Learning Theories

What is Cognitive Learning Theory and How to Apply it?

Respondents to the LinkedIn Learning 2020 Workplace Learning Report considered promoting learner engagement one of their top L&D challenges. To help employees feel engaged during training, L&D professionals can use learning theories like cognitive learning as frameworks for building more effective programs.

By applying Cognitive Learning Theory to your L&D program’s design, you can encourage higher employee engagement and more effective learning. This theory uses cognitive psychology concepts to foster learning based on your team’s thinking patterns. Read on for a deep dive into Cognitive Learning Theory or download our cheat sheet below for a bird's eye view:

learning theories cheat sheet cta

What is Cognitive Learning Theory?

Cognitive Learning Theory uses metacognition—“thinking about thinking”—to understand how thought processes influence learning. It’s often contrasted against—or complemented by—Behavioral Learning Theory, which focuses on the outside environment’s influences on learning.

Here’s how Cognitive Learning Theory applies in a practical context: By understanding the role of thought processes during learning, we can guide those thoughts to help us gain knowledge more effectively. We can manipulate the internal and external factors that impact our thinking to improve learning in ourselves and others.

In the traditional classroom, teachers apply Cognitive Learning Theory by encouraging self-reflection and explaining their reasoning. Using Cognitive Learning Theory in the workplace requires a somewhat similar approach, but with different execution.

Cognitive Learning Theory concepts in L&D

In workplace L&D, Cognitive Learning Theory and its concepts apply differently than in the traditional classroom. We can better understand how to strengthen L&D programs with Cognitive Learning Theory by applying some of its most well-known concepts. These terms can help you frame and refine your L&D strategy around the ways that your team learns most effectively.

Social Cognitive Theory

Academics sometimes divide Cognitive Learning Theory into two sub-theories: Social Cognitive Theory and Cognitive Behavioral Theory. Social Cognitive Theory explores how social interaction affects learning cognition. This theory overlaps slightly with behavioral learning theory, but instead of focusing on stimulus and response mechanisms grounded in external behaviors, it aims to modify the learner's environment to influence inner thought processes.

Concepts under Social Cognitive Theory include:

  • Reciprocal determinism: A person, their environment, and their behavior all influence and interact with each other.
  • Positive and negative reinforcement: A positive or negative response, such as a reward or punishment, impacts future learning behaviors.
  • Observational learning: Learners can watch someone else perform an action and repeat that behavior themselves.

Social Cognitive Theory often observes how people regulate their behavior to develop goal-directed habits. Instead of examining how a person begins their behavior like many other learning theories, Social Cognitive Theory evaluates actions over time.

In the workplace, learners need an environment where leadership and peers invest themselves in learning. L&D professionals who took part in the LinkedIn Learning 2020 Workplace Learning Report survey thought that convincing managers to prioritize learning and fostering a learning culture were their two highest priorities. These two achievements encourage more learning-focused behaviors in team members through positive reinforcement and observational learning.

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

The second subset of Cognitive Learning Theory, Cognitive Behavioral Theory, examines how our thoughts influence our behavior and feelings. According to Cognitive Behavioral Theory, a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions impact how they learn. In other words, their thought patterns and mindset affect how they pick up and retain information.

For example, one study suggests that someone’s motivation to learn helps determine how often their mind wanders during a lesson. Participants who felt more motivated to learn experienced less mind wandering than those who said they were less motivated. In turn, people whose minds wandered more than others retained the lesson’s information less effectively.

In Harvard Business Review, leadership coach Erika Andersen overviews the four traits she discovered in successful learners—aspiration, self-awareness, curiosity, and vulnerability. According to Andersen, people in the workplace can nurture these qualities with exercises. For example, considering how new information could help them, or reframing mistakes as learning experiences.

Implicit and explicit learning

Two more concepts often discussed alongside Cognitive Learning Theory are implicit and explicit learning. Implicit learning refers to learning that happens without a conscious effort; explicit learning refers to learning that happens with a conscious effort.

In the workplace, implicit learning involves skill improvement that happens as employees perform their job. This concept ties into the 70-20-10 rule that claims that most learning happens through experience. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the 70-20-10 rule argues that “individuals tend to learn 70% of their knowledge from challenging experiences and assignments, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from coursework and training.”

Explicit learning on the job consists of training programs and courses with clear goals. These practices allow for more deliberate learning. Through explicit learning tasks, you can specify the exact concepts and skills that you want a team member to understand.

A learning organization counts on active (explicit) and continuous (implicit) learning to keep employees engaged. As team members guide their active learning strategies together, they participate in ongoing learning through shared experiences. You can learn more about building your own learning organization through the Embracing the Learning Organization Model ebook.

Individuals tend to learn 70% of their knowledge from challenging experiences and assignments, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from coursework and training.

Applying Cognitive Learning Theory through Collaborative Learning

Collaborative Learning is an approach to training that relies on many of the ideas behind Cognitive Learning Theory. While also democratizing and promoting learning in general, Collaborative Learning ties in these Cognitive Learning Theory concepts:

  • Social Cognitive Theory: Collaborative Learning organizations get everyone involved in L&D, enabling team members to promote learning to each other across departments and seniority levels. A Collaborative Learning culture also provides positive reinforcements that encourage employees to gain more knowledge.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Theory: Training programs based on Collaborative Learning aim to provide relevant and engaging content that helps motivate team members to learn. They use trainee feedback to deliver courses and experiences that employees want to participate in.
  • Implicit and explicit learning: Collaborative Learning shifts much of L&D’s focus to implicit learning’s experience-based teaching while making use of explicit learning’s intentional curriculum. A lot of the information gained in Collaborative Learning is shared among learners, leaning into the prevalence of implicit learning in a person’s growth. Meanwhile, employees determine the subjects and content of Collaborative Learning courses, allowing for the deliberate knowledge gain associated with explicit learning.

You can start shifting to a Collaborative Learning work culture by encouraging team members to share their knowledge strengths and gaps, democratizing the ways you share L&D content and promoting learning behaviors throughout your organization.