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In an article published on BestEverYou, Betsy Hill and Roger Stark write,

People often use the term “muscle memory” to refer to physical actions we take without conscious thought, like swinging a tennis racket or shooting a free throw. While it feels like our muscles are just working on their own, it’s really our brains that are in control, just at a nonconscious level.

There are a lot of things our brains do non-consciously including the mental processes called cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are how we take in, understand, organize, store, retrieve and apply information – in other words, how we learn.

Cognitive Skills: How We Learn

When people think about cognitive skills, mental processes like attention (focus) or memory often come to mind. However, each general category of cognitive skills may have a number of different individual skills within it. For example, attention skills include sustained attention, selective attention, flexible attention and divided attention. Attention isn’t just one thing, nor is memory, or visual processing. In fact, there are dozens (at least) of cognitive skills that constitute our ability to learn. They are the “how” of learning.

Categories of cognitive skills:

  • Attention
  • Visual Processing
  • Auditory Processing
  • Sensory Integration
  • Memory
  • Executive Functions (Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Cognitive Flexibility)
  • Higher-Order Executive Functions (Logic and Reasoning)

Unfortunately, the “how” of learning often doesn’t get as much attention as the “what” of learning – what knowledge and skills we need to learn. In elementary and secondary school, children learn to read and do math, take courses in science, history, home economics, and foreign languages. At the college level, every course has a syllabus that tells you what is taught in the course. But we know that just because teaching is happening, that doesn’t necessarily mean learning is happening.

In fact, the ability to learn is generally assumed at all levels of education. And indeed, our brains are learning machines. But we don’t all learn exactly the same way. We all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Some of us reason with visual-spatial information more effectively than with verbal information. Some of us have a limited ability to hold information in our minds while we think about it, a skill called working memory. Each person has a unique learning profile, a unique capacity for learning. (Note that we all have the ability to learn, but we haven’t all developed the same capacity to learn.)

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