Cognitive Tools

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Shim, J. E., & Li, Y. , (2006). Applications of cognitive tools in the classroom. Available Website: Applications of Cognitive Tools in the Classroom by Jung Eun Shim and Yue Li Senario Cognitive Tools Implementation Benefits and Challenges


Mr. Simon is teaching a biology class for tenth grade students. He introduces the body systems such as digestive, muscular, and cardiovascular. He also provides information about food and nutrition. The students are expected to learn not only the functions and working procedures of the body systems but also how to apply the knowledge in realistic situations. Mr. Simon designed a project for students to approach the goals. Through working on the project, students are encouraged to apply a few computer tools to amplify and reorganize their knowledge.




Caption: This set of pictures indicates the main topics of Mr. Simon's course. They include the three body systems: Digestive, Muscular and Cardiovascular. They also include Nutrition and Exercise. Digestive, Muscular, Cardiovascular, Nutrition and Exercise pictures are from Microsoft Art Clip.

When Mr. Simon designed this project, he asked Mr. Edward, a school media specialist, about what computer tools were available for students to use in the school computer lab and how many computers have the tools installed. Mr. Edward also provided information about students' abilities to use the tools. Mr. Simon decided to use Inspiration software and Microsoft Excel to support the class. He had a successful experience in using Inspiration in his class in the past.

The project has the students working with a client to make an exercise and nutrition plan based on the client's situation and goals. Three clients met with students in their classroom. Students divided into three teams. Each team chose a client and worked for the client as a health consultant team. They went through data collection, setting goals, exploring resources, extracting and reorganizing the needed information. At the end of semester, students were required to present their own solution as an exercise and nutrition plan. Mr. Simon and two biology experts reviewed the plans and provided feedback. The three clients were: John, Chris, and Robert.


A 14 year-old middle school tennis player who needs to keep a high energy level during games without gaining weight


A 40-year-old man who would like to lose 20 pounds while maintaining a healthy condition


A 63-year-old man who found his blood pressure is higher than the normal and wants suggestions to keep healthy 

Caption: Three figures representing the three clients. The pictures are from Microsoft Art Clip.

Class – Using Inspiration Software

The first team chose Robert, a 63-year-old-man who has high blood pressure, as their client. Students discussed how to make a nutrition and exercise plan to help Robert and what information they needed to make this plan. Team members came up with many ideas and concerns. As Mr. Simon suggested, they used Inspiration software to organize the information. When they listed ideas from each member, they visually arranged them into different groups. Brainstorming resulted in a project management timeline for five sub-tasks. Students then created a concept map showing Robert's state of health and representing their thoughts and information with pictures, images, words and multimedia such as QuickTime movies and MP3 files from Inspiration's library. Students researched the symptoms, causes and treatments of high blood pressure and presented relationships among ideas with the Link tool of Inspiration.

Mr. Simon directed the first team to use the U.S. Journal of Hypertension website as a guideline to make a suggested nutrition and exercise plan. Mr. Simon told students that they should evaluate the information which they found. One method he suggested for evaluation is finding three extra sources for each piece of information they decided to use.

Students spent time over the next few days collecting information from the client and exploring important concepts such as hypertension, nutrition and exercise. Students organized information about the cause and effect of high blood pressure especially for the client's age group. With drag-and-drop actions and hyperlink functions in Inspiration, students gather research more easily and can see the connectivity between the concepts. This process is sometimes called concept mapping. The example below shows the relationships among hypertension, age, and exercise. Students can connect symbols that represent what they know about the subject so meaning can be constructed, understood, and remembered, both visually and verbally in the concept map.

Caption: This image shows an Inspiration chart organizing information the students gathered on Robert.

Class – Using Excel Software

Mr. Simon reviewed the concept map to ensure it covered the key topics for Robert's nutrition and exercise plan. Mr. Simon also pointed out the topics that were beyond the scope of the course and could be neglected.

After students collected and organized the information, they were ready to make a nutrition plan. As a part of the nutrition plan, each team listed daily food combinations. They built a simple spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. In the spreadsheet, they listed sets of food combinations and their calories based on set serving portions. With the sum function, they calculated the total calories quickly and precisely. They compared it with the standard suggested for inactive individuals of the target age group. If total calories were not within the recommended daily allowance, students could adjust the combinations by exchanging food or portion size and recalculating the total calories once again.

Caption: The picture shows a sample of a spreadsheet. Students use the spreadsheet to calculate the calories for the food combinations

After each team created a final report using a word processor and presented the developed plan using slides to the classroom. They included three or four exercises and a suggested a diet for one week for each selected client. Finally, Mr. Simon arranged a physical fitness trainer and a school nutritionist to attend the students' presentations, and they provided feedback on the exercise and diet menus, and talked to the students about how important it is to know the body system and how they can use the this knowledge in real life scenarios.

