Situated Cognition: “Busy Hands, Busy Minds”

Situated Cognition: “Busy Hands, Busy Minds”

By: Nicole M. Hardy, Guest Student Author

Does hands-on learning increase student understanding? Research has proven that students who are taught using hands-on teaching methods outperform those who do not. Hands-on learning is an instructive method that allows the learner to vigorously engage in activities in order to learn about them. In essence, it is “learning by doing.” You know the saying, “practice makes perfect.” In order to perfect something, we must apply repetition. It is extremely hard to do something once and have the ability to say you perfected it. A 2009 study conducted by researchers at Purdue University, found that students who were taught about human impacts on water quality through a hands-on learning method, as opposed to only the textbook and lecture method, showed higher comprehension of the concepts, particularly among those students where English was not their first language.

Situated cognition is the theory that people’s knowledge is embedded in the activity and culture in which it was learned. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger originated this theory sometime around the 1980s. They believe that communities of practice are all around us and we participate in them daily at work, school, and other leisure activities. In today’s high-performance organizations, workers strive to continuously learn new tasks, often without much training. It is shifting the relationships between workers and managers. Employees are required to take more responsibility for their work and to have skills in critical thinking and problem-solving. It causes us to be proactive in our learning and take charge of our own knowledge, especially in the performance improvement world as it is continuously changing.


The point of this article is to encourage more hands-on learning inside and outside of the classroom to prepare students for the real world. Textbooks and lectures aren’t enough alone to prepare students for the workplace. Adults must be able to have knowledge that is transparent at home and school. How do you plan on using the situated cognition theory to keep your hands and mind busy learning? Can you think of any ways you apply this theory to your life on a daily basis inadvertently?
Driscoll, Marcy P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. (3rd Edition). Allyn and Bacon.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in Practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.



  • As an older learner I find that hands on training helps with knowledge transfer. With the high turnover of employees, hands on training is difficult because the person that was in the role is no longer with the company, and the new hire is responsible for learning the job via training manuals or sitting with people who may have worked with the employee who left, but was unfamiliar with the employees actual role. Great article.

  • I definitely agree that hands on learning for increased knowledge retention and transfer is 100% necessary. However, I do think that there is a place for lecture style learning before someone is taught hands on. I have seen a difference when I do a presentation for my seasonal HR reps and then teach them hands on individually than if I just try to throw them in and learn only hands on. I think that it’s important to give them a knowledge base that they can at least refer to when they are learning a new process or procedure. It helps them not get overwhelmed.

    I do think though that if I were to just teach them via lecture and then try to have them complete the tasks I don’t think it would be effective at all.

  • In my workplace, i am frequently required to learn some new task — typically software. In most instances there is some training provided to accompany this new responsibility. And in most instances, the hands-on portion of the training either non existent or insufficient in some way. Needless to say this has and is frustrating and the transfer of learning to the job after the training has taken much longer than it needed to. I often found myself informing my supervisor, that I learn best when I am the one doing the task. So I have to convince the person who is now giving me a refresher to allow me to sit at the computer and have them talk me through it. This is met with resistance, but the need to have the work completed wins out. This practice seems to be changing with the new changing of the guard.

    Our new President has introduced a robust T&D initiative to be part of our strategic plan and I’m on the committee. I believe here is where the idea of an Authentic Learning Environment, specifically, Communities of Practice can find its usefulness. Better designed training’s that include hands-on learning for those of us who belong to the Communities of Practice should find that we can successfully move from novice, to periphery of community to community of practice and at some point arrive at the expert level. Being able to handle the new task after training only happens if the hands-on experience is embedded in the training, and this practice is now part of the workplace culture.

  • As a student that’s doing online learning it’s hard. The more face to face learning is great and you get to interact with the teacher or professor. I never have my associates learn from a manual. I teach them face to face to get more out of them.

Leave a Reply to vepinger Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s