Cognitive Approaches to Learning

Professor: Pratim Sengupta


Spring 2010

Wyatt 122

Course Description

This course takes the position that to learn is to construct and/or organize knowledge, and it is by doing so that we understand things that we didn’t understand before. It is the assumption of this course that we will be in a better position to achieve these goals if we can somehow characterize the knowledge that individuals possess/exhibit/develop at any given time, and how this knowledge changes as they learn.

The characterization of knowledge is therefore the central business of this course. Our goals in this regard are both theoretical and methodological. This course will introduce you to some of the most interesting and important tools and methods (e.g., knowledge representation and cognitive modeling, interviews, cognitive ethnography) that learning scientists and cognitive scientists have developed over the past three decades, in order to investigate and understand cognitive mechanisms that are related to and/or result in learning. This course will also introduce you to some of the "hot", debated topics in the field (e.g., transfer, nature of epistemological knowledge, etc.). Pertaining to each of the theoretical issues, implications for instructional design will also be explored. Students with interest in all domains (such as science, engineering, art, math, humanities, social sciences) are welcome.

“What I can’t build, I can’t learn”. This idea is the guiding principle around which this course has been designed. That is, the best way to learn about learning is to build models/theories of learning that should be empirically grounded. It is expected that students taking this course will actively engage in theory/model building through the various class projects and learning activities.

Readings will include classic as well as recent papers in Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Psychology and Learning Sciences.

Areas of foci:

  1. Knowledge Representation (KR): What are some useful ways to characterize knowledge that can provide researchers with an insight to the mental (conceptual) mechanisms that occur during learning? Some examples are scripts, schemas, primitives, plans, goals, mental models, cognitive agents, etc. What are the relationships among them? What are the differences? How can they be identified? How can knowledge representation inform instructional design? What are the current debates about the structure of knowledge?
  2. Analogical thinking and Transfer: What are some of the mechanisms through which analogical thinking takes place? How has analogical thinking been used in instructional design? What is the relationship between analogical thinking and transfer? What are the current debates on transfer?
  3. Epistemological knowledge (EK): Epistemological knowledge is knowledge about the nature of knowledge. What are some of the current theories on the nature, form and function of epistemological knowledge? How can research on EK inform instructional design?
  4. Conceptual change: What are "concepts"? What are some useful ways of representing “concepts”? What changes in conceptual change? How can research on conceptual change inform instructional design? How is conceptual change related to all the issues discussed above?
  5. Cognitive ethnography: How can we study learning and cognition “in the wild”? What are some useful approaches? How can socio-cultural perspectives inform the study of learning? How can we use some of the traditionally cognitivist tools in along with ethnographic methods? How can this inform instructional design?

Summary of Requirements

1. Keep up with the readings and participate in class.

2. Every class will include 10-15 minute long student presentations on at least one of the assigned readings.

3. Write reaction/summary papers to readings every week (summary of each paper + how they relate to each other – Page limit: I page, single spaced)

4. Do the course project. As discussed below, this has several components, including a final paper and presentation.