Facilitating learning in practice
Facilitating learning in practice

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Facilitating learning in practice

1.2 Cognitive theories

Cognitive theorists think that learning is an internal process that involves higher-order mental activities such as memory, perception, thinking, problem solving, reasoning and information processing. Walsh (2014) adds that the principles of the cognitive theories are useful in teaching because they encourage problem solving, analysis and experimentation.

Activity 3 Bruner and Ausubel’s cognitive theories

Allow 10 minutes

Watch this video about two cognitive theories that we found on YouTube. It is a slightly unusual animation but does convey the main points. Consider how Bruner explains the meaning of discovery learning and how Ausubel discusses the way that new learning is assimilated and incorporated with existing information. Reflect on how you learn and retain information using this approach.

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You will find that Bruner (1961) developed discovery learning and suggested that teaching should focus on problem solving, which stimulates the learner’s curiosity. The role of the teacher here is to pose questions or problems that motivate learners to seek answers in an active discovery way.

Ausubel (1968) believed that the teacher needs to link the learner’s prior knowledge with what they need to know, which should be potentially meaningful and capable of being understood. Another example of Ausubel’s approach is to give the learner reading material prior to a lecture or skill session so that they have prior knowledge of the subject, thus encouraging them to engage more readily with new material.

Although cognitive theorists concentrated on teaching by emphasising how we learn, process and retrieve information, it is important to recognise that the student’s previous learning and accomplishments should not be ignored. You need to remember when applying cognitive theory that the student’s starting point is crucial, and that the material should be presented in a logical sequence with the focus on the bigger picture (Walsh, 2014).

You will now consider Gestalt theory, an example of which is shown in Figure 3.

Described image
Figure 3 An example of Gestalt theory

Activity 4 Gestalt theory

Allow 5 minutes

Look at Figure 3 and try to make sense of what you are seeing.


You may have observed that when you looked at the vase (or two faces in profile) that you were selecting cues from the image and drawing inferences from it in order to make sense of what you were looking at. This is termed ‘perception’.

The three main exponents of the Gestalt theory of perception were Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Kurt Koffa (1886–1941) and Wolfgang Kohler (1887–1967), who originally studied perception, developed the principles of perception resulting in Gestalt theory of learning. The Gestalt theory of learning proposes that people see things as unified wholes and not as separate components (Quinn, 2001).

It is an important theory to remember in the practice setting, because learners may miss vital cues due to the service user experiencing perceptual problems that can be altered by their illness. The learner needs to be aware of this and can either give an explanation or reassurance to the individual, thus clarifying any misunderstanding that may occur. A comprehensive assessment that identifies a service user’s perceptual difficulties is required in this situation.

If you use the Gestalt approach in teaching, it is important to use bright visual aids and change activities at frequent intervals so that you hold the learners’ attention. Quinn (2001) suggests that the teaching should be for insight rather than just giving information, so that the learner has an ‘aha!’ moment (meaning ‘I have got it’) when learning concepts.

You will now study humanistic theories, which are concerned with human growth and development, and stress the importance of the interpersonal relationship between the teacher and the learner.


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