The Impact Of Situated Cognition In eLearning

The Impact Of Situated Cognition In eLearning
Summary: Gathering knowledge is one thing, but being able to apply it in the real world is another. The primary objective of any eLearning course is to give learners the skills and information they need to achieve personal and professional goals. This is why situated cognition is a perfect fit in eLearning strategies. In this article, I will discuss the impact situated cognition has upon online education.

Situated Cognition In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Need To Know

While a variety of Instructional Design approaches may prepare learners for the real world by instilling knowledge, situated cognition throws them into the thick of things, so to speak, right from the start. By creating eLearning activities and exercises that are taken straight from the real world, learners have the opportunity to acquire and apply knowledge in context.

Collins, Brown, and Newman, the creators of the Situated Cognition model believed that learning culture played a major role in education, and that learning by doing was an often overlooked approach. Though this theory was formulated decades ago, it is still a powerful methodology in eLearning today.

Social Cognition Apprenticeships

The most effective way to implement a Situated Cognition strategy is to pair it with the Cognitive Apprenticeship Model, which was also developed by Brown, Collins, and Duguid in 1989. This model provides numerous practical applications that teachers can use to integrate contextual learning into their curriculum. During the apprenticeship process the learner acquires and absorbs knowledge and skills by doing. They are involved in a community of practice, where they are encouraged to gradually learn responsibilities and tasks by accessing the eLearning resources and working with peers and instructors. Learners must also reflect upon the teachings and determine how to apply their new found knowledge in real world settings.

How Situated Cognition Affects eLearning

Due to the fact that Situated Cognition is closely tied to Cognitive Apprenticeships, we must examine each step of the apprenticeship process to determine how this model affects eLearning experiences. These are the 6 stages that eLearning professionals should consider when designing authentic online tasks that teach complex processes or concepts.

  1. Modeling.
    This first stage involves detailed instructions that walk the learner though a task or process. For instance, a virtual presentation might highlight all of the steps involved, or an instructor would solve the problem in front of the learner in order to provide an example. Favorable performance behaviors can also be modeled to give the learner an idea of how they should react in certain situations or handle work-related challenges.
  2. Coaching.
    While modeling relies on observation, coaching turns the tables and allows the learner to complete the online task themselves. The instructor or facilitator supervises the online task and provides constructive feedback that helps the learner fine tune their approach or view the problem from a different angle. In online learning environments, immediate feedback can be used in lieu of face-to-face coaching. Not only must the learners know what they did incorrectly, but how they can improve moving forward.
  3. Scaffolding.
    Modeling and coaching lay the foundation for learning, while scaffolding provides learners with the tools they need to build their mastery of the task. Learning activities, online group collaboration exercises, scenarios, and all other supplemental online resources fall into the category of scaffolding. Links to helpful articles, eLearning videos, and webinars are all aids that you can offer to your learners. For learners who are struggling, support may come in the form of peer-based feedback or instructor assistance so that they are able to fill the gaps.
  4. Articulation.
    The articulation stage in the Situated Cognition/Cognitive Apprenticeship approach actually consists of three distinct methodologies. Each of these methods are geared toward knowledge articulation, reasoning, and developing problem solving abilities:

    • Inquiry.
      This method was introduced by Collins and Stevens in 1982, and involves instructors posing a series of questions. These questions prompt learners to examine and refine their responses in order to fit a particular conceptual idea or model.
    • Thinking Aloud.
      Learners are asked to articulate their thoughts during the problem solving process. They might also be required to observe groups and make conclusions based upon the conversations and activities.
    • Separation.
      McLellan suggested that articulation consists of two different elements. Firstly, the learner must separate the knowledge and skills from the task itself in order to explore them at length. Then learners should be encouraged to verbalize and demonstrate what they have learned by analyzing their thinking process.
  5. Reflection.
    During the reflection stage, learners are asked to compare their work to that of others, including peers and instructors. In eLearning environments, reflection may involve self-analysis, peer feedback, or performance evaluations that give learners a chance to identify areas of improvement. You can also offer more interactive reflection exercises, such as a video presentation that involves two individuals performing the same task and asking learners to contrast and compare them.
  6. Exploration.
    This final stage in the process gives learners the opportunity to explore the task or problem autonomously. Gradually all scaffolding resources should be removed, allowing learners to complete the building process on their own. They are asked to complete the task without the help of peers or instructors, and overcome challenges using the knowledge and experience they have gained over the course of time. In some cases, the learner may even be encouraged to explore new problems that need to be solved or master new and exciting tasks.

Situated cognition gives learners the information and skills they need and takes in a step further by teaching them how to actually apply their knowledge in the real world. As such, it is a natural fit for eLearning courses, especially online training experiences that are geared toward performance management and employee onboarding.

One of the most valuable situated cognition tools you have at your disposal is real world scenarios. Read the article 6 Tips To Create eLearning Scenarios That Offer Real World Benefits to discover 6 top tips that can help you design scenarios that offer real world benefits.


  1. Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 32-42.