Have You Hacked These Cognitive Tools?

Modern technology offers a plethora of cognitive tools for implementation in your classroom. You’re likely familiar with pedagogical tools and teaching resources, but you may also be wondering what exactly a “cognitive tool” is.

Cognitive tools are tools that, when used outside of the classroom, play a role in productivity. They include word-processing programs, spreadsheets, and e-mail programs. Applied to the classroom, these become cognitive tools, because they improve the learning process, enhancing thinking and understanding. Let’s look at some examples:


Spreadsheets are screens that are divided into rows and columns, and are supplied in programs that have mathematical and statistical computational capabilities. This information can also be used to generate graphical data from the numerical data. Spreadsheet analysis programs are provided with a wide range of formulas that allow many functions, some of which resemble low-level programming, while others are complex mathematical functions. Both of these functions can be used to assist students with learning. Spreadsheets require the prior collection of data, which may be obtained from various real-life or online sources. Real-life sources could be data from a student’s bank account showing how much money the student earned, received, or spent in a month. Or a group of students could collect data while conducting a study on how many cars come in and out of the school parking lot in a month. T

he data would need to be organized into a row- and-column format to make use of the analytical capabilities of the spreadsheet. This skill in itself is useful in showing students how to identify which data is important and how to arrange it. Analysis could be largely automated through familiarization with the various formulas available within the program. Further familiarization with the program would allow students to be able to take their data and convert it into a graphical or visual format, making it meaningful, relevant, and interesting to other students. This could also reduce the work required of the teacher, who could design the exercises so that the correct arrangement of data, formulas, or analysis is crucial in allowing the graphs to appear correctly, thus allowing them to quickly identify students who require additional assistance.


Another cognitive tool that’s very useful in statistical analysis is a database, which is a vastly more powerful tool than a spreadsheet. Databases are larger, more robust stores of data, but are generally built on a more advanced programming platform than spreadsheets. Whereas spreadsheets store single items of data, databases can store information regarding how the data has been changed, and can link items of data together to form data relationships. Databases allow much larger stores of information to be created, as well as allowing multiple students to access them and make changes over a period of time, keeping a history of those changes for future use.

Word-Processing Programs

These have many advantages over paper and pencil. Editing is a lot less tedious, as you can change the document while you work on it without having to erase and start over. Some word-processing programs offer students the option of group activities, so that the group can all work on the same document.

Desktop Publishing and Multimedia

These programs allow users to combine text elements with audiovisual information, such as graphics, videos, audio clips, animations, and other display and design elements. Students who learn with these options become competent in constructing and delivering a complete document that includes videos, audio, and graphic information as well as text.

Most of the programs mentioned here now come standard with laptops and desktop computer software. If you’re curious about how to best implement these cognitive tools in your classroom, read on in future articles about how to best apply technology to your curriculum.

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