A Discipline-Based Literature Review

A Discipline-Based Literature Review

PSY620 Learning and Cognition


Every life form on the planet from birth to death spends a great deal of that time learning. Learning new things daily, and learning ways to improve upon what has already been learned. Of all these life forms, humans take it a step further by actually studying the various ways in which to learn, and refining and categorizing material within this broad subject or discipline known as Learning and Cognition.

In this brief paper, some of the categories or constructs that make up some of the more recent works in the area of learning and cognition will be focused on, as well as any ethical concerns there may be while researching these different areas.

Life as a human being in today’s world means that there is a cornucopia of information available with the barest effort involved. While such vest resources of information is a wonderful thing, one has to know how to take advantage of those resources for them to have any real value in a person’s life. So we as humans find ourselves constantly being pushed in new and diverse directions of knowledge and learning to remain relevant in such a fast paced and information laden world. Certain areas of Psychology has always been interested in understanding how we learn and ways to improve upon those ways. From how the brain itself processes and assimilates as it is developing, how we learn through interaction with others like ourselves as well as others from different cultures, and how we as humans connect the information that we are presented with.

Since we have concerned ourselves with the area of learning how we learn, there has been different theories about how we learn, and the best way in which to facilitate learning. Learning and cognition when looked at through the lenses psychology is much like any of the other areas of human thought studied, and that is that there are many different theories attempting to explain whichever aspect of the human psyche is being focused on at that particular time. One theory will either refute or add to a previous one, and we learn a little more about the particular area being researched. In the area of learning and cognition, it was generally held that human thinking and learning could be regarded as series of biological processes. More recently, psychologists have changed their views and acknowledge that there are many other factors that contribute to the way in which we learn. For instance, until Vygotsky it was commonly thought that “learning trails behind development” (Aukrust, 2001). Vygotsky incorporated sociocultural and sociohistorical aspects into thought regarding how humans learn, and holds that it is necessary for a child to develop “culturally organized, specifically human psychological functions” first (Vygotsky, 1978).

There are many contributing factors as to how and why we as humans learn in the manner that we do, and in this paper we will look at five constructs in the domain of learning and cognition.


Approaches concerning teaching and learning have become more active in recognizing that children all learn differently with vastly different mental make-ups that affect how they can best learn and be taught, and have been viewed in that manner thanks to some of Vygotsky’s ideas. Ironically, even with these advances in the way in which we teach children and recognize the diverse ways in which some need to be taught, society has chosen to medicate some with aspects of that very diverseness that there has been such advances in recognizing. Gergen purports that through the advances in brain scanning technology, that research has consistently revealed what is thought to be the neural bases for what are commonly labeled as psychological disorders (2015). One such diagnosis that has dramatically increased is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Gergen attributes the “anguish” associated with the disorder to neurobiological issues instead of with sociocultural issues, where he feels it belongs (2015). As far as the diagnosis of ADHD being a form of mental illness, Gergen states that there is nothing inherently ”ill” about a highly active child, and that the main reason for the diagnosis of ADHD is because teacher’s are unable to carry out their task. He feels that the teachers suffering is redirected toward the child and diagnosed as an illness in which medication is the answer instead of teaching more diversely suited to the proclivities of the student, or the cultural conditions that favor a need for more mental stimulation (Gergen, 2015). Gergen goes on to say that much of these types of “mental illnesses” are the product of those very advances in neuroscience that have been too heavily relied upon to conveniently solve the problem of any guesswork that would have to be tediously solved through highly ambiguous diagnostic criteria as outlined in the DSM-5 (2015). Gergen’s paper, The limits of neuro-science take a broad look at the uses of neuro-science, and how through a desire to eliminate the inference that arises when a mental health care professional is faced with the problem of inferring a problem that is a psychological condition such as depression from a behavior such as inability to sleep. The brain scan seems to eliminate the inference factor, but Gergen says that all we have really accomplished is trading one type of inference for another. After we have diagnosed someone with depression due to symptoms of lack of sleep and feelings of hopelessness, and found a neural condition that coincides with this condition, but is that neural condition that was read on the scan actually because of depression, or because of appetite loss, the beginning of feelings of helplessness, or sleeplessness? Other possibilities could include anything from spiritual malaise, withdrawal from oppressive conditions, or even cognitive integration and regrouping (Gergen, 2015). While Gergen believes that advances in neuroscience, and the technology used within the field are beneficial, the concern is that they are being too heavily relied upon for diagnoses that actually come down to attempting to find neural bases of human sociocultural problems. As for ethics related concerns and issues in the field of neuroscience, if indeed as a society we are leaning too heavily to diagnose conditions that could be better described as sociogenic in nature rather mental illness, than there are serious ethical issues to confront. Gergen reports that in 1970, there were approximately 150,000 mental health cases treated pharmacologically, and by the year 2000, there were between nine and ten million. Gergen goes on to point out that more than half of those treated with psychotropic medication were school children (2015).


