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Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

Cognitive Processes

Cognitive Processes is the tenth program in the Discovering Psychology series. This program explores the evolution of cognitive psychology and how we take in information. Cognitive psychology spans a vast range of study, from the parts of the brain used in reading to the computer's impact on the study of how humans think.

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Interview Excerpt: Robert Glaser on Cognitive Processes

Researcher Dr. Robert Glaser explains how the process of organizing knowledge in sophisticated patterns enables people to become experts.

One of the studies we’ve conducted on cognitive processes involves trying to understand what it means for people to be an expert. First, we want to understand the performance differences between experts in a field and relative novices in the same field. This contrast gives us some very interesting information and establishes the goals of learning and teaching in acquiring expert cognitive skill.

A consistent finding about people who are very competent in various areas of knowledge like mathematics or science, chess playing, or reading x-rays, is that they develop a particular organization in their knowledge. In other words, their knowledge is highly structured so that when they look at problems, they recognize particular patterns that are meaningful to them. When young children look at a page, they see words that have meaning to them. When older children or adults look at a page, they see much larger patterns of meaning.

For a long time, an accepted theory was that people who were very good at what they do just had better memory. But studies of chess players, for example, revealed not that they remember entire games in their heads, but that when they look at a chess board, they see a whole configuration of pieces that would be meaningless to a novice.

One thing that experts see, then, is a highly patterned organization in the problems they’re presented with. A novice sees surface features of a problem. A novice’s knowledge is much more fragmented, less integrated. Experts also use their knowledge to solve problems, a practice that assesses and strengthens what they know.

These characteristics of competence are the hallmark of instruction. Now that we know some of the patterns in learning and excelling, we can design learning institutions to maximize performance and assessment.

A list of Dr. Glaser’s publications as well as information on the University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center is available at the following Web site.


Cognitive Psychology: The study of higher mental processes and structures, such as the storage, transformation, and manipulation of information.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET): A method of obtaining detailed pictures of activity in the living brain. Involves injecting a radioactive substance that is taken up by the active neurons and allows one to view the blood flow in localized areas of the brain as certain tasks are performed.

Prototype: A representative example of a category, or its most typical member.