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Using the Cognitive
Approach to Improve
Problem-solving Training
by Kenneth H. Silber, PhD

riting about the evolving

body of knowledge of cognitive psychology is risky
business. There are many
differing perspectives on what learning is,
how it occurs, how storage and retrieval
take place, and, of course, how it should
be applied to training development.
This article provides a synthesis of research
and theory about cognitive psychology and
instructional design, especially as it
applies to teaching problem-solving skills.
It attempts to extract from the literature
those points that will lead to substantial
and worthwhile difference in instructional design (ID) practice when compared with conventional, behaviorally
based design practices.
The article includes principles derived
from research and theory in cognitive psychology that meet the following criteria:
Does it make a worthwhile difference
in real world ID practice? (This is a
different criterion from what would
be used for a review of research or a
textbook for future researchers.)
Are they internally consistent?
Are they prescriptive to the ID practitioner?
Have they been demonstrated empirically to make a worthwhile (costeffective) difference in effectiveness


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in situations likely to be of interest to

Are they related to training problemsolving skills (procedural knowledge)
rather than declarative knowledge?

This synthesis is not the only correct one,

but it is a sound and practical one. It combines certain theoretical frameworks in
ways original authors did not, and might
even disavow.

Why the Cognitive Approach

Is Important
The cognitive approach to ID has begun to
be adopted more widely recently.
From the perspective of theory, the cognitive approach seeks to overcome a number of limitations of the current approach,
which is based primarily on behavioral
psychology. Learners sometimes have
trouble learning, remembering, and
applying troubleshooting and problemsolving skills in new situations on the job.
Instructional designers do not have adequate prescriptions for designing the
kinds of training we are now being asked
to design, problem-solving, heuristicbased thinking, strategic thinking, and
the like. As a result, the current approach
to ID sometimes leads to longer training

sessions that seek to cover all the specific algorithms or

other content variations. It leads to more retraining time, to
address lack of transfer to new situations.
The cognitive approach to ID offers remedies to these problems for designers. Thats why many instructional designers are slowly moving to adding the cognitive approach to
their current repertoire. It provides them with additional
tools when they need to train certain kinds of skills, especially problem-solving training.
It is important to note that the cognitive approach to ID is
not a complete replacement for behaviorally based
design practices. Many of those practices work well in certain situations, are not inconsistent with (or addressed by)
cognitive literature, and should be continued. The cognitive
approach provides new ID practices for situations that the
behavioral approach never addressed well (for example,
problem solving) and enhances or modifies behavioral ID
practices to make learning more effective and transferable
(for example, use of prototypical examples and coordinate
concept structures in teaching concepts).

edge. When one designs training, it will probably be helpful

to use these distinctions to help decide what kind of knowledge is being taught and how to best teach that knowledge
(Anderson, 1995a, 1995b; Best, 1989; Klatzky, 1980; Foshay,
Silber, & Stelnicki, 2002; Hannafin & Hooper, 1993; West,
Farmer, & Wolff, 1991).
The biggest distinction is between declarative and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is knowing that;
procedural knowledge is knowing how. The basic difference
between the two types of knowledge is that declarative
knowledge tells one how the world is, while procedural
knowledge tells one how to do things in the world.
Trainers who do not understand this distinction often confuse knowing and doing and make a number of mistakes in
designing training. They try to teach (and test) procedural
knowledge using strategies which are suited for declarative
knowledge. They also teach declarative knowledge and then
stop, assuming that the procedural knowledge will follow
naturally. Finally, they try to teach the procedural knowledge without teaching the associated declarative knowledge.
Each of these results in ineffective learning and transfer.

