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Learning and Cognition as Aspects of Educational Psychology


Education is rightfully considered to be the basis of the modern society as far as it is education that allows people obtain knowledge in the various spheres of human activity and develop industrial, business, social, and political relations. Understanding these, numerous scholars like B. F. Skinner, Shiffrin, Atkinson, and many others, tried to theorize the educational process in the form of various learning and cognition theories. In these theories, scholars argued about the ways in which human beings obtain knowledge, but not only in the academic but also in the real life sense. However, despite the great number of behavioral, constructivist, cognitive, and other learning theories, the actual rate of education acquisition in the number of the highly developed countries like the Hong Kong and the United Kingdom has been on the sharp decline, if compared to other countries of the world.

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General Notions

Among all the countries of the world, the most notable decline in the rate of obtaining education is observed in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, the countries that were formerly perceived as some of the basic destinations where people from all around the world wished to study. And if the educational decline in the United Kingdom is obvious if the countries rate of full-time students is compared to other countries, the educational issues in Hong Kong are obvious even in the local context and without international comparisons. The educational rates in the United Kingdom remained stable over the recent decade and the relative decline can be observed in comparison to other EU countries in which educational rates grew over the same period, the state of things in Hong Kong is more serious (Luzer, 2009, p. 5).

Problem Statement

Accordingly, the main focus of the currently proposed research is the decline of the educational rates observed in Hong Kong over the last decade. The problem of the research is finding out the reason for such an issue being observed in Hong Kong educational system nowadays. Moreover, as far as the various theories of learning and cognition are designed to explain why human beings obtain knowledge and how they can facilitate the process, these theories, like for example reflective mode of cognition by Norman or reinforcement theory by Skinner (Leonard, 2002, p. 162), can be of help in dealing with the problem of the current research. Therefore, the more specific problem for the research is the attempt to explain the educational rates’ decline in Hong Kong with the help of one, or several, of the learning and cognition theories.

Problem Context

The context of the discussed problem, i. e. the decline of educational rates in Hong Kong, is rather wide and multilevel. Some scholars, including the specialists from the British Council (2009) and Martinez (2009, p. 76), stick to the point of view that the reasons for such an educational crisis are limited to the shift of values and the imbalanced relation of the general inflation rates and the rates of increase of the university and college tuition fees in Hong Kong accompanied by the growing popularity of international education instead of Hong Kong based one. According to the British Council report (2009), “the decline in postgraduate numbers may be largely due to increasing local provision, including the growing number of UK courses offered with local universities and private providers” (British Council, 2009). Moreover, this fact is accompanied by the statistics showing that over 45 thousand of prospective students in Hong Kong intend to study abroad as the British Council report (2009) reveals. This fact conditions the educational crisis. However, the point of view of educational psychology regarding this problem is somewhat different.

Rationale for Research

Thus, the educational psychology theorists like Hergenhahn (2008), Shoben (2009), and Thorndike (2007), argue that it is the change of the motivational factors and expected rewards and outcomes of learning that facilitated the decrease of interest of average Hong Kong citizens in attaining education. Drawing from this, the rationale for the proposed research is the hypothesis that the learning and cognition theories might present another way to explain the crisis of Hong Kong educational system observed nowadays. Accordingly, testing the various learning and cognition theories discussed further for their explanatory potential regarding the research problem is also a constituent part of the rationale for the current research. So, the rationale for the proposed work is the combination of theoretical and practical considerations aimed at finding out the possible causes for the research problem in the context of educational psychology.

Research Questions

On the basis of the above discussed problem, context, and the rationale for the research, the following research questions can be formulated with the special emphasis on interrelation between the learning and cognition theories and the specific problem observed in Hong Kong education:

  1. What are the reasons for the decline of education attainment rates in Hong Kong?
  2. Can any, or some, of the learning and cognition theories (see Appendix I) explain the decline of education attainment rates in Hong Kong?
  3. If yes, what is/are this/those theory/theories and how they can be related to the decline of education attainment rates in Hong Kong?
  4. What is the role of economic factors (inflation, tuition growth) in the decline of education attainment rates in Hong Kong?

Literature Review

Needless to say, the topic of learning and cognition theories has been widely studied and developed by the number of reputable scholars including Colliver (2002, p. 1214), Hung (2001, p. 58), Tuovinen (2001, p. 83), and many others. The major focuses of the previous scholarly research included the development of the learning and cognition theories, their grounding and support, as well as further modification to match the constantly changing conditions observed in the human society. Also, the previous research focuses on categorization of the developed theories and their application to various real life phenomena in the contexts of education and cognition.

