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Acad Med. 1996 Sep;71(9):988-1001.

Issues in cognitive psychology: implications for professional education.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, Ontario, Canada.


Education and cognitive psychology have tended to pursue parallel rather than overlapping paths. Yet there is, or should be, considerable common ground, since both have major interests in learning and memory. This paper presents a number of topics in cognitive psychology, summarizes the findings in the field, and explores the implications for teaching and learning. THE ORGANIZATION OF LONG-TERM MEMORY: The acquisition of expertise in an area can be characterized by the development of idiosyncratic memory structures called semantic networks, which are meaningful sets of connections among abstract concepts and/or specific experiences. Information (such as the assumptions and hypotheses that are necessary to diagnose and manage cases) is retrieved through the activation of these networks. Thus, when teaching, new information must be embedded meaningfully in relevant, previously existing knowledge to ensure that it will be retrievable when necessary. INFLUENCES ON STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL FROM MEMORY: A wide variety of variables affect the capacity to store and retrieve information from memory, including meaning, the context and manner in which information is learned, and relevant practice in retrieval. Educational strategies must, therefore, be directed at three goals--to enhance meaning, to reduce dependence on context, and to provide repeated relevant practice in retrieving information. PROBLEM SOLVING AND TRANSFER: Much of the development of expertise involves the transition from using general problem-solving routines to using specialized knowledge that reduces the need for classic "problem solving." Two manifestations of this specialized knowledge are the use of analogy and the specialization of general routines in specific domains. To develop these specialized forms of knowledge, the learner must have extensive practice in using relevant problem-solving routines and in identifying the situations in which a particular routine is likely to be useful. CONCEPT FORMATION: Experts possess both abstract proto-typical information about categories and an extensive set of separate, specific examples of categories, which have been obtained through individual experience. Both these sources of information are used in categorization and diagnostic classifications. Thus, it is important for educators to be aware that experience with sample cases is not just an opportunity to apply and practice the rules "at the end of the chapter." Instead, experience with cases provides an alternative method of reasoning that is independent of, but equally useful to, analytical rules.


Experts clearly do not use classic formal decision theory, but rather make use of heuristics, or shortcuts, when making decisions. Nonetheless, experts generally make appropriate decisions. This suggests that the shortcuts are useful more often than not. Rather than teaching learners to avoid heuristics, then, it might be more reasonable to help them recognize those relatively infrequent situations where their heuristics are likely to fail.

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