How do we learn?
A guide to cognition and learning
Key takeawaysCognition forms the basis for how we behave, think and learn. It is also widely variable. Some of us may have significant strengths while also experiencing noticeable challenges.
We are all cognitively diverse because our brains are all different. Every person has differences in perspective, insights, thinking and experiences.
Neurodiversity is a natural part of our society’s wider cognitive diversity, not separate to it. All of our diverse perspectives have value and bring different benefits to our organisations and culture alike.
- Where does our definition of cognition come from?
- What is the connection between cognition and learning?
- What are cognitive domains?
- How do we learn new skills and solve problems effectively?
- What is cognitive diversity?
- How does cognitive diversity relate to neurodiversity?
- What is the relationship between cognition and learning difficulties / differences?
- How does cognition impact our continuous personal development (CPD)?
- what is a cognitive assessment?
- How to cognitive assessments work?
- What cognitive domains does Cognassist assess?
- The importance of identifying cognition and learning differences
Human learning is what built our civilisations and continues to drive new discoveries and innovations, year on year. But on an individual level, we learn every day of our lives. We learn from our mistakes and learn new skills to continually adapt and build a life for ourselves on this little blue dot called Earth.
In education, we’re taught what to learn, but not necessarily how to learn . We are only beginning to offer personalised learning based on the way each of us learns best, and this approach will continue to improve outcomes in education. In work, our learning is often self-led and the amount of continued personal development we achieve can depend on our confidence and capability to explore new learning.
But what is learning?
Learning is a process of acquiring, maintaining and using our knowledge throughout our lives. To learn, our brains use a variety of cognitive processes in areas like memory, language, reasoning and attention.
Our cognition, which can be measured and understood through these individual processes, defines our experiences and understanding of the world around us. We use our cognitive processes to learn, problem solve, interact with others, interpret sensory information, even make a cup of tea.
Cognition forms the basis for how we behave, think and learn. No biggie then, right? And our cognition is also widely variable. Some of us may have significant strengths while also experiencing noticeable challenges.
There is no right or wrong here. All of us bring a valuable perspective, and cognitive diversity is one of our greatest assets as a species.
In this article, we talk about cognition and learning and how the way we think affects multiple areas of our lives. Feel free to browse the questions below and read them all, or skip ahead to the ones you’re interested in…
Where does our definition of cognition come from?
Cognition is, very helpfully, an extremely broad concept.
“Cognition includes all conscious and unconscious processes by which knowledge is accumulated, such as perceiving, recognising, conceiving, and reasoning.” (Britannica, 2022)
Our understanding of cognition comes from thousands of years of exploration and research about the mind, going all the way back to ancient Greece.
And here follows the briefest introduction to the history of psychology and cognitive science…
Today, many neuropsychologists see ancient philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates as the earliest pioneers of psychology. These thinkers were preoccupied with explanations of human behaviour and the nature of the mind before we had any technology to such mysteries.
People don’t often realise it, but philosophy and psychology share the same roots in history right up to the 19th Century.
In 1879, a German physician called Wilhelm Wundt opened the first laboratory in the philosophy department of Leipzig University.
Wundt wanted to apply experimental methods used in natural science (physics, chemistry and biology) to philosophical questions of the mind.
His work was influential because it showed that internal cognitive processes could actually be measured.
Jump to the 20th Century and William James, a prominent American psychologist.
He theorised that our psychological characteristics, like our physical characteristics, evolved to help us survive and fulfilled specific purposes. Just like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Natural Selection, but for the mind.
And from James’ work formed our study of cognitive science, which looks at understanding specific processes in the brain, like memory, perception and language.
Of course, cognitive science has made much progress since James’ day.
Cognitive science is now a well-established field of psychological science and is an important foundation of one of the most exciting frontiers in modern science: artificial intelligence (AI).
Most advanced AI labs around the world include cognitive scientists and their work is helping us diagnose illness like cancer more effectively, create driverless cars and explore the universe.
We have no doubt that in the next 10 years we will incredible discoveries and developments that are a direct result of applied cognitive science.
What is the connection between cognition and learning?
There is no learning without cognition.
Our cognitive processes are the means we use to learn any and all information.
Many scientists have collaborated to create theories of cognition to understand how we think and learn. And the most comprehensive and empirically supported one used worldwide is the Cattel-Horn-Carol Theory of Cognitive Abilities (CHC Model).
We use the term “theory” here in its scientific use, which means a theory is not an insubstantial idea, but a carefully studied explanation from observations and facts about the world.
Replicated and supported by other scientists in the field, these theories often bring together many hypotheses and findings to build a comprehensive model about a subject.