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Naturally, the bulk of the scholarly research in the area of learning, cognition, and educational psychology is related to the essence of the basic learning theories and their categorization. Thus, Leahey (2001) and Leonard (2002) divide the theories of learning and cognition into six major groups based on their basic ideas. These groups include behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, educational technology, humanism, and organizational learning (Leonard, 2002, pp. 170 – 171). At the same time, the origins of the bulk of these theories date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when scholars like Skinner, Bruner, Knowles, Shima, Shank, and many others worked on the theoretical framework for the topic (O’Donohue and Ferguson, 2001, p. 59; Crain, 2000, pp. 110 – 112).

Further on, Weiler (2005) and O’Donohue and Ferguson (2001) consider the categories of the learning theories and trace their origin. For instance, behaviorism is basically Skinner’s idea as far as this scholar considered psychology to focus on behavior exclusively, while behavior for Skinner was defined simply as “anything the organism does” (O’Donohue and Ferguson, 2001, p. 55). Jarvis and Holford (2003) single out the recency principle by Guthrie and the operant conditioning theory developed by Skinner and modified by Gagne as two fundamentals for behaviorism (pp. 198 – 199). The recency principle is based on the idea of one-trial learning according to which it is enough for a person to react to a stimulus in a certain way for this person to react to the same stimulus similarly when it occurs again (Jarvis and Holford, 2003, p. 200; Leonard, 2002, p. 160). The essence of Skinner’s operant conditioning, according to Jarvis and Holford (2003) and Leonard (2002) lies in the belief that no activity can be carried out without a reward or reinforcement that serve as the ways to inform a person about the correctness/incorrectness of his/her chosen activity and its outcome (pp. 162 – 163).

Next, scholars like Tuovinen (2000b) and Tittle, Ward, & Grasmick (2003) consider cognitivism as the opposition to behaviorism in arguing that mental states are cognitive activities in their essence, but not ordinary types of behavior that cognition should be directed at (Tuovinen, 2000b, p. 11; Tittle, Ward, & Grasmick, 2003, p. 335). In this respect, Leonard (2002, p. 160) and Tuovinen (2000a, p. 18) consider the ideas by Bruner and Ausubel regarding the reception learning theory as describing the mental state in which the cognition is carried out by receiving the information from its transmitter. As well, cognitivism is characterized by the signatures theory developed by John Anderson as the account on the three basic signatures that facilitate human cognition, i. e. power law of practice, the fan effect, and categorization (Leonard, 2002, pp. 172 – 173; Higgins and Makin, 2001, p. 18).

Further on, scholars like Conole and Dyke (2004, p. 42) and Hastie, Tibshirani, Friedman, and Franklin (2005, p. 83) take their time to examine the constructivist movement of educational psychology and its major theories, i. e. the andragogy by Knowles and social development theory by Vygotsky. Constructivist as is defined as the positivist and learner-oriented approach stressing the importance of the internal learning motivations that drive the process of cognition (Hastie, Tibshirani, Friedman, and Franklin, 2005, p. 83). Based on this, andragogy is the opposition to pedagogy in its learner-oriented approach and emphasis put on the fact that the learner needs to know and understand why learning is necessary to succeed in it (Conole and Dyke, 2004, p. 42). Vygotsky, as argued by Sims (2000, p. 48), in his social development theory also placed the learning agent into the spotlight but argued that socialization is the major purpose of any, academic or real-life, learning.

According to Leonard (2002, pp. 160 – 161), the relatively new educational psychology direction is the educational technology study focused on the role of modern technology and especially computer software in the process of learning. The agents’ theory by Caglayan and Harrison concentrates on the help of the internet, intranet, and desktop agents in the process of learning, while the reactive system theory by Brinksma and Shima is all about the ability of the software cognition agents to react to the new learning tasks based on the experience obtained while dealing with other tasks of the kind (Leonard, 2002, pp. 160 – 161; Norman, 2002, p. 4).

Scholarly research has also been carried out on the humanist theories of learning that argue about the equal importance of psychological and physical aspects of cognition (Shepard, 2000, p. 11). Thus, the adult education theory by Lindeman and Dewey is all about the need for adult education, i. e. involvement of knowledge into use in real-life situations, for the people who attained traditional school education, which is teacher-centric in its essence (Skinner and Craddock, 2003, p. 79). At the same time, affordance theory by Gibson is the account on the role of physical environment, quality of air, shadows and light interplay, temperature, wind, and other weather conditions for the success of both academic and real-life experience gaining (Skinner and Craddock, 2003, pp. 79 – 80).

