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Module 13: Complementary Cognitive Processes – Learning Concepts


Module Overview

In our final module in the book, we will tackle what seems like a simple topic but is quite complex. Though the module is entitled Learning Concepts, we will discuss several cognitive processes related to the learning of concepts (and other elements of cognitions) and what we do with them to include problem-solving and reasoning and end with a discussion of intelligence. Consider that intelligence reflects what we have learned, whether book knowledge, how to build a kitchen table, a dance routine, language (discussed in Module 12), how to be a better spouse, how to play the guitar, or how we learn best (self-awareness). To get us going though, we will focus on one theory of how cognition develops throughout the life span. We will end with the topic of impediments to learning in the form of intellectual and learning disabilities.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the contributions of Jean Piaget to our understanding of cognitive development across the life span.
  • List and describe the elements of cognition and clarify their relationship to learning.
  • Describe how the complimentary cognitive process of problem-solving relates to learning.
  • Describe how the complimentary cognitive process of reasoning relates to learning.
  • Describe how intelligence relates to learning.
  • Outline intellectual and learning disabilities that serve as an impediment to learning.


13.1. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define schemas.
  • Describe how our schemas change due to direct experience with the environment.
  • Describe Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development.


13.1.1. General Concepts

Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980), proposed a stage theory of how cognitive development proceeds. Before we get into it, it is important to explain a few key concepts he proposed. First, schemas are organized ways of making sense of experience. We have a schema for ‘dog’ which includes the ideas of four legs, a tail, and being furry. Piaget said that these schemas change due to direct experience with our environment; a process he called adaptation. This change occurs in one of two ways. First, assimilation is when new information is made to fit into existing schemas. Notice the word similar within assimilation. We interpret the world in terms of our current schemas and understand anything novel similar to this existing way of understanding experience. Second, we could use the process of accommodation. Simply, when novel information is obtained, we could update an existing schema or create a brand new one. Let’s say a child meets a cat for the first time. We would expect them to call the animal a dog. Why is that? The cat has four legs, a tail, and is furry. But cats and dogs are not the same and have one major difference — cats say ‘meow’ and dogs say ‘woof.’ So the child will update his/her schema for ‘dog’ to now include woof and creates a new schema for ‘cat’ which includes four legs, tail, furry, and meow.

Piaget’s theory consists of four main stages — sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. We will cover each as they relate to how we learn, and update what we learn about our world.


13.1.2. Sensorimotor Stage

The sensorimotor stage is when infants focus on developing sensory abilities and learn to get around in their environment. You might say they think with their bodies and this stage lasts from birth to age 2. Have you ever noticed how young babies take genuine delight in putting everything in their mouths, but to the horror of their parents? This is evidence of the sensorimotor stage and thinking consists of coordinating sensory information with the movement of the body.

The sensorimotor stage has six substages. Occurring during the first month, the first substage focuses on schemas the infant is born with or as we called them in Module 3, reflexes. These schemas are beginning to be changed via accommodation. The second stage is called primary circular reactions by Piaget and lasts to about 4 months of age. The child practices these basic schemas constantly and even shows the first signs of coordinating schemas from different sensory systems. The third stage is called secondary circular reactions and involves trial-and-error learning and attempts to make events happening outside their body occur again. It occurs from 4-8 months.

Substage four, occurring from 8-12 months, is called coordination of secondary schemas and involves the child trying to get what they want and involves the combination of schemas to do so. This leads to tertiary circular reactions lasting from 12-18 months and is when the child begins experimenting or finding new ways of exploring their world and manipulating objects. Finally, mental representation lasts up to 24 months and involves the use of symbols to represent objects. The child may use a block to represent a cell phone and have a conversation much like their father does. This involves imitation, though the behavior does not have to occur in the presence of the model which recall is deferred imitation. The child may use the block as a cell phone in the middle of the day when the father is at work, remembering what they saw the night before.

Piaget also said that during the sensorimotor stage infants acquire object permanence or knowing that an object continues to exist even though we cannot see it. During the first few months it is basically “out of sight, out of mind” and around 2 months of age or substage 2, infants demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of an object’s permanency. The skill really shows signs of developing by 6 months of age or substage 3 and continues to grow after this, particularly up to about 12 months or substage 4.


13.1.3. Preoperational Stage

Piaget’s stage of cognitive development prevalent from about age 2-7 is called the preoperational stage and is characterized by acquisition of the symbolic function. There is less dependence on sensorimotor activity to learn about the world and mental reasoning emerges. Piaget said children at this stage show centration or the tendency to focus only on one aspect of a situation at the exclusion of others. Related to this, Piaget believed that children could not take another person’s point of view because they see the world only from their frame of reference, which he called egocentrism (Piaget, 1954). Children also show animistic thinking or assigning lifelike qualities to inanimate objects and have trouble with reversibility or reversing the order of operations such as they understand that 3 times 5 equals 15 but do not realize that 15 divided by 5 equals 3.

Preoperational children have also not developed conservation or understanding that an object is fundamentally the same despite changing its properties. For instance, if two glasses are filled with the same amount of liquid and children confirm they are the same, and we take one glass and pour it into a flat container which stands much lower than the glass, children will choose the glass if asked which one they want. When asked why they say that the glass has more liquid than the container.


