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The Benefits and Pitfalls of Cognitive Ability Tests

Logical reasoning, concentration capacity, verbal comprehension, memory, spatial ability and problem-solving are just a few of the essential skills companies hope to find among interview candidates. To increase the chances of finding them, many companies use cognitive tests to screen potential new hires. But using these testing methods effectively and accurately requires an understanding of their shortcomings.

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Cognitive ability tests and what they measure

In simple terms, cognitive ability tests are assessments designed and administrated for the purpose of measuring a person’s mental capacity and cognitive functions. These tests are sometimes referred to as General Mental Ability (GMA) assessments.

Cognitive ability tests are common across many companies, and they’re used to screen for training or evaluate employee performance. They’re also regularly used to screen new hires. These tests can save time and resources by filtering for candidates with the requisite cognitive abilities to perform the function of a specific position. When cognitive tests work well, they can lead to increased performance and better long-term employee placement.

There are a variety of tests for measuring various cognitive skills and abilities, including:

  • Verbal comprehension and reasoning tests: These are the most common tests and are used to assess a candidate’s ability to understand and interpret written information. They might include questions that have candidates match words with synonyms and use context clues to guess information.
  • Learning agility tests: These tests measure how people respond to new scenarios, solve problems and learn from their past experiences. They’re good for testing candidates’ mental versatility and flexibility.
  • Numerical reasoning tests: These tests measure a candidate’s ability to read from charts and tables to solve number problems, including basic math and identifying numerical patterns. Other activities include the interpretation of graphs and calculations of fractions, proportions and percentages.
  • Logical reasoning tests: This type of test provides information sets explained in different scenarios based on the provided context. These tests measure a candidate’s ability to reason and apply logic in real-world situations. They’re reliable indicators for gauging a person’s problem-solving, risk assessment and prioritization abilities.

When administrated and weighed with other measures and variables, cognitive tests offer reasonable indicators as to whether candidates possess the skills necessary for the position they’re applying to.

On the other hand, these tests don’t provide a holistic understanding of a candidate’s unique traits and capabilities. They’ve also demonstrated clear and substantial biases toward ethnicity and other minority demographics. For this reason, it’s crucial to understand the benefits and downsides of using cognitive ability tests to screen applicants.

The benefits and downsides of using cognitive ability tests

Knowing the benefits of cognitive testing and its drawbacks before administering these tests can help companies use them appropriately while better understanding the results they provide relative to other important variables. In terms of benefits, the biggest upside of cognitive ability tests is their ability to quickly screen a large number of candidates. Other benefits include:

  • They can identify high performers: A high score on a cognitive test can indicate a candidate’s ability to achieve ambitious goals at work and improve a team’s overall performance.
  • Measuring cognitive ability can apply to many jobs and occupations: Many of these tests measure general intelligence and mental faculties, and they can more accurately indicate a candidate’s suitability for various jobs.
  • Cognitive tests are affordable: Many cognitive tests are currently free or very inexpensive compared to other assessment tools, making them ideal for smaller businesses with limited resources.
  • Tests are easily conducted and measured: The tests usually have clear and simple instructions, and many are conducted using online tools. Others are available in paper form that are easy to fill out and score.

Despite their ease of use and popularity, cognitive ability tests aren’t foolproof. It’s essential to recognize their disadvantages and limitations, especially where equitable and fair hiring practices are concerned.

A large number of cognitive tests have substantial biases toward race and gender, owing to cultural and sociological expressions valued by the test creators. Female and monitory race candidates can be negatively affected if companies fail to account for these biases.

Many of these tests also measure narrow scopes. Cognitive ability tests don’t typically consider a range of abilities, values and personality traits. While a high score on a cognitive ability test demonstrates potential in terms of cognition, it doesn’t measure a candidate’s worth ethic, leadership qualities or communication skills.

Getting the best results from cognitive ability tests

On the whole, cognitive metrics are incomplete and should be weighed appropriately when looking for promising candidates. However, these tests are useful tools when used equitably and appropriately. When biases are properly accounted for, they can identify candidates with the potential for high performance across a variety of job functions. However, these tests perform best when used to screen candidates for highly complex jobs.

Many businesses also pair cognitive tests with other models to measure specific mental abilities. This test approach demonstrates the most accuracy out of all cognitive testing. Outside of these two scenarios, traditional employee screening methods, including structured interviews and personality tests, are often better indicators of successful job placement.

For the most success, unless testing falls within the spectrums listed above, it should be used as early as possible in the interview process as a screening tool. But even then, you should take time to establish proper benchmarks by having your current high performers take the test. Rather than setting an arbitrary score against results that may or may not have any bearing on the position, a benchmark provides you with a profile of candidates who are likely to perform well.

It’s important to always stay alert for adverse impacts. Even the most robust recruitment process that leverages multiple selection metrics can produce adverse impacts, especially in situations where diversity is inherent. These tests are useful tools, but only when they’re used tactfully.

Cognitive tests necessitate the use of other methods and measures for a glimpse of the unique value each candidate brings to the table. Only once you’ve worked through and pieced together individual profiles with numerous impressions and data points, can you make a reasonable decision.

Frequently asked questions about cognitive ability tests

Are cognitive ability tests reliable?

Applied correctly, cognitive ability tests are generally reliable since an individual’s cognitive abilities shouldn’t vary from test to test. In other words, a candidate’s performance shouldn’t vary significantly between two tests taken on different days and at different organizations. Unlike personality assessments, where people rely on their personal biases to choose answers, cognitive ability assessments review people’s instinctive and logical thoughts and behaviors.

Is cognitive ability the same as IQ?

The intelligence quotient (IQ) is a standardized measure from a series of tests that describe and measure cognitive ability. While IQ tests are generally useful, they’re incapable of capturing the full range of human intellect and potential.

What is average cognitive ability?

There’s no standardized average for cognitive ability, as each test has its own scoring system. People can score high on one part of a test while scoring low on another. When using cognitive tests to screen job applicants, companies should consider establishing detailed benchmarks, rather than depending on arbitrary scores.

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