Using Cognitive Learning Principles to Modify Behavior

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Cognitive learning principles can help restore order and effectiveness in the modern day classroom. In this lesson, we'll explore what they are and examples of how to utilize them effectively.

What are Cognitive Learning Principles?

When you think about something and then decide to do it, you are probably using what psychologists call cognitive (conscious) functions in your brain. However, there is another part of your mind that is more mystical called the unconscious by Sigmund Freud and the subconscious by Pierre Janet. It is affected by everything that has happened to you and is filled with emotional content, needs, drives, desires, etc., and is often quite hidden from your conscious mind. The subconscious can have as much or more control over what you do as your cognitive mind.

In the classroom, it is often the subconscious that causes students to 'act up' or be unproductive. Students (like everyone else) are driven by subconscious motivations they don't completely understand, and those inner pains, needs, and feelings can cause them to do useless, distracting, or destructive things. If the teacher can get the students to consciously evaluate their own behavior against a reasonable reward/consequence system, then the result is typically a more orderly and successful classroom. In this lesson, we will discuss the use of cognitive learning principles to modify behavior.

Cognitive learning principles are ways to apply conscious thought to our learning activities, which help us control our learning behavior and motivate ourselves toward more profitable results. They are based on certain key principles:

  1. Cognitive learning principles focus on what you know, rather than your response to stimuli. When you're applying a cognitive learning principle, you are acting on your thought processes and connecting them to your memories, rather than merely responding to what is happening to you or how you're feeling. This tends to make you a more effective learner.
  2. Cognitive learning principles emphasize structure. They focus on connections and order. As you 'connect the dots' between your new information and your previous information, the result is more effective learning.
  3. Cognitive learning principles are based on plans, active approaches, and profitability. Instead of being someone who passively experiences a situation, the student, teacher, or other participant becomes someone who is acting on the information they're receiving, using it, and learning from it.

Cognitive Learning Principles in the Classroom

In a classroom environment, the teacher may be tired, frustrated with her job, or even be having trouble in her marriage, and although she wants to make each class as profitable for her students as possible, her subconscious has many other needs (such as the desire to express her rage or frustration) that will tend to affect her behavior. Her desire for love or acceptance may make her too lenient, or her frustration may cause her to express inappropriate levels of anger or hostility toward her students in the classroom even though they, of course, may have had nothing to do with the event that caused the feelings.

The students, of course, bring their own subconscious needs to the room. For example, they may want attention, hold hidden angers, or bring unconscious fears to the room. These emotional undercurrents can cause difficulties in the classroom, where their subconscious forces cause ineffective behavior. John or Mary get sent to the principal's office, missing out on the key presentations that were an important part of their ongoing education. Meanwhile, Mrs. Terra decides to skip an important presentation and give her class a worksheet to do because she doesn't feel like doing the presentation. Everyone loses.

Examples of Learning Behavior Modification

Mrs. Terra can help to modify her own and her students' behavior through cognitive learning strategies - ways to help get everyone to realize what is happening and get back on track toward effective learning:

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