What are Cognitive Skills? | A List of 29 Examples (2019)

list of cognitive skills

Cognitive skills are the skills and abilities for thinking that we develop from early childhood through to old age. A cognitive skill is any skill that requires using the brain to process information.

Some examples include:

  • The ability to use logic
  • The ability to focus
  • The ability to use language
  • The ability to hold your tongue
  • The ability to recall information

As you’ll see in this post, there are many cognitive skills that we human use throughout our lives. Here’s a list of 29 cognitive skills that show just how complex our brains really are!

Related Post: What are cognitive tools?

1. Using Working Memory

Working memory is the part of your brain that hosts all your cognitive thinking. It’s widely accepted that your working memory can only hold a certain amount of information (somewhere between 4 and 9 things at once). Go ahead: try to hold 10 random unrelated facts in your mind at once. It’ll be hard, I assure you!

2. Ranking

When 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.

3. Classifying

We may also need to classify 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!

4. Recognition

Recognition is a cognitive skill that requires you to recall memory from your mind. When something 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. Assimilation

Assimilation is a core cognitive skill that involves absorbing new information and adding it to an existing “cognitive schema”. Assimilation occurs when new information agrees with existing knowledge. You do not need to change your existing knowledge. You just have to add your new information on top of what you already know.

For example, if you find a new species of dog, you will add that species into the packet of information labeled “dogs” so that you now have a richer understanding of different types of dogs.

6. Accommodation

Accommodation is more complex than assimilation.

Accommodation occurs when new knowledge enters your mind that contradicts what you already know.

When this happens, you might have to fix your old knowledge. You’re literally “changing your mind”.

Your brain will call up old packets of information in your memory, repair it so it “accommodates” the new knowledge, and then remember the newer, updated facts.

Read more about Assimilation and Accommodation here.

7. Contextual Recall

Contextual recall involves using peripheral or related pieces of information to make sense of something 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 “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!

8. Associative Recall

A cognitive skill related to ‘contextual recall’ is ‘associative recall’.

Associative recall involves remembering something by associating it with something else.

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!”

Another strong associative recall strategy that seems subconscious is the association of smells with people.

To this day, if a woman walks past me wearing the same perfume as my mother, I’ll instantly be taken back to happy memories of my mother.

9. 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.

I once met a man who grew up in Denmark. He’d been living in Canada for 40 years. He told me he’d forgotten about 50% of his native language. So, we do lose information in our long-term memory, but it’s a lot harder.

Related post: how to remember things for an upcoming exam.

10. Conservation

Conservation is a cognitive skill learned somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7. It is the ability to recognize that the properties of something does not necessarily change based upon its physical appearance.

Let me explain.

A child has two jugs. One is tall and thin, the other is short and fat. The tall thin one has water in it.

In front of the child’s eyes, you pour the water from the tall skinny jug into the short fat jug.

Ask the child: “Is there more, less or the same amount of water now?”

The child will think that there’s less water because it doesn’t go as high up the wall of the short fat jug.

This child hasn’t mastered the cognitive skill of conservation: recognizing that the properties of something and its physical appearance are not necessarily related.

11. 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 the cognitive ability to start seeing things from perspectives other than our own. In other words, we develop the skill of perspectival thinking.

However, egocentrism remains a feature of human behavior throughout the life cycle. As adults, we are still guilty of egocenteism. We have simply developed the ability to use perspectival thinking… if we so choose!

Clearly, some of us are better at exercising this skill than others.

12. Paying attention

At a very young age, babies 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 pay 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 pay attention to something that’s not fun, physical and … even funny!

13. Focus (Sustaining attention)

Once a child has learned to pay attention, the next cognitive skill they need to master is sustaining that attention.

To continue the scenario from above, 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. Why? After that, you’ve totally lost the children’s attention. You’ll need something new to get them back and focused again.

