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11 Most Effective Cognitive Skills To Speed Up Learning

Written by David Oscar
Mental Health Researcher
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Learning how things are done the right way and mastering them are what hugely contribute to empowering yourself as a person and being competitive in areas you are interested in excelling. However, when it comes to grasping information and understanding it, we often have trouble following what we are trying to learn, we get distracted, and even have a pretty hard time wrapping our heads around some topics.

Sometimes, it feels like what we are trying to pursue was not meant for us because it is just simply tough to figure it out. That being the case, there are different cognitive skills we can work on in our lives that can help us become better learners, and if we take our time to better ourselves in these areas, we can have a fairly easier time soaking in information and applying it in places we need to.

Here are the 11 most effective cognitive skills to speed up learning that you are encouraged to consider for a better and more rewarding learning experience in the weeks, months, and years to come.

1. Selective Attention

Selective attention is a cognitive skill that allows you to direct your attention on a specific task that is important at a given time and fade out the other distractions that might be tempting for you to engage in.[1]

When you are in a noisy environment, many things can get your attention. Most of these things might be fun to engage in, but they take you away from the reason why you are in that environment. Now, through selective attention, you get to remain focused on the reason you are in that environment and pursue the tasks that took you there.

For example, if you and your friend are in a restaurant that is located in the heart of a town where there are cars hooting, noises from other shop attendants in the shops next to the restaurant, drunk people arguing and fighting, and more, you are bound to hear most of those noises.


However, the main reason you are in that place is to have a conversation with your friend as you eat, and selective attention helps you focus on that task and maintain your attention on it until you are done.

There are 2 types of selective attention: selective visual attention and selective auditory attention.

Selective visual attention is pretty much visual selective attention. Here, you can focus on the things that have high priority in the midst of so many other things that are visually attractive.

Selective auditory attention is selective attention that is based on your hearing senses. Using the example of you and your friend in a restaurant, you get to block out other noises and focus on what your friend is saying.

By working on improving selective attention, you can enhance your learning abilities as this helps direct and maintain your attention on your studies for a long period without allowing yourself to get distracted by other shiny and tempting objects and sounds.[2]

To improve your selective attention, it would be a good idea to make an effort of doing focused attention meditation, going to fairly noisy places, and trying to focus on some chosen object or sound for a long period. By doing this often and making it harder as you progress and get comfortable with a certain limit, you will be able to sharpen your attention.

2. Sustained Attention

Sustained attention, also referred to as vigilant attention, is a cognitive skill that helps you stick to one project and keep working at it until you complete it.[3][4] With sustained attention, you become more of a long-term person when it comes to your work or learning.


If you decide to take on a book that you have been wanting to read on a topic you are interested in, you stick to that book every day until you finish reading it, and then from there, you can now read another book.

Improved sustained attention is cultivated through having lengthened periods of focus where you focus on what you are learning and then take time to identify the things you have learned in detail.

For instance, as you read, you can have another sheet of plain paper where you note down the things you have learned in detail after about 30 minutes to one hour of focus. And when you are done with the book, you list down the knowledge you have gained from the first chapter to the last.

Listening to audiobooks and watching long videos of what you are learning also helps. Moreover, following periods of interesting activities with long periods of learning gives a positive kick to your attention.

3. Divided Attention

While having focused attention on one thing is good, the contrary is also useful. Divided attention is having your attention on more than one project or task at the same time. This might seem counterproductive but it is actually not.[5]

Think about having different units that you are taking in your learning institution or different chapters in a single unit. There are times you find yourself in a place where you are about to complete one chapter, but also you have to take on the next chapter or about to finish the last page of one unit while also having to keep in mind that you have another unit that you urgently need to get started on.


Finalizing on one thing while getting ready and planning for another one is common, and having divided attention in such cases can be helpful so that even while you’re having two exams on two different units in a day, you can still retain information of both without struggling.

Divided attention, that is also called multitasking, requires the active use the short term memory for some.[6] And while this is the case, it is also important to aim to store information in the long-term memory through constant repetition as it helps in the long run.

Being aware of what you are supposed to learn and how you learn also goes a long way in elevating divided attention.

4. Logic and Reasoning

Logic and reasoning are cognitive skills that pave way for problem-solving skills and brainstorming ideas that help make your learning useful in the real world.

Most of what we learn is explained in the most straightforward way possible, but some aspects require you to think deeply about the information you are getting and how it works so that you can safely and effectively apply it in the needed areas.[7]

For example, during examinations and tests, the examiner expects you to use what you have been taught to solve the problems given in the test, and since the questions are somehow twisted to gauge your understanding of the topic being tested, you may need to think out of the box to get it right. This is where logic and reasoning come to the rescue.


To get better at logic and reasoning, you can try various techniques including creating conclusions to various scenarios and then watching how they unfold to see if you got it right, playing brain games such as chess, and figuring out the patterns of different activities you are involved in.

