Cognitive Styles Theories


Cognitive Abilities Theories
Cognitive Skills Theories


Differences among how learners think

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … information
  • Knowing is … using information
  • Learner is … an information processor (brain)
  • Learning is … processing and storing
  • Teaching is … formatting information (to facilitate processing and retention)




Cognitive Styles Theories comprise dozens of perspectives and models that are concerned with different ways that individuals process and retain information. Almost always founded on a “brain as computer” metaphor, the most popular versions offer typologies and assessment tools to classify learners. Most tools are based on personality traits and behavioral habits. Cognitive Styles Theories also overlap with Learning Styles Theories and Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories on matters such as personal preferences and dispositions. A subset of Cognitive Styles Theories (sequenced chronologically by decade) includes:
  • DiSC Model of Behavior (W.M. Marston, 1920s) – behavior assessment tool centering on four personality traits: Dominance, influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness
  • Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (K.C. Myers, I. Briggs, 1920s) – assessment of 16 perceptual and decision-making types
  • Strong Interest Inventory (E.K. Strong, 1920s) ­­– career assessment tool based on inventory of interests
  • Abjective Check List (H.G. Gough, A.B. Heilbrun Jr., 1950s) – tool using adjectives to identify personality traits
  • FIRO-B (W. Schultz, 1950s) – measure of Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation – i.e., desired interaction based on three interpersonal needs: affection/openness, control and inclusion
  • Holland Codes (J.L. Holland, 1950s) – typology of careers and vocations based on personality types
  • Birkman Method (R. Birkman, 1960s) – assessment of personality, social perception, and occupational interest
  • Hudson’s Converger–Diverger Construct (L. Hudson, 1960s) – tool to differentiate convergent and divergent thinkers
  • Adaption–Innovation Theory (M. Kirton, 1970s) – continuum-based model of problem-solving preferences
  • Aptitude­–Treatment Interaction (L. Cronbach, R. Snow, 1970s) – a model of pedagogy, focused on matching the teacher’s practices to the learner’s aptitudes
  • Assimilator­–Explorer Style (G. Kaufmann, 1970s) – two problem-solving styles: assimilator, explorer
  • Brain Typing (J.P. Niednagel, 1970s) – frame using mental and motor skills to classify as one of 16 brain types
  • Enneagram of Personality (O. Ichazo, C. Naranjo, 1970s) – typology of nine interconnected personality types
  • Forté Communication Style Profile (C.D. Morgan, 1970s) – measure of one’s natural communication style
  • Hill’s Cognitive Style Inventory (J.S. Hill 1970s) – assessment of how one searches for meaning
  • Impulsivity–Reflexivity (J. Kagan, 1970s) – two styles: cognitive impulsive, cognitive reflective
  • NEO Personality Inventory (P. Costa, R. McCrae, 1970s) – assessment of one’s “Big Five” personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness
  • Personality Assessment System (J.W. Gittinger, 1970s) – descriptive model of personality
  • Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (D.R. Riso, R. Hudson, 1970s) – personality measurement indicator
  • Socionics (Aušra Augustinavičiūtė, 1970s) – model of personality type based on eight psychic functions)
  • Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Model Instrument (R.H. Thomas, K.W. Kilmann, 1970s) – tool measuring one’s response to conflict
  • Cognitive Style Delineator (C.A. Letteri, 1980s) – three types of cognitive style: reflective and analytic, impulsive and global, and midway between them
  • Cognitive Style Analysis (R.R. Riding, 1980s) – assessment of how one organizes and structures information
  • Cognitive Style Index (C.W. Allinson, J. Hayes, 1990s) – measure of left-brain/right-brain preference
  • Left-Brain/Right-Brain Theory (R. Ornstein, 1990s) – perspective that the brain’s left hemisphere is the seat of analytical/logical/Western ways of thinking and right hemisphere is seat of intuitive/emotional/Eastern ways of thinking
  • Whole-Brain Human Information Processing Theory (W. Taggart, 1990s) – classifies six specialized brain divisions
  • Jungian Type Index (T. Ødegård, H.E. Ringstad, 2000s) – test of individual usage/preference of psychological functions
  • ActivateTM (B.E. Wexler & C8 Sciences Inc., 2010s) – commercial model of learning based on eight core cognitive capacities, focused on brain training
  • Visual Thinking (a.k.a. Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking) is properly included among Cognitive Styles Theories. It is grounded on the notion that some people prefer using mental imagery (versus, e.g., words or logic) as their principal or exclusive mode of thought.


Cognitive Styles Theories are among the best illustrations of how difficult it can be to be mindful of one’s own beliefs about knowledge, learning, and teaching. Popularly regarded as a theories of learners and/or learning, they operate in ignorance of their own assumptions on these phenomena. Rather, they ride atop uncritical and unsubstantiated theories in which the brain is seen as a computer and thinking seen as information processing (e.g., Cognitivism and Computationalism). Among the more damning criticisms of Cognitive Styles Theories are (1) defining individuals in terms of a few dimensions of personality may become self-fulfilling prophecies, and (2) catering to identified habits of thinking may accelerate the atrophying of already-underdeveloped competencies, traits, or preferences.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Styles Theories are focused on delineating differences among individuals, rather than being concerned with better understanding the phenomenon of learning – and thus, for the most part, varied perspectives maintain uninterrogated and unscientific assumptions about the complex dynamics of learning. That is, for the most part, they are not theories of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

In the formal-education community, Cognitive Styles Theories and Learning Styles Theories have been most broadly and enthusiastically embraced among those directly responsible for providing in-service experiences for teachers. Thus, while it is rare to encounter a session on Cognitive Styles Theories or Learning Styles Theories in an educational research conference, such sessions are commonplace at teachers’ conventions. From that observation, combined with the recognition that these theories rarely interrogate the actual dynamics of learning, it seems reasonable to assume that they are for the most part better categorized as theories of teaching – and unsubstantiated ones at that.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Few Cognitive Styles Theories meet the requirements of a scientific theory. While many claim rigorous methodological stands and substantial evidence bases, decades of effort to generate empirical evidence to show their utility for improving learning have come up short.


  • Abjective Check List
  • Activate
  • Adaption–Innovation Theory
  • Aptitude–Treatment Interaction
  • Assimilator–Explorer Style
  • Birkman Method
  • Brain Typing
  • Cognitive Style Analysis
  • Cognitive Style Delineator
  • Cognitive Style Index
  • DiSC Model of Behavior
  • Enneagram of Personality
  • FIRO-B
  • Forté Communication Style Profile
  • Hill’s Cognitive Style Inventory
  • Holland Codes
  • Hudson’s Converger–Diverger Construct
  • Impulsivity–Reflexivity
  • Jungian Type Index
  • Left-Brain/Right-Brain Theory
  • Myers–Briggs Type Indicator
  • NEO Personality Inventory
  • Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator
  • Strong Interest Inventory
  • Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Model
  • Visual Thinking (a.k.a. Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking)
  • Whole-Brain Human Information Processing

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Cognitive Styles Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List