An Analysis of Students’ Cognitive Styles in Asynchronous Distance Education Courses

by John Brenner

from Inquiry, Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 1997, 37-44

Copyright 1997 Virginia Community College System

Brief Abstract

A study of students in distance education classes at Southwest Virginia Community College during the summer of 1996 revealed that field dependent and field independent cognitive styles were not significantly related to the successful completion of courses.

Knowledge about student success is important to Southwest Virginia Community College (SwVCC) and to other community colleges offering distance education classes. If the purpose of distance education courses is to offer students an alternative form of receiving an education, then knowledge about who succeeds is useful information. James and Gardner (1995) comment that, “Distance learning provides a needed alternative for many adult students, but attention to individual differences, as currently practiced, is less than desirable” (p. 29). This article presents information on 154 distance education students at SwVCC who were enrolled in one of the 27 different courses. The distance education telecourses were asynchronous in that the students had limited opportunities to interact in a face-to-face situation with the instructor or other students. Other information is included to explain distance education, psychological variables associated with distance education, components of the study, findings, and implications of the research.

Distance Education

Distance education is not a new phenomenon in American education. Correspondence courses have been in existence for over one hundred years. What is different is the use of technology to deliver college-level courses to students who are separated from the teacher. Asynchronous forms of education do not require the student and teacher to be time and space bound (Cartwight, 1994). This type of distance education, correspondence courses which utilize technology, is the “fastest-growing instructional pattern in the world” (Hall, 1990, p. 48).

Distance education is defined as a situation in which a teacher and student are physically separated but communicating through the completion of assignments (Rumble, 1989). Communication can occur through the postal service or through some form of technology, such as telephone, electronic communication, or television or radio connections. In distance learning courses the student receives a “package” that defines the course and its objectives and provides the assignments that must be completed (Kember, Lai, Murphy, Siaw, & Yuen, 1994). The package usually consists of both written materials and videos. In fact, Wilkinson and Sherman (1991) discovered that video based technology is the most common form of distance education. In these courses, referred to as “telecourses,” the student views the taped lectures when it is personally convenient. Benson and Hirschen (1987) report that using technology has given educational institutions new boundaries for reaching students.

Technology has impacted how students respond to alternative forms of education. Moore (1991) uses the term “transactional distance” to refer to the psychological and communication gap that exists between teachers and students in distance education. In telecourses, the focus of this study, the transactional distance is extended because the student, who has limited contact with the teacher, has limited ability to structure the course. Using the package of written materials and taped videos, the student is the passive recipient of pre-constructed educational materials.

Psychological Aspects of Distance Education

Researchers of the psychological impact of distance education have investigated the age of the students (traditional vs nontraditional), their gender, the learner-technology interface, delivery methods, personality, affective variables, course satisfaction, anxiety, learning styles, and other aspects. Ehrman’s 1990 study reported an advantage for extroverts, intuitives, thinkers, and judgers (from the Myers-Briggs typology) in completing self-directed learning tasks. Ehrman suggests that knowledge about learning styles will enable students or counselors to better understand the learner’s stages of cognitive and psychological readiness for distance education courses that are self-directed. Schuemer (1993) adds that the distance learner has to have the psychological will power to direct the learning process.

The study of cognitive or learning styles is an area of research that supports the psychological implications for learners. Over 7,000 citations are listed regarding learning styles and cognitive styles (Frazier, 1991). Numerous definitions of cognitive style are available, but Merriam and Caffarella’s (1991) definition is the most encompassing. They state that cognitive styles “are characterized as consistencies in information processing that develop in concert with underlying personality trends” (p. 175). Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, and Cox (1977) add that cognitive style includes one’s perceptual and intellectual capabilities. Gee (1990) comments that more research should be conducted to understand the effectiveness of traditional distance education telecourses with students who have varying learning styles.

