The way we educate ourselves is evolving. Traditional chalk and talk teaching methods are beginning to be supplemented by new ways of teaching, enabled by new technology. Interesting times!

You may hear people talking about methods such as Cognitive Learning (CL). The purpose of this blog post is to explain the concept to you, how it links to the ‘Flipped Classroom‘, why it works and the form it may take in the future.

What is cognitive learning?

CL involves using adaptive computer systems to encourage students to solve real-life problems, instead of simply learning the theoretical aspects of subjects like mathematics.

It isn’t all just about learning from computers, though; CL uses artificial intelligence systems to personalise learning, identifying weak spots in students’ knowledge, matching activities with their interests and linking theory to practical aspects of their daily lives.

The leader in the field of CL is Carnegie Learning Inc., an organisation founded in 1998 which offers computerised tutoring for (US) middle-school, high school and post-secondary students. The system is said to promote much more rapid learning, thereby permitting students to delve into subjects. Learning doesn’t end when mathematical problems are solved; rather, students are encouraged to connect ideas and to see how what they have just learned connects to other branches of learning – i.e. their ‘critical thinking’ skills are stimulated.

Carnegie Learning Inc.’s software tends to be used twice a week. During a typical class, children will begin by logging onto a computer and attempting to answer a host of problems and activities, based on the area they are studying at the time (the problems might focus, for instance, on algebra or calculus). The programme will analyse the way each student is answering the problems, pointing out any mistakes they may be making and adjusting the rhythm to the student’s needs. For instance, if a student is having problems with one area of calculus (e.g. the inverse relationship between differentiation and integration), the programme will target this area, presenting students with specific explanations and activities until the area is no longer posing an obstacle.

Cognitive Learning and Flipping the Classroom

CL is part of the ‘flipped learning’ method, made famous by the Khan Academy (a non-profit educational website created by Salman Khan). The Khan Academy (which personalises learning through an incredibly sophisticated software system) offers over 100,000 problems and activities for students to complete, catered to their particular weaknesses and strengths. Topics covered include mathematics, history, medicine, chemistry, biology, economics, organic chemistry, macroeconomics, microeconomic and science.

The idea is for each student to work on the areas they need to, and for the teacher or tutor to act as a guide. The software allows students to see, in real time, areas students are having difficulty with, so they can tackle these problem areas with students. Flipped learning avoids the typical scenario where the teacher arrives, chalk/whiteboard pen in hand, and begins to lecture students, regardless of whether or not they may already know the subject matter or not understand it at all.

The flipped and CL methods take into account the fact that in one classroom, there may be various levels of understanding of a particular area. By allowing each student to work at his/her own pace, teachers and tutors can avoid educational pitfalls like boredom, the fear of not being ‘at the level’ of peers, and passive learning, in which the teacher does all the talking and the student merely listens.

Making learning interesting

Most students who are now adults wonder how they ever managed to get through difficult subjects like chemistry, physics and advanced maths. The problem is that students are often not taught how these subjects have a vital connection to the real world; CL seeks out to show students the practical value of everything they are learning.

The best CL programmes not only make learning practical; they also cater to students’ personal interests. For instance, a typical maths problem might read: “A car is travelling at 100km/hr. How many hours will its driver take to reach a distance of 300km?” This example can be boring for those who do not have an interest in driving.

Cognitive software allows students to select an area of interest (e.g. music, cooking, mobile phones, shopping, etc.) and applies the same mathematical concepts to the student’s chosen interests – as such, the question might be rephrased in the following manner: “A pastry shop makes 100 cupcakes an hour. How many hours will it take them make 300 cupcakes?” – which is ideal for students with an interest in baking. By relating mathematical problems to students’ hobbies and interests, they begin to discover the unthinkable: mathematics can be beautiful!

Tutors are still necessary

It is important to recognise that CL does not eliminate the need for teachers/tutors. On the contrary, the educator is more important than ever, because they are vital when it comes to leading and monitoring children, making sure they are advancing and reaching their study goals. The best teaching method, point out researchers, is a combination of face-to-face and computerised learning, and this makes sense when one considers that technology is a bigger part of everyday life of adults and children alike, than ever before.

The good news is that CL is not just for students; it is for anyone who wishes to hone in on long-forgotten areas of knowledge, or who finally feels brave enough to tackle difficult subjects they may have given up on as children, simply because they didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy a personalised learning experience. Websites like the Khan Academy prove it never is too late.

The future of Cognitive Learning

CL is still in its infancy, and there is plenty in store for those with a passion for learning. In 2013, Carnegie Learning Inc. received a $1.4 million contract from Advanced Distributed Learning to test the effect of cognitive and non-cognitive factors on the learning process. The aim is delve into how interest levels, moods and persistence affect learning.

We hope that you have found this blog post interesting. Please feel free to leave a comment and tell us what you think about the world of Cognitive Learning.




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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.