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Cognitive Skills: What They Are, Why They Matter, How to Improve

Table of contents:
  • What are cognitive skills?
  • What are core cognitive skills?
  • Why do cognitive skills matter?
  • How can cognitive skills be improved?
  • Key takeaways

  • What are cognitive skills?

    Cognitive skills — also called cognitive abilities, cognitive functions, or cognitive capabilities — are mental skills used in the process of acquiring knowledge, the manipulation of information, reasoning, and problem-solving. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how people learn rather than with actual knowledge. 

    Cognitive skills can be considered a person’s tools for learning. When one has the right tools, one can complete tasks with ease and efficiency. Imagine, for example, trying to mix cement with a spoon rather than a cement mixer. Imagine trying to mow the lawn with a pair of scissors!

    One of the most common complaints amongst educators is that their students lack the cognitive or brain-based abilities to handle a curriculum. Although this is anecdotal at best, the teaching of cognitive skills is overlooked at all levels of education.

    What are core cognitive skills?

    The word “core” refers to the central, innermost, or most essential part of anything. Core cognitive skills (hereafter referred to as cognitive skills), therefore, are essential brain-based skills without which learning will most likely fail.

    – Perception

    Image lists the core cognitive skills that can can be divided into perception, attention, memory and logical reasoning.

    Sensation is the pickup of information by our sensory receptors, for example, the eyes, ears, skin, nostrils, and tongue. In vision, sensation occurs as rays of light are collected by the eye and focused on the retina. In hearing, sensation occurs as waves of pulsating air are collected by the outer ear and transmitted through the bones of the middle ear to the cochlear nerve.

    Perception — also called processing — on the other hand, is the interpretation of what is sensed. The physical events transmitted to the retina may be interpreted as a particular color, pattern, or shape. The physical events picked up by the ear may be interpreted as musical sounds, a human voice, noise, and so forth. In essence, then, perception means interpretation.

    Visual perception is the cognitive component of interpreting visual stimuli, or even simpler, can be described as what the brain does with what the eye sees.

    Auditory perception is the ability to identify, interpret, and attach meaning to sound; it can be described as what the brain does with what the ear hears.

    Phonological awareness, the ability to hear the individual sounds (phonemes) in words, is at the heart of reading and requires a range of auditory processing skills. Auditory synthesis and auditory analysis, for example, are two processing skills necessary for segmenting and blending sounds..

    Processing speed involves one or more of the following functions: the amount of time it takes to perceive information, process information, and formulate or enact a response. Another way to define processing speed is to say that it’s the time required to perform an intellectual task or the amount of work that can be completed within a certain period. Even simpler, one can define processing speed as to how long it takes to get stuff done.

    Lack of experience may cause a person to misinterpret what he has seen or heard. In other words, perception represents our apprehension of a present situation in terms of our past experiences, or, as stated by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his book Critique of Pure Reason (1781): “We see things not as they are but as we are.”

    – Attention

    The process of perception is very much affected by attention, a phenomenon that involves filtering incoming stimuli. Human beings do not pay attention to everything in their environments, nor do they attend to all the stimuli impinging on their sense organs. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the enormous complexity of the physical world, we attend to some stimuli and do not notice others. William James (1842-1910) recognized the importance of attention very early. “A thing may be present to a man a hundred times, but if he persistently fails to notice it, it cannot be said to enter his experience,” he wrote in his book Psychology: The Briefer Course.

    We can split attention into focused, sustained, and divided attention:

    Focused attention refers to paying attention to the most important things in your environment while screening out the distractions.

    Sustained attention enables us to stay focused for a sustained period of time.

    Divided attention requires one to perform two (or more) tasks simultaneously, and one needs attention for both (or all) the tasks.

    – Memory

    Memory is the process by which knowledge is encoded, stored, and later retrieved. Although the word memory may conjure up an image of a singular, “all-or-none” process, it is clear that there are many kinds of memory, each of which may be somewhat independent of the others.

