3c. Cognitive Tools

Brent Robertson, Laura Elliot, Donna Washington
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia

Independent Chapter Review



Click Here to Play Lecture – A narrated PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the content in this page. This summary was created by Lara Catall, Lance Curry, and Jackie Lundie (2010).
This page has been translated into the Spanish language. Click Here for the Spanish version. – Maria Ramos from Webhostinghub.com did the translation.


Mario is currently a ninth grader who attends a local area high school. He enjoys most of his classes but his two favorite subjects are his World Studies course and Introduction to Technology. He has discovered both courses to be very informative and decides to combine his interest in both classes into a project for his technology class.

Mr. Singletary, his technology teacher, has given Mario’s class this task: Students are to utilize various kinds of software, websites, and technology for application in a real-life situation. Mario must design a scenario, which incorporates an authentic event while using technology tools as a means to an end. He will also use technology-based tools to develop a strategy as well as solutions for his scenario.

Mario decides his enjoyment of his World Studies course will tie in easily with the technology project. He develops a scenario in which he travels across the world. Mario wants to manage his travel with technology to assist his research as well as document his “experiences”. Mario sees a definite connection between the software he is using in his technology class to the goals he plans to accomplish in order to satisfy the project requirements.

Deciding first to draft a route for his virtual trip, Mario chooses to travel in an easterly direction around the world until he makes his way back to Georgia . Mario uses Inspiration to construct a flow-diagram of the events and procedures in order to aid his planning and implementation of the trip. Mario sees the flow chart being beneficial to organization and believes it will serve also as a visual tool when presenting the project to his classmates.

Mario surfs several well-known search engines such as Google, Galileo, Yahoo, and AltaVista to retrieve information on possible travel destinations and points of interest. He also finds a few sites like Dogpile, Webcrawler, Metacrawler, and AllTheWeb that are unfamiliar to him but he finds provides an interesting array of data, facts, figures and statistics.

Mario wants to ensure that each of his artifacts, to the greatest extent possible, demonstrates in detail all that is experienced on this virtual journey. His knowledge base of Microsoft Excel makes organization of essential data simple. Mario uses Excel to calculate approximate mileage of daily travel, determine fuel costs, transportation, food, and lodging expenses as well as other data of interest. Using the information derived from these spreadsheets, Mario creates several charts and graphs to display his daily, weekly and monthly expenditures.

Mario elects to create a database to store information such as addresses of locations where he stops and tours as well as contact information of organizations, associations, and business contacts he needs to initiate the travel process. Mario also uses the database to keep information of individuals and groups he encounters along his virtual journey.

In order to learn as much as he can about the various places he “visits”, Mario exchanges information with several individuals through teleconferencing and viewing web-streaming video. Mario’s technology teacher offers a suggestion that Mario go to a website like LearnOutLoud.com to listen to various podcasts on historical, economic, social as well as current newscasts that may be significant to his travel destinations. He uses podcast information to determine in real time what situations or conditions he may encounter on his trip. For example, after listening to a podcast originating from Tunis, capital of Tunisia , (a country located in northern Africa) Mario hears a forecast warning of hurricane-like weather. He is forced to change his travel plans and moves his arrival closer inland to avoid the storm. This is one of several ways Mario is able to use technology to significantly impact an undertaking like a trip around the world.

Mario is interested in having a way to record his thoughts and experiences as he travels virtually across the world. To satisfy this need he constructs a detailed multimedia journal using software called Alpha Journal by the Alpha Realms Company. This software makes easy work of incorporating pictures and documenting comprehensive descriptions of each place he visits. The journal also includes pertinent information giving descriptions of the people, weather, general environment, and socio-economic conditions. Mario also includes several detailed entries of conversations he has with locals through email contact or online chat rooms.

By the conclusion of the project, Mario has a large collection of valuable information, which he carefully organizes and synthesizes into an electronic portfolio using Microsoft PowerPoint. He presents and proudly shares specific information of his virtual travels with his classmates. Mario finds using the tools of his Introduction to Technology course has made his virtual journey a project of genuine possibility.


Unlike earlier direct computer instruction models of the 1980’s where technology was used as an Intelligent Tutoring System, Mario’s application of technology is as a cognitive tool. Apart from shifting from a behaviorist to constructivist pedagogy, the paradigm shift whereby students learn “with” as opposed to “from” computers is important in several respects.

