Over the last couple of weeks, I have had a number of conversations with clients providing additional feedback and interpretation on the cognitive abilities results of their candidates. The theme of most of these conversations has been trying to understand how a candidate who presented well in an interview or who has a number of university degrees or who is well liked by all of their referees, did not do as well as expected on the tests of cognitive ability.

To provide a bit of context here, when assessing candidates for various job roles our standard battery of tests are a personality or work styles assessment, to get an understanding of the candidate’s behavioural preferences in a work setting, and three tests of ability – abstract or logical reasoning, verbal reasoning and numerical reasoning. These cognitive tests provide a good indication of a candidate’s potential to learn (abstract reasoning) as well as a good assessment of the critical thinking skills they have developed through their post secondary schooling (verbal and numerical reasoning).

Now, these are interesting tests in that they don’t really measure how “smart” someone is, in a traditional sense, but they measure a person’s capacity to reason, form concepts, and solve problems using unfamiliar information or novel procedures. You could say that if a person does well on these tests they have a better developed ability to form concepts and make reasoned judgements from new data presented in a written and numerical form, than those who do poorly on these tests.  But what about those candidates who do not do well on these assessments, for whatever reason, but have successfully finished university or impressed colleagues and managers with their ability to ‘think outside the square’ and solve complex problems on the job? As I was asked quite directly the other day when this situation arose, “what do you say to that?”

There is a big difference in the “intelligence” that is measured by the completion of a university degree, and that which is measured by cognitive ability tests.  Cognitive ability tests measure a person’s natural problem solving style. They measure how effectively a person can solve problems when taken out of their comfort zone of acquired knowledge and when dealing with information that they have not seen before. They measure how a person applies their skills in critical thinking to analyse information and find the right answer. They measure the potential a person has to learn new information quickly, i.e. are they more of a conceptual or a concrete thinker when having to solve problems around which they have no previous experience?

And there is it – the difference – the previous experience. Ability tests take a person out of their area of expertise or comfort zone.  University studies are completely the opposite. For those who successfully complete a university degree, you have developed a comfort zone of knowledge. Through years of study and assignments and exams, you have learnt, over time, the ins and outs of your chosen area of interest. When completing an assignment you are more often than not given weeks, even months to research your ideas, formulate your themes and fine tune your arguments. You may have also been part of a study group and received a fair bit of support in the completion of your assignments. When undergoing an exam, while you are completing a test under time pressure (like cognitive tests), you have been given the opportunity to study for that exam. You have had the opportunity to rote learn information; the exam is the time to draw on and apply that learned knowledge.   There are so many variables in play that impact on our successful completion of a university degree.

At university we are assessed on our acquired knowledge. The cognitive ability tests assess us on our ability to solve problems without the luxury of acquired knowledge. Ability tests are not knowledge tests, they are just that, tests of our inherent problem solving abilities.

So what does it mean when someone scores poorly on their abilities test? Does this mean they are not smart? Absolutely not. A low score on the tests of abilities can mean:

  1. This person does not learn optimally  and solve problems under pressure
  2. They may prefer to rely on their previous experience when solving problems
  3. They may tend to sacrifice speed for accuracy, preferring a slow and steady approach to problem solving
  4. They may not have had the opportunity to develop skills in critical thinking

When university degrees and cognitive ability results do not align this is not a reason to discount one over the other. It is not a reason to ‘blame the tools’ if the cognitive tests are not as favourable as hoped. It’s an opportunity to get more of a complete picture of a candidate, from how they solve problems when in their area of expertise to how they make judgments from information when operating outside of their comfort zone. 

At the end of the day however, we advise clients that psych testing is just one piece of the puzzle when making selection and development decisions. It is just one data point that can help flag any key areas of strength and development needs for further investigation in the whole assessment process.  While many people do tend to make decisions based on gut feel, the data gathered from the cognitive testing will be valuable for that candidate’s development and being armed with such information will help ensure a long term and successful hire for the organisation.

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