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Overview of Cognitive Methods

by Gerry Lewin

What does the Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the formation of stars from the Eagle Nebula suggest to your creative imagination? Some say it reminds them of the immeasurable potentiality of life, and by analogy, of human growth. While it seems that the sky is the limit regarding the possibilities for human beings, Edison's quote, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," applies to the intricate and challenging process of learning. The root of the word education means to draw out, suggesting that individuals potential abilities may be drawn out in an excellent educational environment, one which meets the challenges of diverse needs. We share a dream that each student will be able to unfold his or her academic potential in college.

Because education in the community college system is open to all, and learners from all backgrounds attend college, professors must be ready to make learning opportunities accessible for all types of learners. In response to this goal, the focus in this section will be on how people learn, what we can do as teachers to promote student success. This section will be valuable if you identify methods of teaching that you would like to incorporate into your lessons.

In addition, this section will answer the question, "What interventions have been found to be the most effective, especially for students who may be underachieving relative to their potential?" Findings from research studies are shared so you may decide whether you would like to add some proven tricks of the trade in your expanding repertoire of pedagogical tools.

You will be able to explore work done by peers at Santa Barbara City College in response to the recognition of the need to include student success factors into their content.

Finally, you will be able to apply your knowledge by practicing problem solving with some challenges that typically affect students. In addition, you can link to the Lesson Planning form that lists a plethora of ideas and practical methods to consider when planning how to best convey content. You are invited to creatively adapt the basic principles and examples offered to your own objectives, requirements and preferences. Feel free to let me know how these ideas worked for you and to give me your suggestions by writing me at Lewin@sbcc.net.

Summary: Why is this important?

Both learning style and cognitive testing indicate that several pathways to learning exist. Professors who teach in the way they best learn appeal most effectively to students who learn in a similar manner. Unfortunately, other students whose learning styles differ often miss out on gaining knowledge and mastering the content. This section gives teachers an opportunity to build on their knowledge gained from the learning style inventories in other parts of this online course and relate it to their own teaching styles. In addition, this section points out how different people learn cognitively, and how this surfaces in everyday teaching-learning situations. You will see how to pinpoint possible causes of student error. You will read about research-based instructional methods for insuring access to all students. You will also have an opportunity to explore methods for promoting student success culled out of the fire of everyday teaching experience by peers. This section ends by giving you a chance to practice solving some problems that may arise in the course of the term.

Discover how you learn:

Which of the following are your most effective pathways to learning? The learning style areas that follow relate to the inventories you have already taken (http://www.metamath.com//lsweb/dvclearn.htm), but the categories are changed a bit to correspond more closely with cognitive abilities measured by aptitude tests.

Check off buttons that apply to you:

Visual-Spatial: I learn best by seeing it. I think most effectively based on visual patterns, diagrams, and other visual input.

Auditory/Verbal/Linguistic: Auditory reception: I learn best by hearing about it, as in listening to lectures or dialogue. Verbal/Linguistic expression: I learn best by discussing or writing about it.

Tactile/Kinesthetic/Concrete: I learn best by interacting with it in a hands-on manner. I remember best when I do something with the content. I like to see how it applies in my life practically.

Abstract Verbal Reasoning: I think in words and engage in an "internal dialogue." I apprehend abstract ideas most easily after analyzing, interpreting, and logically inferring from language.

Abstract Non-verbal Reasoning: I often "see" what I am thinking about in my "mind's eye." I apprehend abstract ideas most easily after distinguishing, synthesizing, and conceptualizing from visualized models or data.


Cognitive Abilities:

Learning Model

Auditory and Visual Pathways and Levels of Abstraction

learning model of visual and verbal processing and levels of abstraction


1. To understand a model of how we learn by seeing what cognitive abilities are measured on a standardized aptitude test.

2. To compare cognitive testing with learning styles preferences so the limits and possibilities are better understood for practical application when teaching.

