Basic Reasoning Skills


Basic reasoning skills are those processes basic to cognition of all forms. There are four categories of basic reasoning skills: (1) storage skills, (2) retrieval skills, (3) matching skills, and (4) execution skills.


Storage and retrieval skills enable the thinker to transfer information to and from long-term memory. These are the encoding strategies discussed in Chapter 6. The learner does something on purpose to focus on the information being studied or to relate it to information that is already in long-term memory. An example of a commonly used storage and retrieval technique is visual imagery mediation. The learner purposely develops a visual (or auditory, kinesthetic, or emotional) representation for the information to be remembered. Mnemonic strategies are also examples of storage and retrieval skills.


Matching skills enable a learner to determine how incoming information is similar to or different from information already stored in long-term memory. There are five types of matching skills:


Categorization enables learners to classify objects or ideas as belonging to a group and having the characteristics of that group. This has been referred to as chunking in chapter 6. It speeds up the thinking process, making it possible to generalize and to go beyond the information immediately given by the isolated object or idea.

When you look at an animal and call it a cat, you are categorizing. When you listen to a comedian and decide that a particular story was a stupid joke, you are categorizing. Any time you classify something as being an example of something you already know, you are categorizing. In the sense that it is used here, a categories are synonymous with concepts.

You will see a similarity between categorization and Piaget's concepts of organization, assimilation, and accommodation, which were discussed in Chapter 4.


Extrapolation enables learners to match the pattern of information from one area to that found in another area. This strategy assists the thinking process by making it unnecessary to start from scratch when learners encounter new information. Instead, the learner takes information that already exists for a different purpose and adapts it to a new situation.

If you know the basic rules of soccer but know nothing about rugby, you could extrapolate a great deal of your knowledge of soccer to help you understand rugby. If you have an understanding of the causes of the American revolution, you can extrapolate this information to help you understand the developments in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990's. Any time you take previous information and incorporate it into an understanding of a new topic, you are extrapolating. In the sense that it is used here, a extrapolation is synonymous with generalization.


Analogical reasoning involves seeing the similarities among essentially different objects or ideas and using existing knowledge about the first set of objects or ideas to understand the others. For example, a computer-literate person reading Chapter 6 of this book might realize that the short-term memory is similar to random access memory (RAM) and that long-term memory is similar to a hard drive. By using this analogy, the person would have a basis for understanding short-term memory, long-term memory, and the relationship between them.

Analogical reasoning enables learners to combine the first two basic reasoning processes (categorization and extrapolation) in order to deal with new information and new relationships more effectively.

A very large number of programs that train students to improve their thinking skills include an analogical reasoning component. In addition, tests that attempt to measure the thinking abilities of students often include an analogies section.


Evaluation of logic is the process of comparing the structure of information with an internalized system of logic to see if the information is valid or true. For example, students can learn to follow the rules of deductive and inductive logic and to look for and avoid specific types of errors, such as hasty generalizations and non sequiturs.

For many years, the study of logic has focused on formal reasoning - for example, the evaluation of syllogisms, the use of Boolean operators, and the use of Venn diagrams. While formal logic is important, recent research has begun to emphasize that human beings more commonly use other forms of thinking when they have to make decisions or solve problems - such as looking for analogies or being influenced by various biases. (These other forms of thinking are referred to as informal logic or everyday thinking.) Therefore, it may be more useful to help learners develop better analogies and to avoid sources of bias than to teach them formal logic. This is not because teachers should encourage students to be illogical, but because most errors arise before the person even gets to the point of trying to use formal logic.



Evaluation of value is the process of matching information to an internalized value system and analyzing the logic of that value system. For example, a learner might decide that a concept or a solution to a problem represents "the way things should be" and accept it as accurate. Or a person might realize that a certain piece of information (e.g., the exact names of the people in an anecdote) is not really worth remembering.

These value judgments often incorporate the motivational and affective aspects of learning - described in Chapters 5 and 8 of this book. The importance of these apparently non-cognitive aspects of thinking should not be underestimated.



