Cognitive Skills: What They Are and Why They Are Important

The word “cognition” is defined as “the act or process of knowing”. Cognitive skills therefore refer to those skills that make it possible for us to know. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how we learn, rather than with any actual knowledge. Cognitive skills include 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 two eyes 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, 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 refers to the brain’s ability to make sense of what the eyes see, while auditory perception is the ability to identify, interpret, and attach meaning to sound. 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 Critique of Pure Reason (1781): “We see things not as they are but as we are.”


The process of perception is very much affected by attention, a phenomenon that involves filtering of 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.

Attention can be divided into focused, sustained and divided attention. Focused attention enables one to stay focused on a task despite distractions and sustained attention to stay focused for a sustained period of time. Divided attention is a higher-level skill where one has to perform two (or more) tasks at the same time, and attention is required for the performance of both (or all) the tasks.


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 actually many kinds of memory, each of which may be somewhat independent of the others.

The main categories of memory are short-term memory (or working memory) and long-term memory, based on the amount of time the memory is stored.

The distinction between short-term memory and working memory is an ongoing debate, and the terms are often used interchangeably. There are scholars who claim that some kind of manipulation of remembered information is needed in order to qualify the task as one of working memory. Repeating digits in the same order they were presented would thus be a short-term memory task, while repeating them backward would be a working memory task. Another viewpoint is that of Nelson Cowan, who says short-term memory refers to the passive storage of information when rehearsal is prevented with storage capacity around four items. When rehearsal is allowed and controlled attention is involved, it is a working memory task and the capacity is closer to seven items.

When it comes to memory, one’s senses are involved too. Visual memory involves the ability to store and retrieve previously experienced visual sensations and perceptions when the stimuli that originally evoked them, 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, on the other hand, involves being able to take in information that is presented orally, to process that information, store it in one’s mind and then recall what one has heard. Basically, it involves the skills of attending, listening, processing, storing, and recalling. Sequential memory requires items to be recalled 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.

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 memory for visual stimuli is sometimes known as the iconic memory, the memory for aural stimuli is known as the echoic memory, and that for touch as the haptic memory.

Logical reasoning

Logical reasoning is the process of using a rational, systematic series of steps based on sound mathematical procedures and given statements to arrive at a conclusion.

In logic, there are two broad methods of reaching a conclusion, deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. Deduction 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 to prove, and the premises are not necessarily true, but they are true given the existing evidence and given that one cannot find a situation in which it is not true.

Edublox Online Tutor uses colors placed in sequences to develop inductive reasoning skills. The student will, for example, have to add colored blocks to complete the sequence below:

The importance of strong cognitive skills

Many studies over many decades have shown that cognitive skills 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.

Research has confirmed that auditory memory plays a crucial role in literacy: it is one area of auditory processing that directly impacts reading, spelling, writing and math skills. Kurdek and team measured auditory memory in kindergarteners and found readiness in auditory memory predicted later reading achievement as well as mathematics achievement in fourth grade.

Children who have 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. Howes et al. compared 24 readers with auditory dyslexia and 21 with visual dyslexia to 90 control group participants and revealed auditory sequential memory impairments for both types of readers with dyslexia, and multiple strengths for good readers.

Research has also confirmed that visual memory, often considered to be a subset of visual perception rather than a separate skill, plays a crucial role in literacy, especially math.

One hundred seventy-one children with a mean age of 10.08 years participated in a study by Marjean Kulp et al. The study, conducted at the Ohio State University College of Optometry was designed to determine whether or not performance on tests of visual perception could predict the children with poor current achievement in mathematics. Controls for age and verbal cognitive ability were included in all regression analyses because the failure to control for verbal cognitive ability/intelligence has been a criticism of some literature investigating the relation between visual perception and academic skills. Scholars have argued that a relation between visual perception – a nonverbal cognitive skill – and math achievement are merely due to the confounding effects of verbal cognitive ability/intelligence. Kulp et al. concluded: “Poor visual perceptual ability is significantly related to poor achievement in mathematics, even when controlling for verbal cognitive ability. Therefore, visual perceptual ability, and particularly visual memory, should be considered to be amongst the skills that are significantly related to mathematics achievement.”

An investigation of the relation between visual memory and academics was performed in 155 second- through fourth-grade children; the results were published in the journal Optometry and Vision Science. Visual memory ability was assessed with the Test of Visual Perceptual Skills visual memory subtest. The school administered the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test and Stanford Achievement Test. Age and verbal ability were controlled in all regression analyses. 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) in second- through fourth-grade children.

Guthrie and team investigated relationships between visual sequential memory and reading in 81 normal and 43 disabled readers. The children had normal intelligence and a mean reading grade of 2.5. The mean chronological age of the normal readers was 8.5 years, and the mean of the reading disabled 10.3. Partial correlations between three tests of visual sequential memory and three tests of reading were computed. Significant, positive associations were identified between visual sequential memory and paragraph comprehension, oral reading and word recognition. A study by Stanley et al., published in the Journal of General Psychology, compared 33 dyslexic and 33 control eight- to 12-year-old children and found the dyslexic children to be inferior to controls on tasks involving visual sequential memory and auditory sequential memory.

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. In the iconic memory test the subjects viewed a white disc in a tachistoscope and were required to state whether or not the disc disappeared for a short interval which ranged from 10 ms to 800 ms. The shortest disappearance perceived was taken as a measure of icon persistence. The reading test gave scores for fluency, accuracy and comprehension. All three measures of reading performance were found to be significantly related to icon persistence. Short and long image persistence resulted in a reading age on the accuracy score that was on average 1.75 years below that for moderate persistence.

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 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 of our cognitive skills plays an important 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 is impacted. In fact, most learning challenges are caused by one or more weak cognitive skills.

How Edublox can help

Edublox Online Tutor (EOT) houses a number of multisensory cognitive training programs that enable learners to overcome learning obstacles and reach their full potential. EOT is founded on 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 thinking. Cognitive exercises can strengthen these weaknesses leading to increased performance in reading, spelling, writing, math and learning.

EOT has been optimized for children aged between 7 and 13, is suitable for the gifted and less gifted, and can be used at home and in school. The program is effective for a variety of learning difficulties including dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and ADD/ADHD.

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Fundamental solutions to cognitive deficits –

“We can see her world getting bigger, and we are so happy!”

The whole Edublox system has helped Amy so much with reading and math, but it was hard for us to tell if it was helping her with this hidden, agonizing challenge. It certainly is! Continue Reading

Sandy, mom of Amy, US Edublox Online Tutor April 12, 2021

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Bhat, MA. “The predictive power of reasoning ability on academic achievement.” International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research. January 2016 15(1).

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

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.

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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.

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.