Cognitive Learning: A Guide to Types of Learning


Whether you realize it or not, cognitive learning has played an important role in your life ever since you were a baby. You learn through experiences, emotions, friendships, and people, and you never stop learning. How you’re taught and brought up defines who you are. Below we’ll talk about how our brain plays a role in education (in more ways than you might think!)

Not only can knowing how the brain works help you learn better, but it can help educators teach better. Discover the different types of cognitive learning and find out how to learn better than ever before!

cognitive learning

Cognitive learning

If you’ve ever gone to school, you probably remember those classes of being drilled with information, and later going home to study and memorize the same information. Memorize, repeat, memorize, repeat… It’s how many teachers used to teach, but it is really the best way to learn? Memorizing information doesn’t teach you how to use the information you’re learning, mold your personality, and really make a difference to you and your goals. Memorizing is remembering information without giving it a deeper meaning, which makes it impossible to truly learn.

The way you learn and what you learn, especially, as a child, helps mold who you are. Despite the information and resources that we have regarding cognitive learning, it still hasn’t been applied to the academic system. We have to learn how to learn with our brains, how to find the best learning strategies for each person’s learning style, and we have to know what that actually means.

Real cognitive learning uses more than just the brain and “intelligence”. It uses emotion, intrigue, movement, surprise, and specific brain based learning tools to get the most out of each person’s cognitive development.

What is cognitive learning?. “Cognitive” refers to “cognition”, which the Oxford dictionary defines as “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” Webster’s Dictionary defines learning as “knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study”. The concept of cognitive learning unites these two ideas, and defines the processes that intervene when processing information, which goes from sensory input, passes through the cognitive system, and reaches the response.

The idea of learning may be the action that has most set humans apart throughout our history. We are the living proof of the continuous, meaningful learning at has allowed for the human life as we know it today.

The brain is what guides and directs our learning, and as human beings have evolved and advanced, we have learned more and more information, skills, and ideas that have helped us become more intelligent. However, the brain has not actually become more sophisticated as we advanced over time, but rather, we have changed how we learn. The more scientists learn about the brain, the easier it is to take advantage of how it works and its characteristics and make it easier for us to learn.

Types of learning

1. Implicit learning

Implicit learning is a kind of “blind” learning, as you acquire information without realizing what you’re learning.

The main characteristic of this type of cognitive learning is that it is unintentional. The learner doesn’t set out to learn the information, and the learning results from an automatic motor behavior.

Certain activities require an unintentional type of learning, like walking or talking. There are more things than you might think that you learned implicitly, without even realizing that you were learning.

2. Explicit learning

Explicit learning is characterized by the intention of learning and consciously setting out to learn. There are many examples of this type of cognitive learning, like reading this article to learn about explicit learning, as the intention is to learn about the topic.

Explicit learning is an intentional act that requires sustained attention and an effort to learn.

3. Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

Cooperative learning is group learning, like when a student learns and studies with their classmates.This type of learning helps include each member of the team to offer and use their best skills, which helps create successful teamwork.

The four pillars that make up this type of cognitive learning are positive interdependence, individual responsibility, equal participation, and simultaneous interaction.

Similar to cooperative learning, collaborative learning has which has one person, usually a teacher, who provides a topic and helps the group develop their ideas.

Cognitive learning

Cognitive learning

4. Meaningful learning

This type of cognitive learning uses cognitive, emotional, and motivational dimensions. The person organize and connect their personal experiences with their learning, relating their experiences to the information or idea that they are learning. This means that the new concept will be unique to each individual person, as each person will have their own history and experiences.

5. Associative learning

If you’ve ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs, you know this kind of cognitive learning. Associative learning is defined as the association between a determined stimulus and a precise behavior. In the case of Pavlov’s dogs, the sound of the bell saying that it was time to eat was translated into the dogs salivating and anticipating eating whenever they heard the bell.

6. Habituation and sensitization: Non-associative learning

These two processes are included within the same type of learning: non-associative learning. We react differently to a continuous stimulus.

Habituation learning is a primitive type of learning that makes it possible to adapt, and is something that we do daily and our day-to-day lives. This type of learning happens when you stop paying attention to a stimulus (decrease in stimulus response). An example of habituation learning can be found of people who live near a loud highway. The first day they move in, they’ll hear all of the cars, trucks, busses, and motorcycles that go by their house on the highway, but the longer they live there, they more they will get used to the sound and the less it will bother them.

