Instructional Design Models And Theories: The Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Instructional Design Models And Theories: The Cognitive Flexibility Theory
Summary: The Cognitive Flexibility Theory, introduced by Spiro, Feltovich, and Coulson in 1988, is about how learning takes place in “complex” and “ill-structured domains”. In essence, it’s a theory that strives to determine how the human mind can obtain and manage knowledge and how it restructures our existing knowledge base, based on the new information received. Research on the Cognitive Flexibility Theory has sought scientific evidence with respect to how knowledge is represented within the learner's mind, as well as which internal processes take place according to the mental representations we receive. In this article, I’ll briefly explain basic principles of the Cognitive Flexibility Theory and I’ll give you some ideas about its practical applications in the eLearning course design.

The Quintessential Of The Cognitive Flexibility Theory And Its Application In eLearning

The Cognitive Flexibility Theory relies upon the idea that learners must not only be able to manipulate the means by which knowledge and content are being represented, but also the processes that are in charge of operating those representations. The main principles of the Cognitive Flexibility Theory are:

  1. Knowledge is “context-dependent”.
    Knowledge cannot be perceived out of context. It is the context that allows learners to see any possible relationships between various components of the subject matter presented. In addition, learning activities in any educational setting should be able to provide several different representations of the same instructional objectives in different contexts. Practically speaking, the Cognitive Flexibility Theory suggests that, by doing so, learners have the opportunity to better understand the specific concept or idea because its practical application is clear to them. This is very important, especially for adult learners who usually want to know not only “what”, that is new information, but also “why” they learn something, as well as “how to apply” it in real-life settings.With respect to eLearning course design, this would signify an instructional design, in which for each one of the learning objectives to be mastered, learners would be provided with several examples and online activities, as the Cognitive Flexibility Theory claims that learners’ multiple exposure to the same concept in different contexts facilitates the learning process. Furthermore, offering many different ways to represent the same concepts or eLearning content is of extreme value to the learners and this could be translated to an instructional design that makes extensive use of multimedia, giving learners enough opportunities to get exposed to the same concepts, though at the same time would accommodate to all learning preferences and could motivate learners by offering them variety in the eLearning course. Repetition would facilitate the process of mastering the eLearning content, as increased exposure and practice would definitely have positive effects on learners.
  2. Knowledge cannot be oversimplified.
    Instructional materials to be used must not oversimplify a topic neither in terms of content, nor in terms of structure. Simply stated, knowledge cannot be reduced to its basics.With respect to instructional design for eLearning, this means that the eLearning content should be challenging enough in order to engage the audience in the learning process. Oversimplification of concepts gives adult learners a sense that they already know the eLearning material and therefore, they may consider the specific eLearning course as a waste of time. In terms of structure, problems should be presented to students in more complex and involving structures, rather than linear or simplified ones. Therefore, it’s better for instructional designers to provide learners with opportunities to make their own connections between concepts and principles that are being explored, even if these concepts may be of high complexity.
  3. Knowledge is constructed.
    The instruction that takes place should be “case-based”, wherein there is an emphasis on the construction of knowledge rather than on how it is transmitted to learners. The Cognitive Flexibility Theory follows a constructivist approach to learning, according to which learners are actively engaged in the learning process and they are responsible for their own learning. This principle is particularly applicable to eLearning course design, as it takes advantage of learners free navigation in the eLearning environment through the use of hyperlinks, and gives them the opportunity to explore the eLearning content and learn through multiple case studies and real-life interactive scenarios that expose them to how a particular concept or idea can be applied in different real world settings.
  4. Knowledge is interconnected.
    In order for the learner to grasp what is being taught, the knowledge sources that are used should be “interconnected”, rather than separated and “compartmentalized”.  In other words, this means that knowledge should never be isolated from what learners already know; far from previous experience. Applied to eLearning course design, instructional designers need to take into account learners’ previous knowledge on the subject and try to find ways to connect the new piece of information presented, to learners’ current frame of reference. A quick and easy tip to do so is by presenting a brief summary of prerequisite knowledge before presenting new information. This may serve two ways: first, it reminds learners what they may already know, but they may not remember; second, this summary may make some learners realize that it might be better for them to acquire prerequisite knowledge first, before attending the specific eLearning module. By providing the corresponding links in the summary section, for those who need them, instructional designers guarantee the effectiveness of the eLearning course.

The foundation of the Cognitive Flexibility Theory is that learners are better able to acquire and retain knowledge if they are encouraged to develop their own representation of it. By following the principles and corresponding eLearning strategies mentioned above, instructional designers can give learners the opportunity, to absorb information in a manner that better suits their personal needs, increasing the effectiveness of their eLearning course.

Last but not least, you are more than welcome to view the following video that Rand Spiro, professor of educational psychology at College of Education, Michigan State University, talks about Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT).

Change your privacy settings to see the content.
In order to see this content you need to have advertising cookies enabled.
You can adjust your cookie preferences here.

Implement the most Impactful Instructional Design Theories with the Best Authoring Tool!
Discover, choose and compare the top eLearning Authoring Tools Providers!

Join us at the Instructional Design History Journey

A New Instructional Design Model Will Be Added Every Week! You are more than welcome to let us know if you would like us to cover an instructional design model and theory that is not included at the Instructional Design Models and Theories. Simply leave a comment at the Instructional Design Models and Theories.


  • Jonassen, D., Ambruso, D . & Olesen, J. (1992). Designing hypertext on transfusion medicine using cognitive flexibility theory. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1(3), 309-322.
  • Spiro, R.J., Coulson, R.L., Feltovich, P.J., & Anderson, D. (1988). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In V. Patel (ed.), Proceedings of the 10th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Spiro, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.J., & Coulson, R.L. (1992). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In T. Duffy & D. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • 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.
  • Cognitive Flexibilty Theory and the Post-Gutenberg Mind: Rand Spiro's Home Page