Cognitive skills are the skills and abilities for thinking that we develop from early childhood through to old age. These are skills (or cognitive abilities) that require using the brain to process information.
Cognitive skills examples include using working memory, ranking classifying, contextual recall, metacognition, and spatial awareness.
According to cognitive development theory (i.e. Piaget’s work on cognitive development of children), our cognitive skills develop throughout childhood and adolescence. More recent theories from neuroscience believe our cognitive capacity continues to develop throughout our lives, with fluid intelligence peaking in our late 20s and crystallized intelligence continuing to develop through out lives.
Examples of Cognitive Skills
1. Using Working Memory
Working memory is the part of your brain that hosts all your cognitive skills. It’s widely accepted that your working memory can only hold a certain amount of information in any one period of time (somewhere between 4 and 9 things at once). Go ahead: try to hold 10 random unrelated facts in your mind in one single period of time. It’ll be hard, I assure you!
When new information enters our working memory we often have to rank it. Our mind may rank the information by importance, size, weight, danger, or any other of the hundreds of spectra you could think of. Sorting usually involves creating some sort of hierarchy in order to make your life easier. The most basic hierarchy is danger. Something that is extremely dangerous is also extremely important for our minds to pay attention to. So, if something enters the mind that’s dangerous, our mind may focus all its cognitive resources to that thing and deciding how to react.
We may also need to classify new information that enters the mind. While ranking involves placing things upon a spectrum, classifying may not. We can classify things into categories like “colors”, “animal species”, “plant species”, “types of clothing” or … well, just about anything!
Recognition is a skill that requires you to recall memory from your mind. When new information enters the mind, it subconsciously scans for information (cognitive schemata) that already exist within the brain. If the memory of the thing that has just entered your mind is already stored in the mind somewhere, your brain will try to recall that information. When we recognize something, we can use our memory as well as our current experience to better process what we’re seeing. For example, if your only prior experience of a cow was a bad one (the cow bit you!?), your current experience of the cow will be impacted by your past experience… you may not give cows a second chance!
5. Contextual Recall
Contextual recall involves using peripheral or related pieces of information to make sense of new information in front of us. Have you ever had the experience where someone asks you to remember a shared memory but … you just can’t find it in your brain? Then, they start giving you context such as something that happened during the same period of time as that memory: “Remember … you wore your red dress that day” … “Remember, that afternoon we went out for burgers” … “Remember, it happened on the way to the fair”. Suddenly, the memory comes flooding back!
6. Associative Recall
‘Contextual recall’ and ‘associative recall’ are related cognitive skills. Associative recall involves remembering something by associating it with something else. It can be a great strategy to get your memory working. I use this thinking strategy all the time as a teacher. I’ll meet a new student whose name is Lilly. To remember her name, I might say “Lilly” … “Like a flower. Lilly like a flower.” Next time I see her, I have two ways of remembering her name. Maybe her name will come straight to my head. Or, maybe the more general word “flower” comes to my mind … and then I can go “Ah, you’re Lilly like a flower!”
7. Long-Term Memorization
Long-term memorization often requires us to be exposed to something regularly. It seems that the more we are exposed to something, the more the brain realizes that this information is important. So, the brain shifts that ‘thing’ that we’re coming across in our daily lives from short-term to long-term memory. Once something’s in long-term memory, it’s harder (but not impossible) to forget.
8. Perspectival Thinking
When we are young, we are egocentric. This means that we can only really see things from our own perspective. Cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget called our inability to see other perspectives “centration”. Somewhere between 7 and 11 years of age, we develop several cognitive skills, including the cognitive ability to start seeing things from perspectives other than our own. In other words, we develop the skill of perspectival thinking.
9. Paying attention
At a very young age, babies have many cognitive skills. They certainly don’t know how to pay attention. In fact, they literally have to train their eyes to ‘focus’ in the first few months of life. Even by the time a child reaches school age their ability to direct their attention is significantly weaker than when they’re in adolescence. That’s why, if you walk into an early childhood classroom, the teacher is doing a lot of physical, play-based learning. I mean, try asking a 5 year old to maintain attention on something that’s not fun, physical and … even funny!
10. Focus (Sustaining attention)
Once a child has learned to direct their attention, the next skill they need to master is sustaining that attention. The difference in focus between younger and older children is also very stark. Ask any early childhood teacher how long a lesson will last and they might say 10 – 20 minutes. After that, you’ve totally lost the children’s attention – they don’t have the cognitive skills to go on. You’ll need something new to get them back and focused again. Fast-forward 10 years and walk into a classroom full of the same children – except now they’re adolescents. Their teacher might ask them to do mathematics worksheets for 45 minutes straight in preparation for an exam. These adolescents have clearly developed their cognitive skills, including the ability to focus over the past 10 years of their lives.
