Cognitive Styles and Cognitive Controls

Cognitive Styles

The first part of this section presents a discussion on cognitive styles. The second part examines the cognitive style construct field-dependent and field-independent. The third part reviews the importance of this cognitive style dimension for the acquisition and deployment of digital skills.

For thousands of years educators have been preoccupied with individual differences among learners (Keef, 1982). Zhang (2005) traced back the foundation of the theory of cognitive style research and development to Kurt Lewin’s work in the 1920s: A Dynamic Theory of Personality. In his attempt to set the foundation for a theory of differentiation among human beings, Lewin (1923) defined differentiation as: “a function of the conditions of the environment as well as the individual peculiarities of the person” (p. 226). Zhang (2005) summarized Kevin’s general law of psychology, which she argued had a significant influence on research related to individual differences among individuals: “a person’s behavior B is a function of a person’s personality P an environmental situations E (B= f (PE))” (Zhang, 2005, p. 11). 

Researchers’ interest in cognitive styles can also be traced back to C. Jung in 1923 when he advocated a theory of psychological types, which differentiated individuals along two types of attitudes (extraversion and introversion); two perceptual functions (intuition and sensing); and two judgment functions (thinking and feeling) (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001). Herman Witkin is credited as being the father of cognitive style and his works have been a catalyst for the exponential growth in cognitive style research. Cognitive styles are the information processing habits representing the learner’s typical mode of perceiving, thinking, problem solving, and remembering (Messick, 1985). They are also described as: “high-level heuristics that organize and control behavior across a wide variety of situations” (Dufresne & Turcotte, 1997, p. 1). A panel of experts reached a consensus on a definition of cognitive styles through a Delphi study:

Cognitive styles are individual differences in processing that are integrally linked to a person’s cognitive system. More specifically, they are a person’s preferred way of processing (perceiving, organizing and analyzing) information using cognitive brain-based mechanisms and structures (Peterson & Rayner, 2009, p. 520).

These styles constitute important dimensions of individual differences among students. In an attempt to explain the cognitive style construct, Cross (1976) notes:

People see and make sense of the world in different ways. They give their attention to different aspects of the environment; they approach problems with different methods for solution; they construct relationships in distinctive patterns; they process information in different but personally consistent ways. … Style has a broad influence on many aspects of personality and behavior: perception, memory, problem solving, interest, and even social behaviors and self-concepts. (p. 115-116).

There have been thousands of research studies conducted on cognitive styles over the years, through which a large number of cognitive style dimensions have been identified. The Learning & Skills Research Centre (2004) made an inventory, which included 71 models (Kirby, 1979); (Zhang, Sternberg, & Rayner, 2012) also provide also a comprehensive summary of several cognitive style constructs that have been identified and researched. The Learning & Skills Research Centre (2004) has noted that the “enormous size of these literatures presents very particular problems for practitioners, policy-makers and researchers who are not specialists in this field” (p .2).

Gregoroc (1982) indicates that brain behavior research provides “strong evidence that individual differences do indeed exist and that some of our instructional approaches are inappropriate for many individuals” (p. 7). Ginsburg (1985) states: “individual differences is at the heart of education. To a large degree education is or should be concerned with developing meaningful forms of learning for individuals who differ in important ways” (p. 57).

In discussing the issues and concerns related to individual differences among learners and learning, Belland, Taylor, Canelos, Dwyer, & Baker (1985) note that:

Accommodating learners’ individual differences remains a concern for all teachers at all levels. Whether the individual difference is defined as genetic intelligence, as a cognitive style or as an attitude, these individual difference variables have a significant influence upon learning and overall academic progress (p. 185).

Cognitive styles are psychological constructs “usually conceptualized as characteristic modes of perceiving, remembering, thinking, and problem solving, reflective of information processing regularities that develop in congenial ways around underlying personality trends” (Messick, 1985, p. 90). Ragan et al.(1979) argue that since cognitive style determines the way we acquire and process information, the “individual may encounter tasks that require the processing of information in a way that they are unable to accomplish, simply because their cognitive style restrict the availability of the processing technique” (p. 2). This argument suggests that instructional tasks can be style-biased, and is supported by research findings showing differential effects of matching and mismatching instructional tasks to cognitive styles. Several researchers have criticized the cognitive control FD-FI because they have found significant relations between the construct and measures of academic achievement (Learning & Skills Research Centre, 2004b). Others have acknowledged that there might be an interaction of field-independence and achievement and directed their effort to assist field-dependent individuals to overcome their information processing deficit (Learning & Skills Research Centre, 2004b).

Despite the importance of cognitive styles as a framework for address significant issues related to individual differences among people, this field of research has been: “constantly repeatedly criticized for the myriad of tests; contested, confused and overlapping definitions and terminology; inappropriate measurement and lack of independent evaluation” (Peterson, Rayner, & Armstrong, 2009, p. 18). After conducting a comprehensive review of research on 13 major cognitive constructs, the Learning & Skills Research Centre (2004) arrived at similar conclusions. The major problem in the field of cognitive style research relates to the inappropriate conceptualization and operationalization of the construct for research purposes. The work of Jonassen and Grabowski (1993) has contributed to bring conceptual clarity among the four main categories of constructs that they have identified through their research. Following is a brief description of each:

Table 1. Categories of constructs

Categories of constructs Description
Cognitive controls Because of the rapidity with which this flow of information takes place, a person needs to have highly developed cognitive controls to be able to cope with this information processing demands effectively and efficiently. Cognitive controls influence and regulate perception.
Cognitive styles Cognitive styles describe learner traits.
Learning styles Learning styles refers to preferred modes of acquiring knowledge in a learning environment.
Personality types Personality type refers to learner’s attention, engagement, and expectations.
Source: Adapted from (Ayersman & Minden, 1995).


While it has been demonstrated that all these categories of cognitive constructs contribute in one way or another to learning and performance, the Witkin cognitive control field-dependent and field-independent is the primary interest of this project because it is by far the most researched and most influential construct (Learning & Skills Research Centre, 2004). As Messick (1986) noted earlier, many unfulfilled promises had been made in the name of cognitive styles. He stressed that these false promises “may be true for some cognitive styles, perhaps even most of them, but it is not true for field dependence-independence. Its early promise has been fulfilled, and its potential continues to offer ample collateral for exciting new forays” (Messick, 1986, p. 117).

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