Cognitive style and individual performance in management education: important effects for the new age of life-long learning

Steven J. Armstrong

Department of Organisation Analysis, Lincoln School of Management, UK.


This paper reports the outcomes of an empirical study undertaken to explore the possibility that cognitive style may be an important factor influencing an individual's ability to perform well on tasks of different complexities and time durations in management education. Four hundred and twelve final-year undergraduate degree students studying management and business administration were tested using the Cognitive Style Index (Allinson & Hayes, 1996). Their cognitive styles were then compared with assessment grades achieved for academic modules, the task categories of which were deemed to be consonant with either the intuitive or the analytic style of working. Overall ability defined by final degree grades was also tested against individuals' cognitive styles.

Results were analysed by dividing the sample of students into three groups on the basis of their cognitive style scores. These were designated low (intuitive), medium (integrated) or high (analytic) according to thresholds which were set to correspond to the 33rd and 66th percentile scores of the sample. Support for this approach can be found in the work of Agor (1984), who discusses three broad types of management style in decision making. He talks of the left brain types stressing the employment of analytical techniques. In the complementary style using right brain skills, he suggests that reliance is placed on feelings before facts when making decisions, where problems are solved by looking at the whole often with inadequate information or data at hand. A third style, he suggests, would be called integrated, employing both left and right brain skills interchangeably as the situation demands. Table I shows descriptive statistics and the results of a series of one-way analyses of variance tests for these three groups of individuals.

Table I about here.

As hypothesised, students whose dominant cognitive styles were analytic attained higher grades for tasks involving careful planning and analysis of information associated with the marketing planning unit. Whilst no significant differences were revealed for performance in a long term solitary task associated with a research dissertation unit between the analytic, integrative and intuitive student groupings, an effect was found when data were dichotomised. An independent samples "t" test revealed that analytic students from the academic sample achieved higher grades for their final year research projects (M = 10.30, SD = 3.07, n = 209) than intuitive students (M = 9.70, SD = 2.89, n = 192). The difference was significant (t = -2.05, p < .05). Once again this supports the research hypotheses. Contrary to expectations, performance on tasks associated with the Business Policy and Strategy unit of study, believed to be more suited to the intuitive style, was also higher for analytic individuals, as was overall ability defined by final degree grades.

A detailed literature review revealed evidence which suggests that cognitive style, in itself, is unlikely to be related to intelligence. Kirton (1978) and Riding & Pearson (1994) presented empirical evidence of this when they reported an orthogonal relationship between cognitive style and intellectual ability. Direct relationships which have been reported in the literature are likely to be due either to the use of cognitive style instruments which overlap style with spatial ability and therefore intelligence, or to inappropriate methods of assessing intelligence/ability which may favour one cognitive style over the other. With respect to the former, a cognitive style instrument was chosen for the present research that did not depend on spatial ability. With respect to the problem of using inappropriate measures of ability, this study has attempted to overcome this by deliberately choosing performance indicators which stem from subject areas believed to be consonant with (e.g. policy & strategy, planning, research) or in dissonance with (e.g. overall degree grades) particular cognitive styles. So why should students with analytic cognitive styles perform significantly better in the Policy and Strategy Unit and on overall ability defined by final degree grades? One variable that was not properly controlled was the method of assessment applied to these various units of study. This would have been difficult due to the fact that assessment methods were rigidly defined in course documentation, validated through formal university policies and procedures. The question of whether these assessment methods had an effect on the reported results, however, requires further consideration. This will be addressed in some detail during the symposium presentation.

