Academic journal article Global Perspectives on Accounting Education

Does Cognitive Style Affect Performance on Accounting Examination Questions?

Academic journal article Global Perspectives on Accounting Education

Does Cognitive Style Affect Performance on Accounting Examination Questions?

Article excerpt


We investigate effects of cognitive style (field dependency) on performance on examination questions that differ in terms of contextual familiarity and degree of structure. We find that field independent students perform significantly better solving unfamiliar questions than do field dependent students, but possess no significant advantage over field dependent students when solving familiar questions, as supported by theory. For unstructured questions, we found no significant performance difference between field dependent and independent students, consistent with the inconclusive nature of current research findings. For structured questions, we found that field independent students performed significantly better than their field dependent counterparts. These results will help educators understand the role of cognitive style on students' ability to function in unfamiliar settings, which is one of the recommendations of the Accounting Education Change Commission.

Key words: Cognitive style, field dependence, performance, structured, familiar, examination.

Data availability: Data is available from the authors upon request.


The reasons why some students perform better on different types of examination questions has long intrigued educators. Theories have been put forward to explain why some students will perform better on questions that are "directed" versus "undirected," "structured" versus "unstructured," or "familiar" versus "unfamiliar." In the present study, we are interested in how students perform when faced with accounting examination questions that differ not only in their degree of structure, but also in their context familiarity. By degree of structure, we mean the degree to which the task requirement(s) are spelt out in the question (where an unstructured question would require the student to identify the issues and steps necessary for the solution). By context familiarity, we mean whether the student is likely to recognize the specific accounting situation or not, given that the requisite skills to solve the problem had been taught previously. We investigate whether students' cognitive style affects their performance in examinations that include these question types. Cognitive style, which is examined more completely later, is the way individuals prefer to receive and process information, which in turn affects the way they conceptualize, store, and retrieve information.

Early attempts to illuminate these cognitive issues in an accounting setting can be found in the literature of the late 1970s and early 1980s. For example, Shute (1979) investigated student performance on CPA exam questions using a measure of "abstract reasoning" developed by Inhelder and Piaget (1958). He found that students having higher reasoning skills (classified as "formaloperational") performed better than those with lower reasoning skills (classified as "concreteoperational") when faced with both questions that required higher reasoning skills and those requiring more concrete (lower reasoning) skills. The terms formal- and concrete-operational were used by Inhelder and Piaget to describe the complexity of a person's cognitive structures. A concrete-operational person is oriented toward the relatively concrete realities of the world and is generally unable to consider abstract concepts that depart from that reality. Additionally, the ability to perform certain types of logical operations such as hypothesis reasoning, operations of propositional logic, and reasoning about contrary-to-fact situations, is limited in concreteoperational people. Those who have attained the highest level, called formal-operational, are able to understand concepts that depart from concrete reality, and reasoning is no longer limited to extrapolations from sensory experience. They are able to think of many different possibilities and think of what is observed as a special case of the possible (Inhelder and Piaget, 1958). …

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