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Cognitivism, constructivism, and work performance.


This paper illustrates how the theories of cognitivism and constructivism can improve work performance. Cognitivists embrace the idea that to explain learning behaviors it is necessary to refer to internal mental processes and states. They therefore attempt to look inside the head of the learner to see what mental processes are involved in the learning process. Constructivism is a particular kind of cognitive theory that is based on the work of the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget's theory of cognitive development proposes that instead of receiving information that they can immediately understand and put to use, people have to construct knowledge. They do this through experience, which helps them to create mental models that are changed based on assimilation and accommodation.


Cognitivists view learning as a reorganization of the cognitive structure in which individuals store information (Good & Brophy, 1990). According to cognitivist, knowledge occurs in internal structures called schemas. When new information comes in through the senses, it is compared with the schemas already present, and the schemas may then be combined or changed in light of the new information. Information is processed in three stages. It first enters through the senses, and, if it is important or interesting, it then goes to short-term memory, where it may be kept for 20 seconds or more. Some of this information in short-term memory may then go on to long-term memory, where it is stored and from which it can be retrieved.

Cognitivists hold that meaningful information is easier to learn and remember than information that is not meaningful to the learner, and that practicing and rehearsing information improves retention (Mergel, 1998). It follows from this that workers who are learning the elements of a new skill will learn more easily if the new skill is meaningful or relevant to them. It also follows that the more the information about how to perform the new task is repeated, the better the worker will retain it.

Cognitivism and Improving Work Performance

To enhance work performance requires training workers to better perform their tasks. This can be done using a cognitive approach which stresses the importance of cognitive processes that are involved in learning. Changes in outward behavior may be a sign of learning, and they can also be an important goal. However, learning itself is the reorganization of the cognitive structures in which individuals store information (Good & Brophy, 1990).

In the cognitivist's view, training workers requires methods that enable them to store new information and new performance models in their cognitive structures. The structures are dynamic and can be changed by new experiences or through instruction. When new information comes in, it may attach itself to a structure that is already present, change an existing structure, or go into a new structure (Fitzpatrick, 2001).

Based on this way of understanding the basic learning process, it is important for trainers to understand as much as possible about the current cognitive schemas of the worker. Existing cognitive structures provide a context in which new information is interpreted by furnishing a pattern or guide to enable the learner to understand events, concepts, and skills (Fitzpatrick, 2001). It is difficult for learners to take in information and understand instructions unless they are somewhat acquainted with the thing they are learning about (Wilson, Jonassen, & Cole, 1993). If the information to be transferred cannot fit easily into any of the current cognitive structures of the learner, it will be more difficult for the learner to retain the information. Therefore, new information should be related as much as possible to what the learner already knows (Fitzpatrick, 2001).

Many cognitivists hold that individuals have mental models that are related to their perceptions of tasks and their task performances. Based on this understanding, trainers should attempt to identify the learner's current theories about how to perform tasks and solve problems, and then design methods to teach and model new problem-solving strategies for the worker. By changing the individual's mental model of how to perform a task, the new task performance behavior can be learned. The theory of mental models suggests that trainers and instructors should model real problem solving for the learner (Fitzpatrick, 2001).

Cognitivism, like constructivism, views the learner as an active participant in the knowledge acquisition process. Therefore, instruction should be designed to fully engage the learner. To do so, instructional materials can utilize demonstrations and illustrative examples (Buell, n.d.). The use of various media, such as videos and graphics, may also be helpful in engaging the learner's cognitive processes.

The information-processing theory of learning, which is a form of cognitivism, is especially concerned with information-based methods of training such as classroom training, slide presentations, and use of videos (Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 1997). However, all training and instruction involves information, so information processing theory is also relevant to experiential training, such as on-the-job training. Furthermore, training involves both knowledge and skill, and most training situations require meaningful understanding and problem-solving capability, so cognitive methods are appropriate both for classroom instruction and for technical training (Wilson, Jonassen, & Cole, 1993).

