What Are Some Essential Cognitive Skills That Every Student Needs, To Learn Effectively?

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Interrelated cognitive skills contribute to both academic and occupational success

The key to solving a persistent learning challenge is to strengthen the person’s basic processing or cognitive skill set. Cognitive skills are the mental capabilities we need to successfully learn academic subjects. Underlying cognitive skills must function well for us to efficiently and easily read, think, prioritize, understand, plan, remember, and solve problems. So essentially, cognitive skills are the individual mental skills we use to learn. When Cognitive Skills are weak, academic learning is at best, a struggle. When Cognitive Skills are strong, academic learning is fast, easy, efficient and fun!

Learning is a complex process since the brain is such a sophisticated organ. Many interrelated cognitive skills contribute to both academic and occupational success. These skills are interdependent. Often they overlap in their work with other skills, as all the bits of information entering the mind are processed and acted upon. Following are some basic cognitive skills, and an explanation of how each skill connects to the learning task it enables.

1. Attention

Sustained Attention enables a student to stay on task for a period of time, Selective Attention enables a student to stay on task even when a distraction is present, and Divided Attention allows a student to handle two or more tasks at one time.
Watch for a student’s inability to:

  • Stay on task for long periods of time
  • Ignore distractions
  • Multi-task

Why this Matters: All of these struggles will limit a student’s other cognitive skills — which will have an impact across every academic area.

2. Working Memory

Working memory is the ability to retain information for short periods of time while processing or using it. This can be as subtle as when adding numbers that involve “holding” numbers in mind.
Watch for a student’s inability to:

  • Remember, even simple, short instructions from one step to the next
  • Calculate multi-digit math problems in their head

Why this Matters: Learning suffers if information cannot be retained long enough to handle it properly.

3. Processing Speed

The rate at which the brain handles information.
Watch for a student’s inability to:

  • Move or adjust quickly from one task or thought to another

Why this Matters: If processing speed is slow, the information held in working memory may be lost before it can be used, and the student will have to begin again.

4. Long-Term Memory

The ability to both store and recall information for later use. For example, the ease we have in spelling our first name vs. our need for practice to spell the name of the state where we live backward.
Watch for a student’s inability to:

  • Remember things over time

Why this Matters: If the ability to store and retrieve information is poor, wrong conclusions and wrong answers will result.

5. Visual Processing

The ability to perceive, analyze, and think in visual images. For example, seeing differences in size, color, shape, distance, and the orientation of objects, and creating mental images.
Watch for a student’s inability to:

  • Comprehend text
  • Envision stories

Why this Matters: When visual imagery is poor, tasks like math word problems and comprehension, which require seeing the concept or object in the student’s mind, are difficult.

6. Auditory Processing

Auditory Processing is the ability to perceive, analyze, and conceptualize what is heard and is one of the major underlying skills needed to learn to read and spell. Auditory Discrimination is hearing differences in sounds, including volume, pitch, duration, and phoneme.

Phonemic Awareness is the ability to blend sounds to make words, to segment sounds, to break words apart into separate sounds, and to manipulate and analyze sounds to determine the number, sequence, and sounds within a word.
Watch for a student’s inability to:

  • Spell
  • Read

Why this Matters: If blending, segmenting, and sound analysis are weak, sounding out words when reading and spelling will be difficult and error-prone.

7. Logic & Reasoning

The abilities to reason, prioritize, and plan.
Watch for a student’s inability to:

  • Debate
  • Manage projects or school work

Why this Matters: If these skills are not strong, academic activities such as problem solving, math, and comprehension will be difficult.

Like this article for teachers?

Browse the Professional Learning Board COURSE CATALOG to find related online courses for teachers in your state. Professional Learning Board is a leading provider of online professional development classes that teachers use to renew a teaching license or renew a teaching certificate.

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