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How to Use Cognitive Science to Move Beyond Traditional Learning

Sep 1, 2017 3:48:35 PM

Move Beyond Traditional Learning via Cognitive Science

Why do so many e-learning programs focus on acquiring knowledge and then afterwards, expect learners to use it in practical situations on their own? That’s like offering a course on flying a plane and then expecting learners to climb into a plane and take off.

What’s missing? Well, it’s an enormously important part of the learning process: skill acquisition. We need to create programs that help learners apply knowledge in fluid, real-world situations, and make more optimal decisions. This skill-building process – the flight simulator – is the critical part!

Why Skill Acquisition is So Important

Skill acquisition arrow

So how do we go about accelerating skill acquisition? Cognitive science provides several powerful frameworks that we can infuse into live and digital programs for this purpose. Below, we are going to briefly look at four of these methods. Applying the science is more practical than you may think.

1. Learn by doing.

Well of course this one makes intuitive sense. Applying this in practice is what Experiential Learning is all about: Creating authentic virtual experiences that translate to real-world behaviors.

2. Realistic Situations.

Research shows us that the more realistic the learning situation, the better the skill acquisition. This has been proven in simulation-based training in the military, medicine, and of course, flight simulators. The premise of Situated Cognition is that context of the learning situation must be similar to how the knowledge will be applied in actual practice.

3. Modeling Expert Behavior.

Finding a mentor to coach us while learning a new skill is highly effective. It’s the basis of a learning approach used for thousands of years; the apprenticeship. In Cognitive Apprenticeship, the internal cognitive processes of the expert (their mental models) become more apparent to the learner via mentoring algorithms. It sounds complex, but it really works. We’ll revisit this at another time.

4. Multiple Perspectives.

A significant challenge we face with most cognitive skills, is that the actual situation is different than what’s experienced during training. This limits effective translation to the real world. Cognitive Flexibility theory is about transferring knowledge and skills beyond the initial learning situation. This is accomplished by exposing the learner to multiple perspectives (scenarios), so they have a more flexible mental model to assist them in arriving at the most optimal response.

By creatively infusing each of these powerful cognitive science concepts into your next learning program, your audience will be able to accelerate their skill acquisition and improve performance.


Kolb D. Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ. 1984.

Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments. D. Jonassen and S. Land, editors, Routledge, 2012.

Collins, Allan, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum. "Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible." American educator 15.3 (1991): 6-11.

Spiro, Rand J., et al. "Cognitive Flexibility Theory: Hypermedia for Complex Learning, Adaptive Knowledge Application, and Experience Acceleration." Educational technology 43.5 (2003): 5-10.

About Syandus: Virtual immersive learning technology that transforms knowledge into real-world performance. We immerse participants in realistic virtual situations with one-on-one expert coaching that gives them experience making optimal decisions. Syandus Learning Modules combine cognitive science principles, the realism of game technology, and our customer’s proprietary content, to deliver rapid skill acquisition. Modules are cloud-based for easy deployment, fully trackable with embedded analytics, and can be used on any web-enabled device.

Douglas Seifert, PhD

Written by Douglas Seifert, PhD

Doug leads a team at Syandus that combines cognitive science with virtual game technology to create rapid skill acquisition. The company has won several awards from the National Science Foundation’s Education Division.