Analysing Cognitive Style manifested in Students’ Work

Philip Bonanno  Junior College, University of Malta,  Malta

Literature Review:
Cognitive style represent a bridge between cognition and personality (Sternberg & Grigorenko 1997). Many researchers, though sometimes using different constructs, emphasised its implications for educational theory and practice, Cronbach & Snow (1969), Messick (1984), Sternberg (1997), Sternberg & Grigorenko (1997), Riding & Douglas (1993), Riding & Read (1996), Riding & Sadler-Smith (1996),  Riding & Rayner (1998). 
Inspired by these works and by recent developments in Cognitive Science, Baddeley (1986), Ackerman (1998), Bechtel & Graham (1998)  and Cognitive Neuroscience, Anderson (1997),   Gazzaniga et al (1998), this work endeavours to create an awareness of cognitive style and its diverse manifestation in the behaviour and externalised expressions of Advanced Biology students.

Problem:
How can metacognition (awareness and control of one’s cognition) be used to improve
learner performance? Can awareness of domain characteristics (the content in Biology
and the process in learning and doing Biology), learner’s cognitive make up (cognitive abilities and styles) and affective  characteristics (self-theory, attitudes, anxiety control, motivation orientation) help learners take more control of their learning ?
Focusing on cognitive style, its manifestations and implications were investigated through a number of student activities specifically designed to create metacognitive reflection.

Sample:
The sample comprised students enrolled for a two year Advanced level course at the Junior College, University of Malta, between September 1996 and May 2001. All students in the sample opted for Biology as one of the two main subjects taken at A-level, together with three other subjects taken at intermediate level. The sample consisted of 581 students, 212 males (36.5 %) and 369 females (63.5 %)

Procedure:
Using small group sessions, a number of activities were designed to develop a ‘Learner Metacognitive Profile’. A number of instruments were used to investigate different cognitive or affective constructs.
Cognitive style was determined for each student using the computer based instrument ‘Cognitive Style Analysis’ (Riding 1991). Each student was classified on two style dimensions - the Wholist -Analytic dimension (WA ratio) and the Verbal-Imagery dimension (VI ratio). The resulting student style dimensions are being used to investigate possible correlation with data obtained from the following instruments:

a) Junior College Official Progress Report, consists of batteries of assessments done by various teachers in:
Two subjects at advanced level (Biology being one of these for this sample).
Three Intermediate subjects (including another science subject, one language and one from Commerce or Social studies options).
Progress assessment on  project work.

b)  Student essay scripts given for Homework or Tests, are analysed for content and format. Tendencies in approaches adopted by students with different style dimensions are recorded quantitatively.

c)  Selwyn’s Computer Attitude Scale, a paper-and-pencil questionaire, classifies students on four independent attitude constructs - Affective component, Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Control, and Behavioural component.

d)  Johnston & Daiton (1996) Learning Combination Inventory indicating typical learning         
strategies: Sequential, Precise, Technical, Confluent.

e)  Gordon’s (1994) Learning Style Questionnaire based on Gardner’s MI Theory indicating student tendencies to use different intelligence components and the
      preferred mode of processing information (visual, aural or tactile).

Results:
Data about the cognitive style dimensions (WAVI ratios) for each student are being analysed to :
establish relative frequency of style dimensions in Biology students.
to investigate any correlation between style dimensions and performance in the different subjects chosen by each student.
investigate any correlation between cognitive style dimensions and content of essay (length, inclusion of main points, level of detail) and presentation mode (verbal/visual content, highlighting, chunking).
investigate any correlation between cognitive style dimensions Computer Attitude components.
investigate any correlation between cognitive style dimensions and preferred learning strategies.
investigate any correlation between cognitive style dimensions and preferred mode of processing information.

Conclusion:
The underlying purpose of this work is to help students move away from mechanistic or fatalistic views of cognition and personality. Self awareness helps students take full control of the learning process.
Any results obtained from data analysis will be used to:
identify students assets, and finding ways to promote and  exploit them. 
identify shortcomings, turning them into challenges mastered by  compensating strategies
help students appreciate individual differences amongst teachers and colleagues.
use results to propose ways for improving instruction.

References:
Anderson, O. R. (1997). A Neurocognitive Perspective on Current Learning Theory and
Science Instructional Strategies. Science Education 81: 67-89, 1997.

Riding, R. (1991). Cognitive Styles Analysis Users’ Manual. Learning & Training
Technology. Birmingham. U.K.

Riding, R. & Cheema, I. (1991).  Cognitive Styles - an overview and Integration. Educational Psychology, Vol. 11, Nos. 3 and 4, 1991.

Riding, J.R & Douglas, G. (1993).  The Effect of Cognitive Style and Mode of
presentation on learning performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology
(1993), 63, 297-307.

Riding & Rayner (1998): Cognitive Styles and Learning Strategies: Understanding Style
Differences in Learning and Behaviour. David Fulton Publishers. London.

Riding, J.R. & Read, G. (1996).  Cognitive Style and Pupil Learning Preferences.
Educational Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1996.

Riding, R. & Sadler-Smith, E. (1996).  Type of Instructional Material, Cognitive Style and
Learning Performance. Educational Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, 1992.

Sternberg, R. J. & Grigorenko, E. L. (1997). Are Cognitive Styles Still in Style?
American Psychologist, Vol. 52, No. 7, 700-712.

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Thinking Styles. Cambridge University Press.

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