Executive procedures are the final set of basic reasoning skills. These skills are executive in the sense that they coordinate a set of other skills in order help learners build new cognitive structures or drastically restructure old ones. (They act much like the executives in corporations, who coordinate the activities of other employees in order to achieve commercial goals.) There are three basic executive skills:



Elaboration is the process of inferring information not explicitly stated in what the learner saw or heard. Learners use such skills as categorization, elaboration, analogical reasoning, and information retrieval to make these inferences. For example, in the previous discussion of matching information to value systems, I made reference to attitudinal and motivational components of learning. I did not present in that paragraph a description of exactly what I meant by these terms - you had to infer that information. For example, I didn't tell you why a person's attitude would influence his judgment of its value. You had to figure that out for yourself, and you probably did so without effort. If you made a good inference, you had a good chance of understanding what I was talking about. If you made an incorrect inference, you probably missed the point of that paragraph. I tried to help you by writing as clearly as possible and by referring to chapters where the information is explained in detail.

To take another example, imagine yourself in the audience when Jesus Christ first told the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is actually quite brief, but listeners would go well beyond the story itself. They would realize the enormity of the gap between the Samaritans and the Jews. They would realize that Jesus was putting the Samaritan on a level higher than the priests of their own religion. They would realize that the concept of neighbor that Jesus was using was vastly different from the one they had learned about. The parable doesn't state much of this explicitly; the listeners had to elaborate to have an effective understanding of this parable.


There are two reasons why elaboration is necessary: (1) the learning situation (book, teacher, problem setting, etc.) may provide incomplete information, or (2) the learner may not perceive all the information that is available. Neither of these reasons necessarily represents a "mistake." If learners are capable of elaboration, then both teachers and learners should take advantage of this phenomenon - and most teachers and learners do so automatically. Teachers skip details that learners can easily infer - if they didn't, their presentations would become unduly long and boring. Likewise, learners do not attend to every detail of a presentation; they focus on important details and infer others. {That is why proofreading is a different task than reading. Good readers do not focus on every letter in every sentence they read. They catch the important ideas and fill in the rest, because they know it is there.}

Good learners make good inferences regarding what they need to fill in. On the other hand, some learners make incredibly inaccurate inferences, and this leads to learning problems. Students who make bad inferences can become much better thinkers by learning to make better inferences.


Problem solving is the process of finding information or a strategy to achieve a goal &emdash; to overcome an obstacle. In school, the goal is usually to find declarative or procedural information in a content area. For example, a student may want to know the capital of South Dakota or how to calculate the actual cost of a house that he could buy for $80,000 with a 25-year loan at 9% interest. In life outside the classroom, the goal may be to overcome any sort of obstacle.

Almost everything a learner does can be viewed as directed toward solving a problem (Anderson, 1985). Problem solving has been described in many ways, but it usually consists of describing the problem, determining the desired outcome, selecting possible solutions, choosing strategies, testing trial solutions, evaluating the outcomes of these trials, and revising steps as necessary.

Problem solving is an important process that is described in detail in Newell & Simon (1972), Chipman, Segal, & Glaser (1985), Gagne (1985), Chance (1986), Lesgold (1988), Perkins & Salomon (1989), Gagne, Yekovich, & Yekovich (1993). Since the solution to problems often requires original thinking, creativity is often an important aspect of problem solving. Since it is important to evaluate the quality of solutions, critical thinking is often an important aspect of problem solving. Creativity and critical thinking are discussed later in this chapter.


Composing is the process of creating new information to express an idea. It can be viewed as a specific type of problem solving, in which the problem is to communicate ideas in an appropriate way to achieve a goal. Composing can consist of either written or oral communication of ideas. Although composition skills are often taught in English or language arts classes, they are employed in all areas of the curriculum. For example, social studies students may use their composing skills to integrate their ideas regarding the causes of the American Civil War or the progress of the human rights movement.

The composing process is discussed in greater detail in the Language Arts section of Chapter 16.



Executive skills are much like the metacognitive skills, which are discussed later in this chapter. The basic reasoning skills are summarized in Figure 7.1.





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