What Is Cognitive Learning Theory in Psychology?


Martha Robinson

Cognitive learning theory is a psychological perspective that focuses on the mental processes involved in learning, including perception, memory, attention, and problem-solving. This theory suggests that learning is an active process in which learners construct new knowledge based on their existing knowledge and experiences. In this article, we will explore the key concepts of cognitive learning theory and how they apply to real-world learning situations.

What Is Cognitive Learning Theory?

Cognitive learning theory is a branch of cognitive psychology that was first proposed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1920s. Piaget’s theory emphasized the role of mental processes in learning and development, suggesting that children actively construct their understanding of the world through interactions with their environment.

According to cognitive learning theory, learning involves three key processes: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding refers to the process of transforming sensory information into a meaningful representation in memory.

Storage refers to the retention of encoded information over time. Retrieval refers to the process of accessing stored information when needed.

Key Concepts of Cognitive Learning Theory

There are several key concepts associated with cognitive learning theory:


Schemas are mental structures that help us organize and interpret information about the world around us. They are developed through our experiences and can be modified as we encounter new information.

For example, a child may develop a schema for dogs based on their experiences with their family pet. As they encounter other dogs that look different from their pet (e.g., different breeds), they may modify their schema to include these new variations.

Assimilation and Accommodation

Assimilation refers to the process of incorporating new information into existing schemas. For example, a child who has developed a schema for dogs may assimilate information about cats into this existing schema by categorizing them as another type of pet.

Accommodation refers to the process of modifying existing schemas to accommodate new information. For example, a child who encounters a horse for the first time may need to modify their schema for “animals” to include this new type of animal.


Equilibration refers to the process of achieving a balance between existing schemas and new information. According to Piaget, learning involves a cycle of equilibration in which learners encounter new information that challenges their existing schemas, modify their schemas to accommodate this new information, and then seek out new experiences that further refine and expand their understanding.

Applying Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive learning theory has important implications for teaching and learning. Here are some ways in which educators can apply cognitive learning theory in the classroom:

Encourage Active Learning

Cognitive learning theory emphasizes the importance of active engagement in the learning process. Educators can encourage active learning by providing opportunities for students to explore, experiment, and solve problems on their own.

Provide Opportunities for Reflection

Reflection is an important part of the learning process as it allows learners to make connections between new information and existing knowledge and experiences. Educators can provide opportunities for reflection by asking open-ended questions, encouraging discussion among students, and providing time for students to reflect on their own.

Facilitate Metacognitive Awareness

Metacognition refers to our awareness and understanding of our own thought processes. By promoting metacognitive awareness in students, educators can help them become more effective learners by teaching them how to monitor their own thinking, set goals, evaluate progress, and adjust strategies as needed.

The Bottom Line

Cognitive learning theory offers valuable insights into how people learn and develop over time. By understanding the key concepts associated with this theory, educators can design more effective instructional strategies that promote active engagement, reflection, and metacognitive awareness among learners.