Now, 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. In fact, their exam is likely to be a 2 hour sit-in inside a school hall. These adolescents have clearly developed the ability to focus over the past 10 years of their lives.

14. Selective attention

Humans also need to develop the cognitive skill of selective attention. Selective attention involves being able to selectively block out some stimuli while focusing on others.

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.

15. 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 divided attention than men, although science seems to disagree with this old trope.

When we divide our attention, we can do two things at once: like feed our baby and talk on the phone, or sweep the floor and watch the football game.

However, it appears that dividing attention makes us a little worse at all the tasks we’re currently performing. It’s why it is illegal in most places to talk on the phone and drive a car simultaneously. One explanation for this is through cognitive load theory: we can only hold a certain amount of information in our heads at one time. When doing two tasks, we have to divide our working memory across the tasks.

16. Inhibiting Response

Response inhibition is the cognitive ability to suppress reactions to stimuli in our environments. This can be conscious or automatic. 

For automatic inhibitions, some people are more capable of suppressing flinch responses than others. Some people, for example, are far less likely to flinch when someone claps in front of their face. They have managed to inhibit a fear response that appears ingrained in many of us.

Conscious response inhibition involves the capacity to filter our reactions to stimuli through processes of logic, reasoning and contextual mediation. 

Some responses are contextually inappropriate. It is inappropriate in professional contexts to yell in excitement, despite our desire to do so. However, yelling in excitement may be considered culturally more appropriate if you are a spectator at a football game.

It is a necessary human skill for all of us to get along.

Related Post: Behaviorist Theory of Education

17. 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.

18. Metacognition

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.

Acting on metacognition involves intentionally using frameworks for thinking (such as a reflection process or a certain learning strategy) and reflecting on which frameworks will be best for a certain task.

19. Using Motor Skills and Hand-Eye Coordination

Motor skills can be divided into: fine and gross motor.

Fine motor skills involve the small movements that require precision rather than the large movements that require power.

Some examples of fine motor skills include using scissors, sewing or using chopsticks.

Gross motor skills are the powerful movements that require strong exertion of muscles. These might include sprinting, heavy lifting and tugging.

The brain needs to be trained in how to use motor skills. As babies, we crawl before we walk … and walk before we run.

Similarly, sports people like pitchers in baseball spend years learning how to use both power (gross motor skills) and minute finger movements at the right time (fine motor skills) to deliver a precise curve-ball.

Related Post: Pros and Cons of Play-Based Learning

20. 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.).

21. 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.

Deductive reasoning involves coming to conclusions based on a thorough data set that is already at hand. A person will have a complete collection information that enables someone to make a truth claim.

Inductive reasoning involves making ‘logical assumptions’. A logical assumption (as opposed to an unfounded assumption) involves making a generalization about a fact based on a sample data set. For example, scientists may conduct multiple studies that find from several data sets that something appears to be true. They can then generalize that this will be true for similar circumstances without having to conduct tests in every single circumstance.

22. Visual Processing

Visual processing involves being able to receive, interpret and understand messages that enter the brain through our eyes.

According to Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning, visual processing is one of two major forms of information processing alongside audio processing.

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. They may therefore prefer to learn through visual rather than auditory means (however, there is no evidence that anyone is more naturally inclined to learn through one processing form or another – see Coffield et al, 2004).

23. Audio Processing

Audio processing is the ability to receive, interpret and understand messages that enter the brain through the ears.

According to Mayer, alongside visual processing, it forms the second major ‘channel of information processing.

Audio processing often occurs alongside visual processing, such as when we understand someone better when listening and watching their lips.

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’).

24. Language Processing

Language processing 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 skills required to communicate by the age of 5 through cultural absorption. Their written language skills tend to be explicitly modeled and children tend to be able to write at a fluent communicable level by age 12.

Interestingly, it seems the learning of new languages seems to come easier to children than adults, although this is debated. Neurologist Paul Thompson argues that up until age 11, children’s brains are designed to rapidly absorb languages. Beyond this age, language learning becomes more difficult.