    Based on the amount of time the memory is stored, there are four main categories:

    Sensory memory is the shortest-term element of memory. It is the ability to retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimuli have ended. It acts as a kind of buffer for stimuli received through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, which are retained accurately but very briefly. For example, the ability to look at something and remember what it looked like with just a second of observation is an example of sensory memory. The sensory recall of visual stimuli is sometimes known as iconic memory, the recall of aural stimuli as echoic memory, and that for touch as haptic memory.

    Short-term memory is the part of the brain’s memory system that holds information the individual is consciously thinking about at the moment. Its capacity appears to be limited to about seven items, and unless the information is rehearsed, it will be lost in about fifteen seconds.

    Working memory is the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally. One can compare it to the control tower of a major airport, responsible for scheduling and coordinating all incoming and outgoing flights. You need this kind of memory to retain ideas and thoughts as you work on problems. In writing a letter, for example, you must be able to keep the last sentence in mind as you compose the next. To solve an arithmetic problem like (3 X 3) + (4 X 2) in your head, you need to keep the intermediate results in mind (i.e., 3 X 3 = 9) to be able to solve the entire problem..

    Long-term memory is the relatively permanent storage system that holds information indefinitely. In it, we store last year’s football scores, the image of an elephant, and how to ride a bicycle. We also appear to be storing information that we can’t consciously retrieve but still affects our behavior.

    When it comes to memory, one’s senses are involved too.

    Visual memory involves the brain’s ability to store and retrieve previously experienced visual sensations and perceptions when the original stimuli are no longer present. Various researchers have stated that as much as eighty percent of all learning takes place through the eye – with visual memory existing as a crucial aspect of learning.

    Auditory memory involves being able to take in information that is presented orally, process that information, store it in one’s mind and then recall what one has heard. It involves the skills of attending, listening, processing, storing, and recalling..

    Sequential memory requires one to recall items in a specific order. In saying the days of the week, months of the year, a telephone number, the alphabet, and in counting, the order of the elements is of paramount importance. Visual sequential memory is the ability to remember things seen in sequence, while auditory sequential memory is the ability to remember things heard in sequence.

    – Logical reasoning

    Logical reasoning is the process of arriving at a conclusion using a rational, systematic series of steps based on sound mathematical procedures and given statements. In logic, there are two broad methods of reaching a conclusion: deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning.

    Deductive reasoning begins with a broad truth (the major premise), such as the statement that all men are mortal. This is followed by the minor premise, a more specific statement, such as that Socrates is a man. A conclusion follows: Socrates is mortal. If the major premise is true and the minor premise is true, the conclusion cannot be false..

    In inductive reasoning, broad conclusions are drawn from specific observations; data leads to conclusions. If the data shows a tangible pattern, it will support a hypothesis. For example, having seen ten white swans, we could use inductive reasoning to conclude that all swans are white. This hypothesis is easier to disprove than prove, and premises are not necessarily true, but true given the existing evidence and given that one cannot find a situation in which it is not.

    Why do cognitive skills matter?

    Many studies over many decades have shown that cognitive skills — perception, attention, memory, and logical reasoning — are a determining factor of an individual’s learning ability, according to Oxfordlearning.com the skills that “separate the good learners from the so-so learners.” In essence, when cognitive skills are strong, learning is fast and easy. When cognitive skills are weak, learning becomes a challenge. Since cognitive abilities are key to reading, writing, math, and learning, they are typically impaired in developmental disorders of attention, language, reading, and mathematics such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.