How the Behavioral Approach Is Different

To better understand what the cognitive approach to ID is, it
helps to contrast it with something most of us are familiar
with, the current approach, based mostly in behavioral psychology. One word of caution: Defenders of either the
behavioral or the cognitive approach can justifiably criticize
what follows as an oversimplification.
Few instructional designers follow a pure behavioral or
pure cognitive approach. Therefore, they may find that they
are already doing some of the new, cognitive things in
designing instruction without knowing it. We call this
unconscious competence; they are doing good instructional design because they are good, but cannot articulate
the underlying theoretical reasons (based in cognitive psychology) for doing so. In fact, they may find that the cognitive approach is more of an extension than a replacement of
the behavioral approach.
The major differences between approaches are shown in
Figure 1 (based on Anderson, 1995a, 1995b; Ertmer & Newby,
1993; Fleming & Bednar, 1993; Foshay, 1991; Foshay, Silber,
& Stelnicki, 2002; Hannafin & Hooper, 1993; West, Farmer, &
Wolff, 1991). It is important to note that some of the differences are merely semantic (for example, fluency versus
automaticity, while some are more substantive.

Declarative and procedural knowledge each have a number

of types.
Declarative Knowledge
There are three types of declarative knowledge:
Principles and Mental Models
The discussion of these types below is a synthesis of much
that is already familiar and commonly accepted; it is
included here for completeness. The reader will note that
these types of declarative knowledge are very similar to the
types of learning proposed by Gagne, Briggs, and Wager
(1992). They add, however, the notion of mental models,
and their characteristics are described in slightly different
terms (Anderson, 1995a, 1995b; Best, 1989; Fleming &
Bednar, 1993; Foshay, Silber, & Stelnicki, 2002; Jonassen,
1997; West, Farmer, & Wolff, 1991).

Categories of Knowledge: Declarative and

Procedural Knowledge

Facts. A fact is a simple association among a set of verbal and/or

visual propositions. When one knows a fact, one has placed it in
a structure, so one can recall it from memory. Learning facts as
part of a structure that will help one recall them in the way one
needs is much more efficient than trying to memorize each fact
by itself. Knowing a fact does not mean one can generalize it to
new situations, explain what it means, identify its relationship
to other facts, or apply it to do anything.

When they discuss learning, cognitive psychologists often

draw distinctions between different categories of knowl-

Concepts. A concept is a category of objects, actions, or

abstract ideas that one groups together with a single name

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Figure 1. Comparison of Behavioral and Cognitive Approaches.


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Figure 1 (continued). Comparison of Behavioral and Cognitive Approaches.

because they share characteristics in common. When one

knows a concept, one can classify new objects, actions, or
ideas as either in the category or not. People typically learn
concepts by remembering the best example of the category
theyve seen (or imagined). If asked, they may or may not be
able to state a verbal definition.
Principles and Mental Models. A principle is a cause-effect
relationship. When one understands a principle, one knows
how something works. Principles are frequently stated as
if then statements. One demonstrates understanding
of a principle by explaining why something happens, or
predicting what will happen.
Mental models is where the cognitive approach goes beyond
the Gagne, Briggs, and Wager (1992) formulation. The cognitive approach emphasizes that it is also important to know
that the three types of declarative knowledge fit together into
structures. These structures are really networks of principles
(with their supporting concepts and facts) and are called
mental models. For cognitive psychologists, mental models
are the key to learning and using knowledge because

they tie together all the declarative knowledge in memory; they are the structures into which one organizes
information, put it into memory, retrieve it from memory,
and learn by expanding and restructuring existing structures.
they provide the most meaningful application of declarative knowledge in isolation. Adults rarely spout networks of facts, or run around finding new instances of
concepts, but do frequently try to explain how or why
things happen or work.
they form a bridge between declarative knowledge
(knowledge about) and procedural knowledge (knowing
how); to do procedures (other than rote ones), one has to
know how the system works, that is, have a mental
model of the system.
the structure of the mental model is very different for
expert performers and for novices, with experts having
not only more information in their models, but also different ways of organizing the information to facilitate
retrieval and use in problem solving. This indicates the
importance of developing appropriate mental models if
the learner is going to become a competent performer.

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Figure 2. Well-Structured Versus Ill Structured Problems.