Sensitization learning is the opposite of habituation learning. This means that your response will increase when faced with a repeated stimulus, meaning that the more you are presented a stimulus, the more you will perceive it. Sensitization is a very adaptive and primitive type of learning.

7. Discovery learning

When you actively search for information and go out of your way to learn, you’re learning through discovery. This type of cognitive learning is characterized by when an individual is interested, learns, relates concepts, and adapts to the cognitive scheme.

8. Observation or imitation learning

This type of cognitive learning is when you use a model to imitate, and is very related to mirror neurons. Imitation is a powerful learning tool.

9. Emotional learning

This type of learning involves the individual’s emotional development and is what helps develop emotional intelligence, which is what manages and controls emotions.

Emotions also play an important role in learning, which we will talk about later.

10. Experiential learning

Experience is the best teacher. Our life’s experiences teach us valuable lessons that we learn from. This type of cognitive learning is very powerful, but is subjective, as each individual will experience an event differently. One person may view a particular experience in certain way, while another person will view it differently.

11. Rote learning

This type of cognitive learning is based on memory and paying close attention to certain information. The main difference between this and meaningful memory is that rote memory acts like a video camera, without having to actually understand what you learn.

12. Receptive learning

This is a complete passive type of learning, where the person only receives the information they have to learn. A great example of receptive learning is in a lecture, where the teacher lectures and the students listen passively.

13. Metacognitive strategies

It’s important to highlight this other type of learning strategy to better understand how we learn. These strategies involve knowing how to actually access the learning processes. It is knowing yourself and your strengths and weaknesses to know how you learn best.

Every person is different, which is why different learning strategies work for different people. Knowing your personal strengths and weaknesses can help when learning how to learn.

Cognitive learning: How to bring the brain into education

While we’ve learned a lot about the brain and learning in the last thirty years, many people are still working off of an antiquated idea of learning, where reading and memorizing are the considered to be the best way to learn. Studies have shown that factors like exercise, emotions, mood, interest, and experimentation are the pillars behind successful and effective learning.

Importance of emotion

Feeling emotions is vital to remembering information and concepts. Emotions are the cement of a memory.

The information that we receive from the senses passes through the limbic system before reaching the cerebral cortex. The limbic system has some of the most primitive parts of the brain, like the amygdala, which is activated when it thinks that a certain event is important for survival. The amygdala is the cement that holds and consolidates memory.

You probably remember your birthday last year better than what you did in class or at work two weeks ago.

Exercise and learn

Studies have shown that exercise doesn’t only improve physical performance, but cognitive learning performance as well. When you exercise, proteins that help with neuroplasticity are released, improving cognition.

According to the Spanish child and adolescent health observatory, physical exercise contributes to maintaining, and even improving, aspects related to cognitive performance and mental health.

Among the many benefits of exercise, you’ll also get cognitive benefits like:

-Better academic performance and better ability to pay attention
-Lower possibility of having disorders like depression or anxiety
-Better mood and emotional state

Cognitive learning

Cognitive learning

Learning Windows

If we’re talking about learning, we have to mention learning windows.

Brain based learning defends the idea that there are certain “windows” where you are in your prime to learn. It refers to critical periods that favor one type of learning over another, says Francisco Mora.

While it is possible to learn to talk at any age, our bodies are primed to learn between the ages of 0-3, which makes it the optimal time to learn to talk. Even though it’s possible to learn later in life, it’s more difficult and it’s possible that the results won’t be the same.

Child rearing mistakes

Not taking advantage of windows
If you take into account what we know about the brain and the best learning strategies, you would probably think that changes would have been made to optimize the education system. However, this isn’t the case. If teachers and educators took these learning windows into account when teaching, you wouldn’t see young children sitting while learning (they learn better while moving around), and we wouldn’t be teaching teens about purely theoretical science when their brains are totally emotional.

Use the same kind of learning

It seems to be that the most common kind of learning schools in receptive or rote learning, a complete mechanic and passive type of learning that doesn’t take learning windows into account.

How should we learn?

That’s a good question.

We need to incorporate movement and emotion, surprise and interest into the minds of each student. Researchers have learned a lot over the last few years, but it’s time to put it into action!

Questions or comments? Leave a comment below! 🙂

This article was originally written in Spanish and translated to English. 

Mario es redactor especializado en contenidos sobre psicología social y neuropsicología. Apasionado por el estudio del cerebro y su interacción con el ambiente. Investiga los aspectos más curiosos del cerebro humano, acerca recursos clínicos a un público no especializado, buscando siempre inspirar y ayudar.