The Role of Cognitive Skills in Academic Performance

Perspective
By: 
Betsy Hill & Roger Stark

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a five-part series.

The negative impact of COVID-19-related disruptions on student learning has fallen disproportionately on students living in economically disadvantaged communities, students with learning disabilities and students who are English Language Learners. Those populations were already achieving academically at substantially lower levels than the general population. And if that weren’t concerning enough, the U.S. education system has failed for decades to prepare the majority of students for productive work and income. The pandemic has exacerbated the problems and threatens to degrade academic achievement even further.

In the first article in this series, we acknowledged what we believe is a broadly shared belief across our nation that equity is essential in education. Most educators we know believe that students should have equitable access to technology, to effective curriculum, to well-trained teachers, and to safe and healthy learning environments, among other resources. To this list of essential resources, we added cognitive skills – the development of each student’s capacity to learn.

A lot of discussion, especially during the pandemic, has focused on access to technology, that is, to the devices and Internet service that connect students to teachers and learning experiences. To prepare for the workplace, as well as to connect to distance learning, a device is vital. Access to effective distance instruction has also received a lot of attention, with both teachers and observers concluding that training to deliver remote learning was grossly insufficient. But a device and a trained instructor are not enough when the capacity of so many students to learn is inadequate.

Students with weaknesses in visual processing, for example, may not “see” what they are meant to see on the screen any more than on the whiteboard at school. Students with auditory processing issues may not take in any more of the auditory inputs that are being delivered to them than if the audio feed were garbled (remember Charlie Brown in his classroom… Wah, Wah, Wah). Students with weak attention and/or working memory will only get fragments of the learning experience, whether in a classroom or online. These students aren’t getting the same access to the learning experience. They never really have a chance to learn it because the processes they need to learn are underdeveloped.

We are not talking just about students with diagnosed learning disabilities, although this also applies to them. We are not talking just about students living in poverty, although, poverty’s effects on cognitive development mean that those students have less well-developed cognitive skills on average than their more affluent peers. The fact is, most students have one or more cognitive weaknesses that impede their having full access to learning experiences. The vast majority of students in the high-poverty schools we have worked with have significant deficits (at lest one standard deviation below the mean) in working memory and/or attention. This fits with the growing body of research on the effects of poverty on cognitive development. 

So yes, provide a device and a solid Internet connection. That is one type of bandwidth; the other type of bandwidth is the capacity of the student’s brain to take in, understand, organize, store and retrieve what is delivered. 

Retailers talk about the “last mile” – the most expensive and trickiest part of getting products to consumers. Warehouses, robust logistics and distribution systems, and efficient retail stores have reduced the costs of getting goods to local communities.  The relative cost of the “last mile,” actually getting the product to each consumer’s home, is much higher. 

We can apply that analogy in education to what we can think about as the last 8 inches – the distance between the student’s ears where learning needs to happen, in the brain. That bandwidth (attention, processing speed, reasoning skills, memory, etc.) limits the effectiveness and pace of delivery no matter how powerful the device and the Internet speed the student is using.

For the most part, student bandwidth issues have largely been accepted as just how things are because, as we said in the first article in this series, a solution to the problem of cognitive capacity would require that we do some things our education system hasn’t been used to doing. We would have to be able to:

  1. Understand each student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses;
  2. Remediate, build and strengthen both weaker cognitive processes and those that are already strong; and
  3. Construct learning environments (technology, instruction, curriculum, etc.) incorporating science rather than folklore and that addresses the cognitive processes involved in learning.

The middle three articles in this series explained how each of those parts of the solution is available and scalable today. We can, affordably and at scale, address the problem of cognitive capacity and the issues of equity that accompany it.

The incentive to solve this problem quickly doesn’t rely simply on good will and belief. There’s good old-fashioned dollars and cents at stake – and a lot of it! Estimates of cost of the educational impact of the pandemic in the U.S. by McKinsey & Company and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) range from $306 billion to $25 trillion of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), accounting for the future effects of current learning losses (net present value). 

While these numbers are difficult for most of us to really understand, they are big and scary. And remember, the learning gaps resulting from the pandemic are simply exacerbating the gaps that were already there.  OECD estimates that raising the average reading and math scores to the level of minimum proficiency in the U.S. would generate an additional $72 trillion of annual GDP.  Annual US GDP is currently about $21 trillion. Raising average scores to the level of Finland would uncover $103 trillion. The incentive is very strong.

A second reason for urgency is the potential to have a very real impact on equity in a short period of time. Students who have had the benefit of access to learning through improvements in cognitive skills have experienced increases in academic performance of multiple months or years in 12-14 weeks. If we can accelerate the pace and quality of learning, to help close the COVID-related learning gaps as well as the historical gaps for groups of students, why would we be content to try to catch up through more hours of learning? Teachers work incredibly hard; it is unrealistic to ask more of them when we can make the learning and teaching process easier and more effective.

We use the term “learning and teaching process” purposefully. We put learning and teaching in that order, despite the more common reference to teaching and learning. Teaching isn’t the point; learning is the point, so we put it first. There is a lot of teaching going on that is producing very little learning. When educators understand how learning happens, through a network of interconnected cognitive processes in each individual student’s unique brain that constructs itself in interaction with the environment (explicit teaching as well as all the other experiences in the environment), we can deliver equitable learning experiences. 

The role of cognitive skills in academic performance has not been fully appreciated, although estimates are that cognitive ability accounts for 42 percent of the variance in academic performance (Marzano), more than time on task, more than the quality of teaching or curriculum. As a recent Kennedy Forum report emphasizes, “Research in neuroscience proves that even the best teaching and curricula can have surprisingly little effect when a child’s cognitive and emotional readiness to learn is not adequately addressed.”

While there isn’t room in this article for a full discussion of the connection between cognitive skills and emotional and social competence, it is important to remember that executive functions are cognitive skills. Executive functions—working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility—are integral to social and emotional learning and, therefore, a child’s emotional readiness, as well as their cognitive readiness, to learn.

The third reason for urgency is to avoid losing a generation to very real consequences of the learning that has been lost.  As the OECD report concludes, “The one essential backdrop is, however, that the current cohort of students will be less prepared for further schooling and ultimately for the labor force than they would have been without the pandemic. Thus, for these students the old status quo will not serve them well. If these students are to be remediated, it would require improving the schools, not returning schools to where they were in 2019.”

We can’t go back, nor should we want to. The crisis of COVID-19 and its impact on students has made visible the stark inequities in education and provides the opportunity often found in a crisis to refocus on learning.  As an article on Edutopia explains, “If equality means giving everyone the same resources, equity means giving each student access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.” Paramount among those resources are the skills to learn. We know that the learning field isn’t equal, and it is far from equitable. It’s time to help all students develop the cognitive skills that will foster greater equity in learning and true social justice.

Read part one here

Read part two here

Read part three here

Read part four here

 

About the authors

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.

Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world. Follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari

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