Therefore, most would argue that for training of adults, the

ID must not only teach isolated facts, concepts, and principles, but must also help the learner create the appropriate
mental models for optimum structuring of the information
learner for storage, retrieval, and application.
Procedural Knowledge
Procedural knowledge is the ability to string together a series
of mental and physical actions to achieve a goal, usually to
solve a problem. The type of problem the knowledge is used
to address is what is used to defined the type of procedural
knowledge. Problems vary along a continuum based on how
well they are defined (Anderson, 1995a, 1995b; Best, 1989;
Fleming & Bednar, 1993; Foshay, Silber, & Stelnicki, 2002;
Gagne, Briggs, & Wager 1992; Jonassen, 1997, 2000; Newell &
Simon, 1972; West, Farmer, & Wolff, 1991).
Regardless of its position on the continuum from well to ill
structured, a problem always has a starting or initial state
(car not running), an end or goal state (running car), a
sequence of actions (open door, get in, insert key in ignition
switch, turn key), and constraints (works only if you have
the right key). Figure 2 summarizes the differences.
The continuum of procedural knowledge from well- to illstructured problems implies a significant range of knowledge
and skill types. Furthermore, the role played by declarative
knowledge, and especially by principles, varies considerably.
For purposes of instructional design, there is little difference
between moderately and ill-structured problems. Therefore,
we will consider only two classes of problems: well structured and ill-structured. Figure 3 lists the following characteristics of the two classes of problems:

Teaching Problem-solving
There are many complex issues involved in teaching problem solving. The issues will be discussed during the Masters
Series Presentation at the 2002 International Conference
and are discussed in even greater length in Foshay, Silber,
and Stelnicki (2002). Those issues include the following:
The relationship between mental models and problemsolving


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Using algorithms versus heuristics to solve problems

How learners initially represent problems, or define the
problem space
The differences between experts and novices mental
models, and problem spaces, and how these affect problemsolving
Domain free and domain dependent problem solving
strategies and the strengths and weaknesses of each
General guidelines for teaching all problem-solving, and
specific guidelines for teaching well-structured and illstructured problem-solving
How Trainers Help Learners Learn
The next step is to turn the ideas about learning into some
heuristics for developing training. This part of the article
serves as the beginning of that process; a full treatment
requires a book-length discussion (see Foshay, Silber, &
Stelnicki, 2002). This part of the article will present a general framework for cognitively based training in the form of
a model. It will identify the new and unique elements of the
model and describe how to use it.
It provides a structure of content for what to include in cognitively based lessons. It does so in the form of a model. For
each of the five learning tasks learners have, the model
describes the elements trainers must put in their lessons to
help learners accomplish the learning task. The model provides the heuristics for what to include in, and how to
develop, cognitively based training lessons.
Figure 4 has two columns and five rows. The left column lists
the five tasks learners have to do in learning, one in each row:
1. Select the information to attend to.
2. Link the new information with existing knowledge.
3. Organize the information.
4. Assimilate the new knowledge into the existing knowledge.
5. Strengthen the new knowledge in memory.
A brief description of each of these five learning processes
appears in Figure 4.
The right column lists the 16 parts of a training lesson that
we must design to help learners accomplish those five tasks.
In each row, the table lists and describes briefly the lesson

Figure 3. Two Classes of Problems (Source: Jonassen, 1997).

elements that relate to each of the five learning tasks. Six of

the 16 elements are the same for all categories of knowledge
and appear in boldface in the table. The other 10 elements
vary by type of knowledge and appear in boldface italics in
the table.
The elements on the right side of the model are purposely
not numbered because within any row, one can manipulate
the sequence of the elements as the situation calls for. It is
crucial that the elements listed in any row all be included to
accomplish the learning task. However, within a given row,
it is not crucial that they be done in a particular order.
Below is a brief description of each of the lesson elements
and how it might look in a problem solving lesson.

ers jobs easier, better, faster, more pleasant, more interesting, and more important.
Build the learners confidence by emphasizing, You can do
it. They need to feel they can succeed both at learning the
problem-solving skill in training and at applying it successfully on the job. Selected strategies for doing so include the
Explain how past learners just like them have succeeded
in learning this skill.
Explain how they have already succeeded at doing some
problemsolving very similar to the new knowledge.
Be honest about the initial difficulty of the problemsolving task.

