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Procedural knowledge is knowing how to control the relevant factors for examining some phenomenon (Reber & Reber, 2001), performing a certain task or completing an activity. Procedural knowledge also means knowing the method of manipulating a specific condition or the technique for implementing a task. Such knowledge may include the procedures we use to do a science experiment, write an essay or solve a mathematical equation. Procedural knowledge represents a subclass of knowledge components.

Procedural knowledge is often thought about as certain skills we possess, tasks we can complete or processes we are able to follow. It can include knowledge for planning action sequences to solve problems or engage in other kinds of performances, like speak or comprehend natural language.

Procedural knowledge can be distinguished from conceptual knowledge, that is, understanding of the principles that govern a domain. According to Rittle-Johnson, Siegler and Alibali (2001), the development of both knowledge types is an iterative process with influences in both directions. Procedural knowledge is also distinguished from declarative knowledge whereby declarative knowledge is the encoding and memory of incoming perceptual information, is interpretable by procedural knowledge, and can be changed by procedural knowledge (Anderson & Lebiere, 1998).

Procedural, conceptual, and declarative are used differently in other fields outside of cognitive psychology. For instance, in Philosophy procedural knowledge is "knowing how" whereas declarative knowledge is "knowing that". For instance, if one can describe a process or procedure, that might be considered procedural knowledge by a philosopher because it is "knowing how". However, to a cognitive psychologist that knowledge is declarative because it can be interpreted by procedural knowledge -- when knowledge is verbalized it is an indication of it being in a declarative state. Note the implication does not go in other direction, not all declarative knowledge can be verbalized, for instance, the encoding of a visual image, episode, or past example are kinds of declarative knowledge that they may not be readily verbalized.

In mathematics education, procedural knowledge is sometimes used to mean shallow knowledge, knowledge of problem solving or problem comprehension that is incomplete and inaccurate and does not reflect understanding (e.g., key word strategies for comprehending word problems like if the problem says "less", then subtract). However, just because procedural knowledge is implicit (cannot be verbalized), it does not imply that it is shallow in the sense of being incomplete or inaccurate (low feature validity). Procedural knowledge components may be either correct (deep) or incorrect (shallow).

  • Anderson, J. R. & Lebiere, C. (1998). The atomic components of thought. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Rittle-Johnson, B., Siegler, R.S. & Alibali, M.W. (2001). Developing conceptual understanding and procedural skill in mathematics: An iterative process. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 346-362