And that’s exactly what the Cattel-Horn-Carol theory is. It is a model of human cognition.
It groups our many cognitive abilities into broad categories and narrow abilities.
For example, a broad category would be memory, a widely studied and understood area of human thinking, but within that are different areas like verbal memory, non-verbal memory and working memory.
What are cognitive domains?
Cognitive domains describe different internal functions of our brains that affect how we process information.
When measuring cognition, there are six common areas used by psychologists, which are discussed in tools such as the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual version 5) and the CHC Model mentioned above.
- Complex attention
- Executive function
- Learning and memory
- Social cognition
The term “cognitive domain” is used differently within certain contexts as there are also sub-domains to the key areas listed above.
It’s easy to get lost in the huge amount of research there is around cognition, but these concepts are fundamental to how we interact with and navigate the world around us!
Each domain helps us to understand people’s individual strengths and potential difficulties with certain areas of cognition and learning.
Meaning we can offer the right support where it’s needed, build confidence and empower people with a greater insight into their way of thinking.
Altogether, there are about 80 different cognitive domains that we know of. Many of these cognitive processes interconnect and perform similar functions. We don’t need to measure all 80 domains to understand someone’s cognitive profile.
Different combinations of domains also give us different insights, and some will be more relevant to specific areas of study. For example, research into child development or longitudinal studies to dementia care or work with brain lesion patients.
How do we learn new skills and solve problems effectively?
Learning is a skill like any other. We can get better at learning and solving problems by understanding more about how we process information and adopting effective strategies for learning.
Relying on our strengths and acknowledging our challenges will help us to be more mindful when we approach new tasks.
For example, a person might have slower information processing speed and, therefore, they may need to spend longer repeating or learning new information to remember it. However, they may have higher visual perception so learning in a practical, scenario-based way could ensure higher retention of new learning.
Similarly, if you know that you struggle with verbal reasoning, this could affect your ability to explain things clearly in the moment and you may instead want to write down what you mean first to avoid miscommunications.
Everyone is different, and there are many small ways we can adapt how we work and learn to ensure better outcomes for ourselves.
What is cognitive diversity?
The term cognitive diversity relates to the fact that we all think and learn differently. We are all cognitively diverse because our brains are all different. Every person has differences in perspective, insights, thinking and experiences.
Human beings don’t single-handedly create and innovate anymore.
To solve the complex problems facing society, we need a diverse and collaborative approach.
“Having the right amount of cognitive style diversity is important for team performance. Teams with too little cognitive diversity may lack the cognitive capacity to tackle tasks that require different ways of encoding and processing information[.]” (Aggerwal, 2015)
Companies want and need people who embody different ways of thinking, and to do this we need to empower people to learn how they work best as early as possible.
“Students are all individuals, so we can’t teach them all in the same way.” (Syed, 2019)
In his book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed makes the evidence-based argument that cognitive diversity leads to better decision making. By accommodating and promoting these differences within education, we can help people to understand that their differences and the differences of others are valuable in themselves.
How does cognitive diversity relate to neurodiversity?
We use a lot of this same language around thinking and learning differently to describe neurodiversity.
Even the dictionary definition of neurodiversity references differences in individual brain or cognitive function.
It’s clear that these terms strongly relate to each other, but what is the connection?
Cognitive diversity is considered an important part of neurodiversity that focuses on learning and cognitive differences specifically.
Alongside social, behavioural or personality differences that are also common traits of neurodiverse individuals.
Some diagnoses are defined by cognitive differences, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia. Whereas diagnoses like autism are more often defined by behavioural and social differences.
However, cognitive differences are common across most types of neurodiversity.
We are all cognitively diverse, but we are not all cognitively diverse to the degree that would meet the threshold of a formal diagnosis.
It’s always a spectrum.
Neurodiversity is a natural part of our society’s wider cognitive diversity, not separate to it. All of our diverse perspectives have value and bring different benefits to our organisations and culture alike.
What is the relationship between cognition and learning difficulties / differences?
Diagnosed learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and ADHD, are more common than we might think, and breaking down the areas where people experience difficulties helps us to take action and create more effective coping strategies.
Learning difficulties occur when certain cognitive processes are interrupted, which can cause challenges for people without the right support.
Through studying areas of cognition, we are getting better at identifying different learning needs and ensuring everyone has equal access to education and work.
The difficulties that people experience can vary. Some of us can experience difficulties in multiple domains, whereas some of us may only have difficulties in specific domains like numeracy and information processing speed. Even people with the same diagnosis can have vastly different experiences, strengths and challenges.
