Complex Cognitive Processes: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will learn about five complex cognitive processes that are used by students. These processes help them make sense of newly acquired information in ways that prepare the new information for storage in memory.

Acquisition of Knowledge

How do children learn? Cognitive processes describe how students acquire knowledge, store it in long-term memory, and retrieve it for later use. Some identified complex cognitive processes are concept learning, problem solving, metacognition, critical thinking, and transfer. Let's find out more.

Concept Learning

Why do students need prior knowledge to learn new information? Through concept learning, students build connections between what they know and what they are learning by putting information into categories. Concepts are broad topics under which students classify more detailed examples. When students encounter new experiences, they attempt to make sense of new examples by associating them with a category. For example, a student is able to make assumptions about the characteristics of various living things by classifying them as plants, animals, or insects.

One way that teachers can help students build connections to concepts is by using concept sorts. For example, students may be asked to sort a vocabulary list of shapes, such as triangle, square, pyramid, circle, cube, and rectangular prism, into the categories two-dimensional or three-dimensional.


When approached with a new problem, what steps do you take to solve it? There are four major cognitive processes that occur when students solve problems. First of all, the learner frames the problem by creating a cognitive representation of the problem. The next step is to develop a plan for solving the problem. During the third phase, the student will solve the problem. Finally, the student will monitor and adjust.

For example, in history class, Zachary is learning about the Great Depression. When problem-solving on this topic, the first step is to visualize the problem and form a question. Zachary represents the problem by identifying the government response to the market crash and posing specific questions about how he would have responded if he were President. The next step would be developing a plan for solving the problem. During the planning stage, Zachary needs to research elements of successful and unsuccessful economies. The problem-solving stage involves formulating a stance on government involvement in economics that he is able to defend by citing evidence from research. Once his plan is written, it needs to be evaluated for effectiveness. As questions arise, Zachary may make adjustments.

Research suggests that problem-solving is comprised of a series of subject-specific skills. Teachers need to teach students to value the process of problem-solving apart from just a means to finding the correct answer.


Metacognition refers to the way we think about our learning. When you are reading a new novel, what questions do you ask yourself? Do you prefer to read independently, listen to audiobooks, or partner-read? Metacognition helps students be more self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners, as well as the approach that works best for them to tackle a new learning experience. Think-Pair-Shares and reflective journals are tools that can be used by teachers to help students articulate the answers to metacognitive questions.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves using high level reasoning skills to evaluate information using evidence as the foundation. When using critical thinking, students view material from multiple perspectives to draw logical conclusions. Students learn critical thinking skills when they are engaged in learning activities from the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, such as being asked to defend their answers or create a generalization based on their discoveries. Bloom's Taxonomy is a hierarchy of cognitive thinking that was developed by a team of researchers under the direction of Dr. Benjamin Bloom.

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