UNDERSTANDING STUDENTS' DIFFICULTIES
IN REASONING

Part Two, The Perspective from Research in Learning Styles and Cognitive Styles

By William Peirce © 2000

Coordinator, Reasoning Across the Curriculum
Prince George’s Community College

wpeirce@attglobal.net

Section IX. Myers-Briggs Personality Types and Their Learning Styles

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI ) is a model of psychological types—not of learning styles—but it provides a useful perspective on why certain ways of learning and writing are more appealing to some people than to others.

Based on the research discussed in Carl Gustav Jung's Psychological Types, published in 1921, the MBTI instrument was designed by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, who worked on it for over 30 years. Jung believed people's preferred cognitive processes range along three dimensions: (1) either introversion or extroversion as a way of relating to others, (2) either sensing or intuition as a way of perceiving the world, and (3) either thinking or feeling as their preferred way to reach conclusions. To these Briggs and Myers added a fourth dichotomy: (4) either perceiving or judging as one's attitude toward the outer world. The MBTI treats these four approaches as dichotomies; in all four of the pairs, people tend to prefer one approach over the other. For example, an extrovert's energy and attention are directed more toward other people, actions, and objects; an introvert's energy and attention is more inward on ideas and concepts.

It is important to avoid oversimplifying MBTI categories. First of all, these are not evaluative categories; no judgment is involved. One MBTI type is not superior to another in any way. Although extroverts may value their social skills and introverts may value their ability to reflect deeply, nothing in Jung's work or in Briggs and Myers's work implies the superiority of one type over another. Nor do Jung or Myers and Briggs suggest that extroverts are incapable of deep reflection or that introverts lack social skills. Of the two alternatives, a person will usually prefer one direction over the other much of the time--but not in every context. Everyone has elements of all the types. To be labeled introvert by the MBTI does not mean one has no extrovert characteristics; it means the person prefers focusing energy and attention by looking inward (introversion) over looking outward at other people (extroversion).

The MBTI is a 126-item questionnaire that can be filled out in less than 30 minutes. The MBTI identifies one’s preferences in each of these four alternative ways of functioning: extrovert (E) or introvert (I) as the preferred way of focusing one’s energy, sensing (S) or intuition (N) as the preferred way of learning about the world, thinking (T) or feeling (F) as the preferred way of making decisions, and judging (J) or perceiving (P) as the preferred way of approaching the world. These four pairs result in 16 possible types. For example, if you are "serious, quiet, earn success by concentration and thoroughness" (Myers, cited in DiTiberio & Jensen, 1995, p. 217), then you would answer the 126 items in a way that would categorize you as ISTJ (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Judgment) because of the preferences for these options that you selected on the questionnaire.

Some of the bipolar scales used in several learning style models parallel those used by the MBTI, so many researchers have employed the MBTI in investigating the learning styles preferred by the 16 Myers-Briggs types.

Table 7 below shows the learning preferences associated with the eight basic MBTI types. Notice that the left and right columns show nearly opposite preferences.

Table 7. Learning Preferences Associated with MBTI

EXTROVERSION
Talking and discussion 
Psychomotor activity 
Group activities
INTROVERSION
Reading/verbal reasoning
Time for internal processing
Individual work
SENSING
Tasks calling for carefulness, thoroughness, and sound understanding 
Linear processing of routine 
Specifics
INTUITION
Tasks calling for quickness of insight and seeing relationships 
Global, finding new ways 
Concepts
THINKING
Objective material
Logical organization of teacher
Rules, laws, and procedures
FEELING
Personal relationships 
Personal rapport with teacher 
Harmony, empathy, and balance
JUDGMENT
Structure and order
Formal instruction methods
Directed
PERCEPTION
Flexible and adaptive
Informal problem solving
Autonomous
Source: Campbell, D. E. & Davis, C. L. (1990). Improving learning by combining critical thinking skills with psychological type. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 1, 43.
The connection between problem-solving approaches and Myers-Briggs types has interested researchers, and as you might expect, opposite types prefer opposite approaches. For example, those with a thinking preference (T) will prefer objectivity, logic, and analysis; their opposite, the feeling type (F), will take feelings and values into account as part of the thinking process and will also consider how the proposed solutions might affect other people (Huitt, 1992). Mary H. McCaulley (1987), one of the leading researchers of MBTI applications, illustrates the problem-solving approaches of two opposite types, the ISTJ and the ENFP: In problem solving ISTJ will want a clear idea of the problem (I) and attack it by looking for the facts (S) and by relying on a logical, impersonal (T) step-by-step (S) approach in reaching conclusions. In contrast, ENFP will throw out all sorts of possibilities (N), seeking feedback from the environment to clarify the problem (E). Brainstorming will be enjoyed (NP). The human aspects of the problem (F) are likely to be emphasized over impersonal, technical issues (T). To the ISTJ, the ENFP approach is likely to seem irrational or scattered. To the ENFP, the ISTJ approach is likely to seem slow and unimaginative. (pp. 43-44) W. Huitt (1992) summarizes the features of the eight Myers-Briggs dimensions that are relevant to problem-solving in Table 8

