Implications of Students' Cognitive Styles for the Development of Argumentation Skills

Article excerpt

Increasingly, educators are becoming aware of the need to adapt their pedagogical strategies to students' learning preferences in order to foster an equitable learning environment. Decades of research vividly demonstrate that students learn in different ways. For example, research suggests that some students find learning easier if they have a visual representation or can touch and manipulate objects; others like to be given information verbally. While some students focus on details, others attend to more global characteristics (Ramirez, 1989). How individuals perceive, organize, and remember such information is a function of their cognitive style. Extant research indicates that cognitive styles influence how students learn, how teachers teach, and how teachers and students interact in the classroom (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977).

Recently, scholars have begun to utilize cognitive style research to assess pedagogical practices in the communication discipline. In particular, researchers have questioned whether courses in the discipline favor some cognitive styles at the expense of others (Nance & Foeman, 1993). This is an especially salient issue in the context of argumentation pedagogy. The practice of debate requires critical, logical, and linear thought (Hunt, 1995, 1997; Hunt & Simerly, 1999). It seems reasonable that emphasis on logical and analytical cognition in argumentation and debate courses privileges ways of processing, relating to, retaining, and communicating information (Hunt & Meyer, 2004). As a result, students whose cognitive styles mismatch those privileged in such courses may find themselves at risk of academic failure. Argumentation and critical thinking training also has become a significant focus in both general education (Halpern, 2001) and basic communication courses (Morreale, Hanna, Berko, & Gibson, 1999). Communication educators should become better informed about teaching strategies that may facilitate the academic success of students whose ways of learning may mismatch traditional argumentation pedagogy. To that end, this essay explores the communicative manifestations of students' cognitive styles as well as the match and mismatch of instructional strategies and students' cognitive styles in the argumentation and debate course.


Cognitive styles represent the characteristic ways in which individuals conceptually organize their environment (Goldstein & Blackman, 1978). Shade (1982) claims that cognitive styles account for individual preferences in various cognitive, perceptual, and personality dimensions that influence differences in information processing. Cognitive styles also are related to personality. Jonassen and Grabowski (1993) argue that the "ways in which we interact with information is reflective of the ways in which we interact with each other through our personality" (p. 173). In sum, cognitive styles are characteristic modes that can be observed in an individual's perceptual or intellectual activities; they constitute stable, self-consistent forms of adaptation, and they develop a relationship between cognitive and personal/affective spheres (Tinajero & Paramo, 1998).

Although many approaches to the study of cognitive style exist (e.g., authoritarianism, dogmatism, cognitive complexity, integrative complexity), this essay is grounded in the work of Herman Witkin. Witkin (1978) examines cognitive style in relation to an individual's tendency toward more or less differentiated psychological functioning. Thought based on increased differentiation is field independent (FI), while field dependent (FD) thought is based on lower levels of differentiation (Pithers, 2002). Field independence, therefore, involves differentiated and analytical thinking, rather than diffuse and global thinking (Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey, & Chua, 1988). In the classroom, both the instructor's and students' cognitive styles contribute to the learning environment and affect learning outcomes. …


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