The Science Behind Learning: Cognitive Tips and How Tos for Corporate Training

Posted by Reni Gorman on Feb 28, 2010 11:01:00 AM

by Reni Gorman

(Links to other articles in this series: 1 2 3 4 5 6)

Tip #1: Highlight the underlying core concepts. Explain what each concept is and why it is important (the meaning behind it).

Cognitive learning theory focuses on learning with understanding (as opposed to memorizing fact) by teaching the underlying concepts and meanings--and thereby increasing the depth of processing.

Learning with understanding means we understand the underlying core concepts, the meaning behind the facts. Not just knowing the “what” but also understanding the “why.” Once we have a deep understanding of what we are learning, we can relate it to or transfer it to something else. (Bransford et al., 2000) Learning with understanding is critical because: “…‘usable knowledge’ is not the same as a mere list of disconnected facts. Experts’ knowledge is connected and organized around important concepts; it is ‘conditionalized’ to specify the contexts in which it is applicable; it supports understanding and transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember.” (p. 9)

Learning with understanding necessitates paying attention to the meaning. The depth of processing theory states that information processed at a deeper level of analysis improves memory for that information. This contradicts earlier ideas that meaningless memorization and rehearsal improves memory. (Anderson, 2000)

Anderson (2000) explains that we may remember details initially, but although we may quickly forget the details, we will remember the meaning a lot longer. Meaning-based representations are best encoded and, therefore, best remembered. Therefore insuring students understand the core concepts and meanings is the only way to successfully teach them. In a study by Davidson (1994) on how well people remember stories and what parts they remember most, even though short term people remembered irrelevant and interruptive atypical actions, long term, their memories of the basic story was what remained.

How (Application):

  1. Extract and list all core concepts. Review what you plan to teach and extract the core concepts. If you find yourself getting entangled in the details, ask yourself why each detail is important. What is the underlying reason that makes that detail important? Trace back all details you think are important until you find the set of core concept underneath.
  2. Prepare a brief explanation for the “big picture” of how all these core concepts work together in a conceptual framework. This explanation will be your course overview. The conceptual framework will be your high level outline.
  3. Prepare main points for each core concept that explain “what” the core concept is and “why” it is important. Keep main points brief – limit to one paragraph.



Anderson, J. R. (2000). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications: Fifth Edition. New York, N.Y.: Worth Publishers.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Davidson, D. (1994). Recognition and Recall of Irrelevant and Interruptive Atypical Actions in Script-Based Stories. Journal of Memory and Language, 33, 757-775.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Organizational Learning, Cognition