Einstein said he rarely thought in words at all. He used visual and spatial imagination to work out many of his problems. He described expressing his findings in words as occurring at a "secondary stage." On the other hand, Max Muller, the Orientalist who translated many religious texts, said that ideas cannot be conceived except through language. Which side of the diagram above would you suspect best depicts how Einstein would process information and engage in thought? How about Muller?

Understanding the Diagram

By way of explanation, the diagram above shows areas that would be tested on one particular aptitude test (specifically, the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery, Revised, cognitive section, one of many aptitude tests). The exception is "Abstract Ideation" at the top of the diagram, which is a generic term representing higher order thinking abilities, close in meaning to the Greek "noesis," pure vision, or intuition on Plato's Divided Line. Here we move out of the realm of cognitive educational psychology and enter the realm of classical philosophy.

The diagram shows a model of learning ranging from reception of sensory data on a perceptual level, represented by auditory and visual processing, through the intermediate stages which lead to the levels of reasoning. The left side shows how auditory sense data are converted into language, which forms the basis for verbal reasoning about ideas, while the right side shows that visual data are converted into patterns and models, which become the basis for non-verbal, conceptual reasoning.

How to Apply Your Understanding

How do you use this information? It is important to know that each of our students has a learning profile with potential strengths or weaknesses in very specific areas. Often a student may have strengths in many areas but may have weaknesses relative to his or her strengths in one or more of the processing areas shown in the diagram above. In evaluating a student's work, the types of errors you see might suggest where s/he is experiencing difficulty. It helps to understand students have a wide range of processing abilities when you interpret student errors. While you are not in a position of diagnosing specific cognitive abilities, you can see patterns such as those that involve language misinterpretations (i.e. consistent difficulties understanding directions or word usage) and suspect that something in the language area may need attention. Another example is if you see a student frequently misinterprets signs and symbols on a math test or homework, but seems able to understand on a conceptual level, that is a clue that s/he may be experiencing visual perceptual problems, but s/he is doing fine in higher reasoning abilities. If specific problems such as these are pinpointed, the student can consider what kind of strategy is needed to compensate for the weaker area. For example, a student with less effective visual perceptual processing might need to rely on auditory-verbal methods to learn and remember, such as using a verbal mediation technique when working math problems.

Recognizing that individuals process in different ways helps not only when you analyze students' work, but also helps you to understand their perspectives, and to acknowledge their intelligence and potentials. Understanding different cognitive and learning styles helps you to design situations so students feel more comfortable sharing orally, or venturing into unknown territory in any subject area. The main idea to be gained from cognitive testing could be applied in any course by teaching in a multi-modality manner, using visuals and auditory input, plus allowing a kinesthetic learner to do something with the material, in order to engage most types of learners.

Memory always fascinates people because it seems to work both specifically and holistically. There are many types of memory, as you noted from the previous section on memory. The student who studies in a multi-modality way, for example, by combining visual with auditory clues when studying and by connecting information to a sentence, may be covering most of the modalities when studying, whereas someone who just uses visuals, like flash cards, and remembers bits of data in isolation, may not form the connections for placing the information in long term memory. Of course long term memory has to do with using and applying the information as well.

Preferences vs Abilities

While learning style inventories illustrate preferences, standardized tests show how an individual is doing in different cognitive processing areas relative to others in the same age group (of the norming population). The preference inventories have less reliability than standardized tests; however, standardized tests are limited in what they measure as well, if we consider a broader idea of human nature. (For example, the highest ability of abstract ideation on the diagram above cannot be measured on standardized tests.) It is important to know the limitations of inventories, to know there are more reliable and valid measures, but also to realize that inventories are available to everyone and very practical to use for the general population.

An example of how preferences differ from standardized tests is shown in the case of the nursing student who thought she was an auditory learner and chose her preferences as such on a learning styles inventory. In reality, when she was finally tested with standardized aptitude and achievement tests due to persistent academic difficulties, she found she actually had a weakness in auditory processing. How could this be? She was paying so much attention to the auditory realm to compensate for her limitation that she concluded she was an auditory learner. Knowing her strengths and weaknesses helped her to devise more effective strategies for the learning challenges she was facing.

