Cognitive skills 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. Cognitive skills also include the processes that help us learn and think, solve problems, collaborate and create.
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 and Thinking.
Reception is the initial step in the learning sequence and involves taking in information through our sense: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The enormous amount of information available to our senses is too much for our brains to manage, so our brains decide what information is important and relevant enough to be processed further and discards the vast majority of it that isn’t relevant or important. 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 nonconsciously.
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, and 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 or when we shift from an external focus to internal reflective thinking. Executive functions are often likened to the conductor of the orchestra who directs all of the instruments to produce a coordinated musical experience. Like that conductor, 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, which often read like lists of 21st Century 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. Thus, students who struggle with reading, math and other academic tasks, often do so because they have weaknesses in one or more cognitive skills.
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