Cognitive Affordances of Technologies Scale (CATS)

This instrument is a "work in progress". It was developed in Fall 2010 by Dr. Nada Dabbagh ( of George Mason University and doctoral students Susan Conrad and Sue Dass.

What do we mean by cognitive affordance: A cognitive affordance is a design feature that helps, aids, supports, facilitates, or enables thinking and/or knowing about something (see Hartson,


  1. Write out the design features of the learning technology you are examining or thinking of using independently of the learning environment
  2. Use CATS to observe a TSLE that uses this learning technology and analyze the extent to which each affordance is being engendered or evoked 
  3. Identify the design feature(s) that engendered the affordance 
  4. Use the following scale for #2:


The following table shows the seven categories of CATS and definitions for each category and the cognitive affordances within each category. Example artifacts that would signify the use of the affordance such as the use of blogs for reflection is also provided. These artifacts will evolve as CATS continues to be used.

Click on each category to expand or collapse the list of related affordances.


Experiential learning, also known as exploratory learning, is based on the theoretical construct of discovery learning or inquiry-based learning in which learners are provided with a scientific-like inquiry or an authentic problem in a given content area and are asked to generate a hypothesis, gather relevant information using a variety of resources, and provide solutions, action plans, recommendations, and interpretations of situations (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005, p. 185).

  • Problem Solving 

Learners engage in a complex activity or project in which they organize ideas, respond to feedback and construct arguments to achieve a goal. Planning, decision making and explanation are components of the problem solving process. Solving a problem requires goal setting, sequencing of actions, and analysis of results. It often starts with a driving question as to why an event occurs. It is a skill that once learned can be transferred across domains however problem solving also requires domain specific knowledge. Problem solving is also perceived as a theory of mental representation that explains how people reason to accomplish their goals. Problem solving involves thinking critically, asking questions, and reaching a solution. (Thagard, p. 14; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, p. 211 )

Artifacts:  Scenarios (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, p. 256)

  • Hypothesis Generating 

Learners predict an outcome from a number of possible actions based upon the learners available information and reasoning ability. Developing alternative approaches or strategies for problem solving or attainment of a goal. Through generating hypotheses, learners can generalize their personal model to expert models for further refinement.  (Thagard, p. 16; Bransford et al., p. 19; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, p. 212-213)

Artifacts: Simulations, games, microworlds

  • Exploration 

Learners participate in authentic situated inquiry within the problem solving process. They learn and apply important ideas to the discipline being studied by trying different strategies and observing their effects. Students initiate the discovery of information by framing questions that are of interest and can be solved.  Through explorations teachers set general goals for students and then encourage them to focus on particular subgoals which interest them. (Bransford, p. 171; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, p. 318; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, p. 211; Collins, p. 51)

Artifacts: Virtual World, Augmented Realty, search tools, research tools, help tools, community networking tools

  • Role Playing 

Assume alternative positions to learn about the knowledge and skills needed to perform various duties and understand different perspectives. Learners can practice their domain knowledge in a simulated real-world situation.  For example, students can assume the roles of a bank vice president to learn about banking. (Bransford, p. 209; Andriessen, p. 449; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, p. 332)

Artifacts: Virtual World, Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games

  • Generate New Ideas 

New ideas are generated from instruction, experience, social interaction, and reflections. The learner identifies goals, generates ideas and connects the new idea to existing ideas. (Linn, p. 243; Bransford, p. 67)

Artifacts: Blog, Discussion Forum, Wiki

  • Experimentation 

Learners test their hypotheses through model building. They start with numerous ideas, seeking new ideas and test these ideas in multiple contexts and re-prioritize these ideas based upon testing outcomes. They sort through the results of their test and look to generalize their ideas from one context to the next. (Linn, p. 246; Bransford et al., p. 21; Confrey, p. 140)

Artifacts: Virtual World, Game, Augmented Realty, Simulations, visualization and modeling tools

  • Teacher-Guided Discovery 

Teachers have expert knowledge about a topic as well as an understanding of how learners think about that topic.  Through teacher guided discovery, teachers assist students to develop skills in collaborating, turn-taking, listening and respect for other opinions. Teachers help students listen to others, compare ideas and scaffold student learning. (Krajcik & Blumenfeld, p. 325; Bransford et al., p. 169)

Artifacts: Game, Wiki, Virtual World, Augmented Reality

  • Inquiry-Based 

Learners ask the questions of how and why to authentic activities. Students investigate and perform data analysis to understand statistical ideas.  Students engage in data collection activities to address the question at-hand.  Through inquiry a problem situation is transformed to a hypothesis which produces knowledge claims. (Confrey, p. 139; Cobb & McClain, p. 176; Scardamalia & Bereiter, p. 105)

Artifacts: Game, Blog, Wiki, Virtual World


Dialogic learning emphasizes social interaction through discourse, dialogue, conversation, and social negotiation (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005, p. 189 & 215).