13.1.4. Concrete Operations Stage

Piaget’s third stage of cognitive development is concrete operations. Children now understand conservation, reversibility, and cause and effect but their thinking is still grounded in concrete experiences and concepts. They can now decenter or take multiple aspects of a situation into account due to them being less egocentric.


13.1.5. Formal Operations Stage

Piaget’s fourth and final stage of cognitive development is formal operations which begins in adolescence and lasts into adulthood. Teens become capable of abstract thinking and understand that ideas can be compared and classified, just as objects can. They search systematically for answers to questions/problems that they experience. Piaget said there are two major developments at this time. First, propositional thought is when teens gain the ability to examine the logic of verbal statements without referring to real-world situations. This leads to many debates with their parents over the morality of rules and curfews. Second, hypothetico-deductive reasoning is the use of the scientific method to test theories with hypotheses. It begins with a general theory of all possible factors that could affect the outcome and from them, deduces specific hypotheses about what may happen. These hypotheses are then tested in an orderly fashion to see which ones hold up in the real world.


13.2. The Elements of Cognition


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define cognition.
  • Describe the four main elements of cognition.


13.2.1. What is Cognition?

Cognition concerns thinking and includes such processes as attention, learning, memory, language, reasoning, decision making, problem-solving, and learning. It consists of four main elements — concepts, schemas, propositions, and images.


13.2.2. Concepts

Concepts are mental categories of objects, ideas, abstractions, events, relations, or activities that have common properties and are shared by all members of the category.

The concept of “textbook” includes having a table of contents, preface, chapters with summaries at the end of each, a glossary, index, and references. Concepts summarize information making it manageable and allow us to make comparisons. If we were asked which was heavier, a feather or a brick, we would be able to decide easily based on our concept of each object. Concepts can take two forms — formal and natural.

Formal concepts are more rigid and defined for us as in the case of a square. All squares have four equal sides and four right angles. Natural concepts have only a typical set of characteristics. An example is the natural concept of bird and the characteristic of being able to fly. An exception to this is the penguin which has wings but cannot fly as we typically think of flying. They instead “fly” underwater at speeds of up to 15 to 25 miles per hour but like other birds, lay eggs and raise their chicks on land.

When trying to determine if something belongs in a natural concept, we need to compare it against a member that shares most of the characteristic features. This member is called a prototype. In our example, a penguin was found to be a bird, but maybe not the best example since it does not fly in the typical sense. Instead, a prototypical bird would be a pigeon or a woodpecker and a person would not have trouble deciding quickly if it was one.


13.2.3. Propositions

Propositions are units of meaning that are composed of concepts and express a relationship between the concepts. They express a unitary or single idea and can express nearly any type of knowledge. Let’s say we consider our friend, John, to be a good friend. This would be an example of a proposition. What if he spoke some gossip about another friend and so we had to resolve the cognitive dissonance this event created in relation to our previously held belief or proposition. We want to believe it is true and Chris is a good friend, but we have evidence to the contrary which creates tension.


13.2.4. Schemas

Propositions are linked together in a network of associations, knowledge, beliefs, and expectations called schemas. A schema is an organized way of making sense of experience. Types of schemas. We have several types of schemas that we use to assign meaning to our world. First, there are role schemas, which relate to how people carrying out certain roles or jobs are to act. For instance, what it the role schema you have for someone working in your Human Resources office at work? What about the cashier at your local grocery store?

Another schema we have is called the person schema and relates to certain types of people such as firefighters, geeks, or jocks. For each of these people, we have specific beliefs and expectations about what their personality is like and how they are to behave in various situations. What traits do you believe cheerleaders hold?

The final schema is called an event schema or script. This type of schema tells us what is to occur in certain situations such as at a party or in a chemistry lab. The parking garage I use daily requires me to swipe my card as I enter. Now the garage houses more than just those with my special permit. It is used as a public parking lot too. Recently, the gate as you exit has been broken and so left up. Usually, when I leave I would swipe my card again, thereby causing the gate to go up. What I have to do when entering and exiting the lot is usually pretty clear. Since the gate is just up now, I have been confused about what to do when I get to the pay station. I have been trying to swipe my card again but really, it is not needed. The gate is up already. I finally asked what to do and the parking attendant told me that those with parking permits can just pass through. Until this point, I was afraid to just go through, even though I have an orange permit sticker on the bottom left of my windshield. I was not sure if the university would consider my behavior to be trying to skip payment and send the police after me. The broken gate has left my event schema in turmoil. Hopefully, it is fixed soon. That is the gate, not my event schema. I guess you could say by fixing the gate they restore my event schema too.

