Defining a Cognitively Complex Task

An architecture student’s hypothesis—it’s time to test it

By Scott Sterling

We often consider cognitively complex tasks as ideal classroom activities—the culmination of rigor. It’s a very specific process; for students to find success, instruction must be precise and deliberate. Luckily, one of the latest books in the Essentials for Achieving Rigor series, Engaging in Cognitively Complex Tasks, goes into detail about how to achieve these ideals.

Think of your favorite taxonomy. Chances are that tasks such as recitation and memorization appear at the bottom of it. Tasks in which students have to not only interact with knowledge, but also generate their own ideas and defend them appear at the top, under a heading like “synthesis.”

Dr. Marzano and his co-authors give the following definition of a cognitively complex task:

For students, the core of effectively engaging in cognitively complex tasks is the ability to produce and support claims. You and your students must master a structured and rigorous method for producing and supporting claims that includes these steps:

  1. State a claim,
  2. Establish grounds,
  3. Provide backing, and
  4. Frame qualifiers to include describing counter-arguments as well as identifying one or more of the four types of thinking errors (faulty logic, errors of attack, weak reference, or misinformation).


Hypotheses occur in every subject area. They can be as simple as a student having an idea about what a Shakespearean passage means or as complex as an attempt at a proof in trigonometry. The goal is to have hypotheses posited as often as possible, within the responsible framework of scaffolding.

To get to this point, a lot of groundwork needs to be laid. This is why a gradual release model is so effective; it doesn’t throw students into the deep end. Teachers gradually present the new knowledge in manageable chunks. Learning and practicing the new knowledge occurs with the “safety net” of the teacher’s support. Eventually, once mastery of the new content is achieved, the teacher takes off the training wheels and asks students to create something new—and then be able to defend it.

There is a lot of nuance to this process, which is described in detail in the new book. Any teacher can acquire the skills to guide students toward cognitively complex tasks. Also, any student can engage with them.

That being said, when teachers blindly decide to “raise the stakes” in their classroom without mastering the process, pitfalls often occur. Again, adapted from Engaging in Cognitively Complex Tasks:

  • The teacher fails to provide a prompt that requires a cognitively complex response.

You might think you’re asking the students to generate a claim and support it, but it’s just recitation or another lower-level task.

  • The teacher fails to expect all students to state a claim.

We’ve all cherry-picked the class for answers in the interest of saving time. Every student can—and should be expected to—engage in cognitively complex tasks.

  • The teacher fails to release responsibility to students to think independently.

Control isn’t released properly. You might feed them possible claims as a way to move the process along.

  • The teacher fails to follow the process through to its conclusion and evaluation after asking students to generate a hypothesis.

Prediction is only the first step. Students need to be able to move from prediction to investigation to analysis of results.

There is a lot more to engaging in cognitively complex tasks. Things can go sideways during the process. Students need to be properly monitored and assessed to assure their progress. Learning needs to be differentiated for advanced or struggling students. Although we’ve provided a map, it takes the skills of the teacher to assure its success.

For a lot more learning strategies and analysis on the topic of helping students revise knowledge, check out the upcoming book in the Essentials for Achieving Rigor series, Engaging in Cognitively Complex Tasks, available at the Learning Sciences International bookstore.

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