Most adults have a fair idea of their strengths and weaknesses, so an inventory is generally effective. You might wish to keep an eye out for those students who demonstrate more academic challenges than can be met by using all modalities when taking in, processing, and expressing information. You can refer such students to the psychologist or learning specialist on your campus so they can find out more.

Discover how you teach.

Please estimate how often you use the following approaches. Think of one class for one term as your basis for deciding.

Click the buttons that apply to you.

a. Visual examples: I use overhead transparencies, write on the board, provide visuals in the form of "handouts" or in a packet, provide visual copies of the key terms for the class, and/or provide an outline or diagram of lecture content.

(Note that visual refers to the mode of input; thus, visual can mean a visual form of words such as a textbook, not just a graphic.)

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never

b. Visual-spatial examples: I use online instruction, web pages, visuals or graphics to convey course content, such as PowerPoint slides and videos.

(Note that this set of visual options is mainly visual-spatial and computerized.)

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never

c. Verbal examples: I explain terms, concepts or calculations clearly during lecture, and make connections with students’ background knowledge; I use new words in context with examples so students understand the meanings and hear how to use the terms.

(Note that verbal has combined the auditory and linguistic modalities for simplicity’s sake; however, auditory input precedes the construction of meaning through language cognitively.)

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never

d. Verbal examples: I facilitate group discussion, allow students to discuss in small groups, and ask students to make presentations to the whole group; I encourage students to paraphrase and summarize; I require students to turn in their writing in different forms throughout the term.

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never

e. Tactile or “hands-on” examples: I plan class so that students can engage in interactive, hands-on activities, ranging from labs, experiments, field trips, games, role playing, simulations, to creating models or products based on the lessons covered in class.

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never

f. Tactile or “hands-on” examples: I design instruction so students can work on computers during class, such as do research projects using the internet, work on interactive programs, or write essays using technological tools. If that is not possible, I give assignments for outside use of computers, allow students to share their findings in class, or work collaboratively on research projects.

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never

g. Abstract verbal reasoning examples: I encourage abstract, logical reasoning by providing opportunities in class for students to investigate a topic, which may include combining any of the following: create analogies, summarize points, analyze and synthesize ideas, devise interpretations, make and evaluate inferences, come to conclusions, or devise solutions in relation to the question, issue or problem at hand.

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never

h. Abstract non-verbal reasoning examples: I encourage abstract, non-verbal reasoning by providing opportunities for students to investigate a topic by forming logical connections between ideas, finding common elements, forming hypotheses, analyzing, synthesizing, or conceptualizing from data gained via a visual-spatial means.

all the time most of the time about half the time occasionally never



Click the following button for a Summary of your learning style:


Click the following buttons for a list of the learning modalities you use least often in your classes.


After reviewing the summaries above, take a few moments to write about the relationship between your learning and teaching style.

Which learning approaches would you like to incorporate more often in your future lesson plans so your classes are more accessible to all types of learners? How could you do this?


I. Ensuring Student Success through Error Analysis

You have seen how people differ in their cogitive learning, but how does this surface in everyday teaching-learning situations? How is it relevant when grading student work? By pinpointing possible causes of error in student work, you might be able to bridge some gaps existing in some students’ knowledge and skills in straightforward, effective ways. The specific feedback you provide could make the difference between students’ success or failure, and their attendant consequences. The following difficulties seem to confront many teachers, so they are listed below in terms of a problem-solution format. The format is one that you could adapt when identifying student challenges through error analysis, as well as when you think through possible solutions with the motivation of furthering student success.

