How to Build Strong Reasoning Skills & the Foundation of Critical Thinking with Dr. Amy Moore and Sandy Zamalis

About this Episode

On this episode of the Brainy Moms podcast, cognitive psychologist Dr. Amy Moore and board-certified cognitive specialist Sandy Zamalis continue our series on cognitive skills, focusing on logic & reasoning. Find out why this higher-level thinking skill is so vital—not only to subjects like math and science, but also reading and test-taking. You’ll even hear how behavior can be affected by underdeveloped logic and reasoning skills, including poor decision-making skills, and how parents can help guide their kids and teens to boost these skills. You’ll learn why critical thinking skills require strong underlying cognitive skills, as well as two free resources available for download.

About Dr. Amy Moore

Dr. Amy Moore is a cognitive psychologist at LearningRx in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the headquarters of the largest network of brain training centers in the world. She specializes in cognitive training and assessment for neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, brain injury, learning disabilities and age-related cognitive decline. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed medical and psychological journals and presented at conferences around the country. She has been a child development specialist, education administrator, and teacher of teachers with a PhD in psychology and a master’s degree in early childhood education. Dr. Amy has been working with struggling learners for 25+ years in public, private, and government organizations, so she knows a little about thinking and learning. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Modern Brain Journal, a TEDx Speaker, host of the Brainy Moms podcast, a licensed pastor, and a board-certified Christian counselor. Dr. Amy is married to Jeff Moore, a retired Air Force fighter pilot now working as a surgical nurse. They have three incredible sons (ages 19, 23, and 25) and a very mischievous but soft Siberian cat. Originally from South Carolina, Dr. Amy has called Colorado home since 2006.

Watch her TEDx talk, Lessons Learned from Training 101,000 Brains
Read her research:

About Sandy Zamalis

Sandy is a brainy mom of 2 who loves co-hosting our show! She’s a Board Certified Cognitive Specialist and the owner of LearningRx Staunton-Harrisonburg in VA where she spends her days improving the lives of struggling students through brain training. Her diverse background includes being a USA Swimming Coach, probation officer, homeschooling moms, and small business owner in 3-D printing and scanning. Sandy has been married for 26 years and is her passion is helping families understand learning challenges so that children can find success and confidence. Find Sandy on TikTok @TheBrainTrainerLady.

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Read the transcript for this episode:

DR. AMY: Hi, Smart Moms and Dads. Welcome to another episode of the Brainy Moms Podcast brought to you today by LearningRx Cognitive Skills Training Centers. I am Dr. Amy Moore, joined by Sandy Zamalis, and we are continuing our series on cognition and cognitive skills. What cognitive skill are we talking about today, Sandy?

SANDY: Today, we’re talking about logic and reasoning, so kind of what I think of as the sweet spot of all cognition, which I know you’re going to explain more about. But I feel like if you have been given the gift of high logic and reasoning, then that is quite the gift because problem solving can be really challenging to train and learn. So let’s start there. What is logic and reasoning from our perspective?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so because our methodology of assessing and remediating cognition is consistent with the Cattell-Horn-Carroll Theory of Cognition, which is what all major intelligence tests are based on, it’s the most widely adopted theory of cognition. I’m going to actually read the definition of fluid reasoning, based on CHC Theory. So fluid reasoning can be defined as “the use of deliberate and controlled procedures to solve novel on-the-spot problems that cannot be solved by using previously learned habits.” So it’s the ability to use some sort of procedure to solve a problem. That is what fluid reasoning is.

SANDY: Okay. So this is a higher-level thinking skill, right?

DR. AMY: Absolutely. It is not automatic processing. So we have skills that are automatic processing skills, like processing speed and attention, but higher level thinking skills require the use of those automatic skills and the use of what we know, typically, to solve a problem. So it’s like the coordination of what we know, the ability to project what might happen, and the use of those underlying processing skills all at the same time. I mean, it’s the cornerstone of thinking and learning. In fact, some researchers say that fluid reasoning is intelligence.

SANDY: Okay. So let’s talk about when that skill is high. Like, if you’re really good at that skill, what does that look like for you in the day to day? Let’s take a student, for example, someone in school, what would high logic and reasoning skills look like?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so a student who has great logic and reasoning skills would be able to generate ideas and possible outcomes pretty quickly, given a set of facts or possibilities. And so they’re probably great at class discussions, because they can take what they’ve read, take what they’ve learned, you know, heard the teacher say, “What might happen if?” You know, and they can quickly generate possibilities. Because reasoning, fluid reasoning is all about looking at what all the possible outcomes could be and choosing the most reasonable outcome.

SANDY: Okay. Are there particular class areas or academic subjects that might be easier for someone with logic and reasoning skills?

