Individual Differences in Cognitive Styles

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

Individuals report consistent proclivities for learning and thinking in visual or verbal formats. To date, no compelling evidence has substantiated the claim that tailoring instruction to these cognitive styles has any benefit on learning. This lack of evidence raises the question of what, if anything, do these preferences predict? This proposal is aimed at conducting basic research using the tools of cognitive neuroscience to elucidate correlations between self-reported visual and verbal cognitive style preferences and cognitive attributes important for education, such as intelligence, learning, and memory.


This project is located at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Research Design: 

This is a multi-experiment study that includes both descriptive and experimental designs. This project collects original data using self-report assessments (self-completion questionnaires and structured interviewer-administered questionnaires) and several potential correlates of significance to cognitive science and education that include behavioral tests and neuroimaging. Behavioral tests include intelligence tests, memory tests, and spatial navigation tests. Neuroimaging (fMRI) data provide insight into the cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with specific strategies used to complete the tasks. Finally, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) allows for transient disruption of targeted brain regions to further test the relationship between specific brain areas and individual differences in processing associated with visual and verbal cognitive styles.


Contrary to a prevalent learning styles hypothesis, our findings indicate that what best characterizes a self-reported 'visual thinker' is not that this individual learns better with pictures and worse with words, but rather that when presented with words or pictures this person tends to generate a mental image to help with later recollection or reasoning. Similarly, 'verbal thinkers' appear to mentally label pictures that they encounter. Surprisingly, this dual coding actually affords an advantage to verbal strategies in some visual tasks, consistent with Paivio’s earlier theories. Moreover, some of our findings suggest that these verbal strategies may be useful even for visual thinkers. Future studies can test if a valid approach would be to teach students to study certain topics using strategies they would not normally employ.