  • Collaboration  

Collaboration or collaborative learning is the joint construction of knowledge to achieve consensus and shared understanding that ultimately advances the knowledge of the community and the individual within that community. This differs from cooperative learning which focuses on advancing the knowledge of the individual as a contribution to the group product (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006; Stahl, 2006; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005).

Artifacts: Discussion forums, document sharing tools, communication tools

  • Reflection 

An activity that gives cause for a student to analyze their state of knowledge and think about their learning process and knowledge (Sawyer, 2006). Through reflection, knowledge gaps can be identified for subsequent filling (Edelson & Reiser, 2006; Linn, 2006).

Artifacts: blogs, peer evaluations, discussion forums (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005)

  • Multiple Perspectives 

Multiple perspectives emphasize the construction of flexible knowledge and can be achieved through exposing students to multiple points of view with regard to understanding or judging things or events which allows students to rearrange information to construct new knowledge and acquire flexible meaningful knowledge structures (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005, p. 218).

Artifacts: Discussion forums, podcasts

  • Articulation

Articulation, also referred to as discourse, involves verbal or written student activities such as conversation or explanation that are connected in nature, making explicit that which is tacit (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005) and further develops student understanding (Quintana et al., 2006).

Artifacts: Discussion forums, concept mapping, blogs


Cognitive affordances initiated by the expert, coach, mentor, instructor, or embedded performance support system, with the goal of modeling the desired performance, skills, or process, and observing and supporting learners during their execution of a learning task (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, p. 151)

  • Coaching 

Observing students while they execute tasks offering hints, challenges, feedback, reminders, and new tasks in order to assist the student to achieve expert knowledge or performance. Provide scaffolding in the learner’s zone of proximal development and feedback for ways of optimizing performance.  (Bransford et al., p. 177; Bruckman, p. 464; Collins, p. 51)

Artifacts: Cognitive tutors, games

  • Scaffolding 

Support provided to the learner to achieve cognitive goals within the Zone of Proximal Development. Scaffolding approaches include coaching, modeling a task or giving advice so the learner can engage in authentic activities. The support should fade or be reduced as the student can conduct their own way through the task sequence. (Koedinger & Corbett, p. 62; Quintana et al., p. 123; Collins, p. 51; Bransford et al., p. 104; Laurillard et al., p. 5)

Artifacts: computer agents, computer assistants,

  • Modeling  

The externalization of internal processes in which experts demonstrate desired behaviors by building a conceptual model of the processes for the desired task at hand. A physical model is constructed to answer a question of interest by integrating the demonstration and explanation during the instruction. (Bruckman, p. 464; Bransford et al., p. 170; Collins, p. 51; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, p. 220)

Artifacts: Simulations

  • Explaining 

Explaining tells a casual story that resolves a question and presents alternative ideas. It is backed by empirical evidence which links back to the explanation. An explanation consists of three parts: the claim which states a position or answer to a question; evidence for the claim; reasoning how the evidence supports the claim. An explanatory framework is a model of likely outcomes closely connected to theories with links to evidence from multiple sources of interaction within authentic settings. (Confrey, p. 139; Edelson & Reiser, p. 343; Linn, p. 250)

Artifacts: Powerpoint, document, podcast, vodcast

  • Feedback 

Feedback informs the learner of their understanding in the learning process. Feedback is more effective to an individual as opposed to an entire group.  It has been shown to increase student motivation. Feedback should focus on the degree of understanding as well as the errors relative to the desired model of performance. (Koedinger & Corbett, p. 69; Bransford et al., p. 59; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, p. 328; Greeno et al., p. 27)

Artifacts: Email, comment features 

  • Task Breakdown

Breaking tasks into chunks or clusters of information allow teachers to provide feedback throughout the learner’s progress as well assisting the learner to manage a greater variety of tasks and improve performance. (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik, p. 482; Bransford et al., p. 33 & 96)

Artifacts: Outlines, short highly structured activities, self contained instructional modules

  • Imagery or Visuals

Imagery used to visualize the abstract, to connect images to knowledge, or to represent the physical world (Pea & Maldonado, 2006; Schwartz & Heiser, 2006) and which may be manipulated by the student for further understanding (Bransford et al., 2000; Quintana et al., 2006)

Artifacts: imagery, animation, maps, graphics, flowcharts (Bransford et al., 2000; Pea & Maldonado, 2006; Quintana et al., 2006; Schwartz & Heiser, 2006)


Students apply the objective concepts and skills in a realistic activity which develops the student’s expert knowledge construction via experience (Cobb & McClain, 2006; Greeno et al., 1996; Koedinger & Corbett, 2006).

