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Cognitive function testing: What is it?

You may have come across cognitive function testing in any number of forms. Depending on where, how, or with whom, your experience can vary significantly. 

Cognitive function testing is the use of verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, and logical reasoning questions to measure a person’s general mental ability. These tests are also called cognitive ability tests, cognitive assessments, or intelligence tests.

For workplace use, cognitive function testing typically applies to tools like cognitive assessments and behavioral assessments. Like a writing exercise, or a general aptitude test, these can provide additional data points that help with hiring decisions, or in ensuring job fit. But cognitive function testing should never be the sole factor in a selection process. It’s important that cognitive function tests be used responsibly, regardless of the context, and in conjunction with other tools.

In this post, we’ll dive into: 

  • What does a cognitive test do?
  • How does a cognitive test work?
  • What is normal cognitive function?
  • Cognitive test examples
  • How to take (or administer) a cognitive test

Let’s start with the most basic question. 

What does a cognitive test do? 

You might be wondering: What is a cognitive ability assessment actually trying to measure?

Behind our behavior is what scientists call g, or general intelligence. It predicts everything from your job performance, to your grades in school, and even to whether or not people perceive you as “bright.” You can think of general intelligence as your ability to learn, adapt, and solve problems.

Cognitive ability tests measure g, along with other attributes, through questions that involve abstract reasoning and problem solving. The more correct answers, the higher the person’s general intelligence.

Cognitive aptitude tests may be given for several reasons: An employer may ask you to take one as a predictor of how well you’ll do in a role, or a health care provider may ask you to take one to diagnose cognitive impairment or other issues.

In the workplace, it’s critical to use them responsibly and ethically.  PI’s assessments were designed with workplace decision-making in mind, including hiring. The BA and CA were carefully developed according to the standards and best practices described in the Uniform Guidelines and Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. They have well-established validity, reliability, and fairness evidence.

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How does a cognitive test work?

Often, cognitive ability tests include a short practice test with sample questions at the beginning. These sections usually don’t have a time limit, and are meant to help familiarize you with the process. 

Once you’re ready for the real test, you’re given a defined time frame in which to answer the questions. These questions are meant to challenge your cognitive skills, and may include everything from math problems to matching shapes, and from deductive to inductive reasoning.

When you either hit the time limit or run out of test questions, you receive your test results. Test scores tend to follow what’s called a bell curve: A few people will score very high or very low, while most people will be in the middle.

What is normal cognitive function?

Normal cognitive function is different from general intelligence. While general intelligence measures your problem-solving and other abilities, normal cognitive function asks: Are you able to understand the world and complete day-to-day tasks?

People who are trying to diagnose conditions that cause cognitive impairment, like Alzheimer’s disease, use different kinds of cognitive tests. The Mini-Mental State Examination (or MMSE) and Mini-Cog are common examples. Unlike cognitive assessment tests, these are untimed and use basic questions: What day is it? Can you write a sentence? Can you follow instructions? 

Assessments validated for workplace use try to get at everyday scenarios that might occur in the work environment. So while measuring a candidate or employee’s cognitive ability is an important part of the process, these assessments are more helpful in measuring how that person might respond to a certain situation, or perform in a particular role. 

Cognitive test examples

There are many types of cognitive ability tests. IQ tests are the most well-known, and are usually used in health care settings. Since general intelligence and job performance go hand-in-hand, employers will also often use specialized cognitive function tests, like those offered by The Predictive Index.

The difference isn’t necessarily in the type of questions. It’s in the results. While IQ tests ask “How smart are you?”, employment tests ask, “Are you smart enough for the role?” Employers will also often include a behavioral assessment test, to make sure a personality is a good fit for the job. Examples of these include:

  • The Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment
  • The Wonderlic Personnel Test
  • The Criteria Employee Personality Profile

How to take (or administer) a cognitive test

The most important way to prepare for a cognitive ability test? Take care of yourself. Staying well-rested, well-fed, and hydrated will help maximize your results. Also, take advantage of any free practice tests that may be available.

If you’re confused by a question, that’s okay! Cognitive tests often include questions that are deliberately abstract or difficult, designed to see how you respond to new situations. If you’re stuck, just make your best guess and move on.

Responsibly administering cognitive assessments is crucial, and sometimes delicate. Here are a few steps you can take to ensure you’re not blurring any ethical lines or unintentionally bringing bias into the equation:

  1. Hire an employment law professional. When in doubt, always consult with an expert.
  2. Be responsible. Be a good steward to your overall selection processes. This starts at the beginning. Conduct a job analysis to identify what knowledge, skills, or abilities are needed on the job. Use that information when writing the job description, choosing the assessments, and planning the interview process.
  3. Monitor your candidate flow. At least once a year, conduct adverse impact analyses on your entire selection process and the tools that are used for it. The analyses should look at each step individually, starting with resume reviews and phone screening. Make sure data are carefully recorded (according to local or national guidelines) and that you know how to conduct the adverse impact analysis. 
  4. Establish a relationship between assessment results and job performance. This can be accomplished through ratings of subject matter experts, statistical studies looking at correlations between assessment results and measures of job performance, or ideally, both.
  5. Use validated and reliable assessments. Assessments should be built according to professional standards and have strong evidence that they work as intended. It would be wise to use assessments from a responsible test publisher who is proactively monitoring reliability, validity, and fairness.
  6. Set a clear testing policy. Some companies use assessments in a pass/fail manner while others recommend using assessments as one of many data points (as is recommended by PI). Prior to implementing assessments in your hiring practices, document exactly how assessments will be used. For more information, see the PI Cognitive Assessment Administrator’s Guide.

Above all else, whether you’re using one of PI’s assessments or another validated for workplace use, make sure to couple them with other data points. The more data you have, the stronger your candidate pool and organization becomes.


Robbie is a technical and content writer at PI. You can find him walking by Lake Michigan or plotting his next DnD campaign.

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