DR. AMY: Yeah. So math is automatically a bunch of logic and reasoning, right? So it’s usually—

SANDY: Especially the higher-level ones, right? Like algebra, statistics, geometry.

DR. AMY: Yeah. And geometry is a great example because you use rules, you apply specific set rules to solve a problem. Right? And so if you have strong reasoning skills, then you will probably do really well in math. And really well in science, because the scientific method is all about taking what you know, generating hypotheses about what could be, and then acting on those.

SANDY: Okay.

DR. AMY: But …

SANDY: Yeah, go ahead.

DR. AMY: So we automatically think, “Oh, you’re great at logic. You’re great at reasoning. So those STEM fields are perfect for you.” But reading also requires reasoning.

And I’m sure that you see that with your clients all the time.

SANDY: Right. Because that drives comprehension, right? And then it drives the ability to understand how the English language works, how we organize our language, how we spell our language. There’s a lot of logic associated with reading for sure.

DR. AMY: Absolutely. I mean, even something as simple as you see a word that has I before E, and so you have to say, “Okay, what is the rule that I apply when I’m reading this word?”

SANDY: Yes, exactly. So let’s think about that on the flip side of the coin academically. If you were weak in logic and reasoning, we talked about, for example, science, where would we might see a hiccup in that logic and reasoning if a student’s weak in that area, for example, a science experiment?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so it would make it difficult to generate a hypothesis if you are weak in logic and reasoning skills. And so, when we’re generating hypotheses, we are taking what rules exist about the natural world and then say, if we combine these two things, knowing these rules about the general world, what might happen? So, what are two chemicals that when combined create smoke?

SANDY: That I don’t know off the top of my head.

DR. AMY: I don’t remember either. But let’s say. You know that when you combine that chemical A is unstable and chemical B has some enzymatic action that when acted on an unstable chemical could create an explosion. So if I’m generating a hypothesis about what might happen if I combine chemical A with chemical B, someone with strong logic and reasoning skills would say, “Well, that’s an unstable one, and that’s enzymatic, so it could create an explosion.” But someone with low logic and reasoning skills might not be able to come to that conclusion. They might not be able to take the rules that they know about these two chemicals and reason through potential outcomes. And again, please don’t tear up my chemistry example, because I’m not that kind of scientist.

SANDY: Can test taking be hard for somebody who has weak logic and reasoning skills?

DR. AMY: Absolutely. Especially a test with multiple choice answers, because you have to determine what is the best possible answer out of these four or five choices. And so you have to be able to reason through why or why not each answer is the plausible answer. Right?

SANDY: So, okay. In general, I feel like, and this is just an anecdotal observation, most likely, that in our education system, we have really put a heavy, heavy emphasis on critical thinking skills. And I would, I would say critical thinking kind of lands in this logic and reasoning bucket. So much so that especially in early elementary and early middle school, we are putting a lot of effort into building these critical thinking or logic and reasoning skills. In my opinion, a little too early, because they’ve come at a detriment to building skills like processing speed, building skills like working memory and long-term memory. What are your thoughts on that hypothesis?

DR. AMY: Yeah. So I think that that’s a pretty astute observation. So first of all, I think it’s important to help kids learn to think. I think it’s important to help kids learn to reason through possibilities, right? Because we don’t want them to just memorize information and regurgitate information and not know what to do with the information. Right? And so the older they get, the more application becomes important. And so without the ability to critically think through all the possibilities, then they’re not going to be able to apply facts in the real world and in an education settings. But it’s putting the cart before the horse. So, critical thinking skills require strong underlying learning skills, underlying cognitive skills. So if we have weak attention skills, weak memory skills, weak processing speed, weak visual and auditory processing, then we can’t learn to think critically because we’re stuck in the cycle of, “I can’t even remember the rules about the world because my memory is weak,” right? “I didn’t pay attention. I couldn’t pay attention to, you know, the lecture that then led up to this assignment of applying, you know what the teacher taught us to now solving a problem because my attention skills were weak,” right? “My processing speed is so slow that I couldn’t keep up with the discussion, so I don’t even know what we’re supposed to be thinking critically about yet.” So it’s putting the cart before the horse to expect kids to learn how to apply the information that they’ve learned in a critical way if they’re still struggling with the ability to learn the basics.

SANDY: Well, developmentally, the prefrontal cortex isn’t even online until later, right? That’s the part we’re talking about, right? So reasoning, we would argue, you know, happens in the CEO of our brain. So the prefrontal cortex, which by the way, is not fully developed until the mid 20s. There’s some research to suggest it happens even later than that. And can we do things? Can we do things to help speed up the development of the prefrontal cortex?

