Application of Cognitive Learning In the Field of Cytology

Cognitive learning approaches can be applied to any discipline.  It emphasizes problem solving and the facilitation of storage and retrieval of information for applications. One’s ability to learn is dependent on the way one perceives, organizes, store and retrieves information (Grider, 1993).  Most work in cognitive science assumes that the mind is analogous to the way computers structure data and compute algorithms.  At the core of most cognitive theory is the assumption that the mind contains mental representations such as logical propositions, rules, concepts, images, and analogies.  Additionally, the mind uses mental procedures such as deduction, search, matching, rotating, and retrieval (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010).

In the same manner, cognitive reasoning describes the thought processes involved in medical decision making (Sandhu & Capenter, 2006).  According to Sweller (1994), intellectual mastery of any subject matter or discipline depends on two critical learning mechanisms: schema acquisition and the transfer of learned procedures from controlled to automatic processing.

Consider the example of Cytotechnologist and Pathologists in the anatomic pathology department.  Cytotechnologists render preliminary interpretation of specimens (practically from all areas of the human body), then submits their findings to Pathologists, who then makes the final interpretation.  For the most part, Pathologist’s final diagnosis agrees with the Cytotechnologist’s diagnosis (90%), thus it is from this assumption that the cognitive reasoning for both Pathologists and Cytotechnologists similar.

The purpose of this paper is to present the influence of cognitive learning theory and its application to the cognitive reasoning used in the medical profession.  There are four parts to this paper. The first part is concerned with the historical development of cognitive theory and the major assumptions posited; second, the scope and the problem areas addressed; third, the main intervention strategies it advocates. Lastly, the analysis of cognitive learning theory.

History of Cognitive Theory

To simplify, the history of cognitive theory will be traced under philosophical and psychological foundations.  Under philosophical foundation, Bell-Gredler (1986) contends that attempts to understand the mind and its operation go as far back as 400 B.C., during Plato’s time. It was at this point in time that cognitive theory might have its roots. Plato theorized that reality consists only of spirit and mind and that the universe comprised of good and bad absolutes that are orderly and eternal, including the view that idealism holds knowledge and knowledge is innate (cited in Grider, 1993). Descartes improved Plato’s philosophy of innate knowledge through his concept of rationalism.  The view on rationalism is that human intellects are developed through innate ideas and logical thoughts, introspection, and deductive reasons which are internal mental processes that influence the mind’s development (Grider, 1993). These two philosophies would later influence the theoretical development of cognitive psychology.

In the 1800s, Wilhelm Wundt’s structuralism concept holds that human experience consists of measurable mental functions such as awareness, reaction, and perception. These mental functions intensify as the experiences become more focus to the individual.  Structuralism would become one of psychology’s first major theories (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010)

William James and John Dewey felt that Wundt’s methodical analysis and classification of cognitive elements too restrictive. Both espoused the idea that cognition should transcend classification by focusing on the holistic approach to consciousness and behavior, including the relationship between biological adaptation and environment. This concept was called the “functionalism theory” and would emerge as the second major theory of psychology (Grider, 1993).

In the early 1900s, J.B. Watson’s behaviorism theory, considered the third major theory of psychology, argued that psychology should devote itself in examining the relation between observable stimuli and observable behavior responses (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010).

Further development included that of Gestalt theory, which may have marked the true beginning of cognitive psychology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010).  According to Gestalt, one’s experiences cannot be fully understood by reducing them into specific elements or stimuli. Stimuli only have meaning as they are cognitively organized by the person.  For instance, if a person using a tool does not understand how to use it, insight   will not take place until that person learns to use the tool and its function.

In the 1930s, Kurt Lewis focused on the aspect of motivation in learning.  According to Lewis, information can be learned only when that person specifically intends to do so.  In the same time period, Frederic Bartlett introduced the concept of schemata in cognitive psychology.  His research focused on perception, memory and comprehension of information (Grider, 1993).

Corollary to Lewis’ theory was Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive growth and development.  According to Piaget, individuals react with their world by constantly collecting and organizing information. During this growth of intellect, new mental structures are formulated. Information is accommodated and many times individuals change their way of thinking (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006).

The advent of rudimentary computers in the early1950’s coincided with the beginning of serious study regarding artificial intelligence (AI) and its application to computers.  AI is a concept based on the premise that computers can be programmed to think.  In particular, Newell and Simon were the first to apply problem-solving processes directly to computers.  Newell and Simon’s work contributed to cognitive process models, which involve the use of flowcharts and programs to represent and predict problem solving strategies (Grider, 1993; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010).

Cognitive Theory: The Schema Concept and the Cognitive Load Theory

How humans learn and use knowledge is a dominant aspect of cognitive theory. The specific process of learning however is not just the primary concern of cognitive research.  Learning is viewed only as one of the many processes encompassed by the human mind. Cognition, according to theorists, involves the integration of events organized in a storage system termed schema or schemata (interchangeable). The schemata serve a number of functions in human cognition such as long-term memory storing of information, arranging and sorting out new information in order to be understood (Grider, 1993).

The schema concept is a cognitive construct built on the idea that the elements of information are arranged and organized in the manner with which they will be dealt.  Within the schema, newly received information will be altered to fit in with the knowledge of the subject matter. It can be used to explain most of the learned intellectual skills that people display. For example, people are able to read the infinite variety of the printed and handwritten versions of the text that they encounter because the schemas for each letter, multiple words, and multiple word combinations were already organized (Sweller, 1994).

Corollary to the schemata concept is the cognitive load theory (CLT) which has focused on instructional methods to decrease extraneous cognitive load so that available cognitive resources can be fully devoted to learning.  It assumes that the human working memory is only capable of storing about seven elements but operates on only just two to four elements.  It further assumes that the human working memory is able to deal with information for no more than few seconds with almost all information lost after twenty seconds unless intervened by rehearsal (van Merrienboer & Sweller, 2005).  However, human memory has no known limitations when dealing with information received from long-term memory because long-term memory, according to the schema concept is that when activities are repeatedly applied, they become automatic. Because automation requires a great deal of practice, automated schema only develop for those aspects of performance that are consistent across problem situations.  In this example by van Merrienboer & Sweller (2005), a chess player can remember a particular mid-game position at a single glance because he or she has dealt with the same situation before.


Cesar Aquino, PhD, MBA, CT(ASCP)