Traditionally, many psychologists and educators have believed that people's successes and failures are attributable mainly to individual differences in abilities. For the past few decades, however, investigators have been studying the roles of thinking, learning, and cognitive styles in performance with both academic and nonacademic settings. Although these three kinds of styles may be viewed as overlapping historically, they have been conceptualized in different ways. Consider, for example, a topic in school such as the Civil War in the United States.
Learning styles might be used to characterize how one prefers to learn about the Civil War. Would one rather learn about it visually (by reading) or auditorily (by lectures)? Or perhaps one would prefer an active form of learning (simulating it) versus a passive form (reading or listening to material about it).
Thinking styles might be used to characterize how one prefers to think about material as one is learning it or after one already knows it. For example, would one rather think about global issues or local issues? Would one prefer to evaluate what one has learned or to go beyond what one has learned?
Cognitive styles might be used to characterize ways of cognizing the information. For example, does one tend to be a splitter, seeing each battle as a distinct entity, or as a lumper, viewing many or all of the battles as similar acts of war? Does one tend to be impulsive in jumping to conclusions about the war or to be reflective? The cognitive styles tend to be closer to personality than are the other types of styles.
In general, abilities refer to things one can do, such as to execute skills or skill combinations (strategies). Styles refer to preferences in the use of abilities. For example, in one theory (Witkin, Dyk, Faterson, Goodenough, & Karp, 1962), people with a field-dependent style tend to be unable to separate things to which they attend from the context in which they attend to these things, where people with a field-dependent style are able to make