Individual Difference Research

(A Historical Snap Shot)

In the fifties... Cronbach (1957) challenged the field to find "for each individual the treatment to which he can most easily adapt." He suggested that consideration of the treatments and individuals together would determine the best payoff. Ultimately we should design environments, not to fit the "average" (one-size-fits-all) person, but to fit groups of students with particular aptitudes or patterns.
    In the sixties... Many educational researchers were searching for fundamental sources for individual learning differences. They were looking for characteristics that affected responses to the treatments to explain how to instruct students one way and not another. Similar to the ongoing computer research, these researchers began to focus on how learners input-process-output information (cognitive processing).
    In the seventies... Cronbach (1975) said, "Snow and I have been thwarted by the inconsistent findings coming from roughly similar inquiries. Successive studies employing the same treatment variable find different outcome-on-aptitude slopes." This problem has continued into the nineties and has been called the "insignificant difference phenomena." Cronbach surmised that the inconsistency came from unknown interactions. Reeves (1993) called the problem a lack of realistic theoretical foundations or "pseudoscience."

Finally, Cronbach and Snow (1977) concluded that "an understanding of cognitive abilities (how people think or use logic) considered alone would not be sufficient" to explain learning, individual learning differences, and aptitude treatment interactions.

    In the eighties... Some educational researchers turned to a more "whole-person view" of learning to include affective (emotions), conative (intentions), and/or social (environmental influences).  Eventually this new research evolved into new theories, including cognitive styles to represent the predominant modes or preference for information processing (i.e., preferred learning sets to the acquisition, retention, and retrieval of new knowledge) and social learning theory (Bandura, 1986) to realize the impact of social factors on learning.

Meanwhile, Snow (1987), somewhat alone in his research perspective, described how in cognitive psychology conation as a learning factor has been "demoted" and "since it seems not really to be a separable function," it is merged with affection. Together these factors are viewed as "mere associates or products of cognition" and then ignored. He warned that individual difference constructs or "aptitude complexes" needed greater consideration of the joint functioning between cognitive, conative, and affective processes. Snow was in search of an information processing model of cognition that would include (however, still demoted as a secondary consideration) possible cognitive-conative-affective intersections. He was looking for a way to fit realistic "aspects of mental life, such as mood, emotion, impulse, desire, volition, purposive striving" into instructional models.

According to Snow (1989), the best instruction involves treatments that differ in structure and completeness and high or low general ability measures. Highly structured treatments (e.g., high external control, explicit sequences and components) seem to help students with low ability but hinder those with high abilities (relative to low structure treatments). Bereiter & Scardamalia 1989 also suggested that learners in supportive environments have high levels of self efficacy and self-motivation and use learning as a primary transformative force.

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Created by the Successful Learning Research Team.
Some projects were funded in part by the Society for Technical Communication
(STC Research Award, 1997-1998).
Updated June 2000 by Margaret Martinez & The Training Place.
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Copyright Margaret Martinez 1996-2000