The cognitive style analysis of the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) that resulted from research by Witkin et al. (1977) is a viable method of determining cognitive or learning styles. Viability of this test is enhanced with distance-education telecourse students because it takes less than 30 minutes to complete. The GEFT determines if a person is field dependent or field independent. This is a useful tool for distance educators because the field dependent person is more oriented towards social activities. He or she likes to be around other people, whereas the field independent person prefers more solitary activities. It would follow that the more field independent person would be more successful in distance education telecourses because no social activities are involved. The field dependents’ cognitive style of social needs would make them more likely to find telecourses difficult to complete.

Distance Education in Virginia

Investigation of the telecourse student’s cognitive style is important considering the tremendous growth in distance education in Virginia. The Directory of Distance Education and Telecommunications Options in the Virginia Community College System (1995) states that 20 of the 23 community colleges offer a total of 325 distance education classes that account for 18,000 credit course enrollments per year (p. 1). At Southwest Virginia Community College alone, over 25 distance education telecourses are offered each semester.

The distance education program at SwVCC was created to serve citizens who were not currently being served; the basic assumption was that “a significant portion of the population is best served by alternative instructional methods” (Policy and Procedures Manual, Southwest Virginia Community College, 1995, p. I). Our students must meet the following requirements before registering for a telecourse. First, the student must be eligible to take English 111 (Freshman Composition I) by achieving an acceptable score on the preliminary test required by SwVCC. If a student has taken English 111, the grade must be a “C” or better. Second, the student must have a minimum of a 2.5 GPA. And finally, the student must have permission from an advisor or counselor along with approval from the appropriate division chair to enroll in a telecourse (Policy and Procedures Manual, p. 15 - 16). No cognitive analysis or psychological profile is required before registering for a distance education course.

SwVCC students register for a distance education class using the same procedure used for registration in any other course. However, after registration, the student receives a course package from the Audio-Visual and Distance Education Services (AV & DES) office. During the course, the student returns assignments, views videos, and takes exams through the AV & DES office. Faculty are sent the assignments for grading, and then the AV & DES office returns them to the student. Upon completion of the course, the faculty member responsible for the course assigns a grade and processes the proper forms as in a traditional course.

The Study

The question asked in this research project was the following: “Are field independent students in asynchronous distance education telecourses more successful than field dependent students?” The study was designed to investigate the cognitive (or learning) styles of students who registered for distance education telecourses at SwVCC to determine why some students achieve and others do not. Little research has been located that investigates learning styles of students in asynchronous distance education telecourses.

The researched students were investigated as a group without regard to the subject matter of the course. No comparisons were made between telecourse students and the students who took a course in a traditional classroom. Because the researcher investigated distance education students, regardless of the course content, information is presented on students from a holistic perspective without becoming mired in a discussion of subject matter issues.

The study grouped students into two categories, field independent and field dependent. The researcher sought to identify which student category was more successful by correlating the achievement scores of students to their field independent-dependent classification from the GEFT. Success was determined by a grade of “C” or better in the telecourse. Unsuccessful students were those who received a “D” or less, withdrew, or received an incomplete grade in the course. Since research indicates that students who are field independent prefer to work alone and are more self motivated than are the field dependent students (Witkin et al., 1977), it was assumed that students who receive instruction in a separated situation and who must contend with the transactional distance were more likely to achieve success in the course if they were field independent.

The population being studied was composed of all students enrolled for distance education telecourses during the first two weeks of the 1996 summer semester at SwVCC. Of the 318 students who were enrolled, the sample consisted of 154 (47%) students who volunteered to take the GEFT. Students in this sample included all who came to the distance education office to obtain course materials. These students received two letters and a phone call and were encouraged by distance education office staff to take the GEFT.


The total number of summer 1996 distance education students who took the GEFT by their division were Business, 24 (15.6%); Math and Science, 55 (35.7%); Humanities and Social Science, 55 (35.7%); and Engineering, 13 (8.4%). The “other” group had 7 (4.5%) students. The students in this study represented all the curriculum areas of SwVCC.

