The Cognitive System

Citation: Huitt, W. (2006). The cognitive system. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

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Cognition can be defined as "the act or process of knowing in the broadest sense; specifically, an intellectual process by which knowledge is gained from perception or ideas" (Webster's Dictionary). Cognition is central to the development of psychology as a scientific discipline. The establishment of Wilhelm Wundt's laboratory in 1879 to study human thought processes is often used as the beginning of modern psychology. Cognitive psychology  is one of the major approaches within psychology and can be contrasted with the behavioral view (a focus on observable behavior), a psychoanalytic view (a focus on the unconscious), a humanistic view (a focus on personal growth and interpersonal relationships) and a social cognitive view (a focus on the social environment as it impacts personal qualities such as thinking and feeling.) An important distinction between the behavioral and cognitive or humanistic views is the importance of feedback. For behaviorists, the most important feedback comes in the form of the application of consequences from the environment. The cognitive, as well humanistic, would focus on the importance of internal feedback. The social cognitive view considers both types. Cunia (2005) provides an excellent overview of the cognitive theory applied to learning.

There are a variety of perspectives and emphases within cognitive psychology (Winn & Snyder, 1996) that are currently impacting educators' thinking about how to improve the teaching/learning process. The Information Processing approach focuses on the study of the structure and function of mental processing within specific contexts, environments, or ecologies . Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues developed the Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain as a way to classify the variety of educational objectives related to what and how human beings know. Researchers in the area of intelligence study how human beings learn from experience, reason well, remember important information, and adapt to the environment. Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development describes the process and stages by which human beings develop the capacity to engage in abstract symbolic thought, one of the distinguishing features of human activity. Piaget's theory is often contrasted with the views of Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky.

Several different areas of inquiry provide an opportunity to test out these different theories. For example, in the area of critical thinking researchers study how human beings apply cognitive processes to evaluating arguments (propositions) and making decisions. On the other hand, in the area of creative thinking researchers study how human beings generate ideas and alternatives that do not fit the "norm." These two areas are often contrasted as the difference between convergent thinking (thinking pattern used when end result is to narrow and evaluate ideas) and divergent thinking (thinking pattern used to expand or develop new ideas). A similar comparison is between left-brain and right-brain orientations (i.e., brain lateralization dominance).

Metacognition is another area in cognition that draws from a number of different perspectives and is the study of how individuals develop knowledge about one's own cognitive system. Different study methods, such as SQ4R, provide information about how individuals can be most effective and efficient during the process of learning.

The materials available in this section provide a brief overview of these different approaches to the study of cognition. Joanne Ruttan provides an overview of some of the terminology used in the cognitive approach.


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