abstract reasoning

Note: This is one of a 10 blog series on learning traits. Read about all 10 learning traits here.

Abstract reasoning is the skill at the core of all critical thinking and problem solving. While abstract reasoning is probably most important in math and science class, it’s also key to understanding complicated reading passages in English and History. You might hear it referred to as complex reasoning, visual reasoning, or critical thinking.

What is Abstract Reasoning?

It is your ability to make sense of non-language-based information, including numbers, shapes, patterns and formulas. In other words, it is your ability to understand what you are looking at or reading without a detailed description.

Why is Abstract Reasoning Important?

Realistically, elementary students aren’t expected to use abstraction skills very much. Usually teachers give clear directions and concepts are concrete. However, as students enter middle school, they will need to draw inferences and understand themes and author’s intent in English. In math and science, they will rely on non-verbal reasoning to understand and apply ideas they cannot see or touch in subjects like algebra, chemistry and physics.

How can I tell if my student is struggling with Abstract Reasoning?

Students with weaker abstract reasoning might be good at following step-by-step procedures like long division, but they cannot explain why they are doing it. Or you might notice a student has difficulty seeing patterns with shapes or numbers. Most often non-verbal reasoning challenges appear first in middle school, when students struggle to problem solve, generalize and synthesize ideas without step-by-step guidance.

How can I be sure Abstract Reasoning is the problem?

If you suspect your student is struggling with abstract reasoning there are simple tests you can take at home or school. Or you can discuss your concerns with a school counselor or teacher. Since difficulties with verbal reasoning, working memory, or  math anxiety could look like abstract reasoning challenges, make sure they use an objective test, not just observation.

How Can I Support Abstract Reasoning?

Provide concrete hands-on materials or pictures to help students understand abstract ideas. You can teach how to visualize a vague idea. For example, when discussing a different country, pull out a map or globe for visual support. Provide opportunities to problem solve whenever possible. When a student asks a question, have them try to answer on their own before providing the answer. There are so many games that help with complex reasoning, too. Here are specific strategies to develop abstract reasoning in the classroom.

Check out our abstract reasoning test!


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