If one considers that the overall results of this study appear to have demonstrated that analytic individuals are favoured over intuitive individuals in terms of their ability to achieve higher performance grades in Business and Management Studies, it may be argued that this leads to a potentially serious dilemma. This arises from the fact that organisations have a strong tendency in their graduate recruitment process to favour those with higher degree classifications. According to the findings of this study, this also reflects the degree to which these individuals are analytic rather than intuitive. But some authors (e.g. Mintzberg, 1989; Taggart et al, 1985; Simon, 1987) have argued that intuition is favoured over analysis where key managerial processes are involved. For example, Mintzberg (1989, p49) reports that:

'The key managerial processes are enormously complex and mysterious (to me as a researcher, as well as to the managers who carry them out), drawing on the vaguest of information and using the least articulated of mental processes. These processes seem to be more relational and holistic than ordered and sequential, more intuitive than intellectual; they seem, in other words, to be most characteristic of right-brain activity'.

This raises the important question of whether or not academic institutions are assessing the appropriate skills. If potential employers of Business and Management students are seeking to recruit graduates who possess, metaphorically speaking, these right brain skills, then existing methods of assessing the ability of Business and Management students might reasonably be questioned. It will be argued that the methods of assessment and the marking criteria for the units of study considered in the present research contain an orientation bias favouring individuals whose dominant cognitive styles are analytic. These assessment methods, typical of many Business Schools, are predominantly reliant on written assignment formats where assessment criteria are based on the expectation of systematic analysis and evaluation of information resulting in cogent, structured, and logically-flowing arguments. Although analytic students (who tend to prefer structured situations that are impersonal in nature) may prefer such methods, they are unlikely to be suited to intuitive students who tend to have a predominantly social orientation, favouring interpersonal situations that allow interaction (e.g. Armstrong, 1999a; Armstrong & Priola, 1999; Allinson, Armstrong, & Hayes, 1999). Many alternative and innovative forms of assessment are available which would appeal to this type of student and these too will be addressed during the symposium presentation. It will be further argued that if assessment methods cannot be devised which are totally independent of orientation bias, perhaps they can at least ensure that equal amounts of analysis and intuition are assessed during the learning process (a whole brain approach).

Whilst selecting instructional techniques most appropriate to the cognitive styles of learners has often been considered to be a positive step in optimising learning processes, matching the type of assessment with the cognitive needs of students has seldom been attempted. This is an important area for future research because if the actual assessment of ability is biased in favour of those able to use their analytical skills more effectively, then employment selection criteria based, for example, on degree classifications, may favour the wrong type of candidate in some circumstances.




Agor, W. H. (1984). Intuitive Management. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

Allinson, C. W. & Hayes, J. (1996). The Cognitive Style Index: A Measure of Intuition-Analysis for Organisational Research. Journal of Management Studies, 33, 1, 119-135.

Allinson, C. W., Armstrong, S. J. & Hayes, J. (1999). The effects of cognitive style on leader-member exchange: a study of manager-subordinate dyads. (Under review).

Armstrong, S. J., Allinson, C. W. & Hayes, J. (1999). Formal mentoring systems: an examination of the effects of mentor/protégé cognitive styles on the mentoring process. Paper presented to the Academy of Management Meeting, Careers Division (Aug). Chicago: Ill.

Armstrong, S. J. (1999a). Cognitive style and dyadic interaction: a study of supervisors and subordinates engaged in working relationships. Unpublished PhD thesis, Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds, Leeds.

Armstrong, S. J. & Priola, V. (1999). Individual cognitive styles and the composition of self-managing work-teams: an empirical study. (Under review).

Kirton, M. (1978). Have Adaptors and Innovators Equal Levels of Creativity? Psychological Reports, 42, 695-698.

Mintzberg, H. (1989). Mintzberg on Management. Macmillan Free Press: New York.

Riding, R. & Pearson, F. (1994). The Relationship between Cognitive Style and Intelligence. Educational Psychology, 14, 4.

Simon, H.A. (1989). Making management decisions: the role of intuition and emotion. In W.H. Agor (Ed.), Intuition in Organisations (pp. 23-39). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Taggart, W., Robey, D. & Kroeck, K. G. (1985). Managerial Decision Styles and Cerebral Dominance: an empirical study. Journal of Management Studies, 22, 2.


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