The implications of cognitive style for management education & development: some evidence from the Uk

Eugene Sadler-Smith, University of Plymouth Business School, Plymouth, UK and Richard Riding, Assessment Research Unit, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK



Cognitive style may be described as individual differences in habitual modes of organising and processing information in memory. It has been described as the link between personality and cognition (Sternberg and Grigorenko, 1997) and a missing piece in the jig saw of understanding the self (Riding and Rayner, 1998). Many dimensions of style have been identified. Riding and Cheema (1991) in a review of the literature identified over thirty different style labels and suggested a higher order classification of the various constructs into two style families, the wholist-analytical and the verbaliser-imager dimensions. It is argued that these dimensions of cognitive style are fundamental in that they develop early in life and are pervasive in that they affect social behaviour, decision making and learning behaviour. It is the aim of this presentation to consider the implications of the wholist-analytical and verbaliser-imager dimensions of cognitive style for management education and development and to argue that the time has come to utilise fully the notion of style in the education and development of managers in the 21st century.

The verbaliser-imager and wholist-analytical dimensions of style may be assessed using the computer presented Cognitive Styles Analysis (CSA) (Riding, 1994) which avoids biases associated with self-report measures. Riding, Glass, Butler and Pleydell-Pearce (1997) presented evidence which suggest a neurological basis for style and indicate a clear distinction between the two style dimensions in terms of brain functioning. At a practical level style may exert an influence over learning behaviour in a number of ways: (i) by interacting with the mode or structure of the presentation of information; (ii) by influencing an individual's propensity to engage in particular types of learning behaviour (learning preferences); (iii) through using an awareness of individual's personal styles as a basis for meta-cognitive awareness (learning strategy development). The presentation will consider each of these in turn.

Interaction with Mode and Structure of Presentation

In designing learning materials there is often the assumption that learners will all process and organise information in similar ways. However, mode of presentation may interact with the verbal-imagery dimension of style; put simply it is argued that, in general, a verbaliser will learn better from textual information whereas imagers will learn better from pictorial information. In each case the processing load is minimised since the mode of presentation is congruent with the individual's habitual mode. Structure or organisation of the contents of instruction may interact with the wholist-analytical dimension of style. In this situation individuals are likely to benefit from an instructional design which minimises the processing load by, for example using an overview or summary which gives an analytic individual (who may not see the 'wood for the trees') a 'whole view' or by providing an organiser which shows the wholist individual (who may not see the 'trees for the wood') the structure of the material in terms of its component parts and their inter-relationships. Riding and Douglas (1993) found that a text-plus-picture mode in computer-based instruction was more effective in facilitating the learning of individuals with an imager style than was a test-plus-text mode. Riding and Sadler-Smith (1992) investigated the interaction between mode of presentation and style in their effect upon learning performance. Their study employed computer-based instructional materials in varieties of modes of presentation (verbal or visual) and organisation of contents of instruction (step size and absence or presence of advance organiser). They concluded that mode of presentation and type of advance organiser have important effects upon learning performance.


Proposition I: management education and development will benefit from: (i) adopting a variety of modes of presentation which will enable individuals to process information in their habitual modes (i.e. visual or verbal); (ii) using instructional devices (overviews, summaries and different types of advance organisers) which compensate for the weaknesses of individuals' habitual modes of organising and structuring information in memory.

Learning Preferences

Since style exerts an influence upon learning behaviours it is likely to affect the degree to which individuals will engage in particular types of learning. For example, since visual presentation of information is likely to impose a lesser processing load upon individuals with a imagery style such individuals are likely to prefer pictorial modes over textual ones. Riding and Watts (1997) investigated individuals' preferences for different varieties of printed instructional materials. They found that verbalisers tended to select 'verbal' materials whilst wholist 'imagers' tended to select a pictorial version. Sadler-Smith and Riding (1999) investigated the relationship between learners' cognitive styles and their instructional preferences. The sample consisted of 245 Business Studies students at a UK university. Subjects' cognitive styles were assessed using the Cognitive Styles Analysis (which assesses the wholist-analytical and verbaliser-imager dimensions of style) and their instructional preferences assessed using an Instructional Preferences Inventory which consisted of three sub-inventories (instructional method, instructional media and assessment method). There was a significant main effect of wholist-analytical style on collaborative method preference (role play, group discussions and business games) and non-print based media preference (overhead transparencies, slides and videos). There was an interaction of the two dimensions of style and gender in their effect on informal assessment method preferences (individual and group assignments and multiple choice and short answer-type questions).


Proposition II: management education and development should recognise that individuals' learning preferences are likely to vary as a result of cognitive style and that this diversity should be acknowledged and accommodated by practitioners through the use of a variety of instructional methods.


Learning Strategy Development

Riding and Sadler-Smith (1997) argued that individuals may not be able to change their cognitive styles but they can develop strategies to make themselves as effective as possible in a range of learning situations (and not just those which happen to be congruent with their style). It is proposed that there are three stages of learning strategy development: (i) sensing and preferring (individuals assess the extent to which they feel comfortable with a particular learning situation); (ii) selecting (though experience and self-knowledge) individuals become increasing aware of what types of learning best suits them; (iii) strategy development: individuals may translate (recasting information into a form which matches their style), adapt (press into service one dimension of style to make up for the weaknesses of the other) and reduce processing load (by using a strategy that economises of processing load, e.g. selective scanning of a text by an imager). A knowledge of one's own style is an important first step in becoming meta-cognitively aware and learning how to learn.

Proposition III: management education and development should use the notion of style and its assessment in order to encourage self awareness and hence facilitate learning strategy development.



The accommodation of cognitive style into management education and development has the potential to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of learning, help in identifying learning difficulties and improve the performance of individuals in organisations. Educators and management development practitioners have a crucial role to play in the accommodation of cognitive style and the facilitation of learning-strategy development thus enabling individuals to become more effective as self-directed, life-long learners.


Keywords: cognitive style; learning strategy; management development



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Sternberg, RJ. and Grigorenko, EL. (1997). Are cognitive styles still in style? American Psychologist, July 1997, pp.700-712


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