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Top Cognitive Skills Essential to Student Learning

Janelle Cox

Cognitive skills are the mental capabilities that our students need in order to successfully learn in school. In order for our students to effectively read, write, think, analyze, understand, remember, and solve problems, all of these cognitive stills must come together and be able to function properly. When these skills are weak, then that is when we see our students begin to struggle. Here we take a look at the top cognitive skills that are essential to our students’ learning, as well as why they are important.

Concentration Cognitive Skills

Concentration is a cognitive skill that has to be taught. You cannot make someone pay attention, but you can, however, help to improve someone’s concentration with practice. If someone is weak in this area, then it can impact a lot of other cognitive areas. Watch for a student’s inability to stay on task for a long period of time. This is called sustained attention. Teach students how to have selective attention, where they learn to ignore distractions and stay on task. Also, teach students how to have divided attention, which happens when they are able to multitask. When students are able to do this, then they will have high-functioning cognitive skills, which will help them to succeed in school.


If information cannot be retained long enough to remember it, then learning will suffer. Students have both a working memory and a long-term memory. Their working memory allows them to retain information for short periods of time, while their long-term memory allows them to store and recall information later. Watch out for a student’s inability to remember short, simple, one-step instructions, or to remember things from over a period of time. Learning will suffer if this occurs, so it’s important to provide students with plenty of activities that can help both their working memory as well as their long-term memory.

Processing Speed

The rate at which a student can process information or the time it takes them to complete a mental task is called their processing speed. In other words, it’s the time between receiving information and responding to it. If a student’s processing speed is slow, then the information that they have in their working memory will be lost. This can make it quite difficult for students to complete task such as reading text, listening to a lecture, doing math problems, or even something as simple as holding a conversation. Watch for a student’s inability to move from one task to another quickly. Work on making the students who struggle with this skill to efficiently process information at a higher speed by training their brain to make more solid connections.

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A student’s ability to plan, prioritize, problem-solve, and comprehend would falter if they don’t have the cognitive skills of logic and reasoning. Look out for students who frequently ask, “What do I have to do next?” or who say, “I don’t understand this.” Students who lack these skills will have trouble completing academic activities that involve problem-solving like math or any comprehension activities. Help students who are struggling develop these skills by challenging their minds with logic and reasoning games and activities.

Auditory Perception

The ability to perceive and understand what you hear is another essential cognitive skill. In order for students to be able to read and even spell words, they have to be able to hear the difference in sounds. Students need to be able to blend sounds, separate sounds, and analyze sounds in order to read words. If you find that a student is having trouble spelling or reading, then you may have to look into their auditory perception. The key to improving this skill is to be consistent. The brain can be strengthened by challenging it frequently.

Visual Processing

The ability to think and retain information in visual images is another cognitive skill that all students need to have. In order for it to be possible to retain visual information, it requires students to remember and understand the information. Tasks like solving math problems require students to see a concept and envision it in their mind. If they are unable to do that, then they will not be able to envision or comprehend the information.

These are just a few of the brain-based skills that our students need in order to carry out a task. Fortunately for the students who struggle with these skills, they can boost their cognitive functions with a little repetitive practice and brain challenging games.

What cognitive skills do you think are essential? Share with us in the comment section below, we would love to hear your input.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds Masters of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is a contributing writer to, TeachHUB Magazine, and Hey Teach. She was also the Elementary Education Expert for for five years. You can follow her on Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators, or contact her at

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