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Personality and Cognitive Learning Styles of Academically Talented: Topical Research Series #2

For over 40 years, researchers have studied the personality traits and cognitive learning styles of intellectually gifted and academically talented students that distinguish them from the general population. This line of research is important since a number of these traits have been shown to be related to high-level achievement, gender differences in mathematics and science ability and achievement, and even long-term social-emotional adjustment. Cognitive learning styles (defined as "consistencies in the unique manner that a learner acquires and processes information"), in particular, have been widely discussed and researched in an attempt to understand whether gifted and talented students learn differently than other students, or respond differently to particular teaching styles. A great deal has been written over the last 20 years about the need to know students' learning styles so that everything from the classroom environment to the teaching style of the instructor can be tailored to each student's learning style in the belief that this will increase learning, as well as the student's self-concept as a learner.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) have studied the personality and cognitive learning styles of academically talented students since 1983 and have accumulated the largest database of information in the world on this topic. Using primarily the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a measure of "psychological type," and the Adjective Check List (ACL), a measure of 14 indicators of personality and psychological adjustment, researchers have looked at the personality and learning styles of gifted and talented students across time, gender, culture, and type of academic talent. The four articles contained in this Topical Research Series packet represent a cross-section of the scholarly work by Institute researchers on this important, interesting, and timely topic.

The first article, Personality, Learning style, and Cognitive Style Profiles of Mathematically Talented Students by Mills (1993), reports on a study that compared academically talented students to a group of same-age peers of mixed ability and found that they differed on four important dimensions of cognitive style (preferences for Introversion-Extraversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving). The talented students also differed from the general population of students on three personality scales (achievement, endurance, and affiliation). Although as a group the academically talented students differed from other students on these dimensions, not all gifted students looked the same. There were also differences within the gifted and talented group. In fact, a wide range of scores on the personality traits and all different cognitive styles were represented in the gifted group. It's just that the distribution of scores within the gifted group looked very different from that found in a general population of students. These intragroup differences were related to gender and whether the student had high math or high verbal ability. A surprising and very interesting finding in this study was that the Thinking-Feeling dimension on the MBTI appears to be a mediating variable decreasing the between-gender differences often found for math ability while increasing the within-gender differences.

One of the often-asked questions in research is whether a particular finding is culture-specific. The second article in this series, Cognitive-psychological Profiles of Gifted Adolescents from Ireland and the U.S.: Cross-societal Comparison by Mills and Parker (1998), examines this question. Striking similarities were found between the students from the U.S. and those from Ireland, especially the students' strong preference for Intuition on the MBTI. This finding points out that gifted students from both countries have a strong preference for the abstract and theoretical. As the authors of the paper point out, on many levels the learning styles of gifted students in both countries is very different than their classmates and often at odds with the teaching styles of their teachers.

In the paper, Psychological Type and Cognitive Style in Elementary-Age Gifted Students: Comparisons Across Age and Gender by Mills, Moore, and Parker (1996), the authors examine whether cognitive learning styles change with age. A group of elementary school age children were compared to middle and early high school students. This study confirmed the differences noted above between gifted students and their same-age peers. The strongest finding across both age groups was that more gifted students prefer an open, flexible, and creative approach to processing information and engaging in academic tasks than do the majority of their classmates. Gifted students also show a strong preference for variety, novelty, and change. For all the commonalities found among the gifted students in both age groups, there were also differences between the two age groups, leading the researchers to hypothesize about developmental changes.

The final paper in this series, Gender Differences in Math/Science Achievement: The Role of Personality Variables by Mills (1997), examined longitudinal data gathered over 10 years to ask whether personality traits were related to gender differences in long-term achievement in mathematics and the sciences. Two important findings of this study were that: (a) math ability was the most significant predictor of long-term achievement in math and science for young women. The level of math ability did not seem to matter for young men. Personality traits, when added to high math ability, increased the probability that young women would go on to pursue a career in math or science. This was not true for young men.

The papers in this packet represent only a sample of the work done on this topic. A bibliography of other articles on this topic follows. The body of work on this topic by Institute researchers clearly points to identifiable personality traits and cognitive styles that differentiate gifted and talented students as a whole from their peers. This does not mean that all gifted and talented students have the same personality or learning style. It does mean, however, that a majority of them will be different than their classmates, not only in terms of how bright they are, but also in how they think and learn, and what motivates them. This body of research also suggests some answers to why very able young women and men often follow quite different education and career paths. The results of this research can help parents, teachers, counselors, and other professionals to understand academically talented young persons, how better to reach them personally and academically, and how best to help them realize their potential.

Complete references and abstracts are available.



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