Thinking and Learning Styles

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Thinking and Learning Styles

Men suffer from thinking more than anything else. (Leo Tolstoy, Sevastopol, 1890)

The human mind tends always and everywhere to think alike. (J.S. Lincoln, The Dream in the Primitive Society, 1935)

How can I know what I think till I see what I say. (G. Wallis, The Art of Thought, 1945)

Psychologists have identified Thinking Styles (sometimes called Cognitive Styles) as well as Learning styles. Thinking/cognitive styles, are ways of thinking, while learning styles are ways of absorbing knowledge.

The word ’styles’ seems to imply a number of things. First, that styles seem relatively superficial at least in the sense that they can be readily observed. Second, that the acquisition of a style is relatively simple and voluntaristic. Third, that styles may have an evaluative component to them in the sense that some are ’better’, more appropriate or more desirable than others.

We know people have different strategies of, or preferences for, styles of learning as a function of their personality.

• Reward enhances the performance of extraverts more than introverts, whereas punishment impairs the performance of introverts more than extraverts.

• Introverts are more susceptible than extraverts to distraction.

• Introverts are more affected than extraverts by response competition.

• Introverts take longer than extraverts to retrieve information from long-term or permanent storage, especially non-dominant information.

• Introverts have higher response criteria than extraverts.

• Extraverts show better retention-test performance than introverts at short retention intervals, but the opposite happens at long retention intervals.


The theory that has received most attention in the management literature is that of Kolb. His model combines the two bipolar dimensions of cognitive growth: the active—reflective dimension and the abstract—concrete dimension. The first ranges from direct participation to detached observation, and the second ranges from dealing with tangible objects to dealing with theoretical concepts. Kolb defined a four-stage cycle of learning: it begins with the acquisition of concrete experience ( CE ), which gives way to reflective observation (RO) on that experience. The theory-building, or abstract conceptualization (AC), then occurs, which is then put to the test through active experimentation (AE). The cycle thus recommences, since the experimentation itself yields new concrete experiences.

Kolb classified learning styles according to a fourfold taxonomy based on the two cognitive dimensions:

divergers reflect on specific experiences from various different perspectives.

assimilators develop a theoretical framework on the basis of that reflection.

convergers test the theory in practice.

accommodators use the results of that testing as a basis for new learning.

In Kolb’s model, individuals prefer to gather information either through concrete experience (CE) or abstract conceptualization (AC), and they prefer to process that information either through reflective observation (RO) or active experimentation (AE). CE includes affective learning skills, while RO involves perceptual learning skills. Four learning-style categories are possible, based upon how a person combines preferences in gathering and processing information. Accommodators combine CE and AE; divergers combine CE and RO; assimilators combine RO and AC; and convergers combine AC and AE.


Over the years many styles have been described, though there is clearly much similarity between them. One obvious theme is the fast, superficial, abstract style vs. the slower, more detailed styles.

There are hundreds of papers in this area but little agreement as to which style works best and when.




Individual dependency on a perceptual field when analysing a structure or form which is part of the field.


A tendency to assimilate detail rapidly and lose detail or emphasize detail and changes in new information.


Tendency for quick, as opposed to a deliberate, response.

Divergent-convergent thinking

Narrow, focused, logical, deductive thinking rather than broad, open-ended, associational thinking to solve problems.

Holistic-serial thinking

The tendency to work through learning tasks or problem-solving incrementally or globally and assimilate detail.

Concrete random- concrete sequential

The learner learns through experience, concrete and abstraction either randomly or sequentially.


Individual preferences for seeking familiarity or novelty in the process of problem-solving and creativity.


Adaptors prefer conventional, established procedures and innovators restructuring or new perspectives in problem-solving.

Intuitive Analytic

Preference for developing understanding through reasoning and or by spontaneity or insight and learning activity which allows active participation or passive reflection.

Approaches to Learning (ATL)

Whereas the ’style’ literature is essentially about how different people choose to process material, the ’approaches’ literature is clearly much more concerned with motivation and assessment. The issue is how people approach their learning task. This may be a function of how and what they are taught, which in turn could be related to the approach in the first place.

It was observed that if students were given a text to read that they knew they would be examined on, some tried to understand, contextualize and comprehend the ’big picture’ content while others focused on remembering what they thought were the ’facts’ that they would be examined on. These two very different approaches have been called deep vs. surface approaches. To adopt the deep approach means to achieve a critical understanding and retention of concepts that are integrated into a knowledge schema and used for problem solving. The surface approach is based on a pragmatic short-term memorization of salient facts for examination or repetition.









Interested in meaning

Reliant on role learning

Focused on arguments

Focused on formulae

Critically evidence based

Uncritical of evidence

Integrative to previous schemes

Treating issues/facts in isolation

Linked to real life

Exam oriented

Intrinsically motivated

Extrinsically motivated


Not fully engaged

Deep learning is about big picture, broad-view, evaluative and crucial learning. Deep learners are intrinsically motivated but also interested to apply their knowledge and seek evidence of its validity. Knowledge acquisition is thought of as both practical and enjoyable.

Surface learners are detail and pragmatic focused on rote learning, memorization and course assessment and requirements. Examples and principles are confused and little effort is made to integrate the material to a wider knowledge base. Frequently the motivation is extrinsic and based more on fear of failure and success orientation.


Furnham, A. (2012). Learning styles and approaches to learning. In Harris, Karen R; Graham, Steve; Urdan, Tim; Graham, Sandra; Royer, James M.; Zeidner, Moshe, (2012). APA Educational Psychology Handbook, (pp. 59—81). Washington, DC.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experimental Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Messick, S. (Ed.). (1976). Individuality in Learning: Implications of Cognitive Styles and Creativity for Human Development. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.