A. Superficial vs. deep level of learning

    1. Problem definition: Student seems to be able to reproduce facts and details, but doesn’t seem to be able to integrate these into a meaningful whole that can be used in the future.
    2. Options to consider:
      1. Relate information to background knowledge. (Evaluate their background knowledge on a topic by assigning a one-minute paper in which they write down what they know in response to a question you give them.)
      2. Give student opportunities to reorganize learning into a form that is meaningful. (This is like Kolb's active experimentation stage.)
      3. Provide an opportunity for students to practice what they’ve learned to convey long-term memory.
      4. Incorporate review of previously learned material throughout course.
      5. Role model how to think in the logic of your discipline. Make your thinking visible as you demonstrate how an “expert” would think about it. Make it accessible to them as you do it so they can follow your example.
      6. Help students learn how to form concepts and think critically by asking questions that lead them from an initial response to a more reflective type of response, and then to a more abstract idea as they express the essence of what they considered. (This relates to Kolb’s movement from concrete experience to reflective observation, and then to abstract conceptualization.)
      7. Help sequential learners who are good with isolated facts see how to use the facts and details to explain an abstract idea.
      8. Encourage active learning in class (read more about Active Learning this Lesson and Lesson Plan Considerations) and while studying. Click the preceding link to read a list of cognitive study activities that promote thinking through the material rather than rote memorization.
      9. Integrate critical thinking skill exercises into course material. The Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University is a good resource: http://www.criticalthinking.org/.

B. Distractibility vs concentration

    1. Problem definition: Student is distracted by either internal or external influences, and has a hard time sustaining concentration.
    2. Options to try:
      1. Reduce distracters in environment, i.e. flickering light, loud noises, unnecessary animation online, unnecessary talking in class, etc.
      2. Teach deep breathing and relaxation techniques.
      3. Teach how to tense and relax muscles as a way of reducing stress.
      4. Encourage daily periods of reflection, with or without journaling.

Sequence your lecture around questions that lead students to a deeper involvement in the subject matter. Give opportunities for interactivity as you progress to keep students involved. This could be a question that partners discuss, discussion in small/whole groups in class or on an online bulletin board, a quick-write in the middle of lecture, or text boxes interspersed in an online presentation of material.

Refer students to learning specialists on campus if distractibility is severe.

C. Time management and organizational problems

    1. Problem definition: Student work may not be completed on time, or at all. Students with low visual-motor integration skills may seem spatially disorganized, while students with temporal orientation difficulties will not sequence themselves well in time. Students may miss directions and due dates if given only verbally.
    2. Options to try:
      1. Give instructions and due dates visually on syllabus, online, and on board.
      2. Include time management tools with your course packet, eg., long term calendar on which to write beginning and due dates of assignments.
      3. Encourage individual students who don’t turn work in to use a time log with dates for each assignment that they check off individually or send to you via email or give to you in person periodically for you to record (using a point system or other self-devised method) and give back.
      4. Role model how to analyze a task by breaking a long assignment into parts, and estimate the time each part will take. To do this, students need to time themselves by reading each textbook for 15 minutes to see how many pages they cover in a minute and use this as an estimate in time planning. Next, if necessary, they should set rewards for themselves as they complete each part of the assignment.
      5. Refer students to personal counselors on campus if they seem chronically late and unresponsive. Hidden factors, such as drugs or depression, may be causing this behavior

D. Presenting material at the students’ instructional levels

  1. Problem definition: Students cannot go past a certain block in completing assignments due to a variety of possible problems, i.e. low reading level and speed, inability to formulate thoughts in expressive language, challenges in coordinating all the information given from different sources, lack of specific skill sets in your particular discipline, lack of background knowledge in the topic area.
  2. Options to try:
    1. Prepare students with advanced organizers; tap background knowledge through classroom assessment techniques; and motivate with narrative stories that activate background knowledge.
    2. Sequence instruction so it fits together logically as a whole.
    3. Test students’ knowledge and identify their frustration levels on specific types of tasks (i.e. specific skills in reading comprehension, writing, calculating, etc.).
    4. Give students positive and prescriptive or guiding feedback tailored to their individual needs as often as possible. Ask them what kinds of difficulties they are experiencing. Brainstorm solutions together, and make goals that individual students work toward within the context of the course.
    5. Scaffold instruction to students’ levels. Begin practice with easier material and increase difficulty gradually until they reach the targeted goal of mastery. This may involve using articles with different readability levels, and designing assignments at different levels of vocabulary and critical reading and thinking skills. It could also mean noting a problem area and teaching or referring a student to a strategy to help with that aspect.
    6. Distinguish between the ability to read and think when scaffolding instruction and trying to pinpoint areas of weakness. As the cognitive diagram showed, a student’s higher level visual-spatial reasoning might be intact while a perceptual processing area may be weak, resulting in inefficient reading or vocabulary use. It may mean that higher order thinking questions can be mixed with lower reading vocabulary to keep a weaker reader with higher intelligence involved. Or a student may need support in remembering vocabulary. You might suggest they make vocabulary cards for vocabulary covered in lecture, online and in the texts.
    7. Assist students in identifying how they can be more effective in their use of study strategies. Integrate how to perform a particular skill by talking aloud, demonstrating a strategy like SQ5R with your content material. This can be done in person or in online classes.
    8. Give learning style inventories, and guide students in how to use the appropriate modalities in class and when studying. If they have auditory weaknesses, for example, advise them to use visual methods for recording and studying material.
    9. Tap into study skill and strategy instruction online, and refer students to the appropriate services on campus.
      • Present class materials using as many modalities as possible, as discussed elsewhere in this online course. This ensures accessibility to all learners.