Let’s put them all three schemas together. Imagine you are at a football game for your favorite team, whether high school, college, or professional. Who are some of the people there? Fans, coaches, players, referees, announcers, cheerleaders, and medical staff are all present. We expect the fans to be rowdy and supportive of the team by doing the wave or cheering. We expect the head coach to make good decisions and to challenge poor decisions by the referees. To that end, we expect the referees to be fair, impartial, and accurate in the judgments they make. We would not be surprised if they threw a flag or blew a whistle. Cheerleaders should be peppy, cheerful, and do all types of gymnastics on the field and wave pom poms, etc… These are the main people involved in the football game. In terms of roles, the head coach fulfills the role of leader of the team along with the Quarterback. The role of promoting team spirit and energizing the crowd goes to the cheerleaders and maybe some key players on the field. The medical staff is there to diagnose and treat injuries as they occur and so their role is to keep everyone safe. Finally, what do we do as a fan when we attend a football game? We have to enter the stadium and likely go through a search of our bags and present our ticket. We walk to our assigned seat. Though we cheer our team on, we need to be respectful of those around us such as not yelling obscenities if children are nearby. We also are expected to participate in the wave and sing the team’s fight song, etc…. This is the event schema that dictates our behavior. Benefits of schemas. It should not be surprising to learn that schemas make cognitive processing move quicker. But they also complete incomplete pictures in terms of what we know about someone. Though we may not know Johnny personally, placing him in the schema football player helps us to fill in these blanks about what his personality is like and how he might behave. Using our schema for football player we can now predict what a future interaction with Johnny might involve. Let’s say he is assigned to be our lab partner in chemistry. We use our schema to make a quick assessment if the experience of working with him might be pleasant or unpleasant and we might be able to predict what his level of involvement in the project will be as well as the potential quality of his work.


13.2.5. Mental Images

Mental images are like pictures in the mind’s eye. If you are asked to picture an apple in your mind, can you do it? Maybe we recall previous times when we saw, touched, smelled, or tasted an apple. As we recall more and more memories, we can form a more complete mental image. Or maybe we have had limited experience with an apple, or maybe some exotic fruit, and so seek them out to gain additional sensory information? These images become more complete as we gain additional information either from existing memories or new information from our world. In the case of the latter, we learn about the object in question.

13.3. Problem-Solving: When We Seek Solutions


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define problems.
  • Describe insight learning.
  • Define and exemplify functional fixedness.


Let’s face it. Hardly anything in life runs smoothly. Even with the best-laid plan, and clearest goals we can formulate, success can be elusive. We might even be unsure how to proceed or to solve what are called problems or when we cannot achieve a goal due to an obstacle that we are unsure how to overcome.  In Section 10.4.2 we discussed Gestalt principles of perceptual organization but in this section, we focus on what they said about problem-solving. Simply, when it comes to problem-solving, the Gestalt psychologists said that we had to proceed from the whole problem down to its parts. How so? Kohler studied the problem-solving abilities of chimpanzees and used simple props such as the bars of the cages, bananas, sticks, and a box. Chimps were placed in a cage with bananas hanging overhead. They could use any prop they needed to get them, but no one prop alone would suffice. The chimps had to figure out what combination of props would aid them in getting the bananas. At first, they did not do well but then out of nowhere saw the solution to the problem. He called this insight learning or the spontaneous understanding of relationships. The chimps had to look at the whole situation and the relationships among stimuli, or to restructure their perceptual field, before the solution to the problem could be seen.

One obstacle to problem-solving is what is called functional fixedness or when we focus on a typical use or familiar function of an object. Duncker (1945) demonstrated this phenomenon using what he called the candle problem. Essentially, participants were given candles, tacks, and matches in a matchbox and were asked to mount a candle on a vertical corkboard attached to the wall such that it would not drip wax on the floor. To successfully complete the task, the participant must realize that the matchbox can be used as a support and not just a container. In his study, Duncker presented one group with small cardboard boxes containing the materials and another group with all the same materials but not in the boxes (they were sitting beside the boxes). The group for which the materials were in the boxes found the task more difficult than the group for which the materials were outside. In the case of the latter, these participants were able to see the box as not just a container, but as another tool to use to solve the problem.

As you can see from the candle problem, and other related problem-solving tasks, we sometimes have to think outside of the box or to demonstrate creativity. This is called divergent thinking or thinking that involves more than one possible solution and that is open-ended.  Part of the open-endedness is coming up with ideas on how to solve the problem, which we call brainstorming.  Really, any idea could have merit so just saying whatever comes to mind is important. 

13.4. Reasoning: Making Good Decisions, And Learning from Them


Section Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate deductive from inductive reasoning.
  • Define heuristics and describe types.
  • Outline errors we make when reasoning.


13.4.1. Types of Reasoning

Though you are sitting in a college classroom now, how did you get there? Did you have to choose between two or more universities? Did you have to debate which area to major in? Did you have to decide which classes to take this semester to fit your schedule? Did you have to decide whether you were walking, riding a bike, or taking the bus to school? To answer any of these questions, you engaged in reasoning centered on making a good decision or judgment. There are two types of reasoning we will briefly discuss — formal or deductive and informal or inductive.

First, we use formal or deductive reasoning when the procedure needed to draw a conclusion is clear and only one answer is possible. This approach makes use of algorithms or a logical sequence of steps that always produces a correct solution to the problem. For instance, solve the following problem:

3x + 20 = 41

  • Step 1 — Subtract 20 from both sides resulting in: 3x = 21
  • Step 2 — Divide each side by 3 resulting in x = 7
  • Check your answer by substituting 7 for x in the original problem resulting in 21+20=41 which is correct.