    – Key to reading, writing, math, and learning

    • A study by Cheng et al. suggests that visual perception deficits commonly underlie both developmental dyslexia and dyscalculia.
    • Phonological processing skills play an important role in the development of reading. Bradley and Bryant, for example, found high correlations between preschool children’s initial rhyme awareness and their reading and spelling development over three years, and this link held even after controlling for other variables such as IQ and memory. 
    • Multiple research studies have linked difficulties in processing speed with ADHD and reading disorders. Stenneken et al. compared a group of high-achieving young adults with dyslexia to a matched group of normal readers. The dyslexic group showed a striking reduction in processing speed (by 26% compared to controls) while their working memory storage capacity was in the normal range.
    • Thirty-six 9‐year‐old children were given a test of image persistence in visual sensory (iconic) memory and the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability. The reading test gives scores for fluency, accuracy, and comprehension. All three measures of reading performance were significantly related to icon persistence.
    • An investigation of the relationship between visual memory and academics was performed in 155 second- through fourth-grade children; Optometry and Vision Science published the results. The researchers concluded that poor visual memory ability is significantly related to below-average reading decoding, math, and overall academic achievement (as measured by the Stanford Achievement Test).
    • Research has confirmed that auditory recall plays a crucial role in literacy and directly impacts reading, spelling, writing, and math skills. Children with poor auditory memory skills may struggle to recognize sounds and match them to letters – a common symptom of a reading disability or dyslexia. Research by Plaza et al. found that dyslexic children exhibited a significant deficit in tasks involving auditory memory skills (digit span, unfamiliar word repetition, sentence repetition) compared with their age-mates.
    • Guthrie et al. investigated relationships between visual sequential recall and reading in 81 normal and 43 disabled readers. The researchers identified significant, positive associations between visual sequential memory and paragraph comprehension, oral reading, and word recognition.
    • Howes et al. compared 24 readers with auditory dyslexia and 21 with visual dyslexia to 90 control group participants. The researchers revealed auditory sequential memory impairments for both types of readers with dyslexia and multiple strengths for good readers.
    • Working memory is a cornerstone for learning of all kinds, from reading and notetaking to math calculations. Weiss and colleagues tested 52 musicians, 24 with dyslexia and 28 without dyslexia, and compared the performance of the two groups in a variety of auditory tests. On most tests of auditory processing, the dyslexic musicians scored as well as their nondyslexic counterparts and better than the general population. Where they performed much worse was on tests of auditory working memory. The dyslexic musicians with the poorest working memory tended to have the lowest reading accuracy.
    • A study by Bhat examined the contribution of six components of reasoning ability (inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, linear reasoning, conditional reasoning, cause-and-effect reasoning, and analogical reasoning) to explain the variation in the academic achievement of 598 class 10th students. The predictive power of various components of reasoning ability for academic achievement was 31.5%. Out of the six dimensions of reasoning ability, the maximum involvement was reflected by deductive reasoning (with a reliability coefficient of .49), followed by cause and effect reasoning (.26), inductive reasoning (.16), linear reasoning (.05), conditional reasoning (.03) and analogical reasoning (.02) on academic achievement.

    Each cognitive skill plays a part in processing new information. That means if even one of these skills is weak, no matter what kind of information is coming one’s way, grasping, retaining, or using that information are impacted. In fact, most learning challenges are the result of weak cognitive skills. More importantly, our core cognitive abilities are key to developing higher-order cognitive functions.

    – Key to higher-order cognitive skills

    Learning does not take place on a single level but is a stratified process. One has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add or subtract. That would be impossible, and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child to add and subtract. This shows that counting is a skill that needs to be mastered before it becomes possible to learn to do calculations. In the same way, core, lower-level cognitive abilities must be acquired first, before it becomes possible to master higher-order brain-based skills.

    Higher-order cognitive skills — also called higher-order thinking skills — are complex cognitive skills that go beyond basic observation of facts and memorization. They are what we are talking about when we want our students to be evaluative, creative, and innovative. According to Paul and Elder (2007), much of our thinking — left to itself — is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and what we will produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Critical thinking is the ability to think in an organized and rational manner to understand connections between ideas and facts. It helps you decide what to believe. In other words, it’s “thinking about thinking”— identifying, analyzing, and then fixing flaws in how we think. Critical thinking is the foundation of a good education.

    Bloom’s taxonomy is an educational model that describes the cognitive processes of learning and developing mastery of subjects. The model is named after Benjamin Bloom, who headed up the original committee of researchers and educators to develop the taxonomy throughout the 1950s and 60s. Bloom’s taxonomy and critical thinking go hand in hand. Bloom’s taxonomy takes students through a thought process of analyzing information or knowledge critically. The goal is to encourage higher-order thought in students by building up from lower-level cognitive abilities.