II. The Learning Cycle

Click the following link if you would like to read about activities that exercise different levels of cognitive abilities according to Bloom and other taxonomies -> Learning Cycle

III. Research-Based Instructional Methods that Work

Read about what types of interventions work best to ensure learning for all students.

A. Which of the following 45 instructional interventions do you use? If you have not had a chance to try many of these, check off those you predict would produce the greatest outcomes when used to teach content material.

Breaking down task by skills

Student is asked to look over material prior to instruction

Students are directed to focus on material presented

Conduct probes of learning (intermittent tests)

Diagram or pictorial presentation

Elaborate explanations

Fading of prompts or cues


Independent practice (e.g., complete worksheet on own)

Individually paced

Information is provided before student discussion

Instruction broken down into steps

Instruction individually

Instruction small group (2-5)

Instruction large group (>5)

Level of difficulty applied to each student

Mastery criteria

Modeling from peers

Modeling of skill from teachers

New curriculum

Significant other provides instruction

Peer provides daily feedback on performance

Provide distributed practice (pacing), and review (weekly and monthly)

Redundant text or materials

Reminders to use certain strategies or procedures

Repeated practice (e.g. drill and repetition)

Review of material on each session

Reward and reinforcers

Short activities sequenced by teachers

Simplified demonstration

Specialized film or video tape/audio tape

Step-by-step prompts or process, multi-step-process directions

Student asks questions

Teacher demonstrates

Teacher (or experimenter) presents new material

Think aloud models (modeling aloud by teacher)

Using media (e.g., computer) for elaboration or repetition

Weekly review


Teacher (or experimenter) provides daily feedback on student performance

Teacher (or experimenter) states learning objectives

Teacher presents benefits of instruction

Teacher provides only necessary assistance


Click here to see which of the 45 instructional interventions best predict outcomes.

B.    Best Instructional Heuristic: The results showed the best results were obtained with a Combined Model of both cognitive Strategy Instruction (SI) and Direct Instruction (DI). The following are listed in outline form so you can quickly read through them. As you go through, you might think of which methods you have and have not tried, and what you would like to try. These methods work with all students, but ensure that those who are underachieving have better access academically.