Many tutorials and integrated learning systems have been developed and deployed in the schools. These applications have had only a very small impact on learning in the schools. In the 1980s and 1990s, research focused on Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS) as a possible way of having a greater impact on learning. The empirical data on ITS shows very little promise for educational purposes. Even those who have been most involved in research and development targeted at producing “intelligent tutors” have begun to acknowledge the lack of impact they have had on mainstream education (Lajoie & Derry, 1993, p. 37). In the face of the disappointing results of ITS and traditional tutorials, some experts suggest that “…the appropriate role for a computer is not that of a teacher/expert, but rather, that of a mind-extension ‘Cognitive Tool'” (Derry & Lajoie, 1993, p. 5). Those who are interested in cognitive tools have pursued two separate paths. One path was to make use of existing software applications in ways that allowed learners to engage in higher order thinking. The other path has focused on the creation of new software applications that are specifically designed as a cognitive tool. Either way, there was clearly a need for a new direction in technology’s role in education.

Secondly, new software tools for educational purposes make it possible for people to perform and learn in far more complex ways than ever before. For example, computer scaffolding enables students to do more advanced activities than they could without such help (Brown, 2000). Mario’s project reflects this research. For example, compiling and calculating the data for approximate miles of daily travel, fuel costs, transportation, food and lodging expenses will be accomplished using a spreadsheet program like Lotus 123 or Microsoft Excel. These programs will chart, graph, compile, and compare all of the data that is entered. Although paper and pencil methods of data analysis will accomplish these goals as well, it will be a much more labor intensive endeavor. The hand made graphs and charts may not have had the same level of professionalism as the computer models. By using a computer spreadsheet and graphing software the level of sophistication of the project was enhanced as well as the learning. Again, the computer can be seen as a cognitive tool to learn “with” as opposed to “from”.

Finally, in combination with other learner-centered strategies described in this book like Project-based Learning, Problem-based Learning and the Six C’s of Motivation, motivation can be significantly increased using the cognitive tools model. Choice would increase in projects using cognitive tools. For example, even something as straightforward as researching the Southern Pacific countries comes to life with cognitive tools. Looking through an Encyclopedia Britannica wouldn’t generate the same speed and enthusiasm as it would to travel search on travelocity.com. This supports the results found by researchers, “Learners function as designers using the technology as tools for analyzing the world, accessing information, interpreting and organizing their personal knowledge, and representing what they know to others” (Jonassen, 1991, p. 82). In addition, we can see from this research that using cognitive tools supports a constructivist model of learning. Mario, by using the cognitive tools of the Internet is able to access much more information interactively. He could do a Google search on Sri Lanka and get all of the historical and political background, and then he could continue on to expedia.com and price hotels in Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte, the capitol.

Another perspective of Cognitive tools can be seen from Pea (1985). “Cognitive technologies are tools that may be provided by any medium and that help learners transcend the limitations of their minds, such as memory, thinking, or problem solving limitations. The most pervasive cognitive technology is language” (p. 37). In this instance, Mario’s example exemplifies language in terms of the tools he uses to communicate. He is able to connect and set up teleconferencing with individuals while collecting his data for his mock travels. He is able to report back to his teacher and classmates using multi-media software. These tools improve the language needed to communicate effectively.

Cognitive Tool Affordance

What do cognitive tools offer teachers and students? Many cognitive tools have multiple roles. Their roles allow students to interact with information in order to acquire, synthesize, create, and share new knowledge. By examining their roles, educators can consider their implementation and impact on student learning.

Figure 1. The Roles of Cognitive Tools, Examples, and Specific Technologies: The image (adapted from Bazluki, Chamberlain, Martin, Mitchell, 2012) lists the 5 roles of cognitive tools followed by examples and specific technologies that demonstrate each role. 


Information seeking is a skill in which students search for information for the purpose of research, personal interests, and problem solving. The computer facilitates this process according to Pea (as cited in Kommers, Jonassen, and Mayes, 1991) by “transcending the limitations of the mind, such as memory, in activities of thinking, learning, and problem solving” (p. 23). The facilitation of this process enables the learner to access and retrieve information beyond the limitations of memory, which enables the student to return to previous information throughout the learning process. According to Kozma (1991) these multiple encounters and processes with information result in a cognitive tool amplifying cognition (p. 24).

Returning to our scenario, Mario researches the places and details of his virtual trip. He must be conscious of how to retrieve relevant and reliable information by utilizing skills such as use of search engines and their functions, planning and conducting research, identifying and evaluating information. He also seeks information from Podcasts and video streaming in order to gain a variety of information suited to his decisions regarding his trip. As his decisions change he can return to previous information, evaluate and reflect on its application to his project. Not only are the information seeking tools necessary, but they also facilitate his cognitive processes in planning the details of his trip.

