Ability, thinking style and academic performance

iStock_000001028732XSmallA recent study by researchers at Yale University implies that thinking styles affect how well students perform in school – specifically, how well students perform on different types of assessments. Elena Grigorenko and Robert L. Sternberg conducted a study of 199 gifted high-school students enrolled in the Yale Summer School Program. They conclude that “after controlling for levels of abilities, styles of thinking significantly contribute to prediction of academic performance.”

A student’s ability level is a major predictor of her school success. Yet abilities are not completely responsible for school performance. Researchers have been studying the style of students’ thinking, perceiving, problem solving and remembering to determine its contribution to achievement in school.

A style of thinking is a preferred way of thinking, a tendency to use abilities in a certain way. People use different thinking styles on different kinds of tasks, and thinking styles can change as we grow up and age. No style is inherently good or bad, but some are more beneficial than others in certain situations or for particular tasks.

According to Grigorenko and Sternberg, styles can be described as legislative (a preference for creating and planning activities), executive (preference for implementing and doing) or judicial (preference for judging, evaluating and comparing).

In addition to the types of preferred activity, people generally like to think either globally (large abstractions) or locally (concrete specifics), and either in innovative ways or traditional. Individuals also differ in the way they prefer to focus: to single-mindedly pursue one goal, to work on prioritized or equally important multiple goals, or to be unstructured in their approach to a task.

In addition to thinking style, researchers theorize about different kinds of ability and its relationship to academic achievement. Sternberg’s triarchic model of intelligence distinguishes three kinds of intellectual giftedness: analytic, creative and practical.

The analytically gifted are strong in analyzing, evaluating and critiquing; the creatively gifted are good at discovering, creating, and inventing; and the practically gifted excel in implementing, utilizing and applying.

The purpose of Grigorenko and Sternberg’s study was to investigate the relationship between different types of abilities and different thinking styles, and their effect on academic performance. Thirteen- to sixteen-year-old high school students were divided into five groups for their four-week summer psychology course. Students were defined as exhibiting either:

  • a high level of analytical ability,
  • high creative ability,
  • high practical ability,
  • balanced abilities, or
  • lack of giftedness (they scored below the group average for all three abilities).

During the intensive college-level summer course, students read text, listened to a lecture series and attended afternoon sessions. There were four types of afternoon sessions, in which leaders emphasized different skills: memory (traditional), analytical thinking, creative thinking or practical thinking. The students were divided into groups so that all groups had close to equal numbers of students showing each of the five ability patterns. Thus, some students were placed in groups that matched their abilities, while the remaining students were mismatched.

These researchers found that thinking styles predict school success. Students were viewed by their teachers as achieving higher levels when the students’ profile of styles matched those of their teachers. Teachers appear to value more highly students who are stylistically similar to themselves. All students received identical kinds of assessments: two major exams that involved tasks testing analytical skills (compare Freud’s theory of dreaming to Jung’s), creative skills (design an experiment to test a theory of dreaming), and practical skills (discuss the implications of Jung’s theory of dreaming for your life).


In summary, a variety of styles are associated with high levels of ability. Certain thinking styles, however, contribute significantly to the predictions of academic performance. Whether the type of instruction students were given matched their style, did not affect their performance. But students with particular thinking styles do better in some forms of evaluation than in others. For example, the judicial style (judging, evaluating and comparing) predicted better academic performance. They found no difference in profiles of styles in girls versus boys, and there were no direct links between styles and abilities.

In conclusion, students’ performance was associated not only with their levels and types of ability, but also with at least three thinking styles (executive, legislative and judicial). In this short, four-week course, the type of instruction did not appear to have a significant impact on student performance. However, different types of evaluation benefited some students more than others. Written examinations were beneficial for judicial thinkers, whereas final projects favored legislative thinkers and disadvantaged executive thinkers. These results clearly suggest that different types of assessment benefit different types of thinkers. Grigorenko and Sternberg stress, therefore, that thinking styles do matter. The diversity of styles among students implies that students need a variety of assessments to maximize and reveal the extent of their talents and achievements.

“Styles of Thinking, Abilities, and Academic Performance”, Exceptional Children, Volume 63, Number 3, Spring 1997,pp. 295-312.

Published in ERN May/June 1997 Volume 1o Number 3.

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