    Below is an expanded version of the well-known Bloom’s taxonomy, in which we have included the core cognitive skills:

    An expanded version of Bloom's taxonomy, with the core cognitive skills included.

    How can cognitive skills be improved?

    Edublox specializes in educational interventions that make children smarter, help them learn and read faster, and do math with ease. Our programs enable learners to overcome reading difficulties and other learning obstacles, assisting them to become life-long learners and empowering them to realize their highest educational goals.

    Strong cognitive skills are key to reading, writing, math, and learning. Watch our playlist of customer reviews and experience how Edublox cognitive training and online tutoring help turn dyslexia and dyscalculia around.

    Edublox is grounded in pedagogical research and 30+ years of experience demonstrating that weak underlying cognitive skills account for the majority of learning difficulties. Underlying cognitive skills include perception, attention, memory, and logical reasoning. Specific cognitive exercises can strengthen these weaknesses leading to increased performance in reading, spelling, writing, math, and learning.

    • Edublox presented a one-week program in Singapore to 27 students, ages 10 to 12; the control group comprised 25 students. Results of the study showed a significant improvement in focused attention.
    • Results of a research study shows that Edublox Online Tutor improves processing speed; the auditory memory of the Edublox group also improved significantly according to the paired samples t-test.
    • A study by Dr. Jaidan Mays found a significant improvement in visual memory – from 6.2 to 7.5 years following an intensive one-week Edublox program of 22.5 hours.

    Edublox Online Tutor has been optimized for children aged 7 to 13, is suitable for the gifted and less gifted, and can be used at home and in school. Our programs are effective in alleviating a variety of symptoms associated with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

    Edublox also offers live online tutoring to students with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other learning difficulties. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.

    Key takeaways



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    Cheng D et al. “Dyslexia and dyscalculia are characterized by common visual perception deficits.” Developmental Neuropsychology. 2016, 43(6). 

    Cowan N. “The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2001, 24.

    Gathercole SE, Dunning DL, Holmes J, Norris, D. “Working memory training involves learning new skills.” Journal of Memory and Language. 2019, 105.

    Guthrie JT, Goldberg HK. “Visual sequential memory in reading disability.” Journal of Learning Disabilities. January 1972.

    Howes NL, Bigler ED, Lawson JS, Burlingame GM. “Reading disability subtypes and the test of memory and learning.” Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. April 1999 14(3): 317–339.

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    Kulp MT, Edwards KE, Mitchell GL. “Is visual memory predictive of below-average academic achievement in second through fourth graders?” Optometry and Vision Science. July 2002, 79(7):431-4.

    Kulp MT et al. “Are visual perceptual skills related to mathematics ability in second through sixth grade children?” Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics. 2004, 26(4): 44-51.

    Kurdek LA, Sinclair RJ. “Predicting reading and mathematics achievement in fourth-grade children from kindergarten readiness scores,” Journal of Educational Psychology. September 2001, 93(3): 451-455.

    Kurtz LA. Visual perception problems in children with AD/HD, autism, and other learning disabilities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006.

    Plaza M, Cohen H, Chevrie-Muller C. “Oral language deficits in dyslexic children: weaknesses in working memory and verbal planning.” Brain and Cognition. March 2002, 48(2-3): 505-512.

    Richard P, Elder, L. Critical thinking: Learn the tools the best thinkers use. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

    Riding RJ, Pugh JC. “Iconic memory and reading performance in nine‐year‐old children.” British Journal of Educational Psychology. June 1977, 47(2).

    Stanley G, Kaplan I, Poole C. “Cognitive and nonverbal perceptual processing in dyslexics.” Journal of General Psychology. 1975, 93(1): 67-72.

    Stenneken P et al. “Slow perceptual processing at the core of developmental dyslexia: A parameter-based assessment of visual attention.” Neuropsychologia. 2011, 49(12): 3454-3465.

    Weiss, AH, Granot, RY, Ahissar, M. “The enigma of dyslexic musicians.” Neuropsychologia. Feb 2014, 54: 28-40.