We’re all different, and we need to be mindful of the degree to which these differences impact our lives. Some people can struggle for years without realising why certain activities or situations feel that much harder for them. When they realise why, it can be a very positive and enlightening experience. While some of us may experience more complex needs that are identified in childhood and require full-time support.
There is still a lot of stigma and a lack of understanding about these cognitive differences. Learning difficulties do not dictate someone’s ability to achieve or the quality of life we can experience.
There are more and more examples of highly successful people who experience learning difficulties. We cannot limit our expectations of people because they process the world in a different way. In fact, these differences in cognition and ways of thinking have many benefits and championing these stories enriches our society.
You could say that learning difficulties that are properly supported simply become learning differences. The difficulty comes when people lack the knowledge and resources to support themselves or others around them. This idea closely aligns with the social model of disability, which argues that people are disabled by the barriers in our society not by the differences they experience.
Not everybody uses the social model of disability, however, and talking about learning difficulties or differences is a complex and diverse discussion. There is not always a right or wrong answer.
But we feel that creating a society that embraces differences and provides an environment in which everyone can thrive is more important than ever. And taking an inclusive and well-informed approach to supporting cognition and learning is key.
How does cognition impact our continuous personal development (CPD)?
Continuous personal development is about our professional learning throughout our career, often completed alongside our daily job through our employer.
Over time, our learning may often become more specialised, yet the cognitive processes we use to gain this information remain the same.
Knowing about cognition and how we think and learn can help us to take up continuous learning more effectively. Ensuring that we get the most out of our self-led learning.
Considering cognitive diversity within learning and development is a key part of supporting learning in the workplace. Learning and Development (L&D) teams or at least a learning and development policy needs to be mindful of our differences.
Do people need longer to complete training? Do they prefer online learning? Can they easily apply their learning to their role?
An understanding of cognition can answer these questions and help develop a positive culture for learning and development.
The Cognassist report tells employees how their cognitive profile can impact areas of working life like:
- Learning and memory
- Organisation and planning
- Working digitally
- Working with others
- Problem solving
Continuous personal development in the workplace doesn’t have to feel hard going. We can do more to adapt processes and ensure learning is personalised towards our strengths while considering our development areas.
What is a cognitive assessment?
Cognitive assessments use specifically designed tasks to measure cognition and understand a person’s cognitive profile across different domains.
Depending on which domains are measured, these assessments use different tasks to identify our strengths and areas where people could benefit from support.
Cognitive assessments often form part of the diagnosis process for learning difficulties and other neurodiverse diagnoses. Focusing on different cognitive abilities to find out which types of processing are naturally easier or harder for people, and therefore whether someone meets the threshold of a diagnosis. Although further context and discussion with a professional is always required to receive a diagnosis.
Many cognitive assessments are paper-based, meaning access to these assessments is expensive and takes time. Cognassist is a digital assessment, .
The tasks included in our assessment are all proprietary digital adaptations or advancements of the most evidence-based methods commonly used in cognitive research to measure meaningful aspects of cognition. We offer immediate support and tools to help people in work and education without the need for a diagnosis.
Through our assessment, individuals can gain insight into their own way of thinking.
How do cognitive assessments work?
Cognitive assessments are psychometric tools. As such, they require rigorous testing and validation to function in the way required.
Cognitive assessments have been developed over decades. And through this research, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have linked certain tasks to domains that define how we think and learn.
One example of a regularly used cognitive task is the “letter fluency task”. This task is commonly used to measure executive function, a core cognitive domain that focuses on attention control and cognitive flexibility. Someone who experiences ADHD is likely to have some form of difficulty in this domain, although it is not always the case.
In the letter fluency task, people are asked to think of as many words beginning with a specific letter in a certain time limit, without repeating yourself or using multiple variations of the same word (go, going, gone).
It’s harder than you might think when you’re under time pressure.
And evidence shows that performance on this task correlates with real-world abilities like staying on task and ignoring distractions because they both require us to control our attention.
This is just one example, but there are thousands of cognitive tasks like this that have been developed in a research setting and are now used more widely within the scientific community.
The Cognassist assessment is mapped onto the CHC model, and we have multiple neuropsychologists, research scientists, data scientists and psychometricians working within our team and consulting with our organisation.
There is more in-depth information about our assessment and its criteria in The Science Behind Cognassist.
What cognitive domains does Cognassist assess?
Cognassist measures a across a broad range of domains related to thinking and learning.
Understanding differences in these domains can help to provide support and more personalised learning in both education and work.
Literacy doesn’t just refer to our reading and writing skills, it encompasses everything we perceive about language, including:
- Language processing power and speed
- Listening and speaking
- Discussing and explaining ideas clearly
Even when we’re just relaxing reading a book or scrolling through social media posts, our brains are carrying out all of these different activities in the background within milliseconds, but all we think about are the words on the page.