Information Presentation

Presenting information involves the organization, format, and verbalization of knowledge conveyed through cognitive tools. The tools should present the knowledge a student has constructed. The variability of tools allows students to effectively present information by: (1). Selecting relevant content, (2). Selecting information that enhances decisions and interpretations, (3). Representing content and relationships in different forms (Iiyoshi et al, 2005).

When Mario presents information through a PowerPoint presentation, he engages his ability to select information to interpret and represent in a manner appropriate to him and others. These tools enable him to articulate and allow others to reflect upon his knowledge.

Knowledge Organization

Students’ facilitate several cognitive abilities through the organization of information as an in depth analysis of relationships among ideas and beliefs between the learner and information. These tools demonstrate how information is distinguishable to each learner, Jonassen and Carr state, “Learners attempt to organize knowledge according to their unique experiences and interpretations, rather than simply ‘copying’ the organization provided by teachers” (as cited in Iiyoshi, et al, 2005, p. 287). When students examine the relationships within information, they are faced with many cognitive tasks; therefore, cognitive tools share the “cognitive load” of these processes (Iiyoshi, et al, p. 288).

Mario demonstrates this as he decides to use a spreadsheet for his travel expenses and his travel journal recording his virtual trip. These tools mimic real authentic examples of organizing traveling experiences through journaling and the mathematical functions of spreadsheets. With these tools, he efficiently organizes many elements of his trip.

Knowledge Integration

By integration of knowledge, students evaluate and synthesize information that modifies and elaborates prior knowledge. Arguably it is necessary for students to test their assumptions and conceptualizations in regard to their research and its organization. Cognitive tools allow this through their ability to allow lower level thinking skills to be managed in order for higher order thinking skills to be stimulated. Jonassen and Carr support tools that support collaborative argumentation and reasoning because these tools may enhance critical thinking abilities, such as assessing, reorganizing, and verifying new and gathered information, elaborating them and making decisions (as cited in Iiyoshi, et al, 2005, p. 289).

Along with data, Mario accesses video streaming and teleconferencing as tools to gain additional information about the social, cultural, and historical elements of the places he intends to visit. This information is integrated into his decision-making abilities and background knowledge of the places he will visit.

Knowledge Generation

The generation of knowledge applies students’ abilities to represent knowledge in a meaningful format that mirror cognitive skills and strategies employed through the interaction with the information. Significant effort is required for students to design and construct their knowledge. These tools illustrate constructivism, “the creation of unique learning artifacts is important to constructivist-inspired views of learning” (Iiyoshi, et al, p. 290).

Mario generates knowledge through his multimedia journal in which he will share through a presentation. His design will reflect his background knowledge, and cognitive processes and decisions through new knowledge, problem solving and discoveries. Other students will gain new understandings through the sights, sounds, and colors of his trip as it comes alive!

Research on Cognitive Tools

The University of Michigan conducted an extensive research study in the Detroit Public School System. The study involved the scalability and use of computers as cognitive tools. The project was funded by the National Science Foundation, and showed that while incorporating technological tools in small, highly refined study groups created a heuristic, implementing reform on a large scale is more difficult. “By necessity these cognitively based technologies are developed in ‘hothouse’ environments where students and teachers receive generous attention from both university faculty and graduate students (or their corporate equivalent for industry-sponsored development projects). The resource environments for these development sites is unusually rich, to make sure that innovations don’t fail to work for reasons that can be avoided, such as inadequate numbers of computers or malfunctioning software or limited teacher knowledge” (Soloway, 2001, p. 4).

The Internet was found to be the most baffling cognitive tool. With respect to classroom management, “Students who act out in face-to-face situations will also act out on-line, but it can be much harder for teachers to monitor and prevent, though they are still responsible” (Soloway, 2001, p. 12). The Internet, being open-ended leaves room for discussion of students being “on task”. Also, computers are marketed to schools in labs and not dispersed evenly around the school. This creates scheduling conflicts with teachers wanting to implement a cognitive tools project and not being able to get into the lab. Many students still don’t have access to computers with Internet connections at home.