Group Embedded Figures Test

The GEFT consists of tracing figures in the test booklet. The subjects were given two minutes for the first section to complete seven problems. The next two sections take five minutes each to answer 18 questions. The GEFT score has a range of 0 to 18 (Goodstein, 1978). Kepner and Neimark (1984) classified field dependent persons as those with scores of 0 to 9 (p. 1408). The students with scores 10 to 18 were classified as field independent. The dichotomized process resulted in 40 (25.9%) of the students as field independent and 114 (74.1%) as field dependent. Research has indicated that the majority of people are more likely to be field dependent.

Mean Age

The entire population had a mean age of 28.6 years. The traditional aged students (n=64) had a mean age of 20.2 years, and the nontraditional students (n=90) had a mean age of 32.9 years. The field dependent students had a mean age of 29.4, making them slightly older than the field independent students who had a mean age of 26.3. However, the mean age for both field independent and dependent students was in the nontraditional category. The successful and nonsuccessful students were also in the nontraditional category with a mean age of 28 years.


The distance education research group (DERG) included 116 (75.3%) females and 38 (24.7%) males. Students in the DERG were similar to students enrolled in other distance education classes (DET) at the college. SwVCC had a total of 2153 students in the unduplicated head count report for summer semester of 1996; of these, 813 were male students constituting 37.7% of the total population. The two distance education groups had slightly smaller percentages of males. The DET groups had 90 (26.7%) males, and DERG had 38 (24.7%). The DET female participation rate was slightly higher than the female rate for all SwVCC students. SwVCC female participation was 1340 (64.2%), whereas DET females equaled 247 (73.3%) with DERG having 116 (75.3%) females.

Success - Nonsuccess

As noted earlier, students were classified as successful if they received a grade of “C” or better in a distance education class; 104 (67.5%) were in this category. Students were classified as nonsuccessful if they received a “D” or less, an incomplete, or withdrew from the course; 50 (32.5%) were in this category. The percentage of DET students who were successful or nonsuccessful was similar for the students in the research group: DET, 62.5 % successful, and DERG, 67.5% successful. These data support the contention that the members of the research group were similar to the total group of distance education students.


The question posed in this study involved comparing the success-nonsuccess rates of field independent and field dependent students in asynchronous distance education courses. The study tested for significant differences among the variables of gender, age, and achievement for distance education students. SPSS software was used to analyze the variables using the Chi-square test for nominal data. Results of the analysis indicate that students in asynchronous distance education courses who were either field independent or field dependent had no significant differences in their success or nonsuccess in course completion. Females were more likely to be field dependent (80.2%). The traditional age female students were found to be significantly field dependent; however, nontraditional age females were equally field independent and field dependent. This is consistent with Sorensen and Robinson (1992) who found younger female college students had a different psychological type than did nontraditional females. There was no statistical difference between males: 55.3% were field dependent and 44.7% were field independent.

This is an important finding because field dependent people (Witkin, et al) prefer activities that require involvement with others. Asynchronous distance education courses are devoid of those experiences. Thus, females, who were the largest group of students taking distance education courses at SwVCC, were more likely to be field dependent. It would seem they would have more difficulties successfully completing asynchronous courses. However, the females’ field dependent rating did not impact their success in asynchronous distance education courses.

No matter how the age variable was analyzed, no significant difference among the groups existed, except that traditional aged females were more likely to be field dependent. When traditional and nontraditional aged students were grouped together, the significant differences in GEFT classification were no longer significant. Age was not a major factor when investigating the students’ GEFT classification.

On the whole, the data of this study indicate achievement rates were not related to the gender, age (traditional - nontraditional), or field independent-dependent ranking of the students.


