AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

24: Learning with technology: Using computers as cognitive tools

24.1 Introduction
24.2 Computers as cognitive tools
24.3 Why cognitive tools?
24.4 Overview of the chapter
24.5 Computer programming languages as cognitive tools
24.6 Hypermedia/ Multimedia authoring systems as cognitive tools
24.7 Semantic networking as cognitive tools
24.8 Expert systems as cognitive tools
24.9 Databases as cognitive tools
24.10 Spreadsheets as cognitive tools
24.11 Conclusions
24.12 A final word
Search this Handbook for:

24.9 Databases as cognitive tools

24.9.1 What Are Databases?

Databases are computerized record-keeping systems that were designed originally to replace paper-based information retrieval systems. A database consists of one or more files, each of which contains information in the form of a set of records (e.g., an individual's bank account information). Each record in a database is divided into fields, which describe the class or type of information contained therein. The same type of information is stored in each field in each record. An address database for a professional association might contain many records, each with information such as names and addresses of the members. These records are systematically broken down into fields (subunits of each record) that define a common pattern of information. For example, an address database might contain six fields, one each for the name, street address, city, state, zip code, and telephone number. The content and arrangement of each field is standardized within the records so that the computer will "know" which part of the record to search for to locate a particular kind of information. Database management systems (DBMS) provide the capability for managing, searching, and sorting information in a database as well as creating and defining new database files. Having defined the data structure, information can be entered into or deleted from the file. File management functions enable the user to make permanent copies of the information in the database.

'Me most important functions of DBMS are the organization tools that help us answer queries about information in the database. These tools include the search functions we can use to search through the database to find specific information. We can search the entire database or by specific fields, using Boolean combinations of search terms, such as AND, OR, and NOT. The other organizational tool that is used extensively is the sort function that enables us to rearrange the contents of the database, usually in ascending or descending order. Essentially, DBMS allow us to store information in an organized way and to locate or arrange the order of information to help us answer queries about the information in it. Most applications of databases support administrative purposes such as maintaining records of dues paid by members of a professional association. However, we can use the same functions to analyze and enter subject-matter content into databases, which can then be searched and sorted to answer specific questions about the content or to seek interrelationships and inferences among the content records. In short, databases may be used as cognitive tools.

24.9.2 How Are Databases Used as Cognitive Tools?

The organized and defined nature of a database facilitates the acquisition or collection of information and the analysis of content domains through the breaking down of information into its constituent parts. Therefore, knowledge databases can function as cognitive tools. McCurry and McCurry (1992) described the use of database software to classify types of seashells. Rooze (1988-89) emphasized the value of databases in social studies classes in terms of their placing students in active rather than passive roles. Rooze maintained that the creation of databases allows students to, determine what information to collect and to organize seemingly unrelated bits of information. into meaningful categories. Rooze reported that the teacher must guide the development of categories and search procedures if the students are going to be able to use the database effectively, and recommended a "Concept Development Strategy" and an "Interpretation of Data Strategy" in the development and uses of databases.

Knight and Timmins (1986) also recommended the use of databases to meet the objectives of history instruction. Pon (1984) described the use of database software as an inquiry tool to aid higher-order thinking in a fourth-grade American Indian studies course. Watson and Strudler (1988-89) described a lesson based on Taba's Inductive Thinking Model that teaches higher-order thinking using databases. Watson and Strudler concluded that building databases involves analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information, all clearly important critical-thinking skills.

24.9.3 What Research Supports the Use of Databases as Cognitive Tools?

The use of databases as cognitive tools has generated no -formal research, and as a result, only anecdotal evidence exists to support their efficacy. However, the opportunities for assessing the effects of building and using databases is extensive. The following paragraphs describe some of the issues that can be researched.

There are several basic activities involved in developing and using knowledge databases in education, each of which engages a different combination of cognitive processes. The simplest application is filling in an existing database by searching for information that fits into the data structure. For instance, a database comparing the social and economic development of different countries might include fields such as gross national product (GNP), population, infant mortality rate, personal income, literacy rate, defense spending, and so forth. Students could consult reference sources to locate information to contribute to the database.

Querying the databases they have created also supports learning. Learners can use the database to answer or construct questions about the information in it, such as:

  1. What is the relationship between the average income and literacy rate? Which country is different from others with a high literacy rate? How will recent events affect that country?
  2. If you knew nothing -about these countries except what is in the database, in which one would you want to live? Why?
  3. How are infant mortality rate and literacy related to GNP?
  4. Which are the most socially advanced countries? Based on which criteria?

Querying a database is a two-stage process: understanding the query and then following database-specific procedures for answering the query (Schlager, 199 1).

Even more intellectual engagement may result from identifying a content domain, sensing an information need, and developing a data structure for accommodating the information to be included and the kinds of questions that need to be asked. A large number of critical-thinking skills are required to construct and use knowledge-oriented databases. The necessity for conducting research on databases as cognitive tools is considerable. Opportunities in this area are nearly unlimited at many levels of education and training.

We were unable to locate any formal empirical research to validate the use of databases as a cognitive tool. Many educators have practiced using databases as cognitive tools, but none that we are aware of have researched the effects. We would expect that constructing databases would certainly enhance recall and retention of information. We would also expect that building databases would improve students' ability to comprehend domain knowledge as well as draw inferences and implications from information. There is great research potential here for future researchers.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Association for Educational Communications and Technology

1800 North Stonelake Drive, Suite 2
Bloomington, IN 47404

877.677.AECT (toll-free)

AECT Home Membership Information Conferences & Events AECT Publications Post and Search Job Listings