As mentioned earlier, more focus has been the social and cultural aspects of learning as they facilitate development, and hence pave the ground work for learning. Laura Shneidman and Amanda L. Woodward research whether child directed interactions actually facilitate early word learning. Acknowledging the premise that from a very early age, children depend on others to learn language, act appropriately culturally, and to interact in their physical environment with effect, the authors examine data that focuses on children that are known to have child directed interactions in comparison to those that do not have directed interactions (2016). Citing two theories that support that children learning from others. One is the intentional understanding account that assumes that during child directed exchanges joint attention occurs and facilitates the chance for learning. The other is natural penology, and purports that it is not the joint exchange that is important, but ostensive signals that occur during the exchange that are more important (Shneidman, Woodward, 2016). After a review of the literature in favor of child directed learning providing priori informational value, the authors are of the opinion that the only automatic value that these exchanges provide, is to direct the infant or child’s attention for the moment (Shneidman, Woodward, 2016). Any value from child directed interactions are not automatic, yet there is value to these directions, but they are more of the pragmatic variety, and depend on the relevance the child attributes to the information being conveyed. The authors maintain that instead of child directed contexts being the foundation of learning universally and automatically, that as children learn from others it is a more flexible path that is shaped by social experiences (Shneidman, Woodward, 2016). To assess their study, the authors sought out studies with the following parameters (a) the study had to focus on typically developing human children; (b) the study had to compare children’s learning from child directed and observational contexts (either third party or non-interactive observation), or had to compare children’s learning in these contexts with a baseline measure or measure of chance; (c) the study had to isolate child-directed versus observational variables while equating for other aspects of the learning context; (d) the study had to include at least one outcome measure of learning from a social actor (e.g., comprehending or producing learned information, as opposed to studies that considered only how directed interactions shape attention [e.g., making children attend to object identity over object location or number (Shneidman, Woodward, 2016). The authors found 28 studies that met this criteria. Alter examining these studies, the authors report that there is no direct evidence that supports that directed interactions facilitate language learning at a higher rate than children that learn from observation alone. Theorists that maintain that children lack the cognitive ability to understand any communicative intentions without mutual focus that comes from child directed learning, and is critical at the earliest stages of learning language and then taper off over the course of the child’s development (Shneidman, Woodward, 2016). The authors state that this hypothesis has not been evaluated, but according to Vygotsky, development is needed first, and if that is the case, than it stands to reason that the children could learn equally from observation or directed interaction depending on their stage of development.

Learning and Literacy

O’Sullivan states that both product and process are both critical to language education, and until recently focus was mainly on the product aspect of language education. This in his opinion, made for an imbalance because focus was on the knowledge and skills learners acquired through instruction (O’Sullivan, 2007). Now there is more focus on the process aspect, meaning that there is a need to consider literacy more in terms of the process of becoming literate rather than the product of being literate (O’Sullivan, 2007). Also, there should more emphasis on being engaged in the process and use it as a tool to develop further, rather than to view literacy as attaining a certain level of competence (O’Sullivan, 2007). In his work, O’Sullivan agrees with Vygotsky and his thoughts concerning the Zone of Proximal Development, and that people should be actively involved in constructing their own knowledge in order to enhance learning, and that through process-oriented instruction students can apply contexts of what they have learned outside of the classroom in contrast to past results of a product driven education that has weathered serious criticism because of the lack of value in solving real problems (O’Sullivan, 2007). By infusing a greater ratio of process in with product forms of learning, it can help more people reach their true potential as learners because they learn how to learn, not just absorb what is presented to them whether what is presented happens to align with manner in which they learn best or not. Literacy traditionally meant to be able to read and write the printed word, but in today’s world of the communication age, the parameters that define literacy have expanded. Being able to use digital technology is an important component of being literate in today’s world, and these technologies are both a component of and a means to becoming literate (O’Sullivan, 2007). O’Sullivan lists some abilities that will develop as one transitions to a more process driven manner of learning, and acquiring some of the skills becoming a necessity to becoming or remaining current in what has seen as expansion of the term literate in the present. At this time a number of new criteria of literacy are acknowledged, and are seen as very useful in the area of learning and teaching, such as multimedia literacy, digital literacy, and web consultation (O’Sullivan, 2007). Process-oriented instruction will facilitate the construction of knowledge, increase the mental activity of the learner, foster thinking and learning skills, develop learner’s cognitive strategies, nurtures metacognitive knowledge thereby helping students understand how they learn optimally, facilitates independent learning, and teaches students how to regulate their learning gradually (O’Sullivan, 2007). O’Sullivan makes a point to say that the purpose of his paper is to not discount the value of product, but to advocate the value of a balance.

