How do cognitive processes related to thinking and reasoning affect learning?


Cognitive development is the study of how children think and learn at different stages in life. The constructivist theories of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner view humans as active creators of knowledge based on their experiences and interactions with their environment.[i] Theory-­theory and probabilistic models of learning build on these ideas by imagining children as scientists who form theories about how the world works, gather information to test their hypotheses, and revise their knowledge accordingly.[ii]

Additionally, research shows that children are not blank slates, but are predisposed to learn and organize information in certain ways.[iii] They are innately primed to learn language and understand numbers. They develop theory of mind, the awareness that other people have an internal mental life separate from their own. They also naturally begin to understand cause­-and­-effect relationships, and how objects behave in the physical world. These capacities are common milestones in the cognitive development of most children.

The section below highlights some key findings from the broad field of cognition and learning research.

Key Findings

Strong executive functions help learners manage their thoughts and behavior, and are important to the learning process.

Executive functions are the cognitive processes a person uses to understand, manage, and direct their thoughts and behaviors.[iv] Two of these functions — attentional control and working memory — determine where mental energy is focused, while another called inhibitory control allows an individual to decide whether to engage in certain behaviors or thoughts. As a person solves problems and plans, a function called cognitive flexibility allows them to shift their perspective as their situation changes.

Executive functions are essential to learning. They enable students to pay attention to lessons, organize their learning, and engage effectively in classroom activities and discussions. Studies show that weak executive functions are linked to poor academic performance and other challenges later in life.[v] Targeted programs, such as computerized trainings that expand working memory, have been shown to strengthen children’s executive functions.[vi]

cognitionInstructional strategies like scaffolding and problem-based learning encourage students to be active learners.

Because children learn by actively constructing knowledge (rather than passively receiving it),[i] scaffolding and problem-­based learning can be very effective instructional methods. Scaffolding is a technique that provides students with verbal and visual prompts that facilitate active learning, and then gradually removes these supports as students progress and can learn more independently.[vii] For example, an educator might walk students through an exercise step­-by-­step, then have students complete it on their own using written instructions, and finally complete it without instructions.

While scaffolding is an instructor-­directed technique, problem­-based learning is student-directed, with support from the instructor. In problem­-based learning, students construct their own knowledge by actively solving open­-ended problems. Both scaffolding and problem­-based learning are most effective when educators carefully plan to provide students with the right amount of guidance and support.[viii]

The social and emotional climate in schools affects learning outcomes.

Emotions play an important role in many aspects of the learning process, including memory, decision making, and creativity, as well as reasoning and rational thinking [ix]. Incorporating emotions into the design of educational environments helps students make meaning of what they are learning, and apply their skills and knowledge in useful ways in real­-world situations [ix].

cognition3People are also inherently social, and a great deal of learning takes place socially. [x, xi] Relationships with teachers and other students affect how students learn, and the more comfortable students feel in a classroom, the more they can focus on learning. For example, one study found that strong and positive emotional interactions between students are associated with higher grades.[xii] In a separate study, support and care from educators was associated with levels of student motivation and academic achievement.[xiii]


Language Development & Cognition

The Language Development & Cognition subtopic includes research on how the brain works to develop language skills, with a focus on vocabulary development.

Infants & Learning Through Action

The Infants & Learning Through Action subtopic explores how infants learn through taking action (especially through interacting with others), and by observing others taking action.

Development of Reasoning Skills

The Development of Reasoning Skills subtopic explores how people develop and use their ability to reason. Studies discuss the use of logic, and how people determine cause and effect relationships.


The Categorization subtopic explores how people divide concepts and knowledge into categories as part of the learning process.

Development of Trust

The Development of Trust subtopic includes research on how young children learn whether to trust information and people.

Theory of Mind

The Theory of Mind subtopic includes research on the development and measurement of Theory of Mind, which is the ability to understand one’s own and other people’s beliefs, emotions, desires, and perceptions, and how those mental states influence behavior.

Infants & Object Understanding

The Infants & Object Understanding subtopic includes research on how infants use their senses, especially vision and touch, to learn about the properties of objects.


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[i] Piaget, J. (1964). Part I: Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Journal of research in science teaching, 2(3), 176­186. Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
[ii] Reconstructing Constructivism: Causal Models, Bayesian Learning Mechanisms, and the Theory Theory[Article] Gopnik A, Wellman HM,PSYCHOL BULL (2012).
[iii] John D.Bransford, Ann L.Brown, and Rodney R.Cocking, editors (2000) How People Learn Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Chapter 4 – “How Children Learn
[iv] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011) “Building the Brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function,” Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
[v] Adele Diamond (2013) “Executive Functions,Annual Review of Psychology, 64: 135­168.
[vi] Adele Diamond, Kathleen Lee (2011) “Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old.” Science. Adele Diamond (2012). “Activities and Programs That Improve Children’s Executive Functions.” Current Directions in Psychological Science.
[vii] Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89­100.
[viii] Belland, B. R., Glazewski, K. D., & Richardson, J. C. (2008). A scaffolding framework to support the construction of evidence-­based arguments among middle school students. Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(4), 401­422. VanLehn, K. (2011). The relative effectiveness of human tutoring, intelligent tutoring systems, and other tutoring systems. Educational Psychologist, 46(4), 197­221. Dochy, Filip, et al. “Effects of problem-­based learning: A meta­-analysis.”Learning and instruction 13.5 (2003): 533­568. Hmelo­Silver, Cindy E. “Problem-­based learning: What and how do students learn?.” Educational psychology review 16.3 (2004): 235­266.
[ix] Immordino Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, brain, and education, 1(1), 3­10.
[x] Tomasello (2001) The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.
[xi] Tomasello, Michael, Ann Cale Kruger, and Hilary Horn Ratner. “Cultural learning.” Behavioral and brain sciences 16.03 (1993): 495­511.
[xii] Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012, March 5). Classroom Emotional Climate, Student Engagement, and Academic Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology.
[xiii] Wentzel, K. R. (1997). Student motivation in middle school: The role of perceived pedagogical caring. Journal of educational psychology, 89(3), 411. Noddings, N. (2013). Caring: A relational approach to ethics and moral education. Univ of California Press.