Cognitive Styles And Learning Styles Research Paper

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1. Style Differences In Cognition And Learning

The chorus line of a popular song once claimed that … it’s not what you do but the way that you do it. This idea—making the how as important as the what—is intriguing. Furthermore, as the song insists, the character of an individual is invariably woven into how a task is completed. This can be seen in any number of human endeavors, for example, sport, art, handwriting, thinking, learning, even conversation.

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In any performance then, a sense of person, as well as context, combines to produce a typical pattern, hallmark, leitmotif, signature, or style. The very same idea underlies the suggestion that individuals possess a personal way of thinking (cognitive style) or learning (learning style). The following discussion will intro-duce the construct of style differences in cognition and learning and consider its significance for lifelong learning in both the world of education and workplace.

2. The Style Construct In Psychology

The term construct refers to a psychological idea or notion. Examples of constructs are intelligence, personality, or self-concept. A style construct appears in a number of academic disciplines—in psychology it has been used in a number of different areas such as personality, cognition, communication, motivation, perception, learning, and behavior.

The theory of style, unfortunately, has been characterized by a tendency for researchers to (a) work in isolation; (b) develop their own instruments for the assessment of style; and (c) the creation of independent style labels with little reference to the field. A wide-spread use of the term ‘style’ has led to a number of different definitions and terminology. Consequently, those interested in validity or verifiability, and an accepted nomenclature for a theory of style, have faced considerable difficulty. The idea of style in educational psychology, nonetheless, is recognized as a key construct of individual differences in human performance.

3. Cognitive Styles

While Allport (1937), in work which developed the idea of ‘lifestyles,’ was probably the first researcher to deliberately use the ‘style’ construct in association with cognition, the following key areas of psychology contributed to an emerging field of cognitive style.

3.1 Perception

Experimental work—reflecting an emphasis on the ‘regularities’ of information-processing which were derived from the German gestalt school of perceptual psychology—led to an early development of the ‘style construct’ of field dependence–independence (Witkin et al. 1971).

Individuals were found to rely upon the surrounding ‘field’ or ‘context’ to a greater or lesser extent, when reorienting an object relative to the vertical. This was subsequently found to correlate with competence in disembedding shapes from a field and experimental participants were found to either rely heavily on the field for orientation or shape discrimination (field-dependent) or little or not at all (field-independent).

3.2 Cognitive Controls And Cognitive Processes

A second significant influence in the development of cognitive style was the study of cognitive processes related to individual adaptation to the environment, exemplified by the work of Gardner and co-workers at the Messinger Clinic in the USA. This work was shaped, originally, by psychoanalytic theories of ego psychology—which was typified by studies focusing upon variables in ego adaptation to the environment. This led to the identification of several cognitive processes including perceptual attitudes, cognitive attitudes, and cognitive controls. Further work related to this area led to several stylistic labels and models, supporting the general notion of a cognitive style (see Messick 1976).

3.3 Mental Imagery

A third key influence in the development of cognitive style reflected work looking at mental representation. Early in the scientific study of psychology, attention was given to the notion that some people have a predominantly verbal way of representing information in thought, while others are more visual or imaginal. Paivio (1971) further developed this notion with a dual coding measurement of mental imagery. Riding and Taylor (1976) identified, as fundamental to the construct of cognitive style, the verbal-imagery dimension of cognitive style.

3.4 Personality Constructs

A fourth and separate influence on the field of cognitive style involved researchers utilizing personality-based constructs to develop a model of learning style (Myers 1978). The most influential model was the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, developed from Jung’s typology of personality constructs and ‘psychoanalytic ego psychology’ (Jung 1923). It offered an alternative model of cognitive style in contrast to those flowing from cognitive psychology.

4. The Further Development Of Cognitive Styles

A contemporary resurgence of interest in style differences over the last three decades has resulted in three distinct developments, all involving the generation of new models of cognitive style or learning styles.

The first development involved researchers independently constructing new models of individual difference in various aspects of cognitive functioning. This approach tended to conceptualize styles as the discovery of new psychological phenomena, for example, styles of thinking, intuition, creativity, decision-making, and motivation.

Examples of some of this work generating additional labels of cognitive style include a model of perceptual style (Gregorc 1982); the Adaptor– Innovator cognitive style of decision-making (Kirton 1994); and the Assimilator–Explorer cognitive style of creativity (Kaufmann 1989). Another more elaborate model of mental self-government presented by Sternberg (1996, 1997) represented a theory of style derived from notions of government. According to this theory, people can be understood in terms of mental government, that is, processes of function, form, level, scope, and learning, which impact upon thinking and learning.

The second development reflected work aimed at a synthesis of theory and a consensus in the under-standing of cognitive style. This approach was characterized by a focus upon the construct validity of cognitive style and its application. The work of Curry (1987) and Rayner and Riding (1997), for example, both attempted to synthesize or integrate existing theory of cognitive and learning styles.

The work of Riding over 20 years involved a reclassification of cognitive style models (see Riding and Rayner 1998). The structure of cognitive style was defined as two-dimensional, comprising the Wholist– Analytic style dimension, relating principally to cognitive organization and the Verbal–Imagery style dimension, relating principally to mental representation.

An individual’s cognitive style was defined as a person’s tendency to process information wholistically or analytically, that is, either as a whole piece or piecemeal, while at the same time mentally representing information using imagery or language. While each dimension was thought to be independent, they were conceptualized as continua and it was not suggested that an individual could only use one or the other way of thinking.