Although Beaudoin (1990) indicated that some students have levels of cognitive readiness for distance education classes and Gee (1990) states that learning style impacts achievement, the analysis presented here demonstrated that students who are field independent and field dependent displayed no significant differences in their achievement rates. Distance education courses should continue to be offered to field independent and field dependent students. Researchers concerned about the changing age of students taking distance education courses (Carl, 1991) should see the study’s results as support for offering asynchronous distance courses to diverse students.

Further studies like this one should be conducted at other community colleges to determine the impact of cognitive style. Other types of cognitive typing instruments could be employed to classify students, although researchers should be cautioned that distance education students are a difficult group to study because they are usually separated from day-to-day contact with the institution. It would be extremely interesting to conduct a qualitative study of distance education students to determine what the methods students use to successfully complete asynchronous courses.


Beaudoin, M. (1990). The instructor's changing role in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 4 (2), 21-29.

Benson, G. M. Jr., & Hirschen, W. (1987, August). Distance learning: New windows for education. T. H. E. Journal.

Carl, D. L. (1991, May). Electronic distance learning: Positives outweighs negatives.

T. H. E. Journal, 67-70.

Cartwright, G. P. (July/August, 1994). Distance learning: A different time, as different place. Change, 30-32.

Distance education in the Virginia Community College System. (1995, February). Directory of Distance Education and Telecommunications Options in the Virginia Community College System. Richmond, VA: VCCS Press.

Ehrman, M. (1990). Psychological factors and distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 4(1), 10-24.

Frazier, P. V. (1991). Cognitive learning styles: An investigation into the validity of cognitive style measures as predictors of learning. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Florida State University, Tallahassee.

Gee, D. B. (1990). The impact of student's preferred learning style variables in a distance education course: A case study. Texas Tech University (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 358 836).

Goodstein, L. D. (1978). In Buros, O. K., The eighth mental measurement yearbook, (I). Highland Park, IL: The Gryphon Press.

Hall, J. W. (July/August, 1990). Distance education: Reaching out to millions. Change, 48.

James, W. B., & Gardner, D. L. (Fall, 1995). Learning styles: Implications for distance learning. New Directions For Adult And Continuing Education, 67, 19-31.

Kember, D., Lai, T., Murphy, D., Siaw, I., & Yuen, K. S. (Fall, 1994). Student progress in distance education courses: A replication study. Adult Education Quarterly, 45(1), 286-301.

Kepner, M. D., & Neimark, E. D. (1984). Test-retest reliability and differential patterns of score change on the group embedded figures test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(6), 1405-1413.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1991). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, M. G. (1991). Editorial: Distance education theory. The American Journal of Distance Education, 5(3), 1-6.

Policies and Procedures Manual (1995) Distance Education Telecourses: Audio-Visual and Distance Education Services. Southwest Virginia Community College. Richlands, VA: SwVCC Staff Services.

Rumble, G. (1989). On defining distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2). 8-21.

Schuemer, R. (1993). Some psychological aspects of distance education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 357 266).

Sorensen, C. K., & Robinson, D. C. (Winter/Spring, 1992). Gender and psychological type: Implications for serving nontraditional students. Continuing Higher Education Review, 56(1 & 2), 35-47.

Wilkinson, T. W., & Sherman, T. M. (1991). Telecommunications-based distance education: Who's doing what? Educational Technology. November 1991, 54-59.

Witkin, H. A., Moore, C. A., Goodenough, D. R., & Cox, P. W. (Winter, 1977). Field- dependent and field-independent cognitive styles and their educational implications. Review of Educational Research, 47(1). 1-64.


John Brenner is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Human Services at Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands, Virginia. Prior to teaching at Southwest, he taught history and sociology for 17 years at Gaston College in Dallas, North Carolina. He has an MA in Chinese Sociology from the University of Illinois and he completed an Ed. D. in December 1996 at East Tennessee State University. Funding for this project was provided by a professional development research grant (# SM96/07) from the Virginia Community College System.