Cognitive Styles and Dispositions
Students with the same intelligence levels often approach classroom tasks and think about classroom topics differently. Some of these individual differences are cognitive styles, over which students don’t necessarily have much conscious control. Others are dispositions, which students intentionally bring to bear on their efforts to master school subject matter. I urge you not to agonize over the distinction between the two concepts, because in my mind their meanings overlap considerably. Both involve not only specific cognitive tendencies but also personality characteristics (Messick, 1994b; Zhang & Sternberg, 2006). Dispositions have a motivational component—an I-want-to-do-it-this-way quality—as well (Kuhn, 2001a; Perkins & Ritchhart, 2004; Stanovich, 1999).
Over the years psychologists and educators have examined a wide variety of cognitive styles (some have used the term learning styles) and dispositions. The traits they’ve identified and the instruments they’ve developed to assess these traits don’t always hold up under the scrutiny of other researchers (Irvine & York, 1995; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Messick, 1994b). And matching students’ self-reported styles to particular learning environments doesn’t necessarily make a difference in academic achievement (Curry, 1990; Snider, 1990)
Nonetheless, some cognitive styles and dispositions do seem to influence how and what students learn. For instance, at least two dimensions of cognitive style appear to have an impact:
- Analytic versus holistic processing: Some students tend to break new stimuli and tasks into their subordinate parts (an analytic approach), whereas others tend to perceive them primarily as integrated, indivisible wholes (a holistic approach) (A. Miller, 1987; Riding & Cheema, 1991). Overall, an analytic approach appears to be more beneficial in school learning, although research is not entirely consistent on this point (e.g., Bagley & Mallick, 1998; Irvine & York, 1995; Jonassen & Grabowski, 1993; Shipman & Shipman, 1985). Most students become increasingly analytical as they grow older (Shipman & Shipman, 1985).
- Verbal versus visual learning: Some students seem to learn better when information is presented through words (verbal learners), whereas others seem to learn better when it’s presented through pictures (visual learners) (Mayer & Massa, 2003; Riding & Cheema, 1991). There isn’t necessarily a good or bad style here. Rather, learning success probably depends on which modality is used more extensively in classroom activities and instructional materials. Using both verbal and visual material to present important ideas is one easy way to accommodate these differing styles.
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