Table 8. Aspects of personality important for problem solving and decision making
 
MBTI Dimension Orientation Criteria for Judging Effectiveness  Techniques  Strengths
Extravert Outside world of people and things Can "talk through" problem in group
Works in "real world"
Brainstorming
Thinking aloud 
Outcome psychodrama
Attend to external reality
Listen to others
Introvert Inner world of ideas Internal logic, value of ideas 
Want to reflect on problem
Brainstorming privately
Incubation
Attend to internal consistency of solutions
Sensing Facts and details from past and present Personal experience
Practicality of solutions
Conforms to standards
Share personal values, ideas facts,
Overload
Inductive reasoning
Random word technique
Attend to details
What could go wrong
Develop and implement specific steps of solution
Intuitive Concepts and principles
Possibilities for future
Meaningfulness of facts, details
Solutions consider total situation
Prospect for originality
Classify, categorize,
Deductive reasoning
Challenge assumptions
Imaging/ visualization
Synthesizing
See connections and links
Develop complex solutions
Implications of improper solution(s)
Develop major phases
Thinking Objectivity
Logic and reason
Solutions make sense based on facts, models, and/or principles Classify, categorize
Analysis
Network analysis
Task analysis
Attend to internal and external consistencies
Evaluate for efficiency and effectiveness
Feeling Subjectivity

Values and affect

Solutions consider impact on people Share personal values Listen to others' values
Values clarification
Evaluate for impact on people
Evaluate in terms of valued by participants
Judging Organization Structure and closure Decisions are made 
Solution can be implemented
A step-by-step procedure to follow
Evaluation
PMI technique
Backward planning
Select single solution
Identify possible defects
Follow steps during
Implementation
Evaluate for effectiveness and efficiency
Perceiving Data gathering Processing solutions Solutions are flexible and adaptable
Enough information provided in solution
Variety of alternatives considered
Brainstorming 
Random word technique
Outrageous provocation
Taking another's perspective
Develop complex solutions
Flexibility

Huitt, W. (1992). Problem solving and decision making: Consideration of individual differences using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Journal of Psychological Type, 24, 33-44. Available: http://www.valdosta.edu/~whuitt/psy702/files/prbsmbti.html

Notice that each MBTI dimension is associated with useful problem-solving techniques and with useful criteria for judging the effectiveness of the solutions—but notice also that they are quite different. While Huitt’s table identifies the strengths and not the limitations of each MBTI dimension, instructors can assume that in most cases the strengths their students are more likely to be missing are those of the opposite MBTI dimension. That is, an extrovert is likely not to have the strengths of the introvert: to "attend to internal consistency of solutions," and the sensing type is not likely to have one of the strengths of the intuitive type: to "see connections and links."

The problem-solving techniques that students will favor or need help with is also associated with the four MBTI temperaments. For example, an SJ will be good at using details and anticipating outcomes; the opposite temperament, NF, tends to overlook important details and is unrealistic about outcomes. Huitt (1992) identifies in Table 9 the preferred problem-solving techniques of the MBTI temperaments and what they are most likely to need help with.

Table 9. Aspects of temperament important for problem solving and decision making
 
Temperament
Goal
Important Elements 
Preferred Processes & Techniques 
Need Help
SP
Take Action Oriented to present
Adaptable, flexible,   reality-oriented
Value own experiences
Flexible process for defining and solving
Iterative approach to process
Simulations
Role playing
Subcommittees to work out details and step-by-step plan
Coherence of plan
Following selected solution
SJ
Follow Tradition
Fulfill Duty
Oriented to past, present
Loyal, helpful, useful to social units
Value evolutionary change 
Prefer going step-by-step
Prefer known solutions that work 
Task analysis
Simulations
Categorizing and classifying
Generating creative alternatives
NT
Understand, control, and explain reality
Acquisition of competencies
Use of logic and reason
Oriented to future
Logical correctness of principles and concepts
Model development
Challenging assumptions
Structured controversy
Model development
Attending to facts and details
Looking at impact on people
NF
Becoming
Self-discovery
Oriented to future
Possibilities for people
Value intuition and inspiration
Self-analysis
Values clarification
Attending to facts and details
Developing realistic alternatives
Carefully monitor implementation