DR. AMY: Absolutely. But we have to recognize that those processes aren’t fully integrated at age seven and so as much as we want to push our kids academically, we can’t skip over those underlying foundational skills that they need first.

SANDY: So we’ve talked about how weak logic and reasoning can show up academically. Let’s talk about behaviorally. How does it show up there?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so it’s very difficult to reason through all of the possible outcomes unless you have strong reasoning skills. And so when a friend dares you, you know, to drive a hundred miles an hour, you know, down this dirt road, without strong reasoning skills, you aren’t going to quickly be able to generate all of the potential outcomes of that behavior. And so it can be absolutely dangerous, right? And it can be anywhere from being preyed upon online, you know, by a sexual predator, which we know happens all of the time. Something like 80 percent of adolescents are actually enticed by an adult online pretending to be someone their age. And so without strong reasoning skills, you aren’t gonna be able to stop and think, “Wait a minute, what’s happening here? What evidence do I have to suggest that this is another 13-year-old and not a 27-year-old?” Right? So, I mean, it can be dangerous in terms of, you know, behavior, especially risk-taking behavior.

SANDY: So my brain was going 40 miles an hour with that whole thought process of thinking through what that means in day-to-day aspects from a parenting perspective, though. I think a really good indicator is, you know, if you ask your child, “Why did you do that?” And they go, “I don’t know,” that’s a good red flag. That that skill is not super helpful for them. They’re not strong enough there to really think through all of those different, like you said, scenarios or outcomes in order to make sure they’re making the best possible decision or choice. So, if you’re getting that response, you know, we’ve got some work to do because if you’ve been following this series, you know, we’re going to tell you that you can train the skill. It isn’t just set in stone that it is the way it is. And as a parent, you certainly want your kids to have good logic and reasoning skills, right? That’s what I think of when I think of common sense, right? The skills you need in order to function from day to day in order to make plans, do things. So how do we start building those skills?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so I think, relationally and behaviorally, that has to start with the conversations that we have with our kids. We have to narrate our own thought processes. And so while it might seem a little bit unnatural at first, you’ll get used to hearing yourself think out loud about your decisions and letting your kids hear that, right? And so by saying, “Hey, you know what? I think that I’m going to stop at the store first, because if I don’t, we’re going to get there too late.” And then, I mean, this is probably a terrible, this is absolutely terrible. Let me …

SANDY: No, it’s not. My husband does this all the time.

DR. AMY: Narrates his thought processes?

SANDY: He narrates exactly where we’re driving to first and why. Yeah. Cause there’s, there’s a reason behind all the places that we’re stopping in the order in which we’re stopping them.

DR. AMY: Yeah, absolutely.

SANDY: But, yeah, it’s helpful because it shows that planning, right, that, because that’s what you’re modeling. That’s what you’re describing here is that ability to model, “How am I thinking about this task? What are the steps I’m going to take?” If I model it out loud, then I’m also opening up for someone to offer me a suggestion, like, maybe they see a little hiccup in my plan. So now we’re going to work together as a team to find the more efficient or best solution to the task.

DR. AMY: Yeah, so I think in addition to narrating our own thought processes as much as possible, I mean, anything from deciding what to make for dinner based on what you have in the kitchen, to how do you decide where you’re going to go on a family vacation, right? Like, “Hey, we’re considering these two, you know, destinations and here are the pros and cons of each. And, you know, here’s what it might cost to do it. Here’s the, you know, downside.” Just being able to narrate decisions and let your kids even hear this natural metacognitive processes, you know, is a great way to start modeling, you know, logic and reasoning, fluid reasoning, that type of critical thinking, but also helping deconstruct when they make a mistake, right? So saying, “All right, let’s talk about what happened. What did you do? What could you have done differently? And what can we do together to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?” Right? And so having these really calm conversations about what went wrong helps them think critically, right? Like, “So what is the first step that you’re going to take to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?” Rather than just, “Here’s your consequence” and then not using that as an opportunity to help them think through their choices and their decisions. So narrating your own thought processes day to day and then helping deconstruct mistakes in a calm and curious way helps build those reasoning skills.

SANDY: Okay. We do that in our centers too. I mean, that’s how we train it actually. We just take that broad concept and like bring it all the way down into small tasks that our students or our clients do with us. So, again, modeling, right? Narrating our thought process. Especially if they are overwhelmed with the task, you know, giving them lots of different options or ideas or strategies that they can then pick and choose from. But then also on the flip side, when they are working it on their own, helping them deconstruct. “Why did you choose it that way? Why did you take that strategy? Can you explain why that is the answer to me? Pretend I don’t know. How would you help me learn how to do this task so that you’re flipping that skill into teaching?” Right? I think teaching, helping a student learn how to teach something is actually a really great way to help them build logic and reasoning skills because they have to have the skill automatic enough underneath in order to be able to flip it and teach it to someone else.

