Career Development

Cognitive Learning: Definition, Benefits and Examples

June 9, 2021

This article has been approved by an Indeed Career Coach

According to Cognitive Learning Theory, certain thinking processes can lead to more knowledge retention. Cognitive learning can help you achieve mastery in your career by highlighting the best ways you learn. In this article, we’ll define cognitive learning and explain how you can use it to improve performance at work and other aspects of your life.

What is cognitive learning?

Cognitive learning is a style of learning that focuses on more effective use of the brain. To understand the process of cognitive learning, it’s important to know the meaning of cognition. Cognition is the mental process of gaining knowledge and understanding through the senses, experience and thought. Cognitive learning theory merges cognition and learning to explain the different processes involved in learning effectively.

The cognitive learning process aims to chart the learning process for optimal thinking, understanding and retention of what we learn. When you master the fundamentals of cognitive learning, it becomes easy to maintain a lifelong habit of continuous learning. Not only can these strategies make you a better learner, but they can make you more likely to excel in your profession.

With cognitive learning strategies, you can become a powerful public speaker, a visionary leader or a motivated team player who helps your organization achieve its goals and objectives.

Functions of cognitive learning

Cognitive learning is an immersive and active process that engages your senses in a constructive and long-lasting way. It teaches you to maximize your brain’s potential and makes it easier to connect new information with existing ideas, deepening the memory and retention capacity.

Instead of emphasizing memorization as in the traditional classroom method of learning, cognitive learning focuses on past knowledge. It trains you to reflect on the material and connect it with past knowledge for more robust learning. This not only makes cognitive learning a more effective way of gaining knowledge, but it also makes you a better learner for the long-term.

Elements of cognitive learning

Cognitive learning is unlike the traditional learning process, where the focus is on memorization rather than achieving mastery of the subject. The following factors are fundamental to the cognitive learning process:


Cognitive learning strategies emphasize comprehension. You need to understand the reason for learning the subject in the first place and the role your knowledge plays in your work.


Cognitive learning discourages rote learning where you cram materials for memorization. In cognitive learning, the goal is to understand the subject at a deeper level. This creates an immersive effect that helps recall and improves your ability to relate new knowledge to past information.


Cognitive learning strategies encourage you to reflect on the material and how to apply it to current and future situations. With this, you develop improved problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills and visionary leadership traits that can help you see things others cannot see in a clear form.

Benefits of cognitive learning

Cognitive learning is an effective way of fostering a life-long love of learning and improvement in employees. Organizations can use cognitive learning strategies to impact the following benefits on their staff:

Enhance comprehension

In cognitive learning, students learn by doing. This hands-on approach makes learning immersive and promotes comprehension. Thus, you can develop a deeper understanding of the material and its application to your work and life.

Improves problem-solving skills

Problem-solving skills are critical at any level of leadership. The cognitive learning approach enhances your ability to develop this core skill and helps them to apply it to every aspect of their job.

Boosts confidence

Cognitive learning can also improve confidence in your ability to handle challenges at work. This is because it promotes problem-solving skills and makes it easier to learn new things within a short period.

Encourages continuous learning

Cognitive skills promote long term learning as it allows you to connect previous knowledge with new materials. It helps you merge old and new information and apply both effectively.

Cognitive strategies promote a love of learning by making new knowledge exciting and fulfilling. This encourages you to develop a long-term appetite for knowledge acquisition in any environment. 

Cognitive learning examples

Here are examples of cognitive learning:

  1. Implicit learning
  2. Explicit learning
  3. Meaningful learning
  4. Cooperative and collaborative learning
  5. Discovery learning
  6. Non-associative learning (habituation and sensitization)
  7. Emotional learning
  8. Experiential learning
  9. Receptive learning
  10. Observation learning

1. Implicit learning

Learning is implicit if it does not involve an active intention to gain knowledge. It is a form of accidental and automatic learning as you are not aware of the process but find out later you’ve retained the information. 

Examples of this learning include talking, walking, eating and other things you learn without conscious thoughts. For instance, you may learn to type without looking at your keyboard. 