Huitt, W. (1992). Problem solving and decision making: Consideration of individual differences using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Journal of Psychological Type, 24, 33-44. Available: http://www.valdosta.edu/~whuitt/psy702/files/prbsmbti.html

The problem solving process is usually described as having at least four stages (identifying/understanding the problem, processing the data and choosing a solution, implementing the solution, and evaluating the effectiveness of the solution). Each stage requires a variety of techniques to accomplish that stage well. The two tables above show that a class that requires a good deal of problem solving will have students whose learning styles do not favor learning some of the needed techniques. The remedy, of course, is to develop in our students the techniques and strengths they do not easily acquire, if these abilities are important for solving problems in our disciplines. Every Myers-Briggs temperament needs help with at least one aspect of the problem-solving process. The teaching strategy most often recommended for teaching problem solving to all styles is using structured small-group problem-solving tasks, where students can demonstrate the techniques and strengths of their own types and learn from the techniques and strengths modeled by other types (McCaulley, 1987; Huitt, 1992). Specific details about the steps and techniques to incorporate into collaborative problem-solving assignments can be found in McCaulley’s and Huitt’s articles.

Among the four preferred indicators that define one’s personality type, two will dominate. Table 10 below shows the dominant function. Why is this relevant? As table 11 will show, some types prefer the common thinking methods, and some do not--depending on their domnant function.

Table 10. MYERS-BRIGGS TYPE
ORIENTATION OF THE DOMINANT FUNCTION

ISTJ
ISFJ
INFJ
INTJ
ISTP
ISFP
INFP
INTP
ESTP
ESFP
ENFP
ENTP
ESTJ
ESFJ
ENFJ
ENTJ
Source: Campbell, D. E. & Davis, C. L. (1990). Improving learning by combining critical thinking skills with psychological type. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 1, 39-51.
Some of these types have a much easier time with thinking tasks than others. For much of their lives, some students have preferred some thinking strategies that are highly valued in college and have become pretty good at using them and eager to sharpen their thinking skills. Others have not preferred these thinking strategies, have resisted them through high school, and continue to not like them. Table 11 identifies them.

Table 11. Thinking & MBTI Preferences

 
THINKING AND LEARNING STRATEGIES
PREFER
NOT PREFER
Abstract Thinking
NT
ST
Analytical Thinking
T
F
Critical Thinking
NT
SF
Metacognition and Introspective Self-Analysis
ITP
EFJ
Reading Articles With Opposing Views
P
J
Tolerating Ambiguity
NP
SJ

Source: Alexander, Jessie & Kelly, John, "Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in the Classroom." Professional Development Day Presentation, Prince George's Community College, Largo, MD. January 1998.

The good news is that there are personality types that actively prefer to employ the thinking strategies that will help them do the thinking tasks required in our disciplines. They are easy to teach. The bad news is that in higher education they are outnumbered by personality types that do not prefer these thinking tasks. It is estimated that 75% of the general population prefers the sensing learning pattern, and it is the most populous type enrolled in colleges (Schroeder 1993). Notice how frequently the S types appear in the "Not Prefer" column of the table 9 thinking strategies, above. As section VIII of this presentation indicates, what works for these resistant thinkers are small-group discussions, active learning tasks, case studies, group projects, peer critiques, in-class presentations, debates, field and laboratory experiences, and simulations.

The article by Charles Schroeder, "New Students—New learning Styles" (1993) is an excellent discussion of the need to adapt college teaching methods to higher education’s most populous group: predominantly Sensing students; available at http://virtualschool.edu/mon/Academia/KierseyLearningStyles.html

Writing instructors will be interested in John K. DiTiberio and George H. Jensen's  Writing and Personality: Finding Your Voice, Your Style, Your Way (1995).  It describes the likely writing strengths and weaknesses of the basic Myers-Briggs types.  As you might guess, intuitive and thinking types are best suited to writing academic essays; sensing and feeling types prefer them least.

Two web sites offer free online Myers-Briggs imitations where you and your students can fill out questionnaires that provide your personality type in the four scales used by the MBTI.

http://www.onlinepsych.com/public/Mind_Games/ptt/ (Note that Mind_Games has an underscore.)

http://keirsey.com/cgi-bin/keirsey/newkts.cgi

The Part One article on understanding students’ difficulties in reasoning discusses other problems faced by the current wave of college students. Among the factors discussed are high school preparation and students' difficulty dealing with ambiguity and inquiry teaching methods.


E-mail William Peirce at wpeirce@attglobal.net

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