  • Personally Relevant

Activities based on information that is personally relevant to the student whether by using case histories that are similar to their everyday life or by taking into account how they think about that domain (Bransford et al., 2000; Linn, 2006; Koedinger & Corbett, 2006).

Artifacts: Student-relevant scenarios

  • Authentic 

Activities that allow students to think and act in accordance with the authentic practice of a domain (Cobb & McClain, 2006; Edelson & Reiser, 2006; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006).

Artifacts: Real-world scenarios or case studies (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005)

  • Context / Situated

Activities that are set in meaningful contexts that reflect how the knowledge is used in real situations (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005) and conveys the rationale for authentic practice (Edelson & Reiser, 2006); preferably multiple contexts (Bransford et al., 2006)

Artifacts: Meaningful/real-world/purposeful problem (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005)

  • Build Artifacts

A student’s recursive process of externalizing their knowledge or understanding by creating a concrete and explicit representation of their knowledge (Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006; Linn, 2006).

Artifacts: Student product 


The process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information, gathered or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, and/or communication as a guide to belief or action. Critical thinking is an iterative process which evolves through the learners encounter with additional information. Critical thinking encompasses the eight elements of reason: purpose, point of view, question at issue, information, interpretations and inference, concepts, assumptions, implications and consequences (Paul, 1995).

  • Decision Making 

Choosing between alternative courses of action using cognitive processes - memory, thinking, evaluation, etc. The process of mapping the likely consequences of decisions, working out the importance of individual factors, and choosing the best course of action to take. McDermott,,

Artifacts: Decision trees

  • Analysis 

The ability to break down material into its component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood. This may include the identification of the parts, analysis of the relationships between parts, and recognition of the organizational principles involved. Analysis requires an understanding of both the content and the structural form of the material (From IDKB

Artifacts: Concept map, graphical and visualization tools

  • Synthesis 

The ability to put parts together to form a new whole. This may involve the production of a unique communication (theme or speech), a plan of operations (research proposal), or a set of abstract relations (scheme for classifying information). Learning involves creative behaviors, with major emphasis on the formulation of new patterns or structures (From IDKB

Artifacts:  GoogleDoc

  • Critique 

Evaluate ideas, apply criteria and warrant the assertions with evidence. Allow the learner to reflect upon a concept either self developed or by others and evaluate it for it's credibility and reasoning.  Provides a feedback to the learner for modifying personal beliefs. (Palincsar & Ladewski, p. 309; Linn, p. 252-258; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, p. 327)

Artifacts:  Blogs, wikis, discussion forums

  • Construct an Argument / Argumentation

Argumentation involves reasoning and reflection contributing to deep conceptual learning and is a form of collaboration and social awareness. Constructing an argument makes knowledge explicit by revealing the reasoning behind the learner’s problem solving.  Argumentation challenges prior knowledge and can lead to conceptual transformation as well as facilitating storage of and access to knowledge in memory by the development of mental models. It is a process of collective knowledge building.  (Andriessen, p. 443-449; Linn, p. 252; Quintana et al., p. 128)

Artifacts: Discussion forums, wikis


Teacher supported activities that purposely invoke a change in a student’s understanding of concepts and principles in the context of their existing concepts; it is not a matter of simple skill acquisition or fact memorization (diSessa, 2006).

  • Elicit Prior Knowledge, Beliefs, and Perceptions

Identify prior knowledge, accounting for beliefs and perceptions as well as culture as evidenced through performance in order to realign misconceptions or build new knowledge (Bransford et al., 2000; Greeno et al., 1996; Koedinger & Corbett, 2006).

Artifacts: Activities that express prior knowledge

  • Bridge Current Idea to Normative or New Ideas 

Account for students’ current ideas, recognize common difficulties, and use appropriate strategies to resolve conflicting views such as a series of analogous situations to sequentially and proximally bridge to normative concepts (Bransford et al., 2000)

Artifacts: Analogies

  • Pivotal Cases 

Compelling cases that contrast situations relying on relevant, real-world contexts to highlight new ideas and features not previously seen or known (Bransford et al., 2000; Linn, 2006).

Artifacts: Relevant, contextually-based examples

  • Anchoring Experiences 

Provides a common experience from which a group can discuss and construct new knowledge (Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006).