2. Explicit learning

When you deliberately seek knowledge, you are learning explicitly. It involves attempting to become proficient at a new skill or process vital to your work, or going back to school for further studies.

Unlike implicit learning that comes to you naturally, explicit learning requires deliberate action and sustained attention to acquiring new knowledge. Cognitive learning helps you to learn more explicitly by giving you exceptional insight into the subject and how it relates to your work now and later. An example is when you enroll in a PowerPoint course to improve your presentation skills.

3. Meaningful learning

Meaningful learning occurs when a person relates new knowledge with past information and experiences. It encompasses emotional, motivational and cognitive aspects and helps to deepen knowledge and problem-solving skills. An example is when you go for an advanced management course to become a better team leader and have a deeper understanding of past leadership training.

4. Cooperative and collaborative learning

When you learn a new process as a group or team at work, you are doing cooperative learning. Learning cooperatively helps to deepen collaboration and bring out the best skills in each participant at the event. This cognitive learning comprises four elements, including:

  • Simultaneous interaction
  • Positive interdependence
  • Individual responsibility
  • Equal participation

Similarly, collaborative learning is a cognitive strategy in which a resource person teaches a group how to develop their ideas on a specific skill or knowledge area. For instance, your company could train a colleague on a new production process so they can pass on the knowledge to team members.

5. Discovery learning

You learn through discovery when you actively seek new knowledge. If you enjoy researching new concepts and processes, think deeply about subjects that are not your primary area of specialization or adapt new information to your work, you are practicing discovery learning. For example, you may learn more information about a new workflow app professionals are talking about in your industry.

6. Non-associative learning (habituation and sensitization)

Non-associative learning is divided into two styles, including habituation and sensitization. Both focus on how you learn based on your reaction to a continuous stimulus.

Habituation is learning by habit. It involves a reduced reaction to a stimulus after prolonged exposure. For example, habituation prevents you from noticing the noise if you work in an industrial business. Over time, the sound does not bother you anymore because you have learned to ignore the stimulus.

The opposite of habituation learning is sensitization because your reaction increases with repeated exposure to the stimulus. For instance, you might be more reactive to the sound of your office telephone ringing. Both types of learning are basic and can be adapted to a wide range of situations in life and work.

7. Emotional learning

This cognitive strategy helps people learn emotional intelligence and other aspects of controlling their emotions and understanding those of others. Whether you are a leader or junior employee, emotional intelligence plays a crucial role in empathy, interpersonal relationships and effective communication.  For example, emotional learning helps you maintain cordial relations with introverts and extrovert colleagues regardless of their position in the organization. Mastering this learning could improve your relationships at work and in your private life. 

8. Experiential learning

People often learn best through experience. Experiential learning is a cognitive strategy that allows you to take valuable life lessons from your interactions with other people. However, experiences are subjective and depend on your interpretations. For example, a medical intern can gain insights about patient care, diagnosis, empathy, and compassion by shadowing an experienced doctor. 

So, two people may have the same experience and draw different lessons from the event. The value of your experience depends on your level of introspection and reflection and how you can relate it to past events.

9. Receptive learning

If you love learning at lectures where a person stands in front and talks about a subject while the audience listens or takes notes, that is a form of receptive learning. This learning strategy is passive for the learner as it involves the active participation of the person who delivers the material. It limits your participation in taking notes and asking questions. An example is when your organization invites experts to train your team in a classroom or workshop setting. 

10. Observation learning

This cognitive learning strategy involves imitation. Imitation is an effective learning tool, particularly among children. However, adults can also imitate others to learn the skills and traits they desire. You can learn leadership qualities by imitating leaders in your field, and you can also become a better team player by practicing the habits of great team players. For example, observing a manager who excels at long-term planning can help improve your strategic thinking skills.

Cognitive learning is an excellent way to achieve mastery in your profession. It helps optimize the use of your brain, thoughts, emotions and experiences. Cognitive strategies condense your learning activities into a fully immersive event that builds on past information while applying it to future scenarios. If you want to become an effective learner who enjoys seeking knowledge for a lifetime, practice the cognitive learning strategies above to achieve excellence at work and in every area of life.


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