Deductive reasoning also uses the syllogism which is a logical argument consisting of premises and a conclusion. For example:

  • Premise 1 — All people die eventually.
  • Premise 2 — I am a person.
  • Conclusion — Therefore, I will die eventually.

Second, informal or inductive reasoning is used when there is no single correct solution to a problem. A conclusion may or may not follow from premises or facts. Consider the following:

  • Observation — It has snowed in my town for the past five years during winter.
  • Conclusion — It will snow this winter.

Though it has snowed for the past five years it may not this year. The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the observation. What might affect the strength of an inductive argument then? First, the number of observations is important. In our example, we are basing our conclusion on just five years of data. If the first statement said that it snowed for the past 50 years during winter, then our conclusion would be much stronger. Second, we need to consider how representative our observations are. Since they are only about our town and our conclusion only concerns it, the observations are representative. Finally, we need to examine the quality of the evidence. We could include meteorological data from those five years showing exactly how much snow we obtained. If by saying it snowed, we are talking only about a trace amount each year, though technically it did snow, this is not as strong as saying we had over a foot of snow during each year of the observation period.


13.4.2. Heuristics and Cognitive Errors

We use our past experiences as a guide or shortcut to make decisions quickly. These mental shortcuts are called heuristics. Though they work well, they are not fool proof. First, the availability heuristic is used when we make estimates about how often an event occurs based on how easily we can remember examples (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). The easier we can remember examples, the more often we think the event occurs. This sounds like a correlation between events and is. The problem is that the correlation may not actually exist, called an illusory correlation.

Another commonly used heuristic is the representative heuristic or believing something comes from a larger category based on how well it represents the properties of the category. It can lead to the base rate fallacy or when we overestimate the chances that some object or event has a rare property, or we underestimate that something has a common property.

A third heuristic is the affect heuristic or thinking with our heart and not our head. As such, we are driven by emotion and not reason. Fear appeals are an example. Being reminded that we can die from lung cancer if we smoke may fill us with dread.

In terms of errors in reasoning, we sometimes tend to look back over past events and claim that we knew it all along. This is called the hindsight bias and is exemplified by knowing that a relationship would not last after a breakup. Confirmation bias occurs when we seek information and arrive at conclusions that confirm our existing beliefs. If we are in love with someone, we will only see their good qualities but after a breakup, we only see their negative qualities. Finally, mental set is when we attempt to solve a problem using what worked well in the past. Of course, what worked well then may not now and so we could miss out on a solution to the problem.

13.5. Intelligence – Putting Our Learning to Good Use


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define intelligence.
  • Contrast the two main types.
  • Describe the development of intelligence tests over time.
  • Propose whether intelligence is more complex than we first thought.
  • Define emotional intelligence (EI).
  • List and discuss EI’s four core skills and two primary competencies.
  • Clarify what research says about EI and its benefit.


13.5.1. What is Intelligence?

Intelligence includes the ability to solve problems, acquire language and knowledge, think abstractly, adapt to one’s environment, and engage in the manipulation of one’s environment. It consists of two types – crystalized and fluid. Crystalized intelligence is our accumulated knowledge acquired across life. Fluid intelligence is used when we solve problems, remember information, and reason abstractly.


13.5.2. The Development of Intelligence Tests

In 1890, while at the University of Pennsylvania, James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944) coined the term mental tests or tests of motor skills and sensory functioning. They included rate of movement, just noticeable differences in judging weights, time to name colors, reaction time for sound, and dynamometer pressure. Though Cattell coined the term, Francis Galton (1822 – 1911 and mentor of Cattell) originated the idea and believed intelligence was linked to a person’s sensory capabilities such that individuals with greater intelligence would have more advanced sensory functioning. Were Galton and Cattell correct? In 1901 Cattell obtained enough data to be able to correlate test scores with academic performance. The results produced extremely low correlations leading Cattell to conclude that the tests were not adequate predictors of college performance or intellectual ability.

Unlike Galton and Cattell who focused on sensorimotor functioning, Alfred Binet (1857-1911) believed intelligence should be measured through cognitive processes such as learning, memory, attention, and comprehension. He had a chance to develop a test when the French Ministry of Education appointed Theodore Simon and himself to identify children who were having difficulties in school so that remedial work could be assigned to them. The ministry was reluctant to ask teachers to undertake the task as they feared bias would creep into the decision. A more objective approach was needed. Binet and Simon’s work yielded a test consisting of 30 problems assessing comprehension, reasoning, and judgment. It was revised three years later to include the concept of mental age or a child’s level of intellectual development compared to other children. Let’s say a six-year-old child is given the test and performances as well as seven-year-old children given the same test, then he would be assigned a mental age of seven.

After Binet’s death in 1911, the development of intelligence tests shifted to the United States. Henry Goddard translated Binet’s test and presented it to American psychologists in 1908. He called his translation the Binet-Simon Measuring Scale for Intelligence. In 1916 Lewis Terman developed the Stanford-Binet Test, named after the university he was affiliated with, and introduced the concept of intelligence quotient (IQ), or a measure of intelligence calculated by dividing the child’s mental age by his/her chronological age and multiplying by 100. If a child’s mental age and chronological age were the same, he/she would have an IQ of 100, considered to be “average” intelligence. If a child had a mental age of 7 and a chronological age of 5, his/her IQ score would be 140 and above average. Finally, a mental age of 8 and chronological age of 10 yields an IQ of 80 or below average.