In the cognitive view proposed by Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (1960), individuals are goal-seeking organisms who achieve goals by going through a Test-Operate-Test-Exit sequence. They first perform operations to achieve a goal, and then test to see if the goal has been achieved. If the test shows that the goal has not been achieved, the individual then performs further operations to achieve the goal, repeating the cycle until the goal is achieved or the individual gives up the goal. By viewing learners in this way, trainers and instructors can understand the importance of motivating learners to want to achieve the training and learning objectives. They can also see the importance of providing correct and timely feedback to learners so that the learners can know whether they have fulfilled the objectives of the training or should continue trying to meet those objectives (Kearsley, 1999).

It is important for trainers to remember that the mind can process only a limited amount of information at one time. The cognitive system includes both short-term and long-term memory, and new information must go into short-term memory first before being stored on a permanent basis in long-term memory. However, only five to nine small chunks of information can be held in short-term memory at any time, so instructors should be careful not to overload workers with too much information at once. Also, there is some evidence that high stress levels decrease the number of chunks of data that a learner can attend to. A chunk could refer, as examples, to digits, words, movements, layout positions, or a product's prototype drawings (Miller, 1956). How much to simplify instruction is an important issue for trainers.

The concept of minimalist training put forth by Carroll (1990) addresses this issue by attempting to determine a set of key elements that can enable individuals to learn new procedures in an efficient and relatively rapid way. These principles include the following:

* Allow individuals to begin immediately on meaningfully realistic tasks.

* Reduce the amount of reading and other passive activity that is required.

* Make errors and error recovery less traumatic and more productive for the worker as a way of learning.

* Encourage learners to apply reason to what they are doing.

* Design reading material so that it can be read in the appropriate order as the training proceeds.

* Make strong connections between the instructional system and the job system for which the learner is being trained.

* Use the learner's prior knowledge to advantage in the training.

* Exploit specific aspects of problem-solving situations, such as training in the rapid changing workplace and training program for the flexible or contingent workers in the post-industrial workplace. (Wilson, Jonassen, & Cole, 1993)

Training should be problem-centered and involve the authentic needs and contexts of the organization. The requirements for learning tasks should be similar to the requirements for job tasks, with instruction sequenced so learners can immediately benefit from what they learn by applying it to actual work tasks. There should be opportunities for learners to apply what they have learned in real work contexts, or if this is not feasible, cases or simulations should be provided (Wilson, Jonassen, & Cole, 1993). On-the-job training often allows for such immediate transfer of knowledge gained to actual production tasks.

Cognitive learning principles also suggest that learners should be given some control of their own learning. This can be done by providing coaching, support for complex tasks, timely access to information and expertise, and performance feedback. Help should be given to the learner only when he or she is unable to move forward and only enough help should be given for the learner to complete the task. Eventually, support should be withdrawn. Furthermore, learners should be encouraged to explore, to reflect on theft actions, and to detect and learn from their errors (Wilson, Jonassen, & Cole, 1993).


Constructivism can be understood as the theory that learners are active organisms seeking meaning. Constructivism's basic assumptions include the following:

* Knowledge is constructed from experience

* Learning is a personal interpretation of the world

* Learning is an active process in which meaning is developed on the basis of experience

* Conceptual growth comes from sharing multiple perspectives and changing our internal representations through collaborative learning

* Realistic settings should be used for learning, and testing should be integrated with the task and not be a separate activity (Merrill, 1991 in Mergel, 1998, p. 10 of 32)

One of the main constructivists is Jerome Bruner, who holds that, through their mental models, individuals are able to go beyond the information they are given (Kearsley, 1999). Bruner (1966 in Kearsley, 1999) states that in teaching learners, instructors should take into account the learner's predisposition, structure the knowledge so that it can be easily understood by the learner, and create the most effective sequences for presenting the material.

