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Cognitive Learning Styles

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Cognitive style theorists stress that school tasks can contribute to learning disabilities when they require students to use problem-solving strategies that they find unnatural. A person's cognitive style (his or her preferred way of looking at and interacting with the world) tends to remain stable throughout life and is influenced by such factors as personality, heredity, and brain injury.

Recall Jonah, the hyperactive first grader. His teacher asks him to find an educational game to play quietly while she works with a reading group. He flits from game to game, never finishes any of them, and he gains little from the experience. His classmate Juli, given the same instructions, chooses one game and plays it over and over, intrigued by its details and trying to get a better score each time. Time is up long before she even thinks about trying a different game. When the teacher asks these two children to tell the reading group which games are available, Jonah's hand flies into the air because he's tried them all. But when she asks them to demonstrate a game, Juli is the one ready with an answer.

Is one child a better learner? In general, our society favors Juli's reflective approach. She's more task oriented, takes more time to arrive at solutions, and likes to analyze and memorize details. School tasks are more compatible with Juli's disposition than Jonah's. But Jonah's impulsive style has benefits too. When the teacher asks the children to find her pen in the classroom, Jonah's ability to scan the environment rapidly works well. Ask Jonah to find the movie theater listings in the newspaper, and he locates them quicker than Juli, who methodically goes through each page one at a time.

Cognitive style theorists presume that in many cases students who are experiencing learning problems have intact learning abilities, but their styles of learning are inappropriate for the classroom demands. This leads to underachievement and cumulative information deficits. On the other hand, when curricular demands match students' preferred learning styles and when students are taught more effective learning strategies, these students can learn well.

The next section discusses the most common learning styles found among students with learning disabilities.

Impulsive and Reflective Learners

Impulsive learners are more highly represented among students with LD than among average students. Their style is characterized by underfocused attention, distractibility, and premature decision making. They are restless, can't concentrate for long, forge ahead before understanding directions, and have social difficulties because they don't stop to consider the consequences of their actions. Overly reflective learners, at the other end of the continuum, are overfocused, delay decision making for what seems like forever, concentrate so long on bits of information that they miss the main point.

Jerome Kagan and his colleagues used the Matching Familiar Figures Test to study impulsive and reflective styles. Kagan and others believed that reflective children are slower, and correct, because they fear being wrong. Impulsive children, on the other hand, get through tasks fast because they aren't concerned enough to take the time to avoid errors. Other researchers countered that these children are fast or slow because of differences in their information-processing approaches. Reflective children prefer to analyze fine details, which takes time. In contrast, impulsive children prefer to focus on the overall picture, which takes less time. They claimed that reflective children are superior to impulsive children only when analyzing details. On items requiring more global analysis, such as recognizing outlines and themes, impulsive children are equal if not superior, to reflective children-and faster.

In a very clever study of hyperactive 4- to 6-year-old low achievers and typical learners of equal intelligence, Zentall and Gohs gave children blocks with drawings of abstract designs. The children had to decide which block to place on a stand after being given either a global cue ("it looks like a ray gun or a man's shirt")—or a detail cue ("it has a hole in the middle"). When the children had trouble making up their minds and needed an additional cue, they would sound a buzzer. If a global cue had been given first, they would get a detail cue next, and vice versa. Hyperactive children sounded the buzzer more often after a detail cue; the average learners did the opposite, needing more information when given a global cue. In other words, global information seems to be more meaningful to the hyperactive, poor learner than detailed information. These children don't know how to go about analyzing material that is detailed (the preponderence of schoolwork) even if they do take more time. It doesn't work to simply tell impulsive students to "slow down and you'll get it": They need to be shown how to focus on details when scanning material and why such a strategy is helpful.

The school curriculum favors the reflective learner because schoolwork most often demands attention to details and taking time to think through an answer. Although impulsive children do have an advantage when it comes to getting an overview of a situation quickly, being sensitive to social cues, solving problems that don't contain the answers, and absorbing incidental information, unfortunately the demands of the school curriculum for the most part are not suited to this global learning style. Therefore, these children's failure is aggravated.

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