Cognitive Flexibility Theory (R. Spiro, P. Feltovitch & R. Coulson)


Cognitive flexibility theory focuses on the nature of learning in complex and ill-structured domains. Spiro & Jehng (1990, p. 165) state: "By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one's knowledge, in many ways, in adaptiv e response to radically changing situational demands...This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g. , along multiple rather single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes o f schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval)."

The theory is largely concerned with transfer of knowledg e and skills beyond their initial learning situation. For this reason, emphasis is placed upon the presentation of information from multiple perspectives and use of many case studies that present di verse examples. The theory also asserts that effective learning is context-dependent, so instruction needs to be very specific. In addition, the theory stresses the importance of constructed knowledge; learners must be given an opportunity to develop thei r own representations of information in order to prop erly learn.

Cognitive flexibility theory builds upon other constructivist theories (e.g., Bruner , Ausubel, Piaget ) and is related to the work of Salomon in terms of media and learning interaction.


Cognitive flexibility theory is especially formulated to support the use of interactive technology (e.g., videodisc, hypertext). Its primary applications have been literary comprehension, history, biology and medicine.


Jonassen, Ambruso & Olesen (1992) describe an application of cognitive flexibility theory to the design of a hypertext program on transfusion medicine. The program provides a number o f different clinical cases which students must diagnose and treat using various sources of information available (including advice from experts). The learning environment presents multiple perspectives on the content, is complex and ill-defined, and emp hasizes the construction of knowledge by the learner.


1. Learning activities must provide multiple representations of content.

2. Instructional materials should avoid oversimplifying the content domain and support context-dependent knowledge.

3. Instruction should be case-based and emphasize knowledge construction, not transmission of information.

4. Knowledge sources should be highly interconnected rather than compartmentalized.


Jonassen, D., Ambruso, D . & Olesen, J. (1992). Designing hypertext on transfusion medicine using cognitive flexibility theory. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1(3), 309-322.

Spiro, R.J., Coulson, R.L., Feltovich, P.J., & Anderson, D. (1988). Cognitive flex ibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In V. Patel (ed.), Proceedings of the 10th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. [Reprinted in Ruddell, R.B. & Ruddell, M.R. (1994). Theoreti cal Models and Processes of Reading (4th Ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.]

Spiro, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.J., & Coulson, R.L. (1992). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism and hypertext: Random access instruction for adv anced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In

T. Duffy & D. Jonassen (Eds.), Co nstructivism and the Technology of Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and te chnology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlb aum.