As well, the research on the organizational learning direction of educational psychology focuses, as it is obvious from the name and the works by Leonard (2002), Higgins and Makin (2004), and Schwartz (2001), on the role of joint stimuli and motivations for learning. The problem solving theory by Dewey and de Bono considers the role of joint goals in gaining new joint experiences by the members of organizations or communities, while the shared cognitive maps theory by Smircich and Shank is all about the shared experiences as the basis for new knowledge being acquired by people united by joint goals and needs at a moment of time (Schwartz, 2001, p. 16).

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Finally, the recent negative trends in the educational systems of various countries including the UK, the USA, and Hong Kong conditioned the research by Hergenhahn (2008), Shoben (2009), and Thorndike (2007), according to whom the major causes for the educational attainment rates decline in those countries are the change of values and motivations as well as expected outcomes of education. These recent research works allow assuming the connection between the reviewed learning theories and the current situation in the educational system of Hong Kong.

Proposed Research Methodology

Theoretical Framework

Drawing from the above discussed data, the methodological approach of the proposed research can be formulated as the combination of the qualitative and quantitative research modes. According to Crain (2000), the qualitative research is the way to see the implications of the studied phenomena and their potential hidden meanings that the study of numeric data, i. e. the quantitative method of research, would possible fail to reveal (p. 72). At the same time, the use of the quantitative method is obvious in dealing with the statistical analysis (Crain, 2000, p. 73; Hastie, Tibshirani, Friedman, and Franklin, 2003, p. 84), which will be involved, as discussed further, in collecting and analyzing the research data. Thus, the theoretical framework for the proposed research will be the combination of the qualitative and quantitative research modes aimed at retrieving the most objective results and carrying out their precise analysis.

Data Collection Methods

In more detail, the specific methodology of the proposed research will focus on the ways to collect and analyze the data from which the researchers will have the possibility to draw certain conclusions. The methodology of data collection will lie in two basic stages. The first will include the processes of compiling the special research questionnaire containing a set of questions to test each of the twelve learning and cognition theories discussed above in the Literature Review section. As well, during the first stage of data collection process, the measurement scale will be designed in order to assess the collected data and assist in their analysis. The second stage of data collection process will involve the survey carried out with the help of the designed questionnaire on the sample of 300 (the estimated number that might be modified when research moves from the proposal stage to the actual completion stage) Hong Kong citizens of the potentially students age (between 16 and 25 years as noticed by Crain, 2000, p. 75) who are not enrolled in any educational establishment in Hong Kong at the time of the survey and do not plan to do it in the predictable future, but might be studying abroad.

Further on, the survey questionnaire as the main toll of data collection in the proposed research will encompass the basic ideas of all the twelve mentioned theories and offer the variants of answers to the respondents. The questions will inquire about the importance of the main concept of a certain theory to a person provided that he or she is not in study in Hong Kong. For example, Skinner’s operant conditioning theory stresses the importance of a stimulus or a reward in motivating the cognition (Jarvis and Holford, 2003, pp. 187 – 188; Leonard, 2002, pp. 112 – 113). The question in a survey might inquire:

How likely is it that reward, or any other possible stimulus, might make you take up study in Hong Kong?

The answer will range according to the scale in which five variants will be given and matched with points (only for researchers, the participants will not see the points for the answers) including certainly possible (4), likely (3), unlikely (2), impossible (1), and not applicable (0). The data will be collected by considering the answers of the research participants and matching them with the respective point in the assessment scale (see Appendix II for the part of the sample questionnaire).

Data Analysis Methods

Accordingly, the analysis of the data collected using the above discussed methodology will be based on the latter. In other words, the data analysis will focus on the calculation of the points earned by every research participant and relating the obtained numbers to every theory of learning and cognition. The theory will then be applied to the situation of the declining higher education rates in Hong Kong in order to explain the crisis. The maximum that every theory might score from one research participant is 4 points, while the total maximum score for a theory taking the expected research sample of 300 participants is 1200 points.

The ultimate success in explaining the educational crisis in Hong Kong will be obtaining 51% of the points (6120 points) by any of the theories. However, in case if none of the theories scores the 51% mark, the theories that the respondents felt the most applicable to the situation will be considered further as potential ways to explain the decline of educational rates in Hong Kong. In other words, the analysis of the data collected during the research will provide the insight into the motivations and reasons that Hong Kong citizens have not to study after school at all or study abroad. Relating the insights to the theories of learning and cognition will allow the researchers to explain the crisis and possibly offer solutions to the educational issue.

Significance of Research

The above considerations allow moving on to the significance of the proposed research. It is stated by numerous scholars including Colliver (2002), Conole and Dyke (2004), Martinez (2009), and Thorndike (2007) that education is the basis on which the society of the future is built. In other words, people develop the human society using their knowledge in various spheres of activity, and the examples of scientific and technological progress illustrate brightly that education is a proper investment in the future. At the same time, when educational rates are on decline and the very value and prestige of education are not considered basic in deciding whether to continue study or not, the level of the social wellbeing of the community where such trends are observed becomes endangered.