25. Ethical Thinking

Ethical thinking 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.

26. Estimation

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.

In schools, we tend to associate the cognitive capacity to make estimations with mathematics. When we ask students to estimate numbers, we are requiring them to use multiple cognitive skills. For example, asking children to estimate the number of beans in a jar, students require the capacity to use spatial awareness, the capacity to assess density, and the capacity to assess volume.

Estimation differs from planning skills. Planning skills require someone to take the next step of acting upon estimations of the future in order to mitigate upcoming challenges.

27. Planning

Planning ahead requires someone to reflect on the needs and potential outcomes of future events. Whereas estimation requires guessing what will happen in the future, planning requires someone to act on these estimations to create desirable future outcomes.

Planning ahead may be as simple as remembering to put on sunblock on a sunny day. Or, it may be as complex as choosing the shares that will likely make the most money based on company balance books.

28. Intuition

The ability to plan ahead through uncertainty is one of the human brain’s greatest advantages over computer artificial intelligence.

Intuition involves making decisions based on ‘gut feel’ rather than by cognizantly calculating the field of possible outcomes.

Human capacity for intuition is perhaps best exemplified in the ancient Chinese game of GO! In GO!, there are more possible moves than atoms in the known universe. Therefore, machines that use pure logic and numerical calculations find it exceedingly difficult to make predictions more than a few moves down the track within the game.

Humans, on the other hand, tend to be better at using intuition than machines to make estimates when pure calculation is not possible.

However, in 2016, google’s AlphaGo technology successfully beat a GO! Master, hailing an achievement of AI over mankind.

29. Abstract Thinking

Abstract thinking 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.

According to Piaget, people begin to develop complex abstract thinking skills from the age of 12. At this age, children are encouraged to think philosophically, metaphorically and theoretically about ‘big picture’ concepts.

How does the Mind Process Information?

When information enters the brain, we need to process it. Information can be from any of our primary senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste.

a) We Using “Cognitive Schemata”

Our brains are full of little packets of information that we call ‘cognitive schemata’ (singular: cognitive schema). A cognitive schemata is one coherent piece of information that we can recall to make sense of the world.

An examples of a cognitive schema:

  • Let’s say your brain has a cognitive schema named ‘dog’. You see an animal and your brain recognizes that it belongs to the ‘dog’ classification in your mind. You remember what it looks like and store its features into the ‘dog’ cognitive schema so you can recall its features information next time you see an animal. Maybe you’ll see another breed of dog later on, but you notice its similarities with the first dog. You decide this also fits in the ‘dog’ schema. Congratulations, you’ve used a cognitive skill – information processing!

b) We Alter our Cognitive Schemata

According to developmental psychology, that information is sorted in what we call working memory. In working memory, we need to figure out what to do with the information that enters our minds.

So, when that information comes into our working memory, our brains look for a way for it to make sense to us. There are three primary options for our brains:

  • Assimilate (Accept): Decide the information makes sense and find an appropriate cognitive schema to store it within.
  • Accommodate (Change our Mind): Decide the information doesn’t make sense to us, and change our existing understanding of the world so everything makes sense again.
  • Reject: Decide the information doesn’t make sense to us and reject it altogether.

Let’s imagine a piece of information comes into the mind. The brain starts its process of sorting, classifying and processing the information. To do this, the brain thinks about what it already knows.

Assimilation: The brain might decide to recall some related information and see if this new information agrees with past information. 

If so, we might decide that these two pieces of information are a pair, so we store the information side-by-side in our memory. That new piece of information has been accepted.

Accommodation: Or, we might decide that the new information in our mind doesn’t quite fit with what we already know. Cognitive psychologists call this phenomenon ‘cognitive disequilibrium’. You’d probably call it ‘confusion’.

