When hard work is not enough – Supporting different cognitive styles

“Genius and excellence is seldom recognized for what it really is: a capacity for hard work.”

 – Henry Ford

So, what happens when hard work is not enough? A student is working really hard but not succeeding. I’m working really hard but it’s not enough.    He feels like a failure and wants to quit.   I feel like I am failing him and find myself staring at the ceiling at 2 am trying to figure out how to help.

Not a good place for either of us.   He needed success and I needed sleep. I started by trying to understand how he thinks.   If I could figure out how he thinks, I could figure out where the breakdown is occurring and maybe figure out how to adjust what I am doing.     The engineer in me took over.

  • I started gathering data: I watched him;   I looked at his work and tried to analyze his thinking; I took anecdotal records, trying to detect patterns; I talked to the student’s parents;   I talked to Special Education teachers; I talked to Occupational Therapists.
  • I tried new techniques, one at a time.   I wanted to introduce and evaluate a single variable at a time.   I tried preferential seating.   I tried seating him with strong peers on each side to scaffold understanding and discourse. I tried using cloze notes and advance organizers that were scaffolded. I tried 1:1 re-teaching.   I tried giving a re-take of a test where the student did not show mastery.   I did frequent checks for understanding.   I tracked mastery.   The list goes on.   There were small successes, but I still felt I had not gotten to the heart of the matter.
  • I did research.   It was clear I did not know enough.   I could see holes in the student thinking process but did not know why they were happening and so my efforts were just stabs in the dark.   I read a lot of articles on dysgraphia and dyscalculia.   At the suggestion of a friend, I dove into Twice-exceptional Gifted Children by Beverly A. Trail, Ed.D.   Finally, pay dirt.   I found this student in the pages of this book.   I have a plan for moving forward.   It’s not going to be an easy road but I know where to start.

I think this particular student is an important case study because he represents kids who one could easily classify as “just not that good at math”.   That wouldn’t be a correct or fair statement, though.   He is good at math.   His brain just doesn’t work the same way that the brains of most “mathy” people work.   As a result, typical math instruction is not going to “stick” for him.   I have seen this in him and struggled with the why of it and what to do about it.

So, what did I learn?

  • Thinking is complicated. The left hemisphere of the brain supposedly handles analytic reasoning and sequential processing (think language processing and arithmetic operations).   The right hemisphere is more random and intuitive (think emotional, nonverbal, spatial information).     However, most tasks need both hemispheres and the connections between them (the corpus callosum) are very important. The right brain processes novel situations and the left brain processes more routine information.   Hence, the goal in math is for information to shift to the left brain as concepts and skills are mastered.   However, when there is a breakdown in the communication between the two hemispheres, it’s difficult to attain fluency and automaticity.   This can impact reading, writing, and math computation.   I think this is why some students seem to “get it” one day but then don’t have it a few days later.   (The kid has a perfect exit card on Tuesday but then misses a similar problem on the quiz on Thursday.)
  • People with strong dominance in the auditory/visual learning dimension learn differently and need different things.   I can’t be all things to all people but I can do things in my instruction to meet the needs of both.   I can also teach students what to do to support their own cognitive style.
    • Auditory dominance
How they learn Challenges Instructional strategies
·         Listening to lectures or discussions

·         Talk things through

·         Reading text aloud

·         Interpret underlying meaning through tone of voice, pitch, speed

·         Recognizing letters, words, numbers, spelling

·         Sometimes have a difficult time checking for accuracy

·         Visual tracking problems reduce reading speed, leading to reading comprehension issues

·         Learning info presented on the board is difficult

·         Learning info through charts, graphs, maps may be difficult

·         May inaccurately copy information

·         May ignore math operations signs

·         May transpose letters & numbers

·         Handwriting may be illegible due to inability to stay within lines/margins

·         Provide adequate verbal explanation when info is presented in graphs, charts, graphic organizers

·         Encourage students to read info out loud, use self-talk when view visual info.

·         Use color overlays, guides when reading to help w/ visual tracking.   Can also highlight alternating lines for visual tracking.

·         Turn paper vertically when doing math calculations to help align numbers.     Can also use graph paper and highlight alternating lines.