Gilbert’s research put in this perspective, “‘enhancing cognitive powers’ can be interpreted in multiple ways, and affect what one considers a cognitive tool. At one extreme, some limit the term to tools that intentionally develop human capability, however that development is accomplished. At the other extreme, tools that augment human performance (and perhaps make some learning unnecessary) are included. In between is a range of programs such as microworlds. Intelligent tutoring systems, expert systems and the now commonplace computer applications usually shelved under “productivity programs”- for example spreadsheet, databases, and word processing programs” (1999, p. 7). In this context we can see examples of past cognitive tools that have been looked at from two perspectives. Many educators saw the epistemology of mathematics education change with the advent of the electronic calculator. With the tool many higher level thinking skills were possible because students need not be bogged down with the “manual labor” of long division, multiplication, addition and subtraction. Yes, even the slide rule tool could be considered labor intensive. With the new calculator tool, despite deficiencies in arithmetic, students could perform problems at a higher cognitive level. The counter-point, however, was teachers found that many of the mental math skills deteriorated to the point where some students couldn’t add two and five without looking for a calculator. Some students became poor estimators, and some couldn’t determine the reasonableness of an answer. So in the same respect, while there may be advantages to using cognitive tools, there may be some disadvantages as well.

Advantages of Cognitive Tools

Cognitive tools are distinct in their implications of technology. Jonassen (1994) distinguishes the impact of learning with computers and learning with technology. He states, “When students work WITH computer technology, instead of being controlled by it, they enhance the capabilities of the computer, and the computer enhances their thinking and learning” (p. 4). This interaction empowers learners to become active and responsible filters of information in which they engage in directing their mental processes; therefore, the role of the teacher resumes the “guide on the side”. Cognitive tools should allow students to “activate metacognitive learning strategies” (Jonassen, 1992, p. 2). Metacognitive learning strategies are strategies that are used when students encounter new information, connect it to prior knowledge then construct and revise their schemata. The effective use of cognitive tools should enable learners to undertake this process and assist them in experiencing cognitive processes that would be impossible without such tools (Mayes, 1992, p. 7).

The capacity and skill to design, develop and create thought provoking questions could be augmented with usage of cognitive tools as well. Proper questioning directs research inquiry, as well as provides the basis for appropriate assessment of information. Although asking the appropriate questions may not seem pertinent, individuals from various backgrounds and academic levels continue to struggle to improve their questioning ability. Erickson and Lehrer conducted a two-year study of middle school social studies students. By using cognitive tools, “Questions considered worthy of consideration evolved from those that required little effort to answer and even less to evaluate to those that provided opportunities to guide fruitful research and to sustain interest” (Lehrer, 1998, p. 382).

Hypermedia products such as HyperCard, HyperAuthor, as well as PowerPoint are cognitive tools that can increase and assist in the establishment of good design standards of students through recurring creation and evolution of products. Students start out being overly concerned with interesting graphics while omitting essential information. Instructors are able to establish appropriate design standards, which transferred the students’ focus on design to evolve “in ways that aligned communication with presentation” (Erickson et. al., 1998, p. 382). When allowed to play the role of developer/ designer, students tend to perform at a higher level than even their teacher felt was possible. Lehrer reflects that these types of tasks “promote the evolution of a wide range of skills that are valued both in the classroom and beyond” (Lehrer, Erickson & Connell, 1994, p. 250). Clearly, having computer skills, being well trained in software applications, and having the ability to navigate the new forms of media in the 21st century will be beneficial to all.

Challenges of Cognitive Tools

Cognitive tools have their challenges. Many researchers state it is difficult to measure how students actually use the tools and process information. The construction of knowledge bases and representing them in a cognitive tool can be challenging for evaluating learning. Another concern is the possibility of students becoming overwhelmed by the introduction of a cognitive tool and the cognitive processes they require. Currently many educational settings are focused upon the traditional instructional and assessment methods of teacher directed lessons. Therefore technology skills for using cognitive tools may be an issue for some educators and students.

Currently, research shows several challenges that may be encountered with the cognitive tools approach to learning. Salomon wrote about the pedagogy of cognitive tools, “No tool is good or bad in and of itself: its effectiveness results from and contributes to the whole configuration of events, activities, contexts, and interpersonal processes taking place in the context of which it is used…If nothing significant changes in the classroom save the introduction of a tool, few if any important changes can be expected (1993, p. 189). There are some luddites in the educational community that don’t believe computers are a “panacea” for everything that is wrong with education. Teachers also point to falling test scores even with the investment of many millions of dollars of technology in the classroom. Teacher buy-in is critical to the success of cognitive tools.