Today, the Stanford-Binet test is still used though other scales have been created too. David Wechsler designed a test only for adults, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS). Later, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) was created. The two Wechsler tests include a general IQ score as well as scores for different types of abilities to include perceptual reasoning, working memory, verbal comprehension, and processing speed.


13.5.3. Types of Intelligence

The discussion of the development of IQ tests leads us to one important question — is there more than one type of intelligence? To examine this question, the work of Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner will be examined briefly. Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence. Sternberg proposed his triarchic theory of intelligence which says there are three different types (Sternberg, 1988). Componential (analytic) intelligence is the first. This type of intelligence is measured by traditional intelligence tests and aids you in solving problems by first identifying a problem, deciding on a strategy to solve it, learning and then executing the strategy, and finally evaluating the result of your strategy. Creative (experiential) intelligence is the type of intelligence used to compose music. People with this ability cope with new situations well and learn quickly. Practical (contextual) intelligence reflects your ability to adapt to your environment or to consider the different contexts you may find yourself in. This type of intelligence would help you figure out what to do if stranded in the forest. Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Howard Gardner (Gardner, 1999) proposed the existence of several intelligences, each which involve a different set of skills and which can function independently of one another. They include linguistic (verbal skills), logical-mathematical (math and reasoning skills), and spatial (relationships between objects) intelligences which are the only three of the eight assessed by standard IQ tests, as well as musical (shown through skills in tempo and rhythm), body-kinesthetic (having skill in dancing and athletics), intrapersonal (self-understanding), interpersonal (how well you interact with others), and naturalistic (seeing patterns in nature).

We may also develop some of these intelligences more than others. To assess these other intelligences, Gardner suggests assessing a child’s music ability, sampling writing, and asking teachers what strengths and weaknesses students have in terms of athletic ability and social skills.


13.5.4. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence or EI is our ability to manage the emotions of others as well as ourselves and includes skills such as empathy, emotional awareness, managing emotions, and self-control. According to a 2014 Forbes article by Travis Bradberry, EI consists of four core skills falling under two primary competencies: personal and social.

First, personal competence focuses on us individually and not on our social interactions. Through personal competence, we are self-aware or can accurately perceive our emotions and remain aware of them as they occur. We also can engage in self-management or using this awareness of our emotions to stay flexible and direct our behavior to positive ends.

Second, social competence focuses on social awareness and how we manage our relationships with others. Through it, we can understand the behaviors, moods, and motives of others. This allows us to improve the quality of our relationships. In terms of social awareness, we pick up on the emotions of others to understand what is going on. Relationship management allows us to be aware of the emotions of others and ourselves so that we can manage interactions successfully.

EI is not the same as IQ or intelligence quotient as EI can be improved upon over time while IQ cannot. This is not to say that some people are not naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, but that all can develop higher levels of it with time.

How do we effectively use emotional intelligence? Mayer and Salovey (1997) offer four uses. First, flexible planning involves mood swings which cause us to break our mindset and consider other alternatives or possible outcomes. Second, EI fosters creative thinking during problem-solving tasks. Third, the authors write that “attention is directed to new problems when powerful emotions occur.” Attending to our feelings allows us to shift from one problem to a new, more immediate one (consider that this can be adaptive too). Finally, moods can be used to motivate persistence when a task is challenging. Anxiety about an impending test may motivate better preparation or concern about passing preliminary examinations or may motivate a graduate student to pay extra careful attention to details in the research articles he/she has been assigned.

Utilizing a sample of 330 college students, Brackett, Mayer, and Warner (2004) found that women scored higher than men on EI and that lower EI in males was associated with maladjustment and negative behaviors such as illegal drug and alcohol use, poor relationships with friends, and deviant behavior. Individuals scoring higher in the ability to manage emotions were found by Lopes, Salovey, and Staus (2003) to report positive relations with others, report fewer negative interactions with their close friends, and to perceive greater levels of parental support. They also found that global satisfaction with relationships was linked to effectively managing one’s emotions, the personality trait of extraversion (positive correlation), and was negatively associated with neuroticism. In terms of the academic performance of students in British secondary education, those high in EI were less likely to have unauthorized absences or be excluded from school and demonstrated greater levels of scholastic achievement (Petrides, Frederickson, & Furham, 2004) while EI is also shown to be related positively to academic success in college (Parker, Summerfeldt, Hogan, & Majeski, 2004).

Finally, Ciarrochi, Deane, and Anderson (2002) investigated the relationship of stress with the mental health variables of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. They found that stress was related to greater reported levels of the three mental health variables for those high in emotional perception and suicidal ideation was higher in those low in managing other’s emotions. 

13.6. Learning Disabilities


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe the presentation and associated features of ID.
  • Describe the presentation and associated features of LDs.
  • Clarify the differences and similarities between ID and LD.
  • Describe treatment options for ID and LDs.


