The United States’ National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME) defines cognitive ability as the ability to “perform the various mental activities most closely associated with learning and problem solving.” A student’s cognitive abilities broadly include his or her verbal processing, psychomotor, and spatial skills, as well as his or her general fluid intelligence and ability to reason and logic. These skills can be measured by specific tasks like the following: verbal short-term memory; complex memory span; sentence repetition; nonverbal ability; phonological awareness.
Researchers have found that many of these skills peak in test subjects who were in their late teens or early twenties. Cognitive skills are involved when a student thinks, reads, learns, solves problems, and recalls stored knowledge or information. They are thus essential in allowing students to effectively process new information, retain it for future use and consolidate it with what he or she already knows. There is sufficient research to establish that a student’s ability to “store and manipulate information in short-term memory” is closely linked to academic achievements over multiple years of schooling the areas such as reading, mathematics, and language comprehension.
While researchers are looking into more sophisticated methods of understanding and analysing students’ cognitive skills and tracking how they develop over time, more practical-minded educators are understandably interested in learning how they can help improve the cognitive skills of the students in their respective classrooms. A 2013 journal article published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest outlines various learning techniques that can help you achieve just that:
- Elaborative Interrogation
Research on elaborative interrogation has demonstrated that students learn more effectively when they are prompted to answer the question “Why?” Instead of simply having them passively digest a list of facts and information, you should encourage them to verbalise explanations for the facts that they have just been presented with. This can take the form of questions like “Why is this true?”, “Why is this true for [X] and not [Y]?” or “Why does it make sense that …?”
Studies have demonstrated that students perform better on a wide range of learning outcomes (e.g. memory, comprehension and transfer) when prompted to explain an aspect (or more) of their processing while they are learning. The prompts given can be content specific or content-free (e.g. “And how does [X] relate to what you already know?”).
Summarisation is a valuable tool that helps students to identify important information and how different ideas are interconnected when they digest large volumes of information. Summarisation helps to improve learning and retention because it prompts students to extract the higher-level meaning of what they learn.
- Practice Testing
Students may view tests as a highly undesirable component of their education (especially when they are mainly exposed to high-stakes examinations). However, studies have shown that practice testing improves learning and retention. This happens via direct effects (where a learning change occurs due to the taking of the test) and mediated effects (where learning change occurs because of the influence a test has on subsequent encoding). You can thus have students participate in various forms of low-stakes tests, and encourage them to test themselves on their own.
- Distributed Practice
Distributed practice is the exact opposite of cramming, where students organize many learning opportunities and goals within a short time span. Research has proven that a more distributed form of learning is more effective. This includes both spacing effects (where the practice opportunities are spread out over a wide period of time) and lag effects (longer lags between practice sessions are needed if the material is to be retained over a longer period of time). Teachers have to work against how textbooks are normally organized (revision of material that was previously learned is usually not a feature) and how students tend to procrastinate to impart the benefits of distributed practice.
At the end of the day, there are many different ways to enhance your students’ cognitive skills. The efficacy of each method depends on the type of material you need to impart and the learning style of your students. Try your hand at implementing some of these methods, and keep track of which ones work best for you.
Robert Wilson was born and raised in Malaysia. He is working as a blogger for ChampionTutor which provides Best Home Tutor. He’s hardworking, competent and trustworthy. His role within the company is to manage a team of Tutors. In his spare time, he loves to read, write and watch movies.