Cognitive Tools

In the scenario, Mr. Simon built a learning environment using Inspiration and Microsoft Excel. Inspiration is a tool which students rely on to plan, research and complete projects. Excel is a powerful spreadsheet program that students can use to analyze, communicate, and manage information. These computer tools are identified as advanced cognitive tools. Mr. Simon used these cognitive tools to amplify students’ thinking and problem solving in the classroom. Students could overcome some of their limitations such as memory, information processing, or problem solving by being supported by the cognitive tools. As a result, his students gained and retained a better understanding of concepts through Inspiration and Excel and demonstrate knowledge, improving their performance across the curriculum.

Jonassen and Reeves (1996) characterized cognitive tools as "technologies that enhance the cognitive powers of human beings during thinking, problem solving, and learning" (p.693).

Computer-based cognitive tools are tools that are intended to engage and facilitate cognitive processing (Kommers, Jonassen, & Mayes, 1992). Computer can be used to hold and access nearly limitless data and information and can enhance the mental potential of humans. As a result, people are relieved of the heavy burden of memorizing knowledge, and they can save energy for meaningful and effective learning such as critical thinking or reorganizing knowledge.

We define cognitive tools as generalized computer-based tools and learning environments that have been developed to function as intellectual partners of the learner in order to engage in and facilitate meaningful learning. Our definition of cognitive tools is based upon other definitions:

"Cognitive tools are amplification and reorganization tools. They amplify the learner’s thinking by transcending the limitations of the mind. The cognitive tools fundamentally restructure how learners think" (Pea, 1985, p. 167-182);

Cognitive tools are "any tool that can support aspects of learners’ cognitive processes, for example, taking over some of the more mundane elements of a task to free the learner’s cognitive space for higher order thinking, or allowing learners to generate and test hypotheses in the context of problem solving" (Lajoie, 2000, p. 134);

"Cognitive tools are both mental and computational devices that support, guide, and extend the thinking processes of their users" (Jonassen, 1994, p. 21).

As Jonassen (2000) mentioned, students should use a variety of tools according to phenomena. Using cognitive tools to engage students depends on the problems, the purpose, teachers' background and beliefs, the school system, the available technology, and a myriad of other factors. It is very difficult to predict how well cognitive tools will work in a specific setting. Therefore, teachers must construct their own understanding of what that means, which will depend on their school system (Jonassen, 2006).

These are some cognitive tools which teachers can use in their classroom (Jonassen, 2006).




Are useful for supplementing the learning of concept-rich content, such as that in geography, social studies, and the sciences 

Support the storage and retrieval of information in an organized manner Structure is inherent in all knowledge, so using a database that helps learners to structure what they know will facilitate understanding.

Database management systems (DBMSs) 

Concept Map

Are spatial representations of concepts and their interrelationships that simulate the knowledge structures that humans store in their minds (Jonassen, Beissner, & Yacci, 1993) 

Are also effective for planning other kinds of productions and knowledge bases.



Are computerized, numeric record-keeping systems 

Qualitatively change educational processes that require manipulation or speculation with numbers and are easy to adapt and modify Support speculation, decision making, and problem solving, and they are often used in what-if analyses. Are versatile tools that are most effective in solving quantitative problems Three primary functions: storing, calculating, and presenting information


Simulation Tools

Represent abstract ideas visually, enabling students to use their most highly developed sensory system. 

Support performance in investigative projects, so they are scaffolds that enable students to complete projects Help students to understand and express ideas that they otherwise might not be able to.


Structured Computer Conference

Two types : asynchronous communication and synchronous communication 

Support students to construct their knowledge

Email, Bulletin board service, Discussion board


When instructors decide to apply cognitive tools in their class, they need to clarify the instructional objectives. As Jonassen (2006) mentioned, instructors should focus on how to use technology to help learners to think more effectively instead of simply using technology.

These are a set of general steps that serve as a guideline in using cognitive tools in the classroom:

1. Identify course goals

Building a learning environment with cognitive tools should supportmeaningful learning in which students establish a hypothesis for solving a problem and find support or disprove it (the Problem-based Learning and Constructionism chapters in this book are good examples of models that support meaningful learning). Instructors and media specialists must be sure the applications selected as cognitive tools match the goals of the project. In the scenario, Mr. Simon expected students to learn how to apply their knowledge in a realistic situation using Inspiration software to organize the information for knowledge building.