In the final section of Module 13, we will discuss matters related to intellectual disability and learning disorders. Be advised a more thorough description of these disorders is beyond the scope of this book, but you can read more in the Behavioral Disorders of Childhood OER by Kristy McRaney, Alexis Bridley, and Lee Daffin (2021) by visiting:



13.6.1. What is Intellectual Disability?

At the core of an Intellectual Disability is a deficit in cognitive or intellectual functioning. Historically, we labeled individuals with this presentation of deficits as having Mental Retardation. Due to significant stigma and social misuse of the term, when the DSM 5 was published, the term changed from Mental Retardation to Intellectual Disability (also described as an Intellectual Developmental Disorder). While the terms Intellectual Disability and Intellectual Developmental Disorder are considered interchangeable, we will use the term Intellectual Disability (ID) for the purposes of this book. This disorder leads to two primary areas of major deficits – cognitive functioning and adaptive functioning (APA, 2013). Cognitive functioning. Cognition or intellectual functioning refers, in a general sense, to our ability to problem solve, understand and analyze complex material, absorb information from our environment, and reason. An individual with ID has a significant deficit in this area. Cognitive functioning is most often measured using an intelligence test (more on this later in this chapter). An IQ score under 70 – 75 indicates a severe deficit in cognitive functioning, although there is some flexibility within this criterion. Adaptive functioning. Adaptive skills are skills that help us navigate our daily lives successfully such as understanding safety signs in our environment, making appointments, interacting with others, completing hygiene routines, etc. Essentially, these are the skills that one would ultimately need to live independently. Individuals with ID typically have adaptive skills that are far below what would be expected given their chronological age. This is typically measured by a standardized scale (more on this later, as well).

When both cognitive and adaptive functioning is delayed, the likelihood of ID is high. ID is also categorized into different severities based on the level of delays related to adaptive functioning. The more support someone needs, the more severe the ID diagnosis. Severity ranges from mild (least severe), moderate, severe, and profound (most severe; APA, 2013).

ID is present in the early neurodevelopmental period. As such, it is most frequently diagnosed in children. ID is not something one would “acquire” in adulthood. If an individual experiences cognitive and adaptive function decline in later years, this is not considered ID (which is a neurodevelopmental disorder) but is more likely a neurocognitive disorder that may be due to several things (e.g., traumatic brain injury, dementia). As such, although an individual can go undiagnosed until adulthood, and then as an adult be diagnosed with ID, there must be significant and indisputable evidence of cognitive delay and adaptive functioning delay in the early developmental time period. Otherwise, an adult would not be diagnosed with ID.


13.6.2. What Are Specific Learning Disabilities?

A learning disorder is characterized by the inability or difficulty processing academic or functional information in our environment (APA, 2013). Despite an ability to cognitively achieve similar to peers, an individual is delayed in learning in a particular area. More specifically, academic tasks are challenging within one or more areas, which results in significant academic impairment (APA, 2013). Historically, we diagnosed LDs when there was a significant discrepancy between an individual’s cognitive/intellectual ability (as measured by an intelligence test) and their academic achievement (as measured by a standardized achievement test) as this was required by the DSM-IV-TR criteria. This method is referred to as the discrepancy model. While many still do this, and there is nothing in the DSM 5 that disallows this practice, the DSM 5 criteria were rewritten to allow for more flexibility. Ultimately, a discrepancy between one’s IQ and academic achievement is no longer required; however, there must be specific data that indicates an individual is performing significantly below what would be expected given their age.

In addition to significant academic deficits, there must be evidence that efforts (e.g., tutoring, increased and specialized instruction) to improve one’s abilities within the specific area have been made, before assigning a diagnosis of an LD. This is to ensure that an individual has had full access to educational material and support before a professional assigns a diagnosis to them. In school systems, tiered interventions have come into play (more on this in the Interventions section).

When considering LDs, there are three specific areas that are considered: reading, mathematics, and written expression. For example, a professional would diagnose an individual with a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading. An individual may have a diagnosis of only one LD, or multiple LDs.

Reading — This relates to an individual having difficulty in reading, may that be in comprehending material, reading fluently and quickly, or reading words accurately.

Mathematics — This may be related to simple calculation abilities such as math facts or more complex problem-solving and reasoning abilities.

Written expression — This may refer to the ability to accurately spell words or punctuate and use correct grammar, or it may include one’s ability or create written work that is well-organized and comprehendible. Matters of dyslexia and dyscalculia. Technically, dyslexia and dyscalculia are not actual diagnoses in the DSM 5; rather they are alternative terms used to describe learning disorders in reading (dyslexia) and math (dyscalculia). Dyslexia is the presence of a significant deficit related to fluent word recognition, decoding, and spelling (APA, 2013). Dyscalculia is the presence of significant deficits related to “problems processing numerical information, learning arithmetic facts, and performing accurate or fluent calculations” (APA, 2013).  Although these two terms are used very frequently in school systems and by other professionals such as speech/language pathologists they are considered alternative terms in the DSM 5, not diagnoses, and as such psychologists cannot use these terms when diagnosing a patient. Instead, they assign a diagnosis of specific learning disorder with impairment in reading (for dyslexia) and a specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics (for dyscalculia). They can provide an explanation and rationale that the individual’s deficits are characteristic of the pattern of deficits seen in individuals with dyslexia or dyscalculia. This is an excellent example of how professionals sometimes will discuss the same phenomenon but use different terminology.


