Innovative Learning

Mental Models

Mental models are representations of reality that people use to understand specific phenomena. Norman (in Gentner & Stevens, 1983) describes them as follows: "In interacting with the environment, with others, and with the artifacts of technology, people form internal, mental models of themselves and of the things with which they are interacting. These models provide predictive and explanatory power for understanding the interaction."

Mental models are consistent with theories that postulate internal representations in thinking processes (e.g., Tolman , GOMS , GPS ). Johnson-Laird (1983) proposes mental models as the basic structure of cognition: "It is now plausible to suppose that mental models play a central and unifying role in representing objects, states of affairs, sequences of events, the way the world is, and the social and psychological actions of daily life." (p397)

Holland et al. (1986) suggest that mental models are the basis for all reasoning processes: "Models are best understood as assemblages of synchronic and diachronic rules organized into default hierarchies and clustered into categories. The rules comprising the model act in accord with the principle of limited parallelism, both competing and supporting one another." (p343) Schumacher & Czerwinski (1992) describe the role of mental models in acquiring expertise in a task domain.

Some of the characteristics of mental models are:

The study of mental models has involved the detailed analysis of small knowledge domains (e.g., motion, ocean navigation, electricity, calculators) and the development of computer representations (see Gentner & Stevens, 1983). For example, DeKleer & Brown (1981) describe how the mental model of a doorbell is formed and how the model is useful in solving problems for mechanical devices. Kieras & Bovair (1984) discuss the role of mental models in understanding electronics. Mental models have been applied extensively in the domain of troubleshooting (e.g., White & Frederiksen, 1985).

One interesting application of mental models to psychology is the Personal Construct Theory of George Kelley (1955). While the primary thrust of Kelly's work was therapy rather than education, it has seen much broader applications (see [Thanks to Richard Breen for bringing this to my attention]

For an exploration of the relationship between mental models, systems theory, and cyberspace culture, see "A house of horizions and perspectives" by Heiner Benking and James Rose.


Collins, A., & Gentner, D. (1987). How people construct mental models. In D. Holland & N. Quinn (eds.), Cultural Models in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

deKleer, J. & Brown, J.S. (1981). Mental models of physical mechanisms and their acquisition. In J.R. Anderson (ed.), Cognitive Skills and their Acquistion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gentner, D. & Stevens, A.(1983). Mental Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Holland, J.H., Holyoak, K.J., Nisbett, R.E., Thagard, P.R. (1986). Induction: Processes of Inference, Learning and Discovery. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnson-Laird, P. (1983). Mental Models. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kelly, G. (1995). Principles of Personal Construct Psychology. Norton.

Kieras, D. & Bovair, S. (1984). The role of mental models in learning to operate a device. Cognitive Science, 8, 255-273.

Schumacher, R. & Czerwinski, M. (1992). Mental models and the acquisition of expert knowledge. In R. Hoffman (ed.), The psychology of expertise. New York: Springer-Verlag.

White, B. & Frederiksen, J. (1985). Qualitative models and intelligent learning environments. In R. Lawler & M. Yazdani (Eds.), Artifical Intelligence and Education. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.