3 minute read

Cognitive Style

Reflectivity And Impulsivity

Reflectivity and impulsivity are polar ends of a spectrum in a third and very substantial cognitive style. Studies in this domain began in the early 1960s with several researchers, such as Jerome Kagan. One of the methods for testing this cognitive style involves administration of the Matching Familiar Figures Test, which requires subjects to view a picture of an object and then attempt to match the object when presented with the same object in a group of similar objects. The test is then scored according to the time required to identify the objects and the accuracy of identification.

Neil Salkind and John Wright have studied scoring measures for this cognitive style. People who are slower than the median, but score more accurately than the median, are considered to be "reflective." In a classroom, these would typically be the students who take extended time on a task and produce very accurate work. Those who test faster than the median but score below the median of accuracy are "impulsive." These individuals are frequently described as students who rush through assignments, frequently missing the correct answers. In addition, impulsive students do not consider as many alternative answers when presented with open-ended questions as compared to reflective students. These same students also have a more global approach to information processing and do not identify the parts of a whole as readily as their peers. They also have difficulty with delayed gratification on tasks. Reflective students are more analytical in their problem-solving approach and do not have the same level of difficulty with delayed gratification.

Given that these differences in reflectivity-impulsivity are apparent as early as preschool, it is fascinating to consider developing classrooms that provide equal opportunities for learning and demonstration of application to students at both ends of this spectrum. Several studies indicate, however, that the traditional classroom favors the reflective students over the impulsive ones. Specific to education, studies have found that students who are placed with a reflective teacher tend to score more reflectivity at the end of the year than at the beginning, while students placed with an impulsive teacher score higher levels of impulsivity at the end of the year. This indicates that there is some environmental influence on the level of reflectivity-impulsivity and its expression in student behavior.

It is important to note that correlational studies have been conducted on any relationship between intelligence and each of the three cognitive styles. There is consistent data indicating no direct relationship exists between cognitive styles and intelligence. Nevertheless, an individual's ability to acquire knowledge on an equal plane with peers, or to demonstrate his or her knowledge in specific social or academic settings, may be affected by cognitive styles. Through early childhood development, continued success or frequent difficulties in these abilities could affect personality and social interactions.

Because of the potential influence of cognitive styles, additional educational research is necessary to assess the full effect that cognitive style has on a child's perception, analysis, and application of information presented in the classroom setting. There is also an implication that some assessment techniques used by educators may, by the nature of presentation, solicit different responses from students with differing cognitive styles. These testing methods should also be studied in terms of their interactions with individual cognitive styles.


Bransford, John, Ann Brown, and Rodney Cocking, eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.

Brumby, Margaret N. "Consistent Differences in Cognitive Styles for Qualitative Biological Problem-Solving." British Journal of Educational Psychology 52 (1982):244-257.

Greene, L. R. "Psychological Differentiation and Social Structure."Journal of Social Psychology 109 (1972):79-85.

Morgan, Harry. Cognitive Styles and Classroom Learning. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

Nummendal, S. G., and F. P. Collea. "Field Independence, Task Ambiguity, and Performance on a Proportional Reasoning Task."Journal of Research in Science Teaching 18, no. 3 (1981):255-260.

Salkind, Neil J., and John P. Poggio. "Sex Differences in Impulsivity and Intellectual Ability." Sex Roles 4, no. 1 (1978):91-96.

Salkind, Neil J., and John Wright. "The Development of Reflection-Impulsivity and Cognitive Efficiency."Human Development 20 (1977):377-387.

Witkin, Herman A. "Individual Differences in Ease of Perception of Embedded Figures." Journal of Personality 19 (1950):1-15.

Witkin, Herman A., C. A. Moore, Donald R. Goodenough, and P.W. Cox. "Field-Dependent and Field-Independent Cognitive Styles and Their Educational Implications." Review of Educational Research 47 (1977):1-64.

Witkin, Herman A., and Donald Goodenough. Cognitive Styles: Essence and Origins. New York: International Universities Press, 1981.

L. R. S. Martens

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 2Cognitive Style - Leveling And Sharpening, Field-dependence And Field-independence, Reflectivity And Impulsivity