Introduction to CFT and History Online


Tammy Clark
Tammy's Portfolio Page
Using Cognitive Flexibility Theory to Teach History


Welcome to the Course

Welcome to Using Cognitive Felxibility Theory (CFT) to Teach History! I hope you find this course useful in your own teaching. While the course is meant to address the uses of CFT in an online setting, it can be used just as well in a face-to-face (f2f) course. Take a minute to go through the introduction. At the bottom of each section of the course, you will find a link to the next section. At the top of each section, you will find links to the rest of my wiki pages. I hope you get as much out of this course as I did preparing it. Enjoy!

Course Objectives

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • Define CFT, ill-structured domain, and epistemic beliefs
  • Identify the essential elements of an online course
  • Compose possible uses for CFT in your history course

What is Cognitive Flexibility Theory?

Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT) was introduced by Rand Spiro around the mid-1980’s. It was formed in an effort to address issues of teaching and learning in ill-structured domains. These domains were resistant to traditional instructional practices that utilize pre-determined, already existing schema. Instead, new schemas are flexibly created while learning in ill-structured domains.

What does this mean? CFT is just another learning theory used to connect information for the learner. By studying domains case-by-case, the learner begins to see that there are not strict rules for each situation/case. However, knowledge of the domain itself is still created through newly formed schema. For instance: a learner studies cases of child abuse. No two situations are alike, and no two situtations require the same response. However, they all exist in the same domain (child abuse). So, by studying 10 cases of child abuse, the learner begins to see themes. By the end of the lesson, the learner will be able to address each new unique case with an appropriate response, no matter its components. Without CFT, the learner may react to each unique case in the same manner, or become confused when situations change. For instance, because the learner studied one particular case, they may only know how to solve the case in that one particular context. Faced with a new context, they become confused or react inappropriately.

Ill-structured domains include any domain that does not adhere to strict rules or result in static, concrete answers. “As a result of the nature or problems within ill-structured domain (e.g., social studies, psychology, electronic mail), students tend to depend more on heuristics or rules of thumb to operate efficiently (Lawless & Kulikowich, 1993). To learn to operate efficiently in an ill-structured domain, case studies are often used. “Over the course of time, it is likely that the learner will be faced with many exceptions to these rules, forcing him/her to deal with multiple perspectives, points of view or underlying themes” (Electronic Mail, 247).

What does this mean? In basic terms, an ill-structured domain is any domain that is not simple or that does not have simple rules and answers. History is an ill-structured domain because what we know/say about history changes depending on who is writing the history when. Simple math like adding and subtracting is not ill-structured because there are concrete rules and answers. 2+2 always equals 4. However, once you get into higher mathematics, the domain becomes ill-structured.

Goals of CFT:
1) assist learning of important yet complex knowledge (ill-structured domains)
2) encourage formation of flexible knowledge that is adaptable in real-world situations
3) altering modes of thought
4) create instructional settings using hypertext (Spiro, 4).

Test Yourself

In 10 words or less each, define CFT and ill-structured domain. See possible answers


  • Auntie EMM Sends Electronic Mail to Oz. (1995). International Journal of Instructional Media, 22(3) 245-54.
  • Balcytiene, A. (1999). Exploring Individual Processes of Knowledge Construction with Hypertext. Instructional Science, 27(3-4) 303-28.
  • Boyd, F., Ikpeze, C. (June 2007). Navigating a Literacy Landscape: Teaching Conceptual Understanding with Multiple Text Types. Journal of Literacy Research 39(2), 217-248.
  • Carvalho, A. (2000). Complex Knowledge Representation in a Web Course.
  • Demetriadis, S., Pombortsis, A. (1999). Novice Student Learning in Case Based Hypermedia Environment: A Quantitative Study. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 8(2) 241-69.
  • Fitzgerald, G., et. al. (1997). An Interactive Multimedia Program To Enhance Teacher Problem-Solving Skills Based on Cognitive Flexibility Theory: Design and Outcomes. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 6(1) 47-76.
  • Godshalk, V., Harvey, D., Moller, L. (October 2004). The Role of Learning Tasks on Attitude Change Using Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext Systems. Learning Sciences Journal, 13(4) 507-526.
  • Harvey, D., Godshalk, V., Milheim, W. (2002). Using Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext to Develop Sexual Harassment Cases. Computers in the Schools, 18(1) 213-229.
  • Jacobson, M., Spiro, R. (1995). Hypertext Learning Environments, Cognitive Flexibility, and the Transfer of Complex Knowledge: An Empirical Investigation.

Journal of Educational Computing Research, 12(4) 301-33.

  • Liaw, S., Huang, H. (2000). Enhancing Interactivity in Web-based Instruction: A Review of the Literature. Educational Technology, 40(3) 41-45.
  • Lima, M., Koehler, M., Spiro, R. (2004). Collaborative Interactivity and Integrated Thinking in Brazilian Business Schools Using Cognitive Flexibility Hypertexts: The Panteon Project. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 31(4) 371-406.
  • Ludwig, B. (2000). Web-Based Instruction: Theoretical Differences in Treatment of Subject Matter.
  • Oliver, K. (1996). A Critical Analysis of Hypermedia and Virtual Learning Environments.
  • Parker, D., Rossner-Merrill, V. (1998) Socialization of Distance Education: The Web as E**nabler.
  • Rossner-Merrill, V. et. al. (1998). Using Constructivist Instructional Design Featured in Two Online Courses: Notes from the Field. Educational Media International, 35(4) 282-88.
  • Simonson, N. (1998). Design Considerations in Converting a Stand-Up Training Class to Web-Based Training: Some Guidelines from Cognitive Flexibility Theory.

Journal of Interactive Instruction Development, 10(3) 3-9.

  • Spiro, R. J. et. al. (2003). Cognitive Flexibility Theory: Hypermedia for Complex Learning, Adaptive Knowledge Application, and Experience Acceleration. Educational Technology, 43(5) 5-10.
  • Staninger, S. (1994). Hypertext Technology: Educational Consequences. Educational Technology, 34(6) 51-53.

Begin Unit 1