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The 10 Learning Traits that Drive Academic Outcomes

June 21, 2019

cognitive skills


Here is a brief summary of the learning traits that determine just about all areas of academic learning. Every single one of us has a unique combination of these traits, just as we all have our own unique fingerprint. The 10 skills are organized in four key domains. Click on the links for more in-depth information on each skill.

Complex Reasoning

Complex reasoning is the ability to analyze information and solve complicated problems. When students use reasoning skills, they are thinking through ideas in a logical way to arrive at a conclusion. This is often referred to as “higher order thinking.” Don’t be surprised if you have a child who is strong in one area of reasoning but not in another. That’s why we often see inconsistent learners.

Verbal reasoning is the ability to understand language-based information. Biggest impact: all subjects when reading, writing or speaking. Greatest predictor of overall academic achievement. Learn more about verbal reasoning.

Abstract reasoning is the ability to understand non-language-based information, including numbers, shapes and patterns. Biggest impact: math and science, particularly in higher grades. Learn more about abstract reasoning.

Spatial perception is the ability to visualize how objects relate in space. Biggest impact: specific areas of math and science like geometry and physics; hands-on activities; fine and performing arts. Learn more about spatial skills.

Executive Functions

Executive functions are the traits that involve thinking in an organized and efficient way. Abilities such as purposeful goal-directed activity, paying attention, evaluating, decision-making, planning, organizing, implementing, and following through. Not surprisingly, executive functions are getting a lot more priority in school.

Attention is the ability to sustain focus, even for tasks that you might not find interesting. Biggest impact: All subjects, particularly those a student finds least interesting. Learn more about attention.

Working memory is the ability to mentally juggle multiple bits of information in short-term memory. Biggest impact: Multi-step problem solving in math and science, reading fluency, and following directions. Learn more about working memory.

Flexible thinking is openness to taking feedback and adapting to solve novel problems. Biggest impact: Math and science in middle and high school and behavior. Learn more about flexible thinking.


Memory is the mind’s storage and retrieval system. How a student takes in and organizes information in memory has a big impact on how easily that student is able to recall information under specific circumstances. It is common for students have one memory skill that is significantly stronger than another. Once you understand which is stronger, you can use that skill to make learning more efficient.

Verbal memory is the ability to remember and recall language-based information. Biggest impact: All subjects, particularly in earlier grades when foundational skills are most important. Learn more about verbal memory.

Visual memory refers to how efficiently you remember and recall objects, pictures, patterns, formulas and other visual information. Biggest impact: Math facts, math and science more generally, and visual arts. Learn more about visual memory.


How fast students work can, perhaps unfortunately, have a big impact. Students who work efficiently are able to complete thoughtful work within the expected time. They can use any extra time to check their work, take on more challenges, or relax before the next task.  Students who work at a slower pace might find that they sometimes cannot get all their work done in the allotted time. These students might not be able to finish tests or they might take a long time to complete homework.

Visual motor speed is how efficiently your eyes and hands work together. Biggest impact: Handwriting, keyboarding, note taking, and hands-on activities. Learn more about visual motor speed.

Processing speed is how efficiently you process and respond to new information. Processing has several sub-categories, including auditory, verbal, and visual. There are also quick thinking processing tasks and slower processing tasks. Biggest impact: Class participation, standardized tests, reading efficiency and homework efficiency. Learn more about processing speed.



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