Cognitive Styles Theories


Cognitive Abilities Theories
Cognitive Skills Theories
Thinking Styles


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 the Medical Model of (Dis)Ability on matters such as personal preferences and dispositions. To appreciate how Cognitive Styles Theories are related to Learning Styles Theories, it is useful to be aware of how Cognitive Processes are understood within Brain-as-Computer Discourses:
  • Cognitive Processes – founded on a brain-as-computer metaphor, mind-based actions and events that are associated with the manipulation of information, such as combining ideas or extrapolating from data. Within this frame, such aspects of human thought are distinguished from “learning processes” – that is, the inputting and storage of information.
A subset of Cognitive Styles Theories (sequenced chronologically by decade) includes:
  • Concrete Attitude vs. Abstract Attitude (Categorical Attitude) (Kurt Goldstein, 1940s) – a contrast between a cognitive style oriented to specific objects and stimuli that are immediately present and a cognitive style oriented to features that can be meaningful across experiences (e.g., essential qualities, generalized principles, common elements) that enable one to imagine possibilities for other locations and other times.
  • 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
  • Assimilator­–Explorer Style (G. Kaufmann, 1970s) – two problem-solving styles: assimilator, explorer
  • Brain Typing® (Brain Types®) (J.P. Niednagel, 1970s) – commercialized frame using mental and motor skills to classify as one of 16 brain types, each identified by four letters (where one letter is drawn from each of four pairs: Front-Brain/Back-Brain; Conceptual/Empirical; Animate/Inanimate; Left-Brain/Right-Brain)
  • Forté Communication Style Profile (C.D. Morgan, 1970s) – measure of one’s natural communication style
  • 4MAT System (Bernice McCarthy, 1970s) – a model of preferred thinking modes based on two aspects of brain structures, focused on Perceiving (dominated by either limbic system, so action and emotion oriented, or cerebral cortex, so giving to thought and reflection) and Processing (dominated by either right brain, hence creative, or left brain, hence logical). Four thinking types are posited: Innovative/Imaginative; Analytic; Common Sense; Dynamic.
  • Hill’s Cognitive Style Inventory (J.S. Hill, 1970s) – assessment of how one searches for meaning
  • Impulsivity–Reflexivity (Cognitive Tempo; Response Tempo) (J. Kagan, 1970s) – two styles of responding to prompts: cognitive impulsive (quickly, with errors), cognitive reflective (slowly and carefully)
  • 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
  • Mental Self-Government (Robert Sternberg, 1980s) – a Cognitive Styles Discourse that identifies five dimensions: Governmental (planning, implementing, or evaluating); Problem-Solving (single goal, multiple ranked goals, multiple non-ranked goals, or random-unstructured); Span (global-abstract or local-concrete); Mode (introverted-independent or extroverted-collaborative); Orientation (rule-based conservative or change-oriented progressive
  • Cognitive Style Index (C.W. Allinson, J. Hayes, 1990s) – measure of left-brain/right-brain preference
  • Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument® (Whole Brain® Thinking) (William Herrmann, 1990s) – a 116-item instrument used to describe and diagnose four modes of thinking: Analytical; Sequential; Interpersonal; Imaginative. The associated theory assumes brain modularity (see Modularity of Mind), and the model is business-focused and designed to provide advice on improving personal, team, and organizational functioning.
  • Left-Brain/Right-Brain Theory (Hemispheric Dominance; Lateral Dominance) (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 (contrast: Hemispheric Lateralization, under Neuroplasticity)
  • Whole-Brain Human Information Processing Theory (W. Taggart, 1990s) – classifies six specialized brain divisions: left frontal (planning); left hemisphere (logic); reptilian (ritual); right frontal (vision); right hemisphere (insight), limbic (feeling)
  • Visual Thinking (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.


  • Adaption–Innovation Theory
  • Assimilator–Explorer Style
  • Brain Typing
  • Cognitive Style Analysis
  • Cognitive Style Delineator
  • Cognitive Style Index
  • Concrete Attitude vs. Abstract Attitude (Categorical Attitude)
  • Forté Communication Style Profile
  • 4MAT System
  • Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (Whole Brain® Thinking)
  • Hill’s Cognitive Style Inventory
  • Hudson’s Converger–Diverger Construct
  • Impulsivity–Reflexivity (Cognitive Tempo; Response Tempo)
  • Left-Brain/Right-Brain Theory (Hemispheric Dominance; Lateral Dominance)
  • Mental Self-Government
  • Visual Thinking (Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking)
  • Whole-Brain Human Information Processing

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Cognitive Styles Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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