Cognitive Apprenticeship

While this article provides useful definitions and distinctions among implementations of cognitive apprenticeship, the emphasis on a survey of articles provides with rare exception neither practical advice nor theoretical support. The initial definition of cognitive apprenticeship (“learning that occurs as experts and novices interact socially while focused on completing a task”) is instructive but needlessly includes the social component; all human-human interaction is social. However, the Lave/Wenger concept of legitimate peripheral participation (“a process in which newcomers enter on the periphery and gradually move toward toward full participation) was significant as it accurately describes workplace learning in my experience.

The discussion of scaffolding, fading, intersubjectivity (negotiated shared understanding), modeling, mentoring, and coaching were redundant with previous readings. However, there were practical nuggets:

  • modeling is more efficient than trial and error
  • mentors and coaches help tacit knowledge become explicit
  • coaching focuses on a specific goal
  • expert outlines reduce cognitive load
  • discovery alone is insufficient to ensure learning will take place
  • individuals expect others to share their understanding (myopic as this may seem)

In particular, the productive mentoring practices (structure, regular meetings, and mentor training) point the way to effective support design. And though the explanation of ZPD was also familar, the description of activities based on ZPD as just within a learners’ current ability level (the ZPD is just beyond) is eerily reminiscent of video games which aim to create gameplay levels which are barely doable.


First Principles


I measure conceptual density by the number of highlights; I measure impact by the number of marginal annotations. My copy of Merrill’s, First Principles of Instruction is almost illegible on both counts.


Merrill argues for the existence of basic methods (first principles) that are always true regardless of the variable method used (as a specific instructional activity/practice or a set of activities/program). The argument seems plausible although those principles are open to debate due to the hypothesis that learning is in direct proportion to the implementation of those principles (i.e., if a set of principles is indeed “first,” we’d need to prove the proportion and disprove any other possible principles). Clark’s four instructional architectures (receptive/lecture, directive/tutorial, guided discovery/simulation, and exploratory/collaborative problem-solving) is worth exploring later.

Merrill’s model (shown later) is compared with two similar models from Vanderbilt and from McCarthy. Merrill then proceeds to expand on characteristics of each of his five principles.


  • Show learners real-world problem rather than abstract learning objectives
  • 4 levels of instruction
    1. problems
    2. tasks to solve
    3. operations that comprise the tasks
    4. actions that comprise the operations
  • Elaboration theory advocates progression of successively more complex problems
  • If a simple version of a complex problem is difficult to locate, the coach must do some of the problem solving for the learner and do less and less with each successive problem (scaffold)


  • Learners recall prior knowledge
  • Learners are provided foundational knowledge
  • Learners demonstrate previous knowledge (pre-test as activation rather than assessment)


  • Demonstration must be consistent with goal
    • Examples and non-examples for concepts
    • Demonstrations for procedures
    • Visualizations for processes
    • Modeling for behavior
  • Multiple representations for demonstrations (i.e., Gardner)
  • Three classes of problems
    • Categorization
    • Design (plans and procedures)
    • Interpretation
  • Coaching involves information focusing which is gradually faded (scaffolded)
  • Presenting alternative representations is not sufficient; learners must compare


  • Information-about: recall
  • Parts-of: locate/name
  • Kinds-of: new examples
  • How-to: do
  • What-happens: predict


  • Knowledge must be transferred to life beyond the instruction
    • Publicly demonstrate (could be high score)
    • Reflect, discuss, defend
    • Create new and personal ways to use
  • Multimedia has a temporary (attention-getting) effect on motivation


Finally, Merrill compares his principles with components from other learning theorists:

  • Gardner – emphasis on problem and activation (entry points and analogies)
  • Nelson – emphasis on application via collaboration
  • Jonassen
    • Related cases can supplant memory by providing representations of experiences the learner has not had
    • Behavioral modeling demonstrates how to perform activities
    • Cognitive modeling articulates reasoning used while engaged in activities
    • Scaffold by
      • Adjusting difficulty
      • Restructuring task to supplant lack of prior knowledge
      • Providing alternatives
  • van Merrienboer
    • Multiple approaches to analysis
    • Recurrent skills – require consistent performance – supported by just-in-time information
    • Non-recurrent skills – require variable performance – supported by elaboration
    • Progression of demonstrations
      • Worked-out examples
      • Just-in-time information
      • Models of heuristic methods used by skilled performers
    • Demonstrations are subordinate to practice
    • Demonstration and application are integrated (and iterative?)
    • Product-oriented and process-oriented problems
  • Schank
    • Emphasis on application
    • Goal/mission mapped to story/role (environment)
    • Coaches scaffold
    • Experts tell stories

Merrill concludes by questioning collaboration as a first principle; however, the analysis of solitary activities may answer the question:

  • a learner alone with a book – the author is the collaborator
  • a learner who makes a discovery – perhaps learning does not exist if it can’t be replicated/shared (if a tree falls…)

A slight expansion of Merrill’s model to position the problem in an environment of learners and coaches may accommodate this concern:

Merrill's Problem Model Extended with Environment

Merrill's Problem Model Extended with Environment

Project-Based Learning

The idea to use a multimedia project to teach design skills fascinates me. Rovy Branon at the Advanced Distributed Learning Co_lab in Madison has used game design in the same way but in talking with him, I’ve had some doubts about the efficiency of his approach (he admits it takes a lot of hands-on work from the instructors and the result is more an increased in game design as a career than the impact on reading skills he was seeking). So, the focus on multimedia in this study seems more realistic and offers a more general transfer of knowledge.

