Defining & Measuring Cognitive Functioning

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will define cognitive functioning and explain ways it is typically measured. We will also critically examine some of the issues with these measurements.

What is Cognitive Functioning?

Cognitive functioning is a way of thinking about intelligence that provides a framework for differentiating specific components of identifying intelligence on a measurable scale. It should be noted that cognitive functioning is a measure of intelligence that takes a variety of components of intellect. Additionally, cognitive functioning has received some criticism because assessments for measurement are lacking in some respects.

What is Intelligence?

If cognitive functioning is just another term for measurable intelligence, how should we define intelligence? The American Psychological Association (APA) describes intelligence as a person's ability to grasp complex concepts, environmental adaptation, experiential learning, and decision-making with logical reasoning in both new and familiar situations.

Traditionally, IQ was seen as fixed, but prevailing research indicates otherwise. Intellect is not etched in stone, but like this moss it can grow if the right conditions are cultivated.
image of IQ in moss on a rock

IQ Tests to Measure Cognitive Functioning

As a means to identify and develop measurable intelligence, researchers in cognitive sciences have developed assessments to quantify intellect in a variety of markers. These IQ (intelligence quotient) assessments take a broad view of intelligence in multiple categories and other factors including cognitive processing speed and effectively using cognitive strategies for maximum efficiency to impact on information processing and global intellect.

Let's take a look at the assessments:


  • Verbal reasoning is demonstrating mastery of language with vocabulary knowledge and sentence comprehension.
  • Quantitative reasoning involves solving math problems.
  • Abstract/visual reasoning involves comprehension of problems with complex relationships between shapes.
  • Short-term memory is the retention and recall of facts for a short time.

Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC)

The WISC-IV measures general intelligence with an overall IQ score based on broad factors of cognitive functioning and is primarily used for children.

  • Verbal IQ score is measured with testing that requires listening and answering questions. It also measures vocabulary, reading comprehension and general information.
  • Performance IQ is measured by requiring physically manipulated puzzles, pictures, blocks, etc. These timed problems require activity more than reading.

Problems with IQ Tests

One of the main criticisms of traditional IQ testing is that it does not include other kinds of intelligence such as: concentration, problem solving, creativity, abstract thinking, interpersonal/ emotional skills, physiological talent, music, and others. These neglected markers of intellect have been increasingly advocated for inclusion in traditional testing to capture a more accurate and diverse image of intelligence. For example, recent work on multiple intelligences highlights varying ways someone can be considered a genius.

Another criticism is that traditional testing relies heavily on life experience. While the test scores are controlled for age differences to account for longer lived experience in older children, it fails to account for differences in socioeconomic status and cultural identity for variations in scores. For example, the tests are standardized against all other tests, but white students from middle class backgrounds are more often tested and therefore, setting the standard norm.

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