Activities for Teaching Complex Cognitive Processes

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Teaching students to think more complexly and engage in more abstract and intricate cognitive processes can be really exciting. This lesson provides activities you can use to teach complex cognitive processes.

Complex Cognitive Processes

As a fourth grade teacher, Rebecca loves thinking about her students' varying cognitive, or learning and thinking, capacities and what she can do to help move them to the next level. Many of her students are moving out of a time of life when they are very concrete in their thinking, and Rebecca enjoys pushing them toward the next level of abstraction and complexity.

Some of the complex cognitive processes Rebecca teaches include comparing and contrasting different ideas or characters, making inferences and predictions, evaluating and categorizing information, making tricky decisions, and creating original work.

None of these processes can be taught in a simple one-off lesson, so Rebecca thinks about activities she can use to get at these processes repeatedly over time and in different subject areas.

Visual Activities

Many of Rebecca's students are visual learners, and they are able to think more complexly and assimilate more intricate information when they use images and graphic organizers. These activities help such learners think more complexly:

  • using Venn diagram graphic organizers to compare and contrast two things, such as two different perspectives on an issue or two different characters in a novel
  • drawing pictures or making paintings that show a character's change over time or their internal thought processes
  • analyzing the details in images of scientific phenomena, with a focus on understanding what can and cannot be learned scientifically by looking at a picture, diagram, or photograph
  • creating original diagrams to model scientific processes, historical change, or mathematical algorithms and concepts
  • using a decision tree graphic organizer to problem solve or make complex choices involving pros and cons in either academic or social situations
  • having opportunities to use art materials freely, including cameras, paints, digital technologies, pastels, and crayons, to create original art
  • making pictures to represent predictions about what will happen next in a story
  • using graphic organizers to describe causes and effects in relation to history and other areas of social studies

Tactile Activities

It is also common for Rebecca's students to be tactile learners, which means they can do good learning and thinking by involving their hands and bodies. Rebecca knows it is important to have activities to appeal to these learners as part of her regular repertoire. Some activities she uses include:

  • having students act out scenes from stories or from different time periods of history, writing scripts, as well as creating props and scenery
  • making different models out of cardboard and recycled materials to show similarities and differences between characters in a book or between the themes of two different books
  • composing interpretive dances that express the emotions and bigger ideas behind a text or story
  • building models that represent scientific processes
  • making dioramas that show the causes and effects behind particular historical events
  • role-playing different possible outcomes involved in making a tricky decision
  • building freely with clay, cardboard, and recycled materials to create an original sculpture

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