The acronym itself confused me as I had previously associated PBL with Problem-Based Learning. But Project-Based Learning is more inclusive, and the five characteristics (centrality, problem, authenticity, investigation, and autonomy) seem identical. I especially appreciated the two challenges:

  1. Need for teachers (or more advanced students) to provide modeling, coaching and scaffolding in a cognitive apprenticeship
  2. Need for community-based exposure to different solutions (resonates with Wiggins’ facet on developing empathy)

The attraction of a multimedia PBL to engage multiple learning styles (intelligences) is obvious because of the diverse nature of the specific problem; I wonder if other PBL’s can offer similarly diverse roles. I suspect that students are best served by “playing” all five design roles (project management, research, organization, presentation, and reflection) on initial projects–and then specializing in a team on more advanced projects.

A new concept for me was the addition of “fading” to scaffolded instruction; previously, I had always integrated the two, but I can now see that they are distinct (and the metaphor works better: a high scaffold with less support was always a little scary picture).

The results of the study were illuminating:

  • significant increases in motivation–with the exception of goals (possibly due to a clearer understanding of the project by the end)
  • significant increase in peer resource management strategies
  • significant decreases in effort and time/study resource management strategies (possibly because of the physical separation of labs, the inherently assistive nature of teamwork, and the realization over time of the complexity of authentic PBL)
  • design skills with the exceptions of interest (perhaps due to the novelty wearing off) and mental effort (perhaps due to students “getting” the new PBL approach)

Like the authors, I was most surprised by the shift in importance from production-oriented tasks at the start of the project to design-oriented tasks by the end. Although this change was counterbalanced by students’ description of the design tasks as “boring,” I was heartened they at least recognized their importance. And despite the authors’ concern on the “fairness” of team projects, I appreciated the suggestion to incorporate both individual and group effort–an idea that might be achieved by individual “rankings” via a game-like scoreboard.

PBL design of Alien Rescue

Because students see no value in what they are asked to learn, they “tune out”and never own that knowledge. PBL seeks to address this value proposition by creating authentic situations that students care about. PBL develops skills in 3 areas:

  1. problem definition (critical) and problem solving (trial and error?)
  2. reflection (can this be done with blogs or social networks?)
  3. deep understanding

Alien Rescue implements 3 implementations of PBL:

  1. anchored instruction
  2. goal-based scenarios
  3. cognitive flexibility (multiple learning perspectives in ill-structured domains)

Alien Rescue uses cognitive tools to support the scaffolding that PBL requires (which I think is equivalent to leveling up in games); these tools:

  1. support cognitive and metacognitive processes;
  2. share cognitive load by supporting lower-level cognitive skills to free up resources for higher order thinking;
  3. allow learners to engage in activities that would be otherwise out of their reach; and
  4. allow learners to generate and test hypotheses in the context of problem-solving.

Alien Rescue incorporates PBL design features:

  • situating the problem
  • complex problems with tools
  • multimedia formats for different learning styles
  • expert guidance from multiple perspectives
  • interrelated knowledge through links

The lessons from the learners were enlightening:

  • The expert tool brought self-study inline with expert actions (expected) although another Alien Rescue article suggested that students did not like the loss of control that occurred when the expert tool was used.
  • A tool that supported activities otherwise denied to students proved too popular; students over-used the tool, requiring a design change that made the tool availability a reward.
  • The version that includes expert stories (which seem distinct from the expert tool) to scaffold learning produced significantly better near transfer and far transfer results.

Small groups/worlds

I looked at the Pellegrino article again and still find it directly applicable to what I do in higher ed. His triad of curriculum (scope and sequence), instruction (the teaching) and assessment is right on the money (and ties this article closely to the Bates model). I also started to see common themes emerge:

1. students come with existing knowledge structures which are sometimes inaccurate (the Wiggins’ misperception idea);
2. students must have deep factual and procedural knowledge, understand those facts and procedures in the context of a conceptual framework, and then be able to retrieve and apply the facts and procedures from an organization structured within memory. Pellegrino states (note: check this out since as he doesn’t cite any research directly) that the ability to notice patterns (Wiggins) or draw analogies to other problems (Bloom) is “more closely intertwined with factual and procedural knowledge than was once believed.”
3. metacognition–basically an internal dialogue or reflection–teaches students to take control of their own learning by defining goals and monitoring their progress.

Pellegrino’s four goals of instruction resonated as well:

1. Design meaningful problems;
2. Build scaffolds to help students solve those problems;
3. Give students opportunities for practice using feedback, revision, and reflection activities; and
4. “Promote collaboration and distributed expertise, as well as independent learning.”

Pellegrino amplified this last point  by suggesting teachers have learners work in small groups on complex problems. I recently read an article about an experiment Robert Goldstone, a cognitive psychologist at Indiana conducted that suggested small groups with a few weak connections to other groups are ideal for solving complex problems; large groups with a lot of connections (aka Facebook and wikipedia, aka The Wisdom of Crowds) are best for solving simple problems. I wonder if this maps at all to Dunbar’s Number?

Interestingly, Pellegrino identified a key characteristic of technology-based environments as offering learner control, a point our class made several weeks ago during our discussion!