·         Color code visual material (e.g. operations signs on math papers)

·         Preferential seating (at the front), periodic breaks to reduce eye fatigue

·         Decrease white space on paper

·         Provide copies of info from overhead/board


  • Visual dominance
How they learn Challenges Instructional strategies
·         Think in pictures

·         Learn best when info presented in pictures, graphs, charts, PowerPoint, videos, handouts

·         Prefer to sit at front so they can see teacher’s body language, expression

·         Taking detailed notes

·         Drawing detailed diagrams, webs, pictures in notes

·         Maintaining attention during lectures

·         Tend to misinterpret verbal directions

·         Distracted by background noise

·         Difficulty distinguishing fine differences in speech resulting in mispronounciations, weak phonological awareness

·         Weak decoding skills can lead to reading & spelling challenges

·         Short term memory deficits b/c brain can’t hold info long enough to be processed

·         Use visual supports (charts/graphs) for new learning & to show relationships

·         Provide written outlines or graphic organizers for students to complete during lectures

·         Help to learn how to listen for important info.

·         Provide verbal cues for key info (raise voice, tap S shoulder)

·         Use concise verbal directions. Short simple sentences, paraphrase.

·         Have S highlight important info when reading.   Provide copies of reading material so they can do this.

·         Use multi-sensory approach to teach reading & spelling


  • People with strong dominance in the sequential/conceptual learning dimension learn differently and need different things.    I need to make sure that I give the “big picture” and the details.   I need to show how things connect.   Even though I tend to avoid mnemonics because I see them as “tricks”, some kids are going to need them to keep track of the sequence.
    • Sequential dominance

They tend to do better in school because most curriculum is developed step-by-step.    They may have more success in elementary school and then more difficulty later in school.

How they learn Challenges Instructional strategies
·         Tend to break down info sequentially, compartmentalize steps

·         Study specific aspects

·         Readily memorize info

·         Learn isolated facts


·         Compartmentalization can become rigid

·         Difficulty understanding underlying concepts

·         May have difficulty with reading comprehension, math reasoning, creative writing

·         May have difficulty understanding irony, inference, sarcasm, humor.

·         May have difficulty solving word problems in math

·         May have difficulty generalizing in math

·         Provide conceptual overview when starting lesson & summarizing at end of lesson

·         Show students how facts fit together to build conceptual understanding

·         Provide graphic organizers, charts, outlines when taking notes so S can see “big picture”

·         Show S how learning relates to real world situations

·         Ask S to summarize reading to see if they grasp big ideas


  • Conceptual dominance

They make sense of things by seeing big ideas and relationships.   Then, they fit in the details.  In math, these students may be marked by difficulty with long division (difficulty remembering/following the sequence of steps) and difficulty solving equations.


How they learn Challenges Instructional strategies
·         Focus on concepts

·         Tend to solve math problems in their head

·         Prefer unstructured problems

·         Build a “big picture” then fill in the details

·         Tend to overlook details

·         Have difficulty with sequential steps

·         Have difficulty writing out steps in math problems

·         May have difficulty with math computation

·         May have difficulty with expressive language

·         May have difficulty with writing mechanics

·         Remembering detailed information (names, dates, formulas, steps) is hard

·         May have difficulty determining sequence of a story

·         Whole to part conceptual teaching that focuses on concepts & generalizations lets them use critical thinking and reasoning strengths to solve problems.

·         Begin lesson w conceptual overview

·         Provide graphic organize or outline to help S see connections between concepts

·         Help w/ writing fluency & grammar by using word processing & spell checker

·         Use mnemonics to help remember formulas and steps

·         If necessary, provide student with index cards on a ring.   The index card outlines the steps and the student uses it as needed.

·         Use open-ended assignments


I don’t have any illusions.   I know a little more and can make some changes to help this student succeed.   It’s probably still not going to be a walk in the park, but at least we have a little light on the path now.

While all of this started out as a quest to better understand twice-exceptional students, the information on cognitive style applies more broadly.   I have provided copies of the tables summarizing the information on these four cognitive styles for download below.

Visual Dominance

Auditory Dominance

Sequential Dominance

Conceptual Dominance


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