Cognitive Psychology and Learning Theory: A Web Tour
As many of us in the physics community examine various indications
that our traditional courses may not be effectively reaching many students,
it is worthwhile asking if any other sources of study would be helpful.
Since there have recently been a number of new developments in the
areas of cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, and learning theory,
I thought it timely to provide a web-based tour of some of these developments.
The following tour makes not claims to completeness, but is an opening
to some possibly useful theories and disciplines.
Modern current cognitive models
Most current cognitive models have essentially a three part model,
for example, as found in the information processing model (http://tiger.coe.missouri.edu/~t377/IPTheorists.cfm).
These three parts are: a sensory register, a sort term memory, and
a long term memory (LTM). The sensory register is the collection of
sensory inputs with a some small amount of processing. Signals from
the sensory register or the LTM pass through the short term memory
which has a capacity of 4 to 7 "chunks". Changes in the long
term memory and increases in speed of retrieval from it constitute
learning. The question is how do these three elements operate and how
are persistent and retrievable LTM items most efficiently created.
An old model of the learning process viewed the long term memory
as analogous to a warehouse into which items are moved and from which
those items can be retrieved, independently of the context in which
they were stored. Current models of the learning process make several
- Memory storage is associative, items are stored by connections
to previously stored memories and thus are strongly history dependent.
- Items are stored by associations with past memories; contexts and
actions. Many cognitive psychologists also argue that knowledge is
stored in the memory in a fashion which depends integrally on the
sensory mechanisms and contexts by which it was learned and retrieved.
In other words, some are now arguing that there is not separate storage
of information independent of the context and actions accompanying
learning.. One implication of this distinction is that knowledge
gained in an isolated context, and not well connected to well established
earlier LTM items, will quickly decay and not be generalized to other
- The strength of an item is greater, in terms of recall and long
term persistence, the larger the number of associations to previously
stored LTM items.
A more detailed model by Roger Shank of Northwestern University of
the learning process (htttp://www.ils.nwu.edu/~e_for_e/nodes/NODE-25-pg.cfm)
suggests that placing new items in long term memory requires a sequence
of three steps:
- Adopting a goal (wanting to understand or generalize something),
- Generating a question, and
- Developing an answer.
This view of learning asserts that effective long term storage of
knowledge requires that the learning stage first be set by a question
and that the answer be generated by the student actively asking and
answering questions. Shank argues that our memories are most effectively
constructed out of cases (memories and experiences) which we collect
together and organize in generalizations arise out of the process of
asking questions and developing answers.
Many of the current physics reform efforts are responsive to these
new ideas of learning and long term memory. The Interactive-engagement
methods are constructed around many of these ideas of how mental models
are made and how items are stored in long term memory. The initial
contact of many students with the tools and modes of thinking in physics
appears to reflect a lack of previous experiences on which to build
LTM. It seems possible to me that almost any method of instruction
that is based on these emerging models of learning should be capable
of effecting stable and useful long term memory processes and facts
if we can make contact with the pre-existing memories. Our common goal
should be to develop in our students the integrated memories from which
they can learn and apply physics in a wide variety of contexts.
The Short Web Tour of Learning Theory
If you search the web under category of learning theory you will
encounter three quite different types of sites: Education Colleges,
Cognitive Psychology, and Artificial Intelligence Departments.
The colleges of education sites are primarily for practitioners of
pre-college education and are not very strong on references and supporting
data. A site at the University of Hawaii (http://www.
hcc.hawaii.edu/education/facdev/AdultLearning.cfm) is a good example
of a listing of practical principles. Also on this site is a learning
inventory which attempts to allow students to classify the best way
in which they learn. (http://www.
hcc.hawaii.edu/education/facdev/lsi.cfm). There are a number of
such inventories and they deserve examination by physicists as we examine
seriously how we can get our subject across to a wider variety of students,
especially those who might be future pre-college teachers. A site which
contains a large collection of such learning style inventories and
tests is (http://www.oise.utoronto.edu/~ggay/lstests.cfm).
A more general site that provides a brief description of more popular
theories of learning is (http://www.funderstanding.com).
A similar site with more scholarly summaries is Theory into Practice
One of the best sites for my gaining a broad overview of learning theory
was the site (http://www.coh.arizona.edu/inst/edp512s97/learningtheory.html).
Of similar value was the site at (http://tiger.coe.missouri.edu/~t377)
The most satisfying site for me and, I suspect, for other physicists,
is the Cognitive Architecture site at the University of Michigan. Here,
a group of students in a computational learning theory class has constructed
a site that discusses all of the current computer based models of learning.
This website is a carefully constructed collection of documents from
which one can gain not only a good understanding of computational learning
theory models, but also data on human learning and how these computer
based systems are designed to model human learning. The discourses
in this site offer much explicit and detailed connections between theories
In this tradition is the very valuable, but long, book on the web
which has been written by Larry Shank at Northwestern University(htttp://www.ils.nwu.edu/~e_for_e/nodes).
This document provides a very detailed and closely argued model of
human learning that is close to my introductory summary. The book is
a focused argument for computer based simulations as a powerful tool
for learning (from the particular to the general), but his general
presentation of modern learning theory is excellent.
A very different, but useful site is CogSci (http://humanitas.ucssb.edu/users/steen/CogSci )
at UCSB. This site is operated by Francis F. Steen in the Department
of English. He attempts to being together the best of cognitive psychology
as it applies to memory, learning and imagery. Even though this site
is primarily for non-scientists, much of its information could be extremely
valuable. One section entitled "Talking about Memory" at
reviews two books in cognitive neuroscience by M.S. Gazzaniga, and
by R. E. Cytowic on data showing that memories are stored inseparably
with their sensory modality, action, and context. The site has an excellent
bibliography and articles which contain sections on "naïve
physics", "numerancy", and "folk biology".
These sections especially contain descriptions of the intuitive notions
(and decidedly non-Newtonian) that students bring to class from their
experience of growing up.
Finally, there is another interesting area, the study of the formation
of mental models, what many of us would identify as the "real
physics". There was an excellent review paper by R. Koffijberg
that appeared on the web at (http://www.to.utwendt.nl/prj/Min/Papers/Mental.Model).
It reviewed the studies to distinguish the nature of mental models
and their acquisition by computer simulations. The bibliography is
an excellent introduction to this area.
While reviewing all of these and many other sites and sources, I
was struck by the paucity of physics related references under the areas
of mental models, learning, and problem solving. Much of this literature
on problem solving was reviewed by David Maloney in the Fall Newsletter.
In this web search there were many applications of these ideas in mathematics
and computer science, but few physics applications. At the very least,
there should be more involvement of scholars from the fields of cognitive
psychology, learning theory, and allied fields in our physics education
research and vice versa. If readers have further sources in this area,
the editors would be pleased to learn about them.