The research with the Detroit schools found many other challenges with respect to implementing cognitive tools on a scalable fashion as well. The challenges included: teacher training, technology integrated curriculum, assessment, school culture, district policy and management, district capability, changing pedagogical approaches, and cost. For example, the researchers felt that the term “personal computer” was something of an oxymoron. How could it be personal if it is used by between 10 are 50 kids a day? (Soloway, 2001, p. 14).

The use of cognitive tools as an intricate part of the restructuring of schools requires the need for a possible reorganization of several areas of infrastructure within our schools. For example, there is a need for blocks of time so students can form cohesive interactive cooperative groups. Schools need also to provide appropriate space, “so students can work collaboratively with technical tools that are commonplace in every other information environment (e.g. any professional office)” (Lehrer, et. al., 1994, p. 251).

Assessment issues may also become a concern with the implementation of cognitive tools within the school setting. Time constraints accompanied by the difficulty of providing feedback to large numbers of students in a timely manner can be challenging to manage. Providing teachers with appropriate training to administer as well as design suitable assessment tools which can be applied to similar constructivist scaffolding is also a challenge when considering the use of cognitive tools. Design based assessments will require parents, counselors, administrators, and other stockholders “to learn to read a different type of assessment report and to expect different measures of progress” (Carver, Lehrer, Connell, and Erickson, 1992, p. 402).

Implementing Cognitive Tools

When considering the use of cognitive tools, educators should understand some of the processes that students encounter while using them. Cognitive tools impact student learning by causing them to think about information instead of reproducing and/or recalling information. Information is shifted through and evaluated for its’ validity, reliability, and applicability to research and problem solving activities. These mental processes support the constructivist pedagogy and uphold the use of higher order thinking skills.

To construct a learning activity in which cognitive tools are utilized, the following guidelines should be considered:

  1. Identify learning goals or objectives – Clearly defined goals will enable students to comprehend the purpose of the activity and the desired outcomes.
  2. Select projects for students to achieve goals or objectives – By analyzing learning goals and objectives, teachers can locate many projects based upon state objectives, research lesson plan ideas on the Internet, consult colleagues, and design their own. Typically authentic tasks can motivate students to engage in meaningful learning.
  3. Select cognitive tool/s – Cognitive tools should facilitate the attainment of the learning goals and objectives. The tools should be appropriate to the learning environment, learning styles of students, appropriate for students’ technological skills, and facilitate the desired outcomes of the objectives. Becoming familiar with the tool/s may be necessary for effective instructional and scaffolding strategies. Technical assistance from colleagues, tutorials, and the media specialist may be sought.
  4. Implement the learning experience and cognitive tool/s – Most teachers invest time in planning and assuring learning activities can be executed. Having an alternative plan is essential when relying on technology because the unexpected can happen. Some students may need guidance in their usage of the tool. Collaborative pairs,mini lessons, and one to one assistance can alleviate stress when encountering new technologies.
  5. Evaluate the learning outcomes – The evaluation of tools is challenging; however, checklists and rubrics can serve as assessments in evaluating students’ effective use of them. Also student artifacts are evaluated according to criteria listed on rubrics, peer feedback, and performance evaluation checklists and/or rubrics.

Teachers should consider the following when planning the use of a cognitive tool for learning.

  • Cognitive tools function best in constructivist learning environments.
  • They can motivate and engage learners through realistic contextual learning.
  • The tools should help manage the cognitive work, not increase it.
  • A variety of tools can be necessary to support diversified learners and various cognitive processes.
  • The same tool may support various functions.
  • The tools should provide students the ability to actively address meaningful questions and problem solving that are realistic and offer feedback.
  • Scaffolding may be needed in order for the student to effectively use a tool.
  • They allow students to focus on higher order thinking and developing an array of knowledge through thinking and reflection.
  • Tools need to support the students’ expression of knowledge.
  • The successfulness of cognitive tools has not been determined therefore many unanswered questions remain about how to facilitate their use and how students actually manipulate them.
  • Assessing the products of cognitive tools can be complex and may require alternative assessments for the use and the impact of the tool upon the learning community.
  • Cognitive tools can require troubleshooting and encompass other technology issues related to users and designers.

Earlier Version of Cognitive Tools

An earlier version of this chapter was written by Shim and Li. The authors of the current chapter decided that they wanted to write a new chapter rather than an extensive edit of the old one. However, I would like to keep the older one in case others prefer this version. Here is the link to this version:Cognitive Tools in the classroom


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APA Citation: Robertson, B., Elliot, L., & Robinson, D. (2007). Cognitive tools. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/