (Note: Lewis library holds this book. Call number: LB 1060 H847 1999).
  • Driscoll, M. (2008). Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 4th Edition. New York: Allyn & Bacon

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