The further development of a computer-based assessment for cognitive style analysis (CSA) by Riding reflected a deliberate attempt to integrate both the Wholist–Analytic and Verbal–Imagery dimensions of cognitive style (see Riding 1991). An extensive number of empirical studies over a number of years were conducted using the CSA at the University of Birmingham and provided evidence to support this model of cognitive style (see Riding and Rayner 1998).

5. Learning Styles

A third more widespread development in contemporary work on style differences in cognition and learning led to the generation of yet more labels, which were described as models of learning styles. This learning-centered tradition of ‘style’ is arguably distinguished by four major features:

(a) the intention of developing new concepts of learning to reduce reliance upon tests of intelligence or ability;

(b) a focus on the learning process and achievement; (c) a primary interest in the effect of individual differences upon pedagogy;

(d) a parallel construction of new assessment instruments and models of learning style.

The primary concern for educationists working within this learning-centered tradition lay with the process of learning and its context. It focused on individual differences in the process of learning rather than within the individual learner. Models of learning styles in this tradition included the following four groups.

5.1 Models Focusing On The Learning Process—Based On Experiential Learning

These derived from a theory of experiential learning, and the most influential example was the work of Kolb (1976), who described learning style as the individual’s preferred method for assimilating information, in an active learning cycle. Kolb constructed a two-dimensional model comprising perception (concrete abstract thinking) and processing (active reflective information processing) as fundamental aspects of an experiential learning cycle.

5.2 Models Focusing On The Learning Process—Based On Orientation To Study

These derived from a theory of information processing and learning processes, and the most influential example was developed by Entwistle called the ‘Approaches to Study Inventory.’ Entwistle (1981) found that approaches to study often reflected either a surface or deep engagement with the study task. This was later extended to include four key orientations to study: meaning, reproducing, achieving, and holistic. The model was further refined as an integrated conception of the learning process, which described a series of actions linked to specific learning strategies identified in his original model.

5.3 Models Focusing On Instructional-Preference

These set out to measure a range of environmental or instructional factors affecting an individual’s learning behavior. A leading example of this type was the Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) developed by Dunn et al. (1989). The learning style elements identified in the LSI were: environmental stimulus (light, temperature); emotional stimulus (persistence, motivation); socio-logical stimulus (peers, adults); physical stimulus (perceptual strengths, time of day—morning vs. after-noon); and psychological stimulus (global analytic, impulsive reflective).

5.4 Models Focusing On Cognitive Skills, And Learning Strategy Development

The fourth group of learning style labels focused on an individual’s developing cognitive ability and repertoire of cognitive skills or ability to learn, together with related behavioral characteristics, which were under-stood to comprise an individual’s learning profile. Learning style was typically perceived as a multimodal construct and understood to describe a range of intellectual functioning relating to the learning activity.

An example of this type of model was the Learning Styles Profile developed by the North American Association of Secondary School Principals (Keefe 1988). This style construct described 24 key elements in learning style, grouped into three categories: cognitive skills—relating to aspects of information processing; perceptual responses—encompassing perceptual responses to data; study and instructional preference—referring to motivational and environ-mental elements affecting learning preferences.

6. Cognitive Style Or Learning Styles

The models in the learning-centered tradition shared several limitations. First, they reflected a construct that by definition was not stable—it was grounded in process and therefore susceptible to rapid change. Second, they did not describe a developmental ration-ale for the concept of learning style nor easily correspond to other models of assessment, thereby suggesting a problem for conceptual validity. Third, they attracted peer criticism for lacking psychometric rigor and a systematically developed theory supported by empirical evidence (see Grigerenko and Sternberg 1995).

The learning-centered tradition, however, reflected a continuing need for a theory of individual differences which could be applied to the learning context. It also reinforced previous work in the area of cognitive style and pointed to the potential for profiling the personal learning style of an individual (see Rayner 2000).

7. Implications Of Style For Lifelong Learning

At the 1997 Seventh International Conference on Thinking, Howard Gardner argued that in the not too distant future people will look back to the end of this millennium, and laugh at the ‘uniform school.’ They will be greatly amused, he suggested, by the idea that educationists actually believed they could teach the same things to all children at the same time and in the same way. To believe that the uniform school can provide efficient or effective education, he concluded, was to endorse educational failure!

The extent to which an awareness of learning style or the self as a learner is currently considered and managed within the educational context raises key questions for the design of instruction and pedagogy, including a consideration of:

(a) assessment-based learning;

(b) differentiation in the curriculum;

(c) learning method routines;

(d) professional development.

Each of these approaches, if adopted with an eye to considering the benefit of a pedagogy which is style-friendly, encourages interactive learning, builds upon the principles of individual difference, and adopts the idea of developing a learning expertise within the learner, will provide a foundation for lifelong learning (see Rayner 2000).

Implicit in all of this work, and equally relevant to the classroom as to the workplace, is the notion of the matching hypothesis. The full value and significance to the professional of cognitive and learning styles rest ultimately with the belief that if it is possible to make a better match between person and environment, then performance will improve and achievement will be enhanced. Moreover, formal education might be made more effective by matching style to materials, to presentation, mode and structure, through nurturing strategy development to maximize style effectiveness.

The delivery of a curriculum, albeit for schooling or workplace training, will improve with an increasing depth of differentiation and a match between individual differences with targeted learning or activity. Such an approach will build upon personal strengths, sow seeds of success, and reap the benefits of learning enhancement.

The final word in offering an overview of style differences in thinking, learning, and behavior is left to Sternberg (1996, p. 363). He succinctly stated that in the world of learning and education, ‘styles matter’! This view mirrors that of many workers in the field who remain interested in knowing more about those individual differences which affect human performance.


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