What Are Cognitive Skills?

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  • Written By: Eugene P.
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2019
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Cognitive skills are a set of abilities that are learned to varying degrees as a person grows and develops mentally. Unlike skills that are based on academic knowledge, cognitive skills are abilities that are used to learn, understand and integrate information in a meaningful way. Information that is learned cognitively is understood, not just memorized. There are many cognitive skill groups, and each broad category can be broken down into very specific sets of skills. Milestones are often used to track the progress of children and can be employed diagnostically to check for learning disabilities or other problems that could require special attention.

Some examples of cognitive skills include motor skills, memory, attention, perception and a wide category known as executive skills. Each of these skills can be further broken down into specific mental operations that can be used in different situations or to complete tasks. Primarily, these skills are employed to solve problems, perceive the world in a way that makes sense and is consistent, and to learn new skills and information.

One of the most important categories of cognitive skills involves the executive functions. These are abilities that can help to govern other skills and provide a mental framework essential to learning. Executive functions include sequencing, inhibition, problem solving and flexibility. Some of these skills can be used to support other categories and, more importantly, can help to provide a means for integrating the information into the mind so it can be understood.


Certain learned tasks, such as reading and writing, rely heavily on cognitive skills. Symbolic thinking is one such ability. This is the cognitive ability to relate a symbol to a specific sound, image or other meaning that is not necessarily implied by the actual appearance of the symbol. This skill is vital to understanding how to read and write through the use of an alphabet, in which the letters really have no visual relation to the meaning or sounds they make.

Most of these skills work together to allow some everyday actions to be performed. Answering a door after a bell has been rung is one example. To answer a door, a person must be able to identify a sound, divert attention to the sound, relate the sound to a physical object within the environment even if it is not the actual object making the noise, and then use motor skills to reach the door and open it. All of these steps are classified as cognitive skills.


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The first twelve years of school are geared toward learning many cognitive skills. Children learn how to apply their math cognitive skills in solving many of life's problems. They learn to solve complex math, like geometry or calculus, by using the cognitive skills they have learned earlier.

Cognitive skills keep building on former skills. Gradually creativity develops and new ways of looking at things.

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