5. Processing Speed

Processing speed is a cognitive skill that relates to your ability to interpret what you learn and have an easy time applying it in the right place to get the kind of results you are looking for. With this skill, you can improve your rate of productivity in a day and, therefore, create more time to do other things in your daily schedule.

Think about having the ability to sit down and within 30 minutes, you already have read and fully understood what a certain aspect of your studies—like a topic in the unit you are doing in school or on an online course—is all about. The best part is, you have understood the concept so well that you don’t find it necessary to go back and reread it and try to figure out what it means and the whole process of it.

For most people, this might appear to be far from reality, but some people are living this experience. Some people argue that this is an ability that’s given to a chosen few when, in fact, it is something anyone can learn if they set out to achieve it.

Having a great processing speed is possible and it makes you a sharp person, which also improves the quality of your life in the long term.

You can increase your information processing speed by ensuring that you are regularly involved in aerobic exercise, pushing your mind to understand things quicker by reading and interpreting information faster than you usually do, and eating healthy foods.[8]


6. Visual Processing

Visual processing is a cognitive skill related to processing speed but only focused on visuals.

This skill comes in handy when you are trying to comprehend visual data, such as images, tables, and graphs. We can all admit that at some point in our lives, we’ve had to use these two, and having that skill to know what is happening does help.

The more you use visually represented data, the better you get at identifying the patterns used in them and the easier it is for you to decode new data presented that way in the future.[9]

7. Auditory Processing

Auditory processing—just like visual processing—is a distant cousin of processing speed. It deals with sound-based information such as audiobooks.

We are now in an age where advanced technology is being used in almost all industries including education. Instead of having to spend a couple of days or weeks reading a coursebook, you can just listen to an audiobook of the same and learn massively.

If you are good at analyzing and make sense of the sound and relating it to what you are learning about, you have a much smoother time reading and advancing your studies. Again, the more you listen to audios, the better your audio processing skills get.

8. Working Memory

The working memory is where you store recently acquired information. If you read a manual of a device that you intend on using immediately you are done reading and then go ahead and start using it without having to refer to the manual every now and then, your working memory is awesome.

The working memory promotes comprehension, problem-solving, reasoning, and planning in education.[10] Having a good working memory means that you can store in your mind enough information about various items and their relations to each other well enough to take on the challenge you have and solve it successfully.[11]


A good way to enhance the working memory is by trying to flash words, numbers, cards, or even dots for a couple of seconds and figuring out what you saw after a few seconds, and then check if you are correct. You can even take it a notch higher and try to do some fairly complex calculations with what you see and see if you can hack it.

Listening to sounds and relating to them at a deeper level, just like in the flashing brain game, can also give some boost to your working memory.

9. Long-Term Memory

This is the retention of information that was acquired a long time ago. You are classified among the people with the best long-term memory when you can retain and easily retrieve information about something you gained months or years ago.

If you had met someone a couple of years ago and then get the chance to meet them again and you can still remember their name, what they dressed, and what you talked about the first time you met without struggling, then you might have an above-average long term memory.

Some of the well-known ways to take your long-term memory to the next level are through activities such as constant repetition (revisiting the information in your mind), visualizing what you have learned, and being super focused and attentive when you are learning something new.

10. Fluid Intelligence

Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason, as well as create, alter, and utilize information from our senses in real-time for various reasons including problem-solving.[12] This type of intelligence allows you to think abstractly and reason flexibly, and it is usually free from learning, education, and experience.


When you come across a problem that needs to be solved and you can’t rely on past knowledge and experience, fluid intelligence helps you get the right answers. Fluid intelligence is believed to decline in late adulthood, although it is trainable and you can always increase it at any point in your life if you choose to.[13]

One of the ways you can improve your fluid intelligence is by enhancing your working memory as they are closely linked to one another.[14]

11. Crystallized Intelligence

Crystallized intelligence can be perceived as the opposite of fluid intelligence as this type of intelligence heavily relies on past knowledge and experience that you have gained over the years. It is based on facts and knowledge, and you become stronger at it as you age since you gain more knowledge and experience as you progress in life age-wise.

Fluid intelligence can later on become crystallized intelligence when you use it to think and reason about various issues and then store the information in your long-term memory. With crystallized intelligence, the more you gain information, learn new skills, and have numerous experiences, the stronger it becomes for you.


These are the cognitive skills you should try to focus on to help make it easy for you to learn new things faster and get to understand them well.

Now, mastering these skills is not a walk in the park, although it is not that tough either. It may require you to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself just a little every day so that you can improve your mind power. However, the good thing is that you can do that. You are more than capable of mastering these skills and, as a result, get better your life.


Starting small is the key. Take on one skill at a time. Invest your time in sharpening it and constantly applying it. Before long, you will be amazed at how far you have come.

More Cognitive Skills to Learn About

Featured photo credit: Attentie Attentie via unsplash.com


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