Thinking styles and modes of thinking: implications for
education and research
The Journal of Psychology: interdisciplinary and applied,
2002, v. 136 n. 3, p. 245-261
The Journal of Psychology: interdisciplinary and applied.
Copyright © Heldref Publications.
Thinking Styles and Modes of Thinking:
Implications for Education and Research
Department of Education
The University of Hong Kong
ABSTRACT. The author investigated the relationship of thinking styles to modes of think-
ing. Participants were 371 freshmen (aged 18 and 19) from the University of Hong Kong.
Participants responded to the Thinking Styles Inventory (R. J. Sternberg & R. K. Wagner,
1992) and the Style of Learning and Thinking (Youth Form; E. P. Torrance, B. McCarthy,
& M. T. Kolesinski, 1988). A major finding was that creativity generating and complex
thinking styles were significantly positively correlated with the holistic mode of thinking
but significantly negatively correlated with the analytic mode of thinking. Thinking styles
that denote the tendency to norm favoring and simplistic information processing were sig-
nificantly positively correlated with the analytic mode of thinking and significantly nega-
tively correlated with the holistic mode of thinking. In a preliminary conclusion, it appears
that the thinking style construct overlaps the mode of thinking construct. Implications of
this finding for teachers and researchers are delineated.
Key words: modes of thinking, thinking styles
IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS it is common that one student gets straight As
and another student at the same ability level frequently fails tests. There are var-
ious ways to explain this phenomenon because there are many ways to explain
individual differences in academic performance. For example, two students with
the same abilities may use their abilities differently—that is, they use different
Styles, as an individual-difference variable in human performance, have
long occupied the minds of many scholars. Between the late 1950s and mid-
1970s, there was a proliferation of literature in the area of theories and models of
styles that has become stagnant partially because of the overwhelming output in
the field and partially because of a lack of internal dialogue among researchers
The Journal of Psychology, 2002, 136(3), 245–261
This research was supported by the Wu Jieh-yee Research Fund as administered by The
University of Hong Kong.
Address correspondence to Li-fang Zhang, Department of Education, The Universi-
ty of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong; firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).
(Jones, 1997). When Riding and Cheema (1991) reviewed the literature on styles,
they identified over 30 labels for the style construct. Consequently, we are left
with a research field that embraces a confusing variety of seemingly different yet
In the past decade or so there has been renewed interest in theories and mod-
els of styles manifested in two topics—conceptually integrating existing style
labels and empirically testing the style labels. Literature on the conceptual inte-
gration of styles is best represented by Curry’s (1983) three-layer “onion” model
of style measures, by Riding and Cheema’s (1991) model of two style dimen-
sions and one family of learning strategies, and by Grigorenko and Sternberg’s
(1995) three traditions of the study of styles. These works have been reviewed in
detail in my recent article (Zhang, 2000b). My present article is based on Grig-
orenko and Sternberg’s conceptualization of styles in the literature. Thus, only
Grigorenko and Sternberg’s work is recapitulated.
Grigorenko and Sternberg (1995) contended that existing models and theo-
ries related to style labels can be classified into three traditions of studying styles:
cognition centered, personality centered, and activity centered. Styles in the cog-
nition-centered tradition most closely resemble abilities. These styles have often
been measured by tests of maximal performance with right and wrong answers.
Within this tradition, Witkin’s (1964) field dependence–independence and
Kagan’s (1966) reflection–impulsivity models have generated the most interest.
Styles in the personality-centered tradition most closely resemble personal-
ity traits, and styles in this tradition are measured with typical performance tests
(no right or wrong answers) rather than maximal performance tests. Models of
styles in this tradition are best represented by Gregorc’s (1982) four main types
of styles and Myers and McCaulley’s (1988) work based on Jung’s (1923) theo-
ry of types. The activity-centered tradition emphasizes the notion of styles as
mediators of various forms of activities that tend to arise from some aspects of
cognition and personality. Literature in this tradition is represented by similar
theories of deep- and surface-learning approaches proposed separately by Mar-
ton (1976), Biggs (1979), and Entwistle (1981).
Empirical studies that attempt to clarify the nature of the relationships
among the different style labels are sparse. All the studies found in the literature
(through a PsycLit search) were reviewed in my (Zhang, 2000b) recent work.
This review suggested that empirical studies about the relationships among the
different style labels have produced diverse results. The results of some of these
studies showed more similarities than differences among various style labels,
whereas others identified more differences than similarities. For example, after
studying 38 university students, Ford (1995) concluded that students’ holist and
serialist competence, as measured by Pask and Scott’s (1972) original testing
materials designed to suit holist and serialist learning strategies, could be pre-
dicted by Riding’s (1991) Cognitive Styles Analysis that is designed to measure
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Original manuscript received October 24, 2000
Final revision received February 21, 2001
Manuscript accepted May 9, 2001
Sample Items From the Thinking Styles Inventory
Sample itemsScale type Key characteristic
• I like tasks that allow me to do things my
• I like situations in which it is clear what
role I must play or in what way I should
• I like to evaluate and compare different
points of view on issues that interest me.
• I like to complete what I am doing before
starting something else.
• When undertaking some task, I like first
to come up with a list of things that the
task will require me to do and to assign an
order of priority to the items on the list.
• I usually know what things need to be
done, but I sometimes have trouble
deciding in what order to do them.
Legislative Being creative
Executive Being conforming
Judicial Being analytical
Monarchic Dealing with one
task at a time
Oligarchic Dealing with
tasks at random
• When working on a written project, I
usually let my mind wander and my pen
follow up on whatever thoughts cross my
• Usually when I make a decision, I don’t
pay much attention to details.
• I like problems that require engagement
• I like to be alone when working on a
Global Focusing on
Using new ways
to deal with tasks
ways to deal with
• I like to work with others rather than by
• I like to do things in new ways, even if I
am not sure they are the best ways.
• In my work, I like to keep close to what
has been done before.