Role and importance of cognitive styles
Cognitive styles can be seen as an application of cognitive abilities that have developed in a person, and are “preferred or habitual patterns of mental functioning” (Oxford, Holloway and Horton-Murillo, 1992, p.440). Cognitive styles are typical tendencies that influence how a person perceives his/her surroundings and makes sense of the world, serving as a basis for how the person gathers, organises and processes information when learning.
Applied to a classroom situation, this means that if content and learning materials are presented in a way that is at odds with an individual’s cognitive style, the individual may not be able to gather, organise and process the information in an effective way and this may “affect students’ learning potential and their attitudes toward English and toward learning in general” (Oxford et al., 1992, p.439). Cognitive style appears to be a relatively stable trait within an individual that is connected to their personality (Brown, 2000) and may also have a cultural component (Cook, 2001).
Positive effects of knowledge of cognitive styles
There are three main aspects as to how a knowledge of learners’ cognitive styles can assist a teacher to be effective in the classroom.
To avoid possible conflicts and enhance classroom relations and teacher-student rapport, the teacher has to be aware of his/her own cognitive style and how this may be reflected in his/her teaching style and “try to ‘overcome’ their own style tendencies because of the students’ needs” (Oxford et al., 1992, p.450) by consciously planning for the inclusion of different styles within the holistic-analytic and verbal-imagery dimensions.
It is important not just for a teacher to know her own style and the preferred styles of learners, but also for learners to develop an increased awareness of both ‘their style’, and alternative styles. This can lead them to:
· Take more responsibility for their learning through:
o Understanding and applying the learning strategies best suited to them (e.g. a visual learner producing vocabulary cards with pictures and words)
o Trying to use non-preferred styles that may be appropriate in certain situations (e.g. ‘levellers’ paying particular attention to word order or the different use of synonyms, ‘reflectives’ working on being more spontaneous in conversations and brainstorming tasks)
· Be aware of and accept differences in peers and teachers enabling them to:
o Learn from each other
o Work cooperatively and inclusively
o Reconsider when ‘failure’ can be attributable to a dissonance between their learning style and the teacher’s teaching style.
Knowing the different cognitive styles of learners gives teachers the opportunity to increase classroom efficiency by presenting material in many different ways, in order “to offer a myriad of multisensory, abstract and concrete learning activities that meet the needs of many different learning styles” (Oxford et al., 1992, p.452). It is an aspect of a teacher’s responsibility to “modify the learning task they use in their classes in a way that may bring the best out of particular learners with particular learning styles” (Cohen and Dörnyei, 2002, p.176),
In analysing my own cognitive style, I tend to be process information visually and verbally, sharpen rather than level information, construct knowledge in a holistic type way, and alternate between analytic and relational type conceptualisation of information. So, in the classroom, I need to be aware, for example, of a tendency to analyse language beyond the point of usefulness to learners, and of an over-reliance on verbal processing, when a picture, diagram, or mindmap may be of more use. (In a recent dictagloss activity, a group of learners asked if they could draw the information and speak about their drawing, rather than write out a written composition; when they completed the task, I could see that their comprehension and language production was excellent, which I may not have seen if I had insisted on a written composition as I have done in the past.) When I am in relational mode, I can jump too quickly between tangentially related ideas meaning that I lose the understanding and attention of learners who need a sequential and serialist approach. Over time, I have also come to see the benefits of incorporating plenty of activities that cater for a haptic style of learning which I tend to avoid for myself. Although a haptic style is mainly associated with children and generally thought to become less important with age, Reid’s (1987) cross-cultural study (cited in Oxford et al., 1992, p.445) found that many ESL students, particularly “Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Thai students”, show a tendency for this style. Therefore ‘hands on’ activities such as singing, dancing, drama, games, creative arts, and ‘reality-like’ tasks, are a valuable addition to what can often be the predominantly visual and auditory verbal activities of the adult learner classroom.
Although it is important to provide classroom activities within a learner’s learning style, it is also necessary to help students explore other learning styles, thus promoting flexibility and opportunities for success in tasks and in contexts for which their preferred style is not naturally suited. Once students have developed some awareness of their own style, I sometimes work with them on analysing a task’s demands in order to decide what aspects of their cognitive style need to be ‘forged’ or ‘tethered’ (concepts borrowed from Johnston, 1996). For example, students who are analytic and reflective may prefer “highly structured, deductive classes with frequent corrections of small details” (Oxford et al., 1992, p.443). However, this approach will not be beneficial when brought to tasks of indeterminate structure and requiring spontaneity, such as initiating and maintaining a conversation. In this situation, I encourage learners to develop tether strategies such as “Don’t try to understand every word” and forge strategies “Listen to the key stressed words to help you get the general meaning”/ “Nod and pretend you understand even if you’re not sure” which they can then evaluate for effectiveness. Further, if all students are aware that all cognitive styles have their strengths and limitations, they can work together cooperatively to encourage and assist each other. For example, in the example above, pairing the reflective student with a student who prefers active experimentation can help if the latter is aware of and supportive of efforts of the former to modify their natural style.
In conclusion, knowledge and awareness of cognitive style is most effective when it provides opportunities for ongoing dialogue between teacher-student and student-student regarding the most effective ways for learning.
Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching (4th ed.). White Plains,
NY: Addison, Wesley, Longman, Inc.
Cohen, A. D., & Dörnyei, Z. (2002). Focus on the language learner: Motivation, styles, and strategies. In N. Schmitt (Ed.), An introduction to applied linguistics (pp. 170-190). London: Arnold.
Cook, V. (2001). Second language learning and language teaching. (3rd ed.). London: Arnold.
Johnston, C. (1996). Unlocking the will to learn. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.
Oxford, R.L., Hollaway, M.E., & Horton-Murillo, D. (1992). Language learning styles: research and practical considerations for teaching the multicultural tertiary ESL/EFL classroom. System, 20 (4), pp. 439 – 456.