13.6.3. Differences and Similarities between ID and LD.

Although ID and LDs may seem very similar, it is important to not confuse the two as they are different. When thinking about both disorders, we have three different core areas to consider: adaptive functioning, cognitive/intellectual ability (IQ), and academic achievement. A rudimentarily way to think about this is — with ID we are concerned with adaptive functioning and IQ and with LD we are concerned with IQ (sort of) and academic achievement. Although IQ matters (sort of) in both disorders, the reason they are important vary slightly. However, because IQ is considered in both disorders, people often intertwine and confuse the two disorders.

Think about it like this: IQ essentially is what we are cognitively able to do — what we can do. Adaptive skills and academic achievement is what we are doing. Intellectual disability. If we cannot perform in the average range on an IQ test and we are not performing daily living tasks appropriately (for our particular age — let’s not forget that we would not expect a 7-year-old to make their own doctor’s appointment. We would, however, expect a 7-year-old to know to dial 911 in an emergency), then this is indicative of an ID. Learning disorders. If we can achieve an average level of skill (meaning our IQ is average), but we are not achieving an average level of academic achievement in an area, that leads us to be puzzled, right? If we can do something, but we are not, that does not make sense. But what if we cannot perform average (meaning our IQ is not average, but substantially below average)? Would we expect the individual to perform averagely on academic tasks? For example, if someone’s IQ is 65 (cannot function typically on a cognitive task) would we expect them to have an academic achievement score of 100 (remember, this is their “is or is not doing/performing)? That is a 30-point jump from their ‘can’ to their ‘are doing’. We would not necessarily expect this, right? We would expect that if someone’s IQ is a 70 to have an academic score of around a 70. This isn’t necessarily an LD; it is reflective of low achievement due to low cognitive abilities resulting from ID. However, if that person’s IQ was 100 (can) and they scored a 70 (is not performing) on an academic achievement task, we would be concerned about an LD because what they are doing is not matching and measuring up to what they, theoretically, can do. LDs in the cognitively delayed and in the cognitively gifted. Individuals with extreme cognitive functioning abilities often get overlooked. For example, children that are gifted, but have a reading disorder, often go undiagnosed. Think about it, their weaknesses, although areas of deficit for themselves, look like average abilities to others around them. You might be asking yourself what I mean by this. An example should help.

A 2nd-grader with a high cognitive ability gets all As. She excels in math and writing. In fact, she is far past her peers in these areas. She has long learned her multiplication and division facts and is even working on some basic geometry skills. She has a great ability to write and has been drafting paragraphs with ease and has even started learning to write essays. She loves math and writing, but she dislikes reading. When in class, she reads just like her peers, no more advanced, but right on 2nd-grade-level expectations. She finds reading to be more difficult, though, and it does not come nearly as easy as math and writing. However, because she is on track compared to her peers, her teachers and parents do not recognize any issues — her grades are fine and her school standardized testing is not a problem.

What if I told you that her standardized math and writing scores matched her intellectual ability (meaning her can and is/are matched) but her reading score (is/are), although average, was well below what would be expected given her IQ (can) and is much lower than her math and writing scores (despite still being an acceptable score). Would you say she may have a reading disorder? If you said yes, you are right. If you said no, you may be right too. Fact is, this is a gray area. The old DSM would have made it easy to diagnose this child with an LD in reading. The new DSM makes it a bit tougher. However, one would be inclined, if this reading deficit (compared to her own abilities) caused impairment (internal distress, preventing her from advancing in math and writing because her reading abilities were lagging behind the other abilities), to diagnose her with an LD in reading. It is easy to see how this child would be missed and go undiagnosed for years.

Now let’s reverse the scenario. Let’s take a 2nd grade girl who has a diagnosis of an ID. She struggles in all academic areas but her math abilities are even more behind than her reading and writing. Do you think one could make a case for an LD in math? Theoretically, they could. But it takes a lot of careful documentation of intervention attempts (see RTI discussion) and standardized testing that makes it undoubtably clear that this is true (similar to the above example).

Essentially, when individuals have an IQ that falls to the extreme (low or high), their weaknesses are often missed. As such, providers and educators must be careful and mindful to not overlook potential LDs in these individuals.


13.6.4. Treatments for Intellectual Disability Community supports and programs.  For individuals with ID, community supports may be critical during childhood, and even more so as the individual transitions to adulthood. Community supports may include organizations devoted to socialization and family support. For example, The Arc is an incredible organization that is devoted to serving individuals with developmental delays, including but not limited to ID. They often engage in advocacy efforts and offer training for the community and professionals. Moreover, they offer employment services for individuals with ID or other developmental delays. Local chapters will often host social gatherings and events for individuals and their families (The Arc, 2018). Typically, there is an Arc chapter in most major cities and areas. Other community supports may involve government-funded programming for living arrangements, supplemental income, etc.

