Learning Orientation Research

Individual Differences in Learning

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Lee Cronbach's and Richard Snow's Important Lessons from the Past: Historical Perspective.

A. 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 cognitive treatments and individual together would determine the best payoff because we "can expect some attributes of person to have strong interactions with treatment variables.

These attributes have far greater practical importance than the attributes which have little or no interaction." "In dividing pupils between college preparatory and non-college studies, for example, a general intelligence test is probably the wrong thing to use. This test being general, predicts success in all subjects, therefore tends to have little interaction with treatment, and if so is not the best guide to differential treatment."

"We require a measure of aptitude that remains to be discovered. Ultimately we should design treatments, not to fit the average person, but to fit groups of students with particular aptitude patterns. Conversely, we should seek out the aptitudes which correspond to (interact with) modifiable aspects of the treatment." For example, how do we sequence treatments differently to fit groups of students appropriately.

B. Between 1960 and 1970 Cronbach (1975) and others "searched fruitlessly for interactions of abilities." They were looking for "aptitudes" (characteristics that affects responses to the treatment) that explained how to instruct students one way and not another, i.e., evidence that showed regression slopes that differed from treatment to treatment.

C. In the seventies, Cronbach (1975) still advocated that a closer scrutiny of cognitive processes would be a profitable next phase of work on Aptitude Treatment Interactions (ATIs). He highlighted research that related success to the Ai (Achievement via Independence) and Ac (Achievement via Conformance) scores of Gough's California Personality Inventory. The evidence continued to show that the learning outcomes were better when the instructor's presentation adapted to the student's aptitude and personality (1977). For example, the "constructively motivated student who seeks challenges and takes responsibility is at his best when an instructor challenges him and then leaves him to pursue his own thoughts projects." Conversely, ATI reseach describes how some students with low ability perform better in highly structured treatments (e.g., high level of external control, well-defined sequences, and structured components). However, similar treatments hinder those with high abilities and preferences for less structured treatments.

In his article, Cronbach (1975) continued to emphasize the important relationship between cognitive aptitudes and treatment interactions. Nevertheless, he states that "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." He surmised that the inconsistency came from unidentified interactions. Finally, Snow and Cronbach (1977) concluded that "an understanding of cognitive abilities considered alone would not be sufficient" to explain learning, individual differences in learning, and aptitude treatment interactions.

D. In the early eighties, the cognitive process analysis of aptitudes processes continued with variations. Snow (1980) described the ATI investigation as process-oriented research on individual differences in learning and cognition. Although they were looking for a "whole-person view" of learning, he believed that it was primarily the cognitive processes that should be considered in the design and development of adaptive instructional systems. Eventually the new "aptitudes" evolved into cognitive styles (learning styles) to represent the predominant modes of information processing (i.e., preferred learning sets to the acquisition, retention, and retrieval of new knowledge).

ATI critics argued that student performance was too dynamic to be supported by the permanence and pervasiveness of primarily cognitive ATI and that students, e.g., without learner control, would become system dependent on prescribed solutions.

E. In the late eighties, Snow (1987) 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 (still 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).

F. Cronbach's and Snow's research set the stage for the learning orientation research. The learning orientation research attempts to reveal the dominant power of emotions and intentions on guiding and managing cognitive processes (no longer demoted to a secondary role). It is in understanding the structure and nature of the complex relationships between learning orientations and interactions that we can return to Cronbach's original hypothesis that we should find "for each individual the treatment to which he can most easily adapt." And, "ultimately we should design treatments, not to fit the average person, but to fit groups of students with particular aptitude patterns. Conversely, we should seek out the aptitudes which correspond to (interact with) modifiable aspects of the treatment."

As can be expected the new lines of research, especially the neurobiology of learning and memory research, will continue to reopen the old questions, gain from the research accomplished in the past, and pose exciting new questions for the future. As we look forward to new issues highlighting the importance of emotional and intentional states on cognitive processing, waiting in the wings to be discovered are the treatments that lead toward more successful learning and performance. And perhaps, as some may have already predicted in the past the hegemony of cognition over intent and affect is coming to an end.


Cronbach, L. (1975). Beyond the Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology. "American Psychologist," 116-127.
Cronbach, L. (1957). The Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology. "American Psychologist," 12, 671-684.
Cronbach, L. & Snow, R. (1977). Aptitudes and Instructional Methods: A Handbook for Research on Interactions. New York: Irvington Publishers.
Snow, R. (1989). Aptitude-Treatment Interaction as a framework on individual differences in learning. In P. Ackermann, R.J. Sternberg, & R.
Glaser (eds.), Learning and Individual Differences. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Snow, R. (1987). Aptitude Complexes. In R. Snow & M. Farr (eds.), Aptitude, Learning and Instruction, Cognitive Process Analyses of Aptitude (Vol. 3, pp. 11-34). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.
Snow, R. (1980). Aptitude Processes. In R. Snow, P. Frederico, & W.
Montague (eds.), Aptitude, Learning and Instruction, Conative and Affective Process Analyses (Vol. 1, pp. 27-60). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.


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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).
Copyright Margaret Martinez 1996-2004
Updated January 2004 by Margaret Martinez.
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