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New generations that should substitute the more experienced people have no basis for such a substitution in this case and the community starts feeling lack of qualified workers. This might generally have two major effects on Hong Kong as the community where the educational decline has been recently observed. First, the lack of domestic qualified personnel will result in the powerful immigration flows and indirect investing into the economies of the foreign countries through the money that international workers would earn and send to their home countries. Second, the decline of educational rates might cause social stagnation and regression that could leave Hong Kong behind other regions and countries in technological and industrial, scientific and economic development.

Therefore, the proposed research is significant because it allows studying the educational crisis in Hong Kong and possibly providing solutions or recommendations as for how to stop this crisis. Accordingly, the significance of the proposed research is not only scholarly but social and economic as well because the research is aimed at studying and solving one of the burning social issues of today in Hong Kong.

Research Validity and Reliability

Understanding the significance of the research for the modern society and internal Hong Kong educational environment, it is necessary to provide the validity and reliability to the research and the data obtained with the help of it. The main ways to provide the research validity is to consider the extent to which the selected topic has been studied before and to ensure the proper theoretical support for the proposed research (Norman, 2002, p. 5). The reliability of the research can be achieved through ensuring the objectivity of data retrieved and conclusions drawn as well as through proving the proper character of the research design used. For both validity and reliability the considerations of the research sampling and privacy policy are also vital (Norman, 2002, pp. 5 – 6; Leahey, 2001, p. 48).

Accordingly, the proposed research will also focus on the considerations of validity and reliability. The literature review presented above that the topic of educational rates’ decline in Hong Kong has been studied rather generally and insufficiently, so the research on this topic in the context of educational psychology displays considerable validity. The fact that the research has the theoretical basis of 25 scholarly resources proves the validity of the selected topic and research focus. Theoretically, the proposed research is supported by the scholarly ideas regarding the learning and cognition theories (for instance, the works by Colliver (2002), Hung (2001), Tuovinen (2001), Weiler (2005), and O’Donohue and Ferguson (2001), etc.) and the bulk of research material dealing with educational trends all over the world (Hergenhahn (2008), Shoben (2009), Thorndike (2007), British Council (2009) and Martinez (2009)).

The reliability is also one of the main concerns for the researchers. The objectivity of the data obtained in the proposed research will be ensured by two major processes including the use of non-biased analysts for data analysis and ensuring the privacy for all the research participants. Privacy policy will be ensured as no private data will be requested from the research participants, their anonymity will be guaranteed, and their answers will be labeled as Respondent 1, Respondent 2, and so on. To guarantee the privacy of every single respondent, the researchers will also design the privacy agreement that will be mutually signed by researchers and the selected participants. Thus, validity and reliability of research will be ensured.

Finally, the proposed research also displays some limitations. First, the scope of 300 participants is unlikely to allow any generalizations for the whole Hong Kong or other countries. Second, the attempt to explain the educational crisis through the learning and cognition theories might fail in case if none of the theories will be able to fully explain the situation. To fight these limitations, the researchers might consider increasing the research sample and integrating some other data collection procedures that might become necessary already in the course of research.


Appendix I. Basic learning and cognition theories and their prominent representatives

NOTE: The research scope will not allow analyzing all the learning and cognition theories formulated ever, so for the convenience and objectivity of the research several theories are selected from the basic movements of educational psychology theory, i. e. behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, educational technology, humanism, and organizational learning.

Theory Representatives
Recency principle Guthrie
Operant conditioning theory Skinner, Gagne
Reception learning Bruner, Ausubel
Signatures theory Anderson
Social development Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev
Andragogy theory Knowles
educational technology
Agents theory Caglayan, Harrison
Reactive system Brinksma, Shima
Adult education theory Lindeman, Dewey
Affordance theory Gibson
organizational learning
Problem solving Dewey, de Bono
Shared cognitive maps theory Smircich, Shank

Appendix II. The sample research questionnaire

Recency principle: How likely is it that one negative opinion towards education might form your attitude towards studying after school?

Answer option Points Select
certainly possible 4
likely 3
unlikely 2 +
impossible 1
not applicable 0

Andragogy theory: How likely are you to take up study in Hong Kong if you were provided a clear goal that this study would help you achieve?

Answer option Points Select
certainly possible 4 +
likely 3
unlikely 2
impossible 1
not applicable 0

Affordance theory: How likely is the physical environment (for instance air quality, light, space, wind, etc.) to change your attitude towards continuing study in Hong Kong?

Answer option Points Select
certainly possible 4
likely 3
unlikely 2
impossible 1
not applicable 0 +


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