Artifacts: Class experiment

  • Transfer  

Ability to apply new knowledge in different contexts  or new situations (Bransford et al., 2000; Greeno et al., 1996)

Artifacts: Several scenarios available


Self-regulated learning is goal oriented actions that an individual uses to acquire knowledge and skills without relying on others. The learner orchestrates one’s own learning by planning, monitoring and correcting errors. The self regulated learning model is composed of three phases: (1) the forethought phase: task analysis and self-beliefs; (2) the performance phase: self-control and self-monitoring; and (3) the self-reflecting phase: self-evaluation and self-specified contingencies. The learners recognize and apply different strategies based upon the nature of the task at hand.  (Bransford et al., p. 95-98; Kitsantas & Dabbagh, p. 10-11)

Artifacts:  Embedded in the elements of metacognition, goals setting, task breakdown, tasks strategies, motivation, self monitoring, self evaluation

  • Promote Metacognition in Students 

Metacognition is the capacity of learners to reflect, monitor and manage one’s own thinking. The learner reflects on one’s performance and determines if it is adequate for the particular task. (Carver, p. 206; Bransford et al., p. 67, 47, 97, & 137; Greeno et al., p. 19; Blumenfeld et al., p. 475)

Artifacts: Blogs, discussion forums, wikis

  • Goal Setting 

Goal setting is a process that promotes student learning through focusing on the end product by defining goals that are clear, realistic, proximal and moderately difficult. Goals are strategies that promote task completion and contribute to adoption or mastery of performance.  Teachers can create environments that help students clarify goals, motivate them to refine them and encourage achievement of the goal.  Decomposing a complex problem into sub goals and keeping track of these subgoals are effective task completion strategies. (Laurillard et al., p. 17; Koedinger & Corbett, p. 68; Kitsantas & Dabbagh, p. 59-67)

Artifacts: Discussion forums, virtual sessions, email, online chat, file exchange, Google docs, community network, immersive world

  • Task Strategies 

A variety of methods available to use as a means to actively engage the student with the learning material; selected based on the specific learning task (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2010)

Artifacts: highlighting, clustering content, mnemonics, paraphrasing, analogies, generative note taking, reciprocal teaching, asking and answering questions, outlining, concept mapping (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2010)

  • Time Management 

Supports student time management to plan and allocate learning time and activity completion by setting goals, noting deadlines, and using checklists  (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2010)

Artifacts: Syllabus, calendar, planning and scheduling tools (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2010)

  • Motivation - Intrinsic 

Motivation that is derived internally such as through meaningful work (Greeno et al., 1996; Quintana et al., 2006); can increase due to self-efficacy beliefs (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2010) or impact on others (Bransford et al., 2000)

Artifacts: Contributes to a cause or community (Bransford et al., 2000); provides a challenge, fantasy, or curiosity (Greeno et al., 1996)

  • Motivation - Extrinsic 

Motivation that is derived externally or from outside the individual (Greeno et al., 1996)

Artifacts: rewards (Bransford et al., 2000; Quintana et al., 2006) such as money or grades

  • Self-Monitoring 

Self-Monitoring is a cognitive process in which the learner monitors his own behavior and tracks progress towards individual goals. It generates feedback that can guide future action and help the learner to feel in control of the learning process intrinsically motivating the learner and increasing the learner’s confidence in persisting through difficult tasks. Cognitive tutors can assist learners to self monitor learning by generating feedback to keep learners on track. (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, p. 7; Koedinger & Corbett, p. 62)

Artifacts: Learning tools (LMS, Software, Cognitive Tutors), Monitoring tools: checklists, calendars, reminders, email, reflection (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2010)

  • Self-Evaluation 

Self-Evaluation is a process in which students judge their own progress and capabilities towards goal attainment.  This evaluation is performed in one of four ways: comparing current performance with past performance; relying on a normative standard which compares performance against other student performance; collaborative standard involving a group effort; by applying a mastery criteria as created by an expert.  Based upon the results of this evaluation the learner can determine whether to change the learning strategy or stay the course.  (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, p. 94)

Artifacts: LMS, graded assignments, calendar tools, wiki, blogs, syllabus, rubrics (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2010)



References from Sawyer, K.R. (editor) (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521607779:

Bransford, J. D., Brown. A. L., and Cocking, R. R.(2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Expanded Edition). Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Also available at:

Dabbagh, N., & Bannan-Ritland, B. (2005). Online learning: Concepts, strategies and application. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Greeno, J., Collins, A., Resnick, L. (1996). Cognition and Learning. D. Berliner and R. Calfee (eds.). Handbook of Educational Psychology. New York, Macmillan.

Kitsantas, A., & Dabbagh, N. (2010). Learning to learn with Integrative Learning Technologies (ILT): A practical guide for academic success. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Laurillard, D., Stratfold, M., Luckin, R., Plowman, L., Taylor, J. (2000). Affordances for learning in a non-linear narrative medium. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, v2.

Paul, R. (1995). What every student needs to survive in a rapidly changing world.  Dillon Beach, CA:  The Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Thagard, P. (1996). Mind: Introduction to cognitive science (Chapt. 1, pp. 3-21). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Online Resources