As individuals’ transition to adulthood, some programming may need to be considered related to home/living arrangements. Historically, individuals with ID were often institutionalized. However, in recent years, a strong push to deinstitutionalize care, and provide group and community home options has occurred. As such, a more common and inclusive living option for individuals may be a group home in which multiple individuals live in a home-like setting and have constant supervision and medical care as well as transportation. Another option, often referred to as supported independent living, is a situation in which fewer, perhaps four individuals, live in an apartment or similar setting, and are provided constant supervision by one individual. This is a less restrictive environment than a group home, as only one supervising staff member is present, and a nurse and other medical staff are not readily available.  Moreover, individuals with ID are often capable of successful employment and these opportunities are provided in group and independent living home arrangements. Individuals with ID, depending on the severity of their intellectual impairment, may work in settings with routine tasks (e.g., assembling plasticware packets, bussing tables) in independent settings (e.g., employed independently within the community) or in ‘supervised workshops’ (i.e., settings where multiple individuals with disabilities are employed and provided significant help and supervision while working). Education. Individuals with an Intellectual Disability receive an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at their school which is federally regulated, and implemented at the state level, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), established in 2004 (IDEA, n.d.). This was enacted to ensure fair and equal access to public education for all children. An IEP outlines specific accommodations and supports a child is entitled to in the educational setting so that they can access educational material to the fullest degree. Children with ID may receive typical academic instruction in an inclusion classroom, meaning they are in a general educational class. However, the more severe the disability, the more supports they may require. As such, this may mean the child is pulled out at periods of time to receive specialized instruction. Additionally, if the child’s disability is severe, they may be placed in a self-contained classroom which is a class with a small number of kids that all have a severe disability, oftentimes with several teachers/teacher aids. Supports and accommodations may include reduced workloads, extended time to master the material, increased instructional aid, etc. Additionally, supports may also go beyond specific academic areas. For example, social skills may be a focus of an intervention.

Individuals with severe deficits related to ID will eventually have to have a determination of diploma track or not. If an individual is not placed in a diploma track, they will receive a “certificate of completion” from high school, rather than a high school diploma. Non-diploma track supports might focus heavily on functional skills rather than traditional academics. For example, rather than worrying about mastering algebra, the individual’s education may focus on learning functional mathematics so that they will be able to successfully manage a grocery shopping trip/purchase.

Some college programs have been designed to allow individuals with developmental delays such as ID to access the college experience and receive specialized vocational instruction.  For example, Mississippi State University’s ACCESS program (which is an acronym for Academics, Campus Life, Community Involvement, Employment Opportunities, Socialization, and Self-Awareness) is 4-year, non-degree program designed for individuals that have a developmental delay, including ID. Students receive a “Certification of Completion” within a specific vocational area when they complete the program. They live on campus and are able to access the full college experience (MSU, n.d.). Psychotherapy. Therapy is often underutilized in individuals with ID, despite beneficial impacts that research has shown when both behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapies are utilized (Harris, 2006). Therapy often focuses on the emotional and behavioral impacts of ID, normalizing the individual’s experiences, and treating comorbid depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions (Harris, 2006). Another area of strong focus may be increasing adaptive functioning skills. For example, helping the individual complete daily hygiene, chores, etc. and learn how to navigate their home and community safely, may be a focus of therapy. Medication. Medications to manage emotional or behavioral concerns that are occurring comorbid with an individual’s ID diagnosis may be beneficial. For example, if an individual has ID and depression, an antidepressant may be beneficial to help resolve some symptoms of depression. However, medications are not utilized to “treat” ID.


13.6.5. Treatments for Learning Disorders Education. Individuals with an LD receive an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as well. Focus is placed on increasing instructional aids for the child. The child will often be pulled out for additional, one-on-one interventions in the academic area(s) of concern. Additionally, the child may receive additional supports such as extended time on tests and assignments, partial credit (when partial credit is not typically given in a particular class), and early access to study guides or access to study guides if a study guide is not regularly given in a particular class. A child may also be allowed to have tests read to them, especially on nonreading-related tests, such as history, when a reading impairment is noted. The reason for doing this is so that the child’s performance in the nonreading-subject (e.g., science, history) is not negatively impacted by their reading deficit. The child may also be able to verbally respond to test items and have a teacher write their answers. Moreover, the child may get opportunities to correct errors on tests for additional credit, etc. These are just examples of accommodations and are not an exhaustive list. The specific accommodations and supports that are implemented should be specific to the child, their deficits, and their current needs.

Tutoring, whether occurring in school or privately, is often useful as well. This simply increases exposure to material and provides additional support and intervention. Empirically-based tutoring methods are sometimes used, particularly for children with dyslexia. Medication. Like ID, medicine is not utilized to ‘treat’ an LD. However, given that ADHD is highly comorbid with LDs, ADHD-related medications may be utilized and beneficial. As chronic underachievement in an academic area may lead to anxiety and depressive states for some children, prescription medication (or psychotherapy) may also be utilized and beneficial. 

Module Recap

And that’s it. We have now covered the cognitive process of learning across 13 modules. Our final topic was how we learn concepts that involved a multi-faceted discussion of cognitive development across the life span and the elements of cognition, and a few complementary cognitive processes including problem-solving and reasoning, as well as intelligence. I thought it important to at least raise your awareness of issues that can make learning more difficult for some among us. As such, we discussed intellectual and learning disabilities to finish out the module.

I hope you enjoyed our discussion in this module, and across the entire book. This concludes Part 6.

2nd edition


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Module 13: Complementary Cognitive Processes – Learning Concepts by Washington State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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