What technology can tell us about students’ cognitive skills, and why that matters

Digital assessments can measure students' strengths and needs in cognitive functioning, and help educators design interventions tailored to students' cognitive profiles

Cognitive skills such as flexible thinking, reasoning and memory are often the backbones of student success. A gap in one area can lead to difficulties that spread throughout academic and social-emotional learning.

Technology is helping districts identify students’ cognitive strengths and needs as well as assisting educators in designing interventions tailored to students’ cognitive profiles.

Last year, for example, the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Massachusetts used Mindprint Learning to assess the cognition of a group of fifth-graders in key areas such as memory, executive functioning, processing and reasoning.

After students took the one-hour online assessment, educators received a profile of each student’s cognitive skills with strategies based on strengths and needs.

In addition, a comparison of the students’ cognitive functioning with their performance on a previous state assessment found a surprising correlation: Students with weaker spatial reasoning underperformed on the state’s online assessment.

“That was fascinating,” says Katie Novak, assistant superintendent at Groton-Dunstable. Weaker spatial reasoning might be interfering with the students’ ability to conceptualize different aspects of the online test, she says. A simple strategy for such students was teaching them how to use a finger to track across the computer screen.

“There are so many things we have to do as a district to increase outcomes for students. If it’s something as simple as targeting a cognitive skill and providing a student with a strategy or tool like that, that’s low-hanging fruit and a win-win,” Novak says.

One size doesn’t fit all

An academic screener can identify gaps in core academic domains, but cognitive assessments can help identify underlying skill deficits that may be causing a student to struggle academically or social-emotionally, says Nancy Weinstein, founder of Mindprint Learning, who spoke about this topic at FETC® 2019. This is key to determining effective interventions, she adds.

Read: How schools are reassessing their assessments

“The strategies and approaches you use for a student who is struggling with reading comprehension because of weak verbal memory, for example, are going to be very different from the strategies you want to use for a student struggling with comprehension because of weak verbal reasoning,” Weinstein says.

Such information could be helpful for Section 504 or IEP teams, Novak says. “It would give you a place to investigate further as part of a full evaluation, and it could also allow you to target what accommodations would be helpful based on the student’s cognitive skills.”

Identifying hidden deficit areas

In other ways, digital cognitive assessments can help educators identify and develop strategies for academically gifted students who may have cognitive skill gaps that interfere with their learning.

The Student Success Center at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, for example, uses Mindprint Learning to assess students at risk of failing.

“Our high school is No. 1 in Ohio for academics, so we have students come in who are very gifted and high-achieving in elementary and middle school, but some have been overcompensating for weaker executive functioning skills, and it starts to catch up to them in high school,” says Christine Wickemeier, head of Walnut Hills’ Student Success Center.

Traditional cognitive or neuropsychological evaluations can be time-consuming and costly, Wickemeier says. They also require a level of training and expertise.

“The average teacher or special educator does not have a strong understanding of cognitive functioning,” Wickemeier says. This technology makes it possible for teachers and students at Walnut Hills to understand strategies that are going to be most effective based on students’ cognitive strengths and needs without having to know the science behind why, she adds.

The information has also helped students become more self-aware, according to Wickemeier.

“I had one student who was very high-achieving, but [she] wasn’t doing well in class because of cognitive deficits,” Wickemeier says. “As I went over the results with her, she was so excited that she kept saying, ‘That’s me!’ She was relieved to know why she was not doing well.”

Jennifer Herseim is an editor for LRP Media Group and program chair for Inclusion and Special Education at DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference.


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