Cognitive Learning Theory: Applications in the Workplace

When we think about learning, we often think of memorizing as much information as possible with repetitive reading and note-taking. Read, write, rinse and repeat. You might have used this cramming method back when you were in school. But can you still remember how to use Pythagoras’ Theorem today? Can you still recite the periodic table of elements? It’s unlikely — especially if your learning efforts were limited to repetitive reading and writing. While repetition might work in the short term so you can pass a test, it’s not an effective tool for building understanding and connections that turn those facts into tools for solving problems in the workplace. That takes cognitive learning theory and the tools associated with this theory to apply what you learned. If you don’t truly understand what you’re reading and writing, it’s unlikely to be of much use in the workplace.

building a learning organization
Image courtesy of Upraise

Employees often take training courses to become experts in their field and gain a much deeper understanding of their industry. But, when it comes to learning, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, cognitive learning theory suggests that there are various different ways of learning. The more ways that you use and experiment with, the better you’ll comprehend a subject. But what is cognitive learning theory? And how can we apply this in the workplace?

Let’s dig a little deeper into the cognitive learning theory.


  1. What is cognitive theory?
  2. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development
    1. Cognitive Theory of Behaviour
    2. Social Cognitive Theory
  3. What is cognitive learning?
  4. Cognitive learning examples
  5. Cognitive learning in the workplace

What is cognitive learning theory?

Just as the name suggests, cognitive learning theory focuses on thought, and how the human brain learns through information processing. It compares the functioning of a human mind to that of a computer, in how it processes and reacts to information. Essentially, cognitive theory believes that in order to understand behavior, it is necessary to first understand what happens in the brain to cause it.

So where did it come from?
cognitive learning theory

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

Cognitive learning theory (CLT) was coined in 1936 by an Educational Psychologist, Jean Piaget. He believed that knowledge is actively constructed in your mind while you’re learning, building on previously-learned knowledge. The cognitivist approach suggests that a learner’s mind dictates their behavior, rather than just relying on their outward responses or behaviors. These cognitive processes might include how the learner’s mind organizes, interprets, categorizes, observes, and generalizes information.

The theory can be broken down into two further theories: the Cognitive Theory of Behaviour and the Social Cognitive theory.

Cognitive Theory of Behaviour

The Cognitive Theory of Behavior — not to be confused with behaviorist theory — simply looks at the role of cognition in a person’s learning behavior. In other words, it primarily focuses on how someone’s thoughts can affect how they behave. We investigate cognitive theory in understanding consumer behavior to construct messaging that elicits a response as well as to design websites that meet their cognitive needs.

Social Cognitive Theory

This theory looks at four main factors that play a role in the learning process:

  • Observation (external)
  • Retention (internal)
  • Reproduction (internal)
  • Motivation (external and internal)

For instance, if an interesting discussion were to spark up in the office, someone may sit back and listen to everybody’s points of view using their powers of observation. They would then retain certain pieces of information depending on their internal cognitive processes and may reproduce this information in future discussions, where they’re motivated by the presence of management and personal desire to impress their boss.

cognitive theory

Application of cognitive learning theory?

Now that we understand the theory, let’s consider how we can actually apply it in the workplace. Following on from the theory, cognitive learning is a holistic style of learning that encourages the more effective use of the mind. A cognitivist approach engages the learner with information, making it easier for them to think about it, retain the information, and explain it further down the line.

It’s considered to be a more meaningful style of learning that differentiates itself from quick learning styles like memorizing and repetition. Less read, write, rinse-and-repeat, and more active discussions about the topic, exploration of ideas, as well as finding new or alternative solutions. Memorizing might work for a physician who must know the correct dosage necessary to treat a patient but cognitive learning is necessary to diagnose the patient in the first place.

Cognitive learning examples

Cognitive learning is not a one-size-fits-all approach to acquiring knowledge. Here are some examples of acquiring knowledge by applying cognitive learning theory:

  1. Implicit

This type of learning is sometimes described as ‘accidental’, where the learner was not actively seeking to learn.

  1. Explicit

Where the learner is actively pursuing knowledge or developing a new skill. I.e. learning how to become proficient at building spreadsheets.

  1. Meaningful

This occurs when a learner builds on existing knowledge or experiences, gaining more insight into a topic.

  1. Cooperative and collaborative

Where individuals come together to learn as a group, equally participating and sharing knowledge with one another.

  1. Discovery

Where the learner actively researches new processes or concepts

  1. Non-associative 

This type of learning is divided into two styles: habituation and sensitization. Habituation is where you get used to stimuli e.g. learning to block out the sound of the telephone when it rings because it’s not your job to answer. Sensitization is the opposite, where you become more aware of stimuli e.g. answering the telephone as soon as it rings because it is your job to answer.

  1. Emotional

Emotional intelligence is a key skill in management roles. It involves learning to control your own emotions as well as understanding others.

  1. Experiential

Think of this as learning by doing. I.e. real work experiences rather than classroom-based learning. We don’t learn to drive by reading a textbook, why should workplace skills be any different?

  1. Receptive

This would be in the form of webinars or lectures, where you passively listen to an expert.

  1. Observational

Where the learner gains knowledge through watching someone else’s behavior and imitating it. Remember the example of the workplace discussion? This is where this fits in!

Cognitive learning in the workplace

By promoting cognitive learning in the workplace, employees benefit from enhanced learning and deeper understanding. Say goodbye to monotonous 3-hour-long seminars, and hello to more engaged, inquisitive learners!

Rather than enforcing a strict schedule or curriculum, you can use this approach to give your employees the freedom to learn in a variety of ways that allow a fully comprehensive experience. For instance, the use of mentorship, group seminars, or workshops helps them form a deeper understanding of the industry needed to perform complex planning and problem-solving, while they build the lifelong skills needed to succeed.

Interactive quizzes, company-wide discussions, or animated tutorials are all creative, alternative ways to learn that are far more appealing to employees than 10-inch manuals or textbooks! Who wants to read those?!

Start building your own company courses 

With My Learning Hub’s easy course builder, you can develop your own custom courses to help your employees build their skill sets and progress in their careers. With our tools, the learners become creators — reinforcing their own knowledge through helping and teaching their co-workers.

To get started, book a demo today!

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