Constructivism and Improving Work Performance

On the basis of this constructivist viewpoint, teaching and training should be done in some ways that differ from what follows from the cognitive model. If learning consists in learning about an objective world, then the instructor should try to organize the world and present it to the learner. But, in the constructivist view, instructors should help learners to construct a model to explain the world. Trainers should focus on the learner when they think about learning, not on the subject or the information to be taught (Hein, 1991). The constructivist approach involves the facilitation of learning by encouraging active inquiry, guiding learners to question tacit assumptions, and coaching them in the knowledge construction process (Kerka, 1997). A constructivist-based training program to improve work performance will, therefore, emphasize the role of the individual learner in constructing knowledge about tasks. It will encourage learners to actively inquire about the information, ideas, and tasks to be learned, and coach them in developing new cognitive structures.

In the constructivist's view, meaning is closely connected with experience. Individuals come to a learning situation with a cognitive structure based on previous experiences. Changes in old ideas must be made by the learners themselves for new ideas to be integrated into the learners' cognitive structures as a useful part of memory (Hanley, 1994). Based on this view, gaining programs should be designed so that learners are able to make appropriate connections between new information and old. The two main branches of constructivism are cognitive constructivism and social constructivism. According to Jean Piaget, a leading proponent of cognitive constructivism, adult learners are at the formal operational stage of cognitive development (Piaget, 1954). This stage is characterized by the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts (Huitt & Hummel, 1998). Instead of receiving information that they can immediately understand and use, individuals learn by taking in impressions through the senses and transforming these impressions into mental models that include logically structured beliefs and conceptions. This is an active process, according to Piaget and the learner should be considered to be an active participant in learning, not a passive receptacle for information (Chen, 2001). It follows from this that training that involves the individual in the learning process is preferable to methods that use only passive forms of instruction such as studying texts (Knowles, 1980).

Cognitive constructivism holds that learning should be concerned with real situations, and whatever information is provided to the learner should be connected with real activities (Piaget, 1954; Knowles, 1980). Skills are more easily learned if they are not taught in isolation from practical activities (Chen, 2001). In fact, Malcolm Knowles, considered by many to be the Godfather of Adult Education, believed that skills could only be taught effectively through actual performance of the skills (Knowles, 1980).

This idea suggests that in the workplace, learning-by-doing and on-the-job training can be among the most effective ways of training workers. This is because in learning-by- doing and on-the-job training involve hands-on efforts to solve problems and develop adequate skills to effectively perform work tasks. By immediately learning through practical activities, learners are able to learn more quickly how to perform tasks correctly and efficiently (Blair, 2001; Buell, n.d.; Chen, 2001; Jonassen, 2001; Knowles, 1980). Social constructivism emphasizes learning as a social and group activity. Learning itself involves the individual's personal and unique interpretation, but it takes place within a social context (Kerka, 1997). Learners naturally work in communities where they exploit each other's skills and provide social support to each other. They model and observe the contributions of each member (Jonassen, 2001). Social constructivism emphasizes the way the social system that the individual operates in, not just the individual, helps to construct knowledge (Fitzpatrick, 2001).

Training based on social constructivism emphasizes collaborative learning activities that are designed to enhance and explore the social process of participation as learners are involved in collaboration and problem solving (Fitzpatrick, 2001). Activities may include group discussion and communication through computer networks among learners, as well as team-based projects. Constructivism holds that motivation is an essential requirement of learning. This includes understanding the ways the new knowledge can be used. If learners do not know the reasons for learning, then their motivation will suffer (Hein, 1991). In training programs, trainers should be sure to explain the purposes of the training. Trainers and instructors should also explain to the learner what the objectives of the training are. Everything that people do is done to fulfill a goal and learning environments should support learners in articulating the goals of the learning situation (Jonassen, 2001).


At work, individuals learn through experiences with other workers, trainers, supervisors, and equipment, and they learn through purposeful and meaningful actions. Therefore the information conveyed to the learner should be connected to the real activities of the organization. Trainers must constantly ask themselves how each part of their training directly relates to what the learners will actually be doing on the job.


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Chong-Tek Aik, Walden University, MN Duane C. Tway, Walden University, MN

Chong Aik is a Ph.D student in the School of Management. He has been running his own woodworking factories in Indonesia for 15 years. Dr. Tway is a Professor at Walden, and Mr. Aik's Faculty Mentor.
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Author:Tway, Duane C.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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