DR. AMY: Absolutely. And recognizing that this process of thinking through decisions and why you make the decisions can be uncomfortable at first. Right? So you do see some frustration when you start having these conversations with your kids in the beginning, right? Because their brains aren’t, you know, trained to think critically yet, you know, until we help build those skills along with recognizing, okay, do they have the attention skills to even have this 20-minute conversation.

And if not, we got to go back to the basics there too. Do they have the memory to even remember why they made the decision they made? Again, it goes back to what we can’t put the cart before the horse. We have to recognize that, you know, those automatic processing skills play just as an important role in logic and reasoning as the actual prefrontal cortex executive functioning, you know, skill itself.

SANDY: I think the hardest part about this skill to train, I think, in general and not necessarily in our centers, but I think as a mom, right, is that oftentimes we give our kids independence in certain areas too early and we’re not able to kind of see that thought process until we’ve made a big mistake and then we’ve got to ratchet it all back and figure out what happened along the way. Which I know that there’s a time and place for, but certainly in early education and early elementary school, that’s a great time to be a little bit more like training wheels on a bike, right? Like you’re there and then you’re not there. You’re helping along and then you see what they can do. And then of course, as they get older in the middle school and teen years, you’re letting them drive that a lot more on their own and then helping them deconstruct it when an error occurs. But being there to facilitate it in the early years, especially will help that process go more smoothly down the road, versus if we don’t pay attention to it at all and all of a sudden we’re wondering why we’re seeing all of these poor choices, problem-solving issues further down the road.

DR. AMY: Yeah, absolutely. So, child development specialists, psychologists, Lev Vygotsky calls that scaffolding. And so it’s finding this, you know, zone of development that kids are in, right? And then acting as a scaffold to help move them, you know, through that zone. And then actually you end up moving the zone, right, as they grow and develop. But being there as that scaffold, right? That support, you know, to provide guidance along the way, but while letting them make sense of their world, right, learn the rules of the natural world, like how things work, why they work the way they work, you know, but be there kind of to help them make sense of it all.

SANDY: Well, I think we’ve hit everything, except for, and we try not to get too deep into the weeds on this one, with different, all the different skills that have kind of fall under that logic and reasoning. But Amy, is there something that you really want to make sure we wrap up this episode with for parents to help them understand the importance of logic and reasoning.

DR. AMY: Yeah, I think that we just want to remind parents that fluid reasoning skills really are those skills that coordinate and include all of the other thinking skills. That it’s the foundation higher-level thinking. And so to recognize that we have to go through A, B, and C before we get to H or M. And so to know, while we want to encourage kids to think critically while we want to encourage their reasoning skills, to recognize that there may be deficits, you know, in those lower processing skills that we want to address first.

SANDY: Okay. Where can our listeners find some resources that can help them?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so, you guys can go to our website,, and find out all about the skills that we’re talking about. But we also have a free game pack, that we want you guys to have so that you can try out some cognitive skills-building exercises for yourself. Dr. Ken Gibson, who created the LearningRx training methods, wrote a book called “Unlock the Einstein Inside,” and we are offering the ebook, the PDF version of that book, to you for free. And so we’ll put a link to get both of those in the show notes, or you can go to to get that book there directly.

SANDY: Well, as Amy likes to say, that’s all the smart stuff that we have for you today. Thanks for joining us and follow us on all your social media outlets. So you can find us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, both as a brainy moms and also you can find me at the Brain Trainer Lady. So find us, message us. If you have some questions about the episodes we’ve done so far, we’d love to hear it. We love to do question-and-answer episodes as well. So if we’ve sparked your thinking, we want to hear from you. Give us some things that we can address for you individually and maybe offer some more insight.

DR. AMY: We should probably tell them how to give us some questions, right?

SANDY: Sure! Go ahead.

DR. AMY: Yeah. So you can email us directly. You can email me at [email protected] or [email protected]. Or you can just post questions on Tik Tok or Instagram directly, right?

SANDY: Yep, they can just direct message us that way. That was kind of in my brain what I was thinking. But it would probably be more practical.

DR. AMY: Just DM us.

SANDY: You could email us too. Thanks guys. Have a great rest of your week.

DR. AMY: Alright, see you next time.

DR. AMY: Hey, thanks for joining us for another episode of the Brandy Moms Podcast. If you’d like more information about cognitive skills training or cognitive assessment, you can visit learning or call 1 8 6 6 brain zero one to find a center near you or simply to ask questions or find out more information about how LearningRx might be able to help you or your child think better or learn easier.