Cognitive Structures: Key to effective learning

Cognitive Structures: Key to effective learning


5 min read

As someone looking to learn more effectively, you have probably heard of cognitive structures. But what are they, and how can they help you? Cognitive structures are mental representations of the world you create to make sense of it. They allow you to process and understand information. They provide meaning and organization to experiences. They help you learn and acquire competency, and on the other hand, they are also the result of learning. We use them all the time without realizing it--for example, when we think about a teacher who always gives us homework, we create a mental structure of that person as someone who is demanding.

Cognitive structures play a crucial role in effective learning. In "Make it stick," author Peter C. Brown layout a concept called "structure building." According to him:

One of these differences is the idea mentioned earlier that psychologists call structure building: the act, as we encounter new material, of extracting the salient ideas and constructing a coherent mental framework out of them. These frameworks are sometimes called mental models or mental maps.

Brown further distinguishes learners who use cognitive structures that he called high structure-builders and learners who do not.

High structure-builders develop the skill to identify foundational concepts and their key building blocks and to sort new information based on whether it adds to the larger structure and one's knowledge or is extraneous and can be put aside. By contrast, low structure-builders struggle in figuring out and sticking with an overarching structure and knowing what information needs to fit into it and what ought to be discarded. Structure building is a form of conscious and subconscious discipline: stuff fits or it doesn't; it adds nuance, capacity and meaning, or it obscures and overfreights.

In short, the high structure-builders learner knows how to gather, process, and output information better.

Keyways cognitive structures can help you learn more effectively

In his book "Getting to Got It!", Betty K. Garner describes four ways to use cognitive structure to process information.


1. Make connections

Cognitive structures help you connect with prior knowledge and experience by bridging from the known to the unknown. When you build a connection between your knowledge and experience or prior knowledge, it becomes easier to understand what is happening. This is probably why note-taking methods like MindMap and Zettelkasten works so well. Instead of focusing on an isolated idea, you build a connection to other ideas, deepening your understanding and making it easier to remember.

2. Find patterns and relationships

All learning is based on relationships. So making sense of how parts relate to one another and seeing the purpose and place in an overall structure is crucial to processing information. Cognitive structures help you compare, analyze and organize information into patterns and relationships.

3. Formulating rule

In "Make It Stick," Peter C Brown makes the distinction between what he called a "rule learner" and an "example learner." A rule leaner extract underlying principles and formulate rules in their study. When they encounter a new problem, they can apply the rules to get a solution. Example learners, on the other hand, tend to memorize examples. When they encounter a new, unfamiliar problem, they lack a grasp of the rules needed to solve it. They are constantly relearning the same things. Example learners can improve getting the underlying rules when comparing the problems and finding the underlying similarities.

Cognitive structures can help you formulate rules that make processing information automatic, fast, and predictable.

4. Abstracting generalizable principles

Transferring a specific skill from a domain to other areas is crucial but challenging. However, if you can turn an idea into a more abstract and general notion, it can influence your thinking on a broader range of problems. Cognitive structure helps you abstract principles so that you can then apply or transfer them to situations other than the original learning context.

These generalized principles are often called "mental models." They are important ideas that have broad relevance outside the field itself. For instance, the idea of "critical mass" comes from physics. But it can be applied to minimal mass needed to start any virtuous cycle, like the minimum number of subscribers to get a web application off the ground.

How to develop cognitive structure

Before I tell you how to develop cognitive structures, you need to consider two key points. The first point is that you have to develop your own cognitive structures. No one can teach you this. A teacher or coach may give you some directions, but eventually, you have to develop your own structures. The second point is that it is never too late to develop cognitive structures. Everyone can develop cognitive structures.

According to Betty K. Garner, there are two ways to develop cognitive structures: reflective awareness and visualization.


Reflective awareness is, to simply put, being mindful about your thinking. To be reflectively aware, you need to notice and thoughtfully consider the information you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. If you fail to notice what your senses are telling you or fail to reflect on the information you take in, you will quickly discard that information, unprocessed.

In our modern world, we are often hurried from one activity to another with little time for reflection. To improve reflective awareness, learn to slow down. When you learn, pause periodically and ask what the central ideas are, the rules, and how it relates to your prior knowledge. Which are the big ideas and which are supporting concepts.

Visualization is the ability to mentally picture and manipulate information, ideas, feelings, and sensory experiences. Without visualization, you are dependent on specific information within the limit of your senses and have a tough time with abstract thinking. Visualization can help you to find connections and see patterns. It is also vital in abstract thinking and planning. When you visualize, use images and symbols to represent sounds, tastes, smells, feelings, and experiences. The richer the visualization, the better. A good visualization will help you see the complete picture and excellent aid in helping you remember.

Wrapping up

Cognitive structures are essential for effective learning. Cognitive structures help you process information in an organized and meaningful way. To develop cognitive structure, learn to have reflective awareness and utilize visualization. If you want to improve your ability to learn new concepts or acquire skills, try using the four ways to process information. I hope you can apply what you learned here in your own learning journey.