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7 Most Important Cognitive Skills for Fast and Successful Learning

Written by Carl Pullein
Dedicated to helping people to achieve their maximum potential through better time management and productivity.
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One of the biggest problems with the traditional education model is it works on the premise that one size fits all. As we now know, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work well in a universal education system as we all possess different cognitive skills.[1]

At the basic level, there are 4 learning types: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic, and each of us are dominant in one or more of these types.

  • Visual learners learn better in an environment where there are a lot of visual stimuli. These people often have what is commonly called “photographic memories,” where they see an image or a page of text and from the visual cues memorize whatever it is they see.
  • Auditory learners learn best when they can hear and listen to the subject they are learning. These people thrive in lecture halls, using podcasts and audiobooks.
  • Reading/writing learners find reading and writing out what they learn to be most effective.
  • Kinesthetic learners need to be doing. Lectures and textbooks do not stimulate their brain’s learning centers; instead, they need to be doing whatever they are learning. These people do well in school science labs or in the art or woodwork rooms. Here, they can practice what they learn in real time.

However, on top of these basic learning types, there are also cognitive skills related to the way our brains process information. There are 5 primary cognitive skills: reading, learning, remembering, logical reasoning, and paying attention. Each of these can be utilized in a way that helps us become better at learning new skills and developing ourselves.

Understanding where we are strong and where we lack skills helps us improve what and how we learn. For example, most people find that when they learn something new at a workshop and don’t apply that learning to a real situation soon after the workshop, whatever they learned is soon forgotten. This is part of the cognitive skill of remembering and being able to translate what you learned to a practical situation (logical reasoning).

One of the advantages we have over our ancestors is the almost limitless access we have to free education. Websites such as TED, YouTube, and millions of web pages on Google give us limitless possibilities. You can learn anything from how to polish shoes and tidy your house to quantum physics and applied mathematics.


However, with those almost limitless possibilities, you will not learn anything effectively unless you know and understand what kind of learner you are.

So, to help you become more effective at learning, here are 5 ways you can use your natural learning type with cognitive skills:

1. Discover Your Dominant Learning Style

This will appear obvious once you start to think about the way you naturally learn.

For example, whenever I want to learn something new, I will begin on YouTube. I am a very visual person, and I need to see how to do something.

Recently, I have been learning how to fold clothes the Marie Kondo way. I regularly have an item of clothing on the table and Marie Kondo on YouTube “showing” me how to fold. What I am doing is taking my naturally dominant visual and kinesthetic learning style and applying the cognitive skill of logical reasoning to learn the best method for folding clothes.

A two-minute video of Marie Condo folding a T-shirt while I am following the instructions ensures I am internalizing and applying the correct method to fold a T-shirt.


2. Experiment with Different Channels of Learning

If you aren’t sure what kind of learner you are, you can begin to experiment through a variety of experiences.

Take a subject you want to learn and start off by reading about the subject. Then, watch a video or lecture on the subject. After that, apply the knowledge you have learned.

For example, if you were to improve your presentation skills, you could do a simple Google search for an article about the top ten ways to improve your presentation skills. Read that, and then do a similar search on YouTube. After you have read the article and watched the video, apply your new knowledge to your next presentation. That way you reinforce the knowledge you learned and internalize your new skill, and you also discover which learning points you remembered more readily.

3. Practice Focused Work

One of the weakest cognitive skills for most people is the ability to pay attention. In a world where we are being distracted and interrupted multiple times a day, it is very difficult to stay focused. Teaching ourselves to be comfortable with our phones and notifications off is one of the best ways to strengthen your attention span.

You do not have to go all day with your phone and notifications off. All you need to do is turn everything off for set periods of time each day. Likewise, if you are in a meeting or training course, turn off your phone completely while you are in a session. These days, facilitators understand the need for people to be in contact with the outside world, so there are regular breaks for you to catch up with messages and important emails.

Learn more about practicing focused work in this article: 17 Ways Deep Work Will Help Wipe Out Modern Distractions and Refocus


4. Seek Many Different Ways to Take Advantage of Your Preferred Learning Style

To help reinforce your new knowledge, do not rely on just one way to practice your new skill. If you want the information to stick in both your short-term and long-term memory, you’ll need to apply a variety of cognitive functions through brain training.

For example, if you have spent some time learning how to write better emails, then apply your new learning by writing a journal or a blog. Neither a journal or a blog have to be published; you can keep them private. What you are doing is applying your new writing skills in a variety of different ways, which strengthens your brain’s capacity for flexibility and allows for a larger scope where your new skills can be applied.

5. Reinforce Your Knowledge by Reviewing What You Learned in Your Less Dominant Learning Style

While we all have a preferred learning style, it is wise to review your new cognitive skills in a different way. If you are a visual person, and you have devoured every chart, image, and infographic you can about your new skill, then find a written article or book on the subject and read that.

The more ways you study your new skill, the faster you internalize the skill itself. Doing this helps your brain to fill in the missing gaps of what you have learned and strengthens your knowledge.

While our dominant learning style will always be the best way to learn, we still need our less dominant way of learning to help with the retention and deeper learning required to really master a skill.

6. Apply Your New Knowledge in a Practical Way

This works on the principle that if you don’t use it, you lose it. This applies to cognitive abilities and executive functions  in a very important way.

Think back to your foreign language classes at school. Most people very quickly forget the new language if they do not use it consistently after they have learned it. Even with your native language, you might learn a new word or phrase, but if you never find a need to use that word, you soon find you cannot remember it.


Our brain’s neurons need regular exercise. Without it, like a muscle, they shrivel and die, so make use of your cognitive skills whenever possible.

7. Use Your New Skill as Quickly as Possible

Imagine you were to attend a sales training workshop. On day one, you participate in a meet and greet and learn about asking questions. At the end of that first day, practice what you learned.

On the way home, start a conversation with a stranger on the bus or train. Alternatively, if you stop at the supermarket on your way home, talk to the cashier and practice asking them questions.

The important part of doing this is you are strengthening the learning process by performing tasks with your working memory. What your brain has now done is taken something you learned in theory and applied that to a real situation in a practical way. You can adjust the theory to fit better with your personality, and very quickly asking questions becomes almost natural.


The Bottom Line

When you apply the science of learning to the cognitive skills you want to learn, you increase the chances of succeeding. It also speeds up the learning process as you are naturally developing the parts of your brain that learn the fastest.

Over time, as your skills grow, you can deepen the learning by reviewing different ways of developing the skill.

More Tips on Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com


[1]Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?
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