Diversity and Culture

The information age has fostered a smaller world through technology, and has facilitated a thoroughly virtual glo0bal community. Maybe not to the extent as virtually, but still significant, is the aspect of diverseness and cultures merging that is more common now than any other time in history. In schools this merging of cultures and diverse back grounds can be more relevant because it is a place one must attend every day, and are there for a particular reason with particular tasks to accomplish. Szymanski analyzes strategies for coping with cultural diversity within the German school system. The work deals mainly with the challenges that face the teachers, but the same need for adjustment, and flexibility is needed as a student as well (2000). According to Szymanski, there are two main avenues that most people find themselves on when put into a situation that is a must concerning the interaction of one’s self and people with markedly different cultural backgrounds. The situations are an opportunity to form blueprints for individual and collective experiences, or either the situations may cause one to misinterpret a situation because one is not thinking beyond one’s own cultural framework. This can lead to a breakdown of any intercultural relations and a solidification of existing stereotypes. Which one of these results occur usually depend on a number of conditions (Szymanski, 2000). One condition is how well one handles their response mechanism to conditions where an imbalance occurs. Whether one is able to analyze the cultural encounter according to the principle of situational accuracy or appropriateness, or if one falls prey to feeling threatened by the situation, and reacts badly (Szymanski, 2000). Another condition is how well a person can acknowledge the existence of the real area specific culture bound meaning of special situations. In other words, how flexible one is concerning the realization that some cultural norms are vastly different then one’s own, and while keeping that in mind, also realizing that one’s own norms may just be just as hard to understand. Still another condition is to be able to see their own cultural norms in relative terms thereby being able to be aware of one’s own role in the situation (Szymanski, 2000). It has become so important to acknowledge the extent of diversity plays in the school systems that there is The School Climate Center in existence. This Center has a check list it follows to be in tune with the climate of schools, and guidelines to foster a safe and productive climate. Some of the measurement tools include Readiness Assessments which provide information on the strengths and needs of a particular school to support a viable model of learning and development. There are the use of Comprehensive Surveys used to recognize the voices of students, parents, and school personnel to address a range of issues that are vital to the proper climate for safety and learning. There is what is known as the Community Scales which is in place to recognize opinions of community members and leaders and to nurture community-school relationships. There is also Process Assessments which serve to survey the progress of the school in the area of improving the climate of the school by reviewing what has actually been done (Cohen, 2015).

Connectionism and Learning

According to Clara, Connectionism is considered to be a new learning theory, and has formed over the last decade in the worlds of on-line learning and is opening up new learning spaces through the “massive online open courses” or (MOOCs) (2014). Connectionism through the MOOCs are a vast network of connected people and resources where students plot their own course as it applies to learning (Clara, 2015). According to Clara, connectionism through MOOCs as they exist in the present are found lacking because it does not conform what is recognized as some fundamental beliefs concerning the psychology of learning (2015). One such problem is that connectionism does not address the learning paradox originally described by Socrates. Another concern is that connectionism does not adequately address the other in the network, and in order to accomplish that, “it must theorize about human nodes and their connections” (Clara, 2015). According to the author, connectionism oversimplifies interaction by explaining to be binomial and as a state, also connectionism fails to explain concept development adequately. If it attempted to explain development, it is forced to explain such as “the biological maturation of neurons, or to abandon the idea of learning as the association of subsymbolic entities (neurons)” (Clara, 2015). Clara states that as it exists now, connectionism may be developed in the future to an acceptable level, but that as of now, the theoretical issues it currently faces are significant, and unless some of the more fundamental assumptions are reworked, there is little chance for success.

There seems to be a pattern evident in nearly every construct within the domain of learning and cognition, and that is an emphasis on the learner taking on a larger role in acquiring their education, and a greater focus on learning how learn rather than trying to mold one’s self to a pre-established templet that is designed as a one size fits all so to speak. The world is getting smaller, and the information more readily available, but the learner has to become more proactive to take advantage of the positive nature of these changes and maintain a level literacy that is acceptable in this information age.


Aukrust, V. G. (Ed.). (2011). Learning and cognition in education. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Bender-Szymanski, D. (2000). Learning through Cultural Conflict? A longitudinal analysis of German teachers’ strategies for coping with cultural diversity at school. European Journal Of Teacher Education23(3), 229-250. doi:10.1080/02619760120049120

Clarà, M., & Barberà, E. (2014). Three Problems with the Connectivist Conception of Learning. Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning30(3), 197-206.

Cohen, J., Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic, & ICF, I. (2015). Educator Effectiveness Series: Assessing School Climate. Q&A with Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D. REL Mid-Atlantic Webinar. Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic,

Gergen, K. J. (2015). The limits of neuroscience. Therapy Today, 26(6), 12-17 6p.

O’Sullivan, Í. (2007). Enhancing a process-oriented approach to literacy and language learning: The role of corpus consultation literacy. ReCALL : The Journal of EUROCALL, 19(3), 269-286. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S095834400700033X

Shneidman, L., & Woodward, A. L. (2016). Are child-directed interactions the cradle of social learning? Psychological Bulletin142(1), 1-17. doi:10.1037/bul0000023

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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