When cognitive disequilibrium happens, the brain has to ‘fix’ a broken cognitive schema. Often, the brain will fix it by breaking it into two.

For example, you see an animal with four legs. You point to it and say ‘dog!’ It seems a lot like the dog you saw last week. 

But, someone you trust tells you it was actually a new type of animal called a ‘horse’. You’ve never heard of horses before. So, you need to create a new cognitive schema called ‘horse’. Now, when you see a four legged animal you can’t instantly call it a dog. You have to analyze it and see if it looks more like the dog you saw last week or the horse you saw this week. Once you’ve made up your mind, you can decide which cognitive schema it belongs to.

Related Post: The Sociocultural Theory of Education

Cognitive Skills and Human Development

a) Cognitive Skills in Early Childhood

The most famous cognitive psychologist, Jean Piaget, developed a framework for understanding children’s cognitive development.

In early childhood, Piaget broke up cognitive development into two stages: the preoperational and concrete operational stages.

The sensorimotor stage involves initial cognitive development between ages 0 and 2. Children in this stage develop the ability to process information using their senses. Visual, auditory and motor skills rapidly develop.

The preoperational stage is a stage of cognitive development where children develop the ability to use symbols and role playing during games. The preoperational stage lasts from ages 2 to 7.

The concrete stage lasts from ages 7 to 11. It is characterized by development in logic, conservation and perspectival thinking. While inductive logic has developed by this stage, deductive logic is still in its infancy. 

b) Cognitive Skills in Adolescence

According to Piaget, cognitive adolescence is characterized by a single stage of development he called the formal operations stage.

During this stage, adolescents develop more complex cognitive abilities such as deductive reasoning, abstract thinking and ethical thought processing.

c) Cognitive Skills in Adulthood

As we enter adulthood and encounter the complexities of adulthood, we develop more relativistic and less idealistic thinking. Neopiagetian cognitive theorists call this stage the postformal stage of development.

In middle adulthood our cognitive skills level out. Cognitive theorist Raymond Catrell argues that adults tend to have two forms of cognitive intelligence: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized intelligence is sustained through adulthood. Fluid intelligence declines at some point in your 20s.

Crystallized intelligence is intelligent use of deductive reasoning (reaching specific and logical conclusions based on facts laid out). It relies kn information acquired and stored throughout our life (e.g. wisdom), which adults tend to maintain and develop.

Fluid intelligence is the use of working memory to process information rapidly. It is related to inductive reasoning (reaching generalized conclusions based on a small but representative data set). 

Catrell claims our fluid intelligence declines throughout adulthood. 

In other words, the processing speed of our working memory starts declining from early adulthood onward, but our growing wisdom 

 offsets that decline.

d) Deterioration of Cognitive Skills (Cognitive Ageing)

While cognitive skills appear to decline gradually in late adulthood, that decline speeds up around age 70.

From age 70, conceptualization and abstract thinking tend to decline faster. Response inhibition (such as preventing yourself from making socially inappropriate comments) also declines.

Vocabulary tends to be sustained well into late adulthood.

Memory loss, including dementia, is also significantly more likely to occur in people over 70.

How to Improve your Cognitive Ability and prevent Cognitive Decline in Old Age

It is possible to improve your cognitive ability through practice.

According to this article, some ways to improve cognitive ability include:

  • Exercise
  • Reading
  • Doing puzzles
  • Playing board and card games
  • Studying new topics
  • Crosswords and sudoku
  • Reducing stress 

Final Thoughts

This list of cognitive skills is by no means exhaustive, but does cover most of the major cognitive abilities that we develop over our lifetimes.

We use our working memory to process information that comes in through the senses. Cognitive abilities tend to he associated with reasoning, logical action, and coordination of the body.

In early childhood we rapidly develop our cognitive capacity, but from early adulthood onward it declines. More serious decline is observable in older adults.

However, we can prevent cognitive decline by remaining physically and intellectually active. That’s some good news!

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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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