  1. General Characteristics of Each
    1. Strategy Instruction: SI uses advance organizers (providing students with a type of mental scaffolding on which to build new understanding); organization (directing students to stop from time to time to assess their understanding); elaboration (thinking about the material to be learned in a way that connects the materials to information or ideas already in their mind); generative learning (making sense of what they are learning by summarizing the information); general study strategies (underlining, notetaking, summarizing, having students generate questions, outlining, and working in pairs to summarize sections of materials); thinking about and controlling one’s thinking process (metacognition) and attributions (evaluating the effectiveness of a strategy).
    2. Direct Instruction: DI is fast-paced, well-sequenced, highly focused lessons, in small groups in which students have several opportunities to respond and receive feedback
  2. Differences:
    1. SI focuses on rules while DI focuses on isolated skills
    2. SI is characterized as a top-down processing approach while DI is bottom-up processing approach
  3. Shared Characteristics:
    1. Both assume that effective methods of instruction include:
      1. daily reviews
      2. statements of an instructional objective
      3. teacher presentation of new material
      4. guided practice
      5. independent practice
      6. formative evaluation
    2. Both assume following a sequence of events is important, such as the following:
      1. State the learning objectives and orient the students to what they will be leanring and what performance will be expected of them
      2. Review the skills necessary to understand the concept
      3. Present the information, give examples, and demonstrate the concepts/materials
      4. Pose the questions (probes) to students, assess their level of understanding, and correct misconceptions
      5. Provide group instruction and independent practice. Give students an opportunity to demonstrate new skills and learn the new information on their own.
      6. Assess performance and provide feedback. Review the independent work and give a quiz. Give feedback for correct answers and reteach skills if answers are incorrect.
      7. Provide distributed practice and review

List in the textbox below which of the methods listed you have not tried as yet. Then go back and bold the ones you think you would like to try. To implement them, you will need to adapt the methods to your discipline, such as how you arrange practice and give feedback. These approaches are compatible with learning style instruction, such as the Kolb method. Direct questions about how to do this to me at Lewin@sbcc.net, if you like.

Explore Student Success Grant Materials:

(If the link is not working, please contact Dr. Jerry Pike (pike@sbcc.net), Director of the Student Success grants and of Learning Support Services at SBCC.)

Once there, you may choose the 1998,1999, or 2000 entries, and on the next screen, use the pull down menu to access student success factors such as Higher Order Thinking Skills, Student Reticence, Reading Comprehension and Writing Skills, Time Management, Study Skills, and many others.

Apply Your Knowlege to Lesson Design and Problem Solving:

Measure Your Understanding

Matching: Match the problem in the left hand column with the solution in the right hand column.

1. Misses vocabulary words

A. Teach students how to organize an essay using an outline or diagram, i.e., in preparation for an exam. Require students to turn in short responses to a question often. Provide feedback on these. Refer students to writing lab and other services as needed.
2. Attention wanders
B. Teach students how to think when reading about the subject by “thinking aloud” about the subject matter. Demonstrate how you would think through a problem; show them how to think in the logic of your discipline. Encourage students to visualize as they listen and read. Try to pinpoint types of errors and encourage the student to prevent these by using specific strategies.
3. Comparitvely writing skills are below oral language skills
C. Demonstrate SQ5R, a reading and study strategy (survey, question, read, record, reflect, recite and review: http://www.humberc.on.ca/~stuserv/antiflnk/text.htm). Ask students to reflect on notes, annotate, and share notes in small groups. Require students to hand in notes from reading. Suggest use of a screen reader to focus a student's attention when reading online.
4. Homework not turned in on time
D. Teach terms by using visual methods, such as a list of key concepts. Either provide the definitions or require students to define them as an activity.
5. Student doesn't get content
E. Provide timelines on syllabus; include time planning sheets with course materials. Find out if student needs practice with material at a different level. Use a point system that contributes to the final grade.
Click the following button for the answers to the matching questions.

Multiple Choice: Cognitive Perspectives

  1. Specific: Which of the following is not true? Understanding the different ways individuals might learn from a cognitive perspective is important because…
    1. it helps you to pinpoint specific areas of difficulty so you can encourage the student to devise strategies that will allow his/her academic promise to shine.
    2. it saves you time because your feedback is more specific and on target.
    3. it takes the responsibility off the student for learning.
    4. it gives an overall view of the possible types of learners in your class so you can plan instructional methods and activities that are more likely to reach all students.
  2. General: Which of the following is not a method by which teachers can ensure their course content is accessible to as many learners as possible?
    1. Teach in a multi-modality way.
    2. Engage students by using active learning and feedback techniques.
    3. Integrate critical thinking activities that engage students’ reasoning abilities.
    4. Keep strategic instruction, including thinking aloud, separate from lectures.
Click the following button for answers to the Multiple Choice questions:

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