Cognitive Modeling


Human–Computer Interaction


Modeling human thinking on specific tasks (cognitive competencies)

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … range of established competencies
  • Knowing is … competent acting
  • Learner is … a simulated actor (computer-based simulation)
  • Learning is … developing a competency
  • Teaching is … N/A




Cognitive Modeling is concerned with simulating human thinking and problem solving, with views toward predicting human conceptual performance on focused tasks and improving human–computer interaction. Cognitive Modeling employs many different strategies, including decision-tree-like diagrams, sets of equations to simulate nonlinear systems, trainable neural nets, and interactive computer programs. Complex Systems Research serves as a core grounding to most Cognitive Modeling. Prominent subdiscourses include:
  • Bayesian Model (Bayesian Cognitive Science) (David Marr, 1970s) – an approach to modeling brain activity that is oriented by the premise that the brain is constantly operating in a space of uncertainty as it makes predictions and decisions. As a proxy for the brain’s actual coping mechanism, the model relies on a mathematical formula (developed by Thomas Bayes in the 1700s) for calculating probabilities of events as new information becomes available.
  • Diffusion Model (R. Ratcliff, 1970s) – a mathematical model for analyzing and simulating cognitive processes involved in binary (this-or-that) decisions
  • GOMS (Goals, Operators, Methods, Selection Rules) (Stuart Card, Thomas P. Moran, Allen Newell, 1980s) – a theory of cognitive activity, expressed in terms of processes used to search problem spaces. Variations of GOMS include:
    • CPM-GOMS (Cognitive Perceptual Motor GOMS and Critical Path Method GOMS) (Bonnie John, 1980s) – a version of GOMS that assumes multitasking behavior (rather than serial monotasking)
    • KLM-GOMS (Keystroke-Level Model) (Stuart Card, Thomas P. Moran, Allen Newell, 1980s) – a model that calculates and predicts the time needed for a user to complete a familiar task
    • NGOMSL (Natural GOMS Language) (David Kieras, 1980s) – a version of GOMS that offers both indications of execution times and estimations of time required to learn a system
  • Human Processor Model (Stuart Card, Thomas P. Moran, Allen Newell, 1980s) – a model used to calculate and predict the time needed to perform a specific task
  • Predictive Brain (K. Nave, T. Vecchi, 2020s) – a theory that the central nervous system behaves as though it is a probability machine – that is, constantly improving its inputs and algorithms in an endless effort to reduce discrepancies between what is expected and what is actually experienced
Cognitive Modeling is an aspect of many discourses that focus more broadly on matters of ergonomics, design, and engineering of processes and systems. Associated discourses include:
  • Ergonomics (Human Factors) – a transdisciplinary domain focused on the design of processes, technologies, and systems for safety, comfort, and efficiency. Subspecialities include:
    • Cognitive Ergonomics – a subdiscipline of Ergonomics that aims to incorporate research into human cognition (e.g., habits of perception, constraints on attention) into the design of work processes, technologies, and systems
    • Communication Ergonomics – a subdiscipline of Ergonomics that focuses on communications within shared-work situations – typically on such elements as means of interaction, fidelity of information transfer, protocols forcontact, and efficiency of engagement
    • Cultural Ergonomics – a subdiscipline of Ergonomics that attends to such matters as ethnicity, gender, religion, and class to ensure the fitness, efficiency, and safety of work processes, technologies, and systems for affected individuals and groups
    • Industrial Ergonomics – a subdiscipline of Ergonomics that focuses on industry settings
    • Macroergonomics (Work System) – an approach to Ergonomics that looks holistically at cognitive, situational, and technological aspects of a work setting
    • Microergonomics – an approach to Ergonomics that focuses on the operator–machine interface
    • Occupational Ergonomics – a subdiscipline of Ergonomics that focuses on the physical, cognitive, and social possibilities for and constraints of specific occupations 
  • Human Factors Psychology – a branch of Psychology that studies the safety, efficiency, and fitness of technologies, settings, and systems. Associated disciplines include:
    • Engineering Psychology (Human Factors Engineering) – a subdiscipline of Human Factors Psychology the study and design of human interactions with and within technologies, settings, and systems
    • Human Engineering – the design of processes, equipment, and settings intended to enhance productivity while ensuring safety and comfort
    • Human Systems Integration – a discipline focused the integration of knowledge of human cognition and physiology into the design of advanced computer-based systems that enable efficient and safe performance
    • Sociotechnical Systems Approach – a Systems Thinking approach (see Complex Systems Research) to the design of work settings, in which the duties, technologies, and situations of a context are seen to constitute a single integrated system – that is, in which it is understood that altering a single element of an organization has consequences for all elements of the system
    • Systems Engineering – a multidisciplinary domain focused on the study and integrated design of physical, cognitive, social, and technological aspects of work settings, oriented principally by concerns for efficiency and safety


At the moment, Cognitive Modeling is used to refer to quite a range of strategies and foci, none of which has approached the complexity of human thinking. As might be expected, however, rapid progress is being made – as might be gleaned from Human Enhancement, which might be construed to comprise “more extreme” versions of the above discourses.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

John Anderson; Kurt VanLehn

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Modeling might be interpreted as a grounded or experimental approach to developing theories of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Modeling is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

As noted above, there are many different strategies and foci associated with Cognitive Modeling. Most appear to maintain a strong commitment to the standards of empirical inquiry.


  • Bayesian Model (Bayesian Cognitive Science)
  • Cognitive Ergonomics
  • Communication Ergonomics
  • CPM-GOMS (Cognitive Perceptual Motor GOMS and Critical Path Method GOMS)
  • Cultural Ergonomics
  • Diffusion Model
  • Engineering Psychology (Human Factors Engineering)
  • Ergonomics (Human Factors)
  • GOMS (Goals, Operators, Methods, Selection Rules)
  • Human Engineering
  • Human Factors Psychology
  • Human Processor Model 
  • Human Systems Integration
  • Industrial Ergonomics
  • KLM-GOMS (Keystroke-Level Model)
  • Macroergonomics (Work System)
  • Microergonomics
  • NGOMSL (Natural GOMS Language)
  • Occupational Ergonomics
  • Predictive Brain
  • Sociotechnical Systems Approach
  • Systems Engineering

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Cognitive Modeling” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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