1. Select. Gain and focus the learners attention on the new

knowledge and the materials presenting it. Selected strategies for doing so include showing a problem that is interesting and/or familiar to the learner and that is related to the
current problem-solving learning and presenting a scenario
interesting to the learner that involves the new problemsolving skill and requires a response on the learners part.

2. Link. Recall existing mental models that form the basis for
the problem solving. If teaching the mental model at the same
time as the problem-solving task, then recall the facts, concepts,
and principles that make up the mental model. It is not enough
to just recall this declarative knowledge in isolation; the lesson
must recall the structures into which the knowledge has been
stored and show the relationships among the declarative
knowledge and its relationship to the problem-solving task.

Build relevance by explaining whats in it for the learner.

Selected strategies for doing so include: explain how the
problemsolving skill relates to the learners on-the-job
skills, job satisfaction, professional achievement, or income;
explain how the problem-solving skill will make the learn-

Relate the mental model and the problem-solving task to problems the learner already knows. Explain or show how the new
problem fits into the existing problem structures or modifies
that structure, and how the new problem structure relates to
the context in which the problem-solving skill will be applied.

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Figure 4. Cognitive Training Model.

3. Organize. The structure of content helps the learner see
how the problem-solving skills are related to one another at a
high level. It provides a structure into which the new skills fit.
It should show the relationship between five and nine skills.
The objectives should describe both the behaviors to be
learned and the knowledge to be understood.
4. Assimilate. This is the element that varies the most as a function of whether the problem is well or ill structured. The following guidelines (Foshay & Kirkley, 1998) offer a starting point:
For any real-world job or work skill, identify both the
declarative and procedural knowledge components. Give
each appropriate instructional emphasis. (This applies to
all types of problem-solving.)


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First introduce a problem solving context, then either

alternate between teaching declarative and procedural
knowledge, or integrate the two. (This applies to all types
where generalization is desired.)
When teaching declarative knowledge, emphasize mental models appropriate to the problem solving to come by
explaining knowledge structures and asking learners to
predict what will happen or explain why something happened. (This applies to all types where generalization is
Emphasize moderately and ill-structured problem solving
when far transfer is a goal of instruction.
Teach problem solving skills in the context in which they
will be used. Use authentic problems in explanations,

practice and assessments, with scenario-based simulations, games, and projects. Do not teach problem solving
as an independent, abstract, decontextualized skill.
Use direct (deductive) teaching strategies for declarative
knowledge and well-structured problem solving. (This
applies to well-structured problems.)
Use inductive teaching strategies to encourage synthesis of
mental models and for moderately and ill-structured problem solving. (This applies to ill-structured problems.)
Within a problem exercise, help the learners understand
(or define) the goal, then help them to break it down into
intermediate goals. (This applies to ill-structured problems.)
Use the errors learners make in problem solving as evidence of misconceptions, not just carelessness or random
guessing. If possible, determine the probable misconception and correct it.
Ask questions and make suggestions about strategy to
encourage learners to reflect on the problem solving
strategies they use. Do this either before or after the
learner takes action. (This is sometimes called cognitive
coaching and applies to ill-structured problems.)
Provide opportunities to practice similar problem solving strategies across multiple contexts to encourage generalization. (This applies to all, though most important
for ill-structured problems.)
Ask questions that encourage the learner to grasp the
generalizable part of the skill, across many similar problems in different contexts. (This applies to all, though it
is most important for ill-structured problems.)
Use contexts, problems, and teaching styles that will
build interest, motivation, confidence, persistence, and
knowledge about self and reduce anxiety.
Plan a series of lessons that grow in sophistication from
novice-level to expert-level understanding of the knowledge
structures used. (This applies to all types of problems,
though it is probably most important for ill-structured.)
When teaching well-structured problem solving, allow
learners to retrieve it (for example, from a reference
card). If the procedure is frequently used, encourage
memorization of the procedure and practice until it is
automatic. (This applies to well-structured problems.)
When teaching moderately structured problem solving,
encourage the learners to use their declarative (context)
knowledge to invent a strategy that suits the context and
the problem. Allow many right strategies to reach the
solution, and compare them for efficiency and effectiveness. (This applies to ill-structured problems.)
When teaching ill-structured problem solving, encourage learners to use their declarative (context) knowledge
to define the goal (properties of an acceptable solution),
then invent a solution. Allow many right strategies
and solutions, and compare them for efficiency and
effectiveness. (This applies to moderate- to ill-structured

