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Theories of Learning and Cognition—Essay Three


Prepared for
Dr. Marcy Driscoll
EDP 5216

John C. Bradley Jr.
November 15, 1990


Writing performance objectives is a task that most instructional designers (and many teachers) take for granted and think little about. Objectives stem very much from a behavioral tradition, however, and reflect an empiricist perspective on learning. If one were to adopt a perspective consistent with schema theory, mental models, and situated cognition, how might (or should) the practice of writing objectives change to reflect this alternative view?


In contract to behaviorism, schema theory, mental models, and situated cognition are all premised on unseen mental processes. Whereas the empiricist writes his or her objectives in order to measure observable behavior, I suppose that a radical cognitivist might write learning objectives that are not directly measurable. Indeed, a number of amateur instructional designers tend to write objectives in this fashion. One frequently sees objectives such as, "At the end of the training session, participants will know the difference between Theory X and Theory Y management types."

However, I doubt that the proponents of schema theory, mental models, and situated cognition would write their objectives in such a manner. Rather, I believe that they would write measurable objectives that verify unseen mental activities.

There are several instructional principals that can be gleaned from schema theory, mental models, and situated cognition. Among these are progressive differentiation, discovery, comparison/contrast, accretion, tuning, restructuring, mental modeling, context, authentic activity, and collaboration. Let us discuss how each of these might be expressed in a measurable instructional objective.

Progressive Differentiation

Progressive differentiation is the teaching of a more general concept first, and then teaching more specific, related concepts. Objectives should be ordered in such a way as to ensure that learners master the anchoring concept prior to being introduced to subordinate information. For instance, Objective 1 might be, "Given that the learner can discriminate governments from non-governments, as a result of instruction the learner will state that a government has the following critical characteristics..." Objective 2 might read, "Given that the learner can state the critical characteristics of a government, as a result of instruction the learner will explain why a democracy is a type of government."


Superordinate learning is the process by which learners synthesize established ideas into new inclusive concepts. Superordinate learning can best be achieved by the learner discovering--rather than being told--the overall principal. Discovery can occur with or without guidance. An objective that incorporates discovery is, "Given that the learner can define the dollar and the yen, as a result of instruction the learner will state that he or she has discovered that the dollar and the yen are both forms of currency."


New concepts are learned more effectively when they are compared and contrasted with already existing concepts that are similar in nature. An objective that incorporates comparison/contrast is, "Given that the learner can state the definition of a fish and the definition of a dolphin, as a result of instruction the learner will state the similarities and differences between fish and dolphins."


Accretion is the adding of new information to an existing schema without fundamentally changing that knowledge structure. In other words, it is filling in mental slots that already exist. An example of accretion being incorporated into an objective would be, "Given that the learner can identify the continent of South America on a map, as a result of instruction the learner will identify on a map the flowing South American countries: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Columbia."


Tuning is modification of a pre-existing concept so that it is more general or inclusive. This is often necessary in the face of new information related to the concept. Although the existing concept is basically sound, it needs adjustment. Tuning is incorporated into the following objective, "Given that the learner defines stars as distant suns, as a result of instruction the learner will define stars as distant suns regardless of luminosity (e.g. neutron stars and black holes)."


Restructuring means altering and replacing old schemata with new ones. Restructuring is necessary when new information reveals that a pre-existing concept is erroneous or greatly inadequate. An objective that incorporates restructuring is, "Given that the learner describes the orbit of an electron around a nucleus as being similar to that of a planet around a sun, as a result of instruction the learner will describe the orbit of an electron as a zone of probable location around a nucleus at any given moment."

Mental Modeling

Mental models are conceptual representations of reality. It is often advantageous to provide learners with a mental model that is more simple than reality so that they can grasp essential attributes. An objective that incorporates metal modeling is, "Given that the learner can define a cell, a key, a door, and sugar, as a result of instruction the learner will define insulin as a key that unlocks the door of a cell so that sugar can enter it."


Effective learning is related to the environment or situation in the learner is located. If the material to be learned is perceived as irrelevant to the learner, it is less likely that the information will be incorporated. Learning should be meaningful to the learner. A objective that incorporates context is, "Given that the learner is sexually active and has access to contraceptive services, as a result of instruction the learner will state which method of contraception he or she will obtain and utilize."

Authentic Activity

Authentic activity is learning through real world applications. I have often felt that our school systems should be teaching students essential life-skills rather than wasting time on skills that may or may not be of future use to them. An objective that exemplifies authentic activity is, "Given a simulated bank, a simulated mall in which purchases can be made, a simulated job, and a simulated checking account with a specified beginning balance, as a result of instruction the learner will keep his or her checking account balanced and will reconcile his or her monthly statement."


Learning should be a partnership between the learner and the teacher. Both partners have a right and responsibility to contribute to the learning process. The preferences and desires of a learner must be taken into account. In a physics class, for instance, the same physics principle (calculation of trajectories) might be taught in a variety of ways, depending on the interests of the students. For example, "Given that the learner as expressed an interest in space exploration, as a result of instruction the learner will calculate the velocity necessary to lift a rocket of a given mass from the ground to an orbit of a given height."