7 Best Practices To Apply The Cognitive Flexibility Theory In eLearning
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How To Apply The Cognitive Flexibility Theory In eLearning

The Cognitive Flexibility Theory was introduced by Spiro and Jehng in 1990 [1]. They stated that cognitive flexibility is the ability to restructure knowledge in order to adapt and make use of it in different settings and situations. They also proposed that the way the knowledge is represented as well as the mental processes that are stimulated by this knowledge play a key role. The theory relies on knowledge transfer and skills that extend beyond the learning environment. In other words, learners must be able to apply knowledge in the real world. For an eLearning course to be truly effective it must provide context and facilitate the creation of knowledge schemas, so that online learners can easier assimilate the information.

Applying 4 Principles Of The Cognitive Flexibility Theory In eLearning

The Cognitive Flexibility Theory consists of 4 pillars that eLearning Instructional Designers should utilize in order to facilitate knowledge retention, assimilation and recall.

1. Offer multiple representations of the same eLearning content in different contexts.

eLearning activities must offer a variety of different representations of the subject matter. Furthermore, learners should be able to access the eLearning content from multiple perspectives and at different times. They should also have the opportunity to apply it in a number of different contexts and for varied purposes. This allows them to construct different representations of the subject matter and find new ways to apply it in real life. eLearning, by its very nature, lends itself to cognitive flexibility. Online learners have the chance to access the eLearning content anytime, so they should be provided with multiple eLearning activities and eLearning assessments to increase comprehension. You can take it a step further by integrating branching scenarios, eLearning simulations, and serious games that feature a wide range of situations and challenges. This allows online learners to apply it in different ways and to view the task or topic from a fresh perspective.

2. Avoid oversimplifying the content domain, and supporting context-dependent knowledge.

If the subject matter is oversimplified, learners may find it difficult to see the relationship between similar concepts or view them under a “single unifying dimension”. It also disconnects the information from its real world context and breaks it down into ambiguous components. Research your audience to learn as much as you can about their eLearning experience and their previous knowledge. This helps you create eLearning content that offers the ideal level of difficulty. If the concepts are more complicated or complex you should chunk the eLearning content into smaller modules or steps that are easier to digest. However, the individual components should always be presented as a whole. In addition, always stress the real world benefits and applications of the eLearning content before, during, and after the eLearning experience.

3. Focus on knowledge construction rather than information transmission.

eLearning experiences should involve case-based knowledge and place a strong emphasis on knowledge construction. The delivery of the information should not be the key focus. You should, therefore, provide your online learners with real world examples, case studies, and stories that can help them put the information into context. Make sure that the eLearning characters and situations are relatable and realistic, and that you include a good variety of examples. The key is to get your online learners thinking about how they will use the knowledge outside of the eLearning environment. This also gives them the power to see a problem or situation from different viewpoints.

4. Link relevant concepts together.

All eLearning content should feature interconnected knowledge instead of segmented pieces of information. Always consider all the facets of the subject matter when designing your eLearning activities. For example, if you are creating a task-based eLearning scenario you should include all of the skills and information that is related to the task. This gives online learners the ability to see how the knowledge is connected and manipulate the information to overcome challenges. In other words, they get a complete picture which they can dissect in the future. For instance, they can pick-and-choose the ideas or concepts that they need based on the situation.

Ill-Structured Vs. Well-Structured Knowledge

One of the most important components of the Cognitive Flexibility Theory is the structure of the knowledge that is being presented. Spiro suggested that Instructional Designers must identify the nature of the domain in order to find the best learning approach. Based on the theory, there are two different types of structures:

1. Ill-structured knowledge

These knowledge domains are more fluid and flexible, but also more difficult to comprehend, as they are more complex. Learners must be able to apply what they have learned in a variety of different situations. Many of these situations may be unique or constantly evolving and changing. In order to do achieve this, learners are required to compare the information they have gathered from different viewpoints or sources, and then contrast relevant ideas and concepts.

2. Well-structured knowledge

Knowledge domains that have a clear-cut application or purpose. Learners must still understand the basic concepts, but they will typically only apply the information in certain situations. They don't need to be as flexible or adaptable when it comes to recalling previously acquired knowledge.

One of the most significant advantages of using the Cognitive Flexibility Theory in your eLearning course design is that you can overcome the challenges that are usually associated with ill-structured knowledge of more complex domains. Thus, your online learners have the opportunity to assimilate the knowledge so that they can apply it in real world environments.

Another consideration that eLearning professionals should bear in mind is cognitive load. Read the article 7 Tips To Reduce Cognitive Overload In eLearning to discover some useful tips to reduce your online learners' cognitive overload and design perfectly balanced eLearning courses for great eLearning experiences.


  1. Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
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