cognitive assessmentWe are all familiar with the idea of an IQ-or Intelligence Quotient-test. Maybe you’ve even taken one before. It’s what gives MENSA members their bragging rights, after all, and allows some folks to proudly declare that they are geniuses. You may even be among them. However, the IQ test isn’t necessarily beloved by one and all. At least, most experts agree that it is only one way to measure intelligence.

Now we know that there are multiple intelligences, and multiple ways to measure them, and that there is a difference between IQ and cognitive function. There is even a way to measure cognitive function; sometimes called a cognitive assessment or a cognitive function test. It’s a great way to discover and measure your own cognitive abilities, as well as a key identification tool when exploring learning disabilities. Educators, for instance, can use such assessments as a way to understand how students learn and help struggling students achieve more in the classroom. But what is the difference between IQ and cognitive function? And what are the differences between the traditional IQ test and a cognitive assessment? We’ll walk through the answers to those questions and more.

Intelligence Quotient vs. Cognitive Function

There are places where your intelligence quotient and your cognitive function and ability will overlap, but there are some key differences between the two:

Now that you know a little about the key differences between cognitive function and intelligence quotient, let’s take a moment to look at which tests can be used to measure each.

What an IQ Test Measures

The traditional kinds of  IQ tests have not changed overmuch as time has passed. However, there are a number of tests that attempt to use different methodology to measure intelligence. Most IQ tests concentrate on concrete concepts as opposed to abstract reasoning questions. These include arithmetic problems, memorization tests, vocabulary questions, and spatial reasoning problems. Depending on the age of the person being assessed, a test might be visual, verbal, or written, or a combination of all three. IQ tests are most often used as a way to measure a person’s capability, as well. For instance, most IQ tests will measure:

Spatial ability is the understanding of how objects occupy space. Often this ability is measured using physical puzzles or tangram tests to see how the individual being tested can anticipate spatial dilemmas or manipulate shapes and objects to solve thos dilemmas.

Mathematical ability testing usually takes the form of standard arithmetic problems, but it is very common for the test administrator to introduce logic problems and puzzles into the test to discover the test taker’s logical reasoning skills.

Who doesn’t love a good old fashioned game of memory? This part of an IQ test usually uses visual aids to determine the test taker’s recall abilities. These can include a sensory board or picture cards.

This part of an IQ test will usually measure a person’s ability to identify words, sentences, and phrases once the letters have been removed or rearranged, or require the test taker to rely on etymological knowledge to identify completely unfamiliar words.

As we stated, there are multiple types of IQ tests, as many psychologists and statisticians have attempted to build a better test to measure IQ. The Cattell-Horn-Carroll test, for instance, will focus on fluid and crystallized typed of knowledge, while Guilford’s Structure of Intellect attempts to place the test taker in one of 120 multiple intelligences.

What a Cognitive Assessment Measures

You can consider the cognitive assessment as a kind of branching off from traditional IQ testing methodologies as a way to measure the aspects of brain function that IQ tests are not accurate enough to measure. There are a multitude of different types of cognitive assessment, with some of the most popular tests being developed in the 1990s, and more being developed presently. Because of the wide diversity of testing methods, there are a number of ways to take a cognitive assessment, including verbal, visual, and oral. Less emphasis is placed on a written examination in a cognitive assessment, no matter the age of the test taker. Let’s take a look at what a typical cognitive assessment will measure:

The use of motor skills tests in a cognitive assessment is probably the largest difference between it and an IQ test. Many people do not realize that motor function is, in fact, a cognitive function. Many times, difficulty with fine motor skills can indicate that the test taker has a potential cognitive impairment.

Many cognitive assessments will use a scale to measure the attention scale of the person being assessed, that is to say, the subject’s ability to focus on internal or external stimuli, and the length of the individual’s focus, or attention span. Often, a series of letters or patterns will be used, and the test taker will be asked to replicate the pattern when it is no longer visible. Though subtle, this is a departure from a memory test, though the two are sometimes intertwined.

Perceptive tests measure a subject’s ability to identify or recognize external stimuli using their senses of sight, hearing, touch, and sometimes smell. Common tests include the use of optical illusions like the Rubin Vase, which is a visual object that looks like a vase from one perceptive angle, while the negative space reveals two faces looking at one another.

Much of our cognitive function falls under the umbrella of “executive skills”, which include an individual’s ability to self-regulate, ignore or act upon inhibitions, etc. Probably the most easily recognizable executive skill is the ability to make decisions, either after lengthy consideration or on the fly. A cognitive assessment will measure the subject’s initial ability to make decisions, but remember that you can further develop cognitive function over time. It is for this reason that you can practice certain exercises and to master decision making abilities.

Other Components of a Cognitive Assessment

As mentioned before, there are multiple components that make up a cognitive assessment, and some assessments may only measure one of the above categories, while other assessments will measure multiple functions or even all of the functions. Here is a quick overview of some other elements of cognitive assessment that are good to know if you are considering an assessment for yourself or a loved one.

The PASS theory states that there are four intertwined functional brain systems that all act as entities unto themselves as well. It should be noted that this is actually in direct contrast to the popular theories surrounding intelligence quotient, which says that cognitive function in one area will indicate ability in another. PASS is a mnemonic that stands for these functions, which are Planning, Attention-Arousal, Simultaneous, and Successive cognitive function.

This particular cognitive assessment follows pass very closely and is a popular cognitive assessment used to measure cognitive functions in individuals aged 5-17, and is useful in identifying learning disabilities to better serve the educational needs of its subjects. The assessment is administrated using a battery of functional assessments, called the CAS battery. It is divided into each of the four categories of the PASS theory of intelligence.

By understanding what makes up a person’s cognitive function, you will have a better chance of understanding how that person learns. This includes you! Even if you opt not to take a cognitive assessment, there are plenty of ways that you can unlock the parts of your brain that will help you make the most of any learning environment and up your cognitive ability and retention. What will you do with that newfound knowledge? Will you pick up a brand new instrument like the guitar? Perhaps you will learn a new and exciting language–nothing is out of reach!

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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