2. Design projects for students to achieve the goals

Instructors design a project and its rubric to guide students to build knowledge applying what they learned. The rubric states the requirements for the final product. The project should be challenging and attractive for students. Working with a client in a real situation could motivate students to take more responsibilities of working on the project. However, the real situation could bring much more information than the situation described in the text book. Cognitive tools can be used to help students organize information thereby reducing some of the challenge. Mr. Simon used Inspiration to help his student manage complexity.

3. Identify cognitive tools

Instructors and media specialists need to discuss thoroughly the functions of computer applications which they want to use as cognitive tools and provide technical support based on the students' abilities to use the tools. If students have experience with similar computer applications, a demonstration and a job aid could be adequate. Otherwise, instructors and media specialists should conduct an orientation to ensure students can use the tool in the desired way.

The typical issues instructors and media specialists should consider include:

i. Are the computer applications available in their school?

ii. How do these computer applications work?

iii. What are the students' levels of knowledge with the tools, and do they need an orientation or only a class demonstration with a job aid handout?

iv. Can instructors provide technical support for students to use the cognitive tools?

v. Should the cognitive tool be used individually or in a group, and what group size is suitable?

In the vignette, Mr. Simon and Mr. Edward checked on the availability of Inspiration and Excel in the computer lab. Students had experience of using Inspiration and Excel. Also, Mr. Simon had used Inspiration in his class in the past. He could provide the support to students and students did not need an orientation to learn how to use those computer applications.

4. Implement cognitive tools

Different cognitive tools have different focuses, so instructors should specify a selected cognitive tool to serve a specific task, and introduce the cognitive tool only when the students need it.

When students work on their project, teachers should encourage them to use cognitive tools in their task. The teachers could challenge students with questions and ask them to explain the results they created using cognitive tools. Giving feedback is always important to keep students on the right track on their projects. Teachers should observe students' use of the cognitive tools and assist students as needed.

When students find the information they need by using search engines, Mr. Simon asked them to find three extra resources on the same topic to validate the information they found.

In Mr. Simon's class, students used Inspiration to organize information and created concepts maps. Mr. Simon could ask why they think those concepts were important to make a health plan. He could also challenge students with concepts that were not in their map. They also could exchange their ideas while they worked together using Inspiration.

When they had ideas about what kinds of food could be recommended for the nutrition plan, Mr. Simon encouraged them to use the spreadsheet to calculate the calories and adjust the food combinations to meet the recommended daily allowance. Students could also use the data chart transformation to present the result visually.

5. Assess learning outcomes

Instructors can assess the learning outcome by judging student products based on a rubric. Student performance can also be reflected through their use of the cognitive tools. The results generated from cognitive tools could be a part of their final product since these tools can present student generated information and knowledge structures. The concept map that was generated in Mr. Simon's class could be a part of the final product, for example.

After finishing the project, Mr. Simon asks students to evaluate their use of cognitive tools in their project and experience reflection to inform the next course iteration.

Benefits and Challenges

Writers in the education field have suggested that cognitive tools can assist learners in accomplishing complex cognitive tasks. However, different tools are designed to serve different purposes with different structures. It is unjustified to compare the effectiveness of tools without common purposes, rationales, and structures. “The quality of a tool can be judged only in light of its stated purpose, its intended and unintended effects, its structure and its rationale.” (Lajoie, 1993, p. 180)


Lajoie (1993, p. 261) summarized that cognitive tools can benefit learners by serving the functions as follows:

Support cognitive processes, such as, memory and metacognitive processes Share the cognitive load by providing support for lower level cognitive skills so that resources are left over for higher order thinking skills Allow the learners to engage in cognitive activities that would be out of their reach otherwise Allow learners to generate and test hypotheses in the context of problem solving Jonassen and Reeves (1996, p. 698) proposed that cognitive tools are best used as reflection tools that amplify, extend, and even reorganize human mental powers in order to help learners construct their own realities and complete challenging tasks. The foundations for cognitive tools research include:

Cognitive tools will have their greatest effectiveness when they are applied to constructivist learning environments. Cognitive tools help learners to design their own representations of knowledge rather than absorbing knowledge representations preconceived by others. Cognitive tools can be used to support the deep reflective thinking that is necessary for meaningful learning. Tasks for the application of cognitive tools should be situated in realistic contexts with results that are personally meaningful for learners.


In spite of the various benefits, there are limitations of cognitive tools.

Sweller and Chandler (1994) found that integrating textual and diagrammatic information describing the same problem placed heavy demands on working memory, and integration of multiple sources of information is difficult. Also, the use of computer applications as cognitive tools requires teachers to have advanced technological teaching skills as their use consumes time, human resources and equipment resources. Moreover, different kinds of cognitive tools require different levels of intellectual development (Jonassen, 2006). Cognitive tools which represent phenomena in the real world could lead to misconceptions when phenomena change over time, context, and purpose.


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