Just goes to show how amazing our brains really are!
Language also informs most of our interactions with other people. So it can be very powerful to know what differences or potential development areas we may experience in this domain.
#2 Reading Decoding
Whereas Literacy is more focused on vocabulary and the processing of language, Reading Decoding relates to the process of matching the combination of letters (graphemes) that make up a word to their sounds (phonemes). These then become recognisable patterns and syllables that blend together to form a word. It involves:
- Lexical access (the way we access words in the mental lexicon)
- Phonological awareness (how we discriminate, remember, and manipulate sounds)
Decoding quickly and accurately is important for reading fluently and comprehending what you are reading and is the foundation for learning to read.
Numeracy isn’t just about doing sums and times tables, it involves everything we perceive about numerical information, including:
- Recognising patterns
- Ranking information
- Timekeeping and time management
- Finance and spending
Numeracy informs some of the fundamental skills of working life.
Differences in numeracy can make important tasks like budgeting or time management either more difficult or easier depending on the individual. Understanding this about ourselves can be empowering, no matter which end of the scale we sit on.
#4 Executive function
Executive function covers a range of processes that allow us to perform some of our more complex cognitive tasks, including:
- Problem solving
- Reasoning and analysis
- Controlling attention
These are clearly vital skills for any workplace and learning environment.
Important research has shown that people in prison often have low executive function.
Cognitive science has the potential not just to improve education and the workplace, but overall life outcomes if we can give people the right support at the right time.
#5 Verbal reasoning
This domain is about taking the information you learn and using it to form conclusions or ideas. It involves:
- Generalising ideas
- Making predictions
- Forming concepts
- Explaining how things relate
Here’s a good example:
A child, as children tend to do, asks you a seemingly ridiculous question like, “why do you go to work every day?”
The easy answer here is “to make money.”
Sometimes this is the only answer you’ll have the energy to give – we get it!
But a more useful response might be, “to make money so we can buy nice things, go on holiday, afford to buy a house, buy food every week” – the list goes on.
This more detailed reasoning helps to develop children’s conceptual understanding of the world and their verbal reasoning.
#6 Visual perception
This domain includes all visual information we process on a daily basis, which can include:
- Hand/eye coordination
- Visualisation of past experiences, objects or people
- Copying information
- Maps and orientation
Visual perception helps us to organise the information we’re seeing and interpret it accurately, which is essential for effective learning in any setting – classroom, office or on site.
#7 Visual information processing speed
Much like visual perception, this domain is about how we process visual information but specifically how quickly we can process it, with things like:
- Reading or writing speed
- Reading and taking notes at the same time
- Listening and taking notes at the same time
- Identifying similarities and differences between objects or people
Think of the busy environment of an airport.
You need to find where you check-in, find out which part of the airport you’re leaving from and find your gate.
But there are also lots of other people around you, lots of distractions and lots of different signposts and noticeboards to read.
This is why most of us will arrive hours and hours before our flight, giving ourselves extra time because we know that it is a particularly demanding situation and we’ve all had nightmares the night before travelling that we just missed our flight!
Some people experience difficulties with processing visual information and extra time isn’t just a nice to have but a necessity. That’s why extra time is a really important reasonable adjustment for exams.
#8 Verbal memory
You’ll no doubt be familiar with the terms “short term memory” and “long term memory”. These terms are to do with how we store information in the brain.
But we actually have different domains for remembering different types of information.
Verbal memory is all to do with spoken information and remembering information we are told.
But it also includes internal spoken information, like when we read to ourselves we can hear the words in our head or the times we make a quick mental note, “Oh, I must remember to get bread and chocolate on the way home.”
If you’re given an assignment verbally, how likely are you to remember when it’s due without written confirmation?
#9 Non-verbal memory
The other cognitive domain for remembering information is very handily called non-verbal memory. This is everything that isn’t spoken, including:
- Learning non-verbal cues, like body language and facial expressions
- Recall of events or objects
- Sense of direction and orientation
- Understanding abstract concepts
Non-verbal memory can impact simple things like forgetting where your keys are to something much more complex like struggling to navigate new situations.
The importance of identifying cognition and learning differences
Understanding our own cognition and learning differences through cognitive science can be so powerful on a personal and professional level.
All of us are naturally stronger in some cognitive domains than others. And when we struggle in a specific domain, we can often rely on our strengths in other ones to help us complete tasks that we find more challenging.
This information has the potential to change how we work and change how organisations support learning and development throughout people’s lives.
So ask yourself, how do you learn?
We’re here to make cognition visible and use these cognitive insights to help every diverse mind thrive.
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