Cognitive or Conative? Teaching Strategies for the 21st Century

Historically, education has been about developing students’ cognitive skills to improve their ability to store and process information. This is still critical, of course, but today’s rigorous college and career readiness standards also emphasize the development of students’ conative skills to prepare them for higher education and the global workplace.

Put simply, students use conative skills to combine what they know with how they feel to better function in society. Educators need to instill both types of skills in students to increase learning and improve their academic performance.Cognitive Strategies

Whenever you ask students to generalize, draw conclusions, investigate, make decisions, experiment, or identify logical errors, you’re helping them develop their cognitive skills. This occurs when they assess the relevance and credibility of the information and sources they encounter.

As you deliver content, have students critique, evaluate, predict, infer, and identify relationships between ideas. Questions you might ask include:

  • What’s the best way to …?
  • Which alternative is best?
  • How do these things compare?
  • What would happen if …?
  • What would have happened if …?
  • What would have to happen for …?

 

Conative Strategies

To deepen their understanding of the content, students must develop a keen awareness of their own thinking and the thinking of others. This requires skills that are a little more challenging to instill in them, such as self-control, resiliency, and the ability to avoid negative thinking.

As a teacher, you can increase the complexity to cultivate this growth mindset. Ask them questions that force them to understand and interact with each other, take various perspectives, and responsibly handle conflict and controversy.

  • What makes you believe …?
  • What reasons do you have for thinking that way?
  • Is that what you feel or what you think?
  • What is the worst that could happen?
  • How likely is that to happen?
  • How can you overcome this setback?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • Why might someone disagree with you?
  • What can you do to keep this situation positive?
  • What questions might you ask to clarify?
  • Is it possible to achieve everyone’s goals?
  • What’s getting in the way?
  • What do you want to learn next?

Recommended Activities

To help students meet Common Core State Standards and other college and career readiness standards, incorporate strategies that hone students’ cognitive and conative skills into every lesson. A few examples are below.

Elementary school – English language arts reading/literature standards for third grade (RL.3.2): Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.

Middle school – Number systems standards for sixth grade (6.NS.B.3): Fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi‐digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each operation.

High school – History and social studies standards for ninth grade (RH.9–10.9): Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

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