5. Strengthen. Practice with additional problems and have

learners not only solve the problems, but explain their rationale for solving them the way they did. The explanation is
especially important for ill-structured problems where generalization is desired. Use a variety of problems that cover
the entire problem space to ensure that learners can generalize the skill to all relevant problem types.
Present the structure of content again, showing the critical
and variable attributes and/or the prototypical example.

Whats New and Different About the Model

At first glance, the model might seem to some as a mere
restatement of the nine events of instruction (Gagne, Briggs, &
Wager, 1992). But while the model certainly owes a great debt
to that groundbreaking work, it is different in several ways,
differences of both content and emphasis. The model takes
the best of what we know works from the existing ID approach
and builds on it, adding those new emphases and elements
that cognitive theory provides to make a more robust and
effective ID approach. The major differences are as follows:
The five stages of the model are sequential, but the elements within each stage are not necessarily done in the
same sequence as listed in the model.
The model spends a great deal more time on linking and
organizing the new information, based on the principles
of cognitive psychology described above.
The model integrates the work of Keller (1987) on the
importance of relevance and confidence to learning.
In addition to recalling existing knowledge, the model
focuses on relating the new knowledge to the existing
In addition to using objectives to help the learner
organize knowledge, the model uses a structure of content, plus what we know about chunking, text layout, and
The present new knowledge and present examples elements of the model are structured very differently for
each type of declarative and procedural knowledge
(while the details are too lengthy for this treatment, some
examples include specific teaching of mental models to
consolidate all declarative knowledge components, use
of prototypical examples and coordinate concept structures rather than critical attributes as the basis for concept teaching, and use of mental models and heuristics
rather than algorithms for problem-solving teaching).
The practice element of the model, for both declarative
and procedural knowledge, involves a great deal more
explanation and application that demonstrates the existence of desired mental model and the ability to articulate as well as perform problem-solving strategies.

NOTE: This article contains material originally published in Silber (1998) and is used by permission.

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What defines your mastery?
My mastery is defined by my ability to look at cognitive
ID from the point of view of both an academic and a
practitioner. As an academic, with more than 30 years
in the field, I have the ability to understand the theoretical and research issues under discussion and to sort
out real research-based advances in theory from philosophical fads. As a practitioner with 15 years doing ID
in corporate settings, I have the ability to translate theory into practice and to answer the question, This theory is nice, but what, if any, practical difference does it
make in how I do ID for my client tomorrow?

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Tosti, D. (1990). Feedback revisited. Session presented at

the national Conference of the National Society for
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Kenneth H. Silber, PhD, has been contributing to

the instructional design and human performance
technology fields since their beginnings 35 years
ago. He has worked in consulting, corporate, nonprofit, and academic settings internationally to
design and implement performance improvement
interventions (including cognitively based training)
at the organization and business unit levels. Dr. Silber is a nationally recognized author and professional leader. He has co-authored three books; a
fourth, on which this article is based, co-authored with Rob Foshay and Mike
Stelnicki, Training That Works: How to Train Anybody to Do Anything, is in
press. He was Series Editor for ISPIs From Training to Performance in the 21st
Century book series. Dr. Silber started and edited the Journal of Instructional
Development, wrote chapters for American Society for Training and
Development (ASTD)s Training and Development Handbook (3rd ed.) and ISPIs
Handbook of Human Performance Technology, as well as more than 40 articles
and monographs. He may be reached at or wiseoldken@silber