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Cognitive Skills

Cognitive Skills – What are they?

Cognitive skills, also called cognitive functions, cognitive abilities, or cognitive capacities, are brain-based skills which are needed in acquisition of knowledge, manipulation of information and reasoning. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how people learn, remember, solve problems and pay attention, rather than with actual knowledge. Cognitive skills or functions encompass the domains of perception, attention, memory, learning, decision making, and language abilities. (Wikipedia)

Cognitive skills refer to the brain-based abilities that enable us to process information, learn, reason, and solve problems. These skills are essential for various aspects of our lives, both personally and professionally. 

   Here are 12 cognitive skills examples:

  1. Logic and Reasoning: These skills help you solve problems and generate ideas. Whether identifying consumer needs, analysing data, or compiling reports, logic and reasoning play a crucial role.
  2. Language Skills: The ability to express yourself clearly and effectively is vital. Language skills are valuable in various professions, including healthcare and teaching.
  3. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving: Critical thinking allows you to evaluate information and make logical decisions. Problem-solving skills help find solutions, especially when answers aren’t straightforward.
  4. Quantitative Skills: These involve using statistics, mathematics, and other quantitative tools. They’re essential for accurate data analysis and decision-making.
  5. Abstract Thinking: Abstract thinking lets you see problems from multiple viewpoints and find optimal solutions. It’s crucial for making distinctions between similar situations or objects under different conditions.
  6. Sustained Attention: The ability to stay focused on a task for an extended time.
  7. Selective Attention: Focusing on one thing while disregarding external stimuli.
  8. Divided Attention: Managing multiple tasks simultaneously.
  9. Auditory Processing: Understanding and interpreting spoken language.
  10. Visual Processing: Interpreting visual information, such as graphs or diagrams.
  11. Short-Term Memory: Holding and manipulating information temporarily.
  12. Long-Term Memory: Retaining information over extended periods.

Developing these cognitive skills can enhance your professional performance and enrich your personal life.


Cognitive skills include the processes that help us learn and think, solve problems, collaborate and create, also they refer to the mental processes our brains use to:

  • take in
  • give meaning to
  • organize, manipulate
  • store
  • retrieve
  • apply and act on
  • information from the outside world.

The model of cognitive processing

The model of cognitive processing above identifies some of the critical steps in learning and classifies functions into five main stages of processing:

  • Reception
  • Perception
  • Memory
  • Direction
  • Thinking


Reception is the initial step in the learning sequence and involves taking in information through our sense: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

Our brains take just fractions of a second to determine what is relevant and what to discard, and we are not even aware of it happening; this processing is all nonconscious. In order to do this, we depend on cognitive skills such as the ability to efficiently gather visual and auditory inputs and various attention skills that enable us to focus on certain stimuli while screening out others.

Information is rapidly compared, sorted, organized, and then filtered to enable relevant information to flow through to other processes.




At the next stage of the learning sequence, information selected in the Reception stage is further processed to identify and interpret it. This requires retrieving stored information from memory and integrating it with the new information in order to ascribe meaning to the incoming information. Here, we must also put visual and auditory information together to create a meaningful whole, keep items in a sequence and understand where things are in space and time relative to other things.  Again, these processes occur within fractions of a seconds, up to a few seconds, and are performed unconsciously.




Memory is essential in all phases of information processing and is integral to any ability to manipulate information, compare, comprehend, and learn. In fact, if we can’t remember something, we can’t really be said to have learned it.

Memory skills range from immediate to long-term depending on the duration of time information is stored, as well as the physical brain structures used to retrieve it.

The only stage at which we are conscious of the information is when we are holding it and manipulating it in working memory.

Working Memory refers to our conscious processing and the ability to hold information actively in mind while we think about it.  Just as our brains screen and discard most information at the reception stage, much of the information held in sensory memory or immediate short-term memory is then discarded.  It is only if we decide to think about information, holding it and manipulating it in working memory that it has a chance to end up being stored in long-term memory.




Working memory is one of a special class of cognitive skills referred to as executive functions.

Executive functions are the directive capacities of our minds, so we call this stage of cognitive processing Direction.

The other two executive functions are:

  • Inhibitory control: essential for self-regulation.
  • Cognitive flexibility: which is how we reorient our thoughts when the rules of the world around us change, when we look at things from different perspectives or when we shift from an external focus to internal reflective thinking.

Our executive functions direct what is going in our brains to enable us to make decisions and take actions.




The thinking stage of processing is the stage at which we use cognitive skills like analysis and complex reasoning. These skills are also called higher order executive functions.

The result of the thinking stage is some kind of output, and this is the stage at which we achieve comprehension, make decisions, plan for the future, solve problems and take actions.



       Non-Linear Integration of Skills

While all of these stages of processing seem like discrete steps or functions, our brains do not process information in a linear fashion. It is our brains’ ability to coordinate all of these processes together that accounts for learning and intelligence.  Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning, and cognitive strengths and weaknesses impact the learning process.

It has been estimated that cognitive skills account for 50% of the variance in academic performance, greater than factors such as instructional quality or focus on achievement.

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