11. Selective attention
Humans also need to develop the skill of selective attention. Selective attention involves being able to selectively block out some stimuli while focusing on other new information. This is a necessary skill when working in overstimulating environments. It’s why you can listen to your friend talking to you in the middle of time square rather than being distracted by all the neon lights. I tend to be best at selective attention when watching sports. Good luck trying to call my name or ask me to do something when I’m engrossed in the final quarter of a football game.
12. Divided attention
Divided attention involves the cognitive ability to multitask, or pay attention to two things at once. Most of us would believe that women are better at cognitive skills like divided attention than men, although science seems to disagree with this old trope. When we divide our attention, we can absorb new information from two sources at once: like feed our baby and talk on the phone, or sweep the floor and watch the football game.
13. Inhibiting Response
Response inhibition is the cognitive ability to suppress reactions to stimuli in our environments. We have automatic response inhibitors that work at a high processing speed, such as not flinching when someone claps in front of their face. We also have conscious response inhibition, which involves the capacity to filter our reactions to stimuli through processes of logic, reasoning and contextual mediation. For example, it is inappropriate to yell in exasperation at colleagues, despite our desire to do so.
14. Emotional Self-Regulation
Emotional self-regulation involves the ability to employ our response inhibition mechanism to manage our emotional lives. But it’s not simply the ability to “turn an emotion off”. Rather, emotional self-regulation requires a person to continue to use logic and long-term perspective when analyzing a situation. In layman’s terms, emotional self-regulation involves the ability to keep a cool head and react proportionately to a moment in which emotions are high.
Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. It involves being able to reflect on your thought processes and using strategies to improve those thought processes. Humans are one of the only species (alongside monkeys and dolphins, in small ways) who have exhibited the capacity to use metacognition. Reflection on one’s own thought processes involves strategies like using reflection after an event, using in-time reflection to change practice in the moment and thinking about which learning strategies you are using while learning.
16. Spatial Awareness
Spatial awareness involves the ability to identify distance, location and proximity of objects to one another. We need to develop the cognitive capacity to recognize and navigate three dimensional spaces from childhood in order to move about our environments. In adulthood, spatial awareness is necessary for operating tools (such as using a hammer and nail) as well as in everyday situations like driving cars (distance from the car in front, distance to stopping, etc.).
17. Logical Reasoning
Logical reasoning involves the ability to come to conclusions based on a coherent set of truth principles. A person who uses logic does not rely on superstition or unfounded assumptions to reach their conclusions. There are two primary types of logical reasoning: deductive and inductive.
18. Visual Processing
Visual processing is a cognitive skill involves being able to receive, interpret and understand messages that enter the brain through our eyes. Some people consider themselves to be more adept at visual processing than other forms, like audio or language processing. For example, people may be drawn more to the meaning in art or cartoons than through musical meaning-making. If you’re a visual learner, you might need a visual aid to get your memory working in the morning!
19. Audio Processing
Audio processing is another one of the cognitive skills we use to interpret our surrounds. It involves the ability to receive, interpret and understand messages that enter the brain through the ears. People who excel at audio processing not only understand noises well, but also have the capacity to discern subtle differences in tone, cadence and pitch (such as people with ‘perfect pitch’). The processing speed of our brains to interpret audio signals is very high.
20. Language Processing
Language processing is a cognitive skill that involves the ability to hear and interpret man-made communication codes such as spoken, written and sign languages. Children tend to develop most of the fundamental spoken language and cognitive skills required to communicate by the age of 5 through cultural absorption. Neurologist Paul Thompson argues that up until age 11, children’s brains are designed to rapidly absorb languages. Beyond this age, language processing speed slows and learning a language becomes more difficult.
21. Ethical Thinking
Ethical thinking is a cognitive skill that involves applying a values, beliefs and moral frameworks when forming ideas, actions and developing conceptual relationships between concepts. A person who applies ethical thinking must use cognitive abilities like empathy, spirituality and morality to filter good ideas from bad ideas. The use of ethics as a cognitive framework helps people to come to conclusions about how to act in complex ways and interpret ‘moral grey areas’ around topics such as abortion and how to solve refugee crises.
Estimation requires the capacity to model and predict future events based upon incomplete information in the present. Estimation does not require someone to be able to predict the future perfectly, but rather make guesses based on the best current information.
23. Abstract Thinking
Abstract thinking is a cognitive skill that involves thinking about concepts that are beyond the obvious surface features of an idea. To think abstractly is to think logically about concepts that are not immediately clear or observable. An abstract thinker needs to use their working memory to hypothesize about possibilities of, relationships between and consequences of ideas and actions that are theoretical rather than simply practical.
Cognitive skills and cognitive abilities are developed from early childhood through to old age. Cognitive skills are any skills that require using the brain to process old and new information. For more on cognitive skills, read our article on cognitive tools.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.