Third International Conference on the Teaching of Psychology
Nicholas F. Skinner,
King’s University College at The University of Western Ontario,


According to Kirton, personality is comprised of three domains of individual difference variables, namely, traits, abilities, and cognitive styles. The Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) is a measure of cognitive style, that is, an individual’s preferred approach to bringing about change (particularly through problem-solving). The KAI (maximum score = 160, theoretical mean = 90) measures an individual’s preference for working within existing guidelines or paradigms (the adaptor) versus the wish to be unconstrained by rules or regulations (the innovator). It assesses three cognitive style factors: Originality (O), Efficiency (E), and Rule-Group Conformity (R). The present paper summarizes the results of research into the implications of an individual’s characteristic position on the adaption-innovation continuum for being an effective teacher or student.

In Study One, a representative sample of first-year undergraduates (30 females, 21 males; mean age 18.1 years) responded to the KAI as it would be completed by either a “good” teacher or a “bad” teacher. Support was found for the prediction that good teachers would be characterized by higher Originality and lower Efficiency and Rule-Group Conformity sub-scale scores. That is, compared to bad teachers, better teachers were seen to produce not only more ideas (O; p<.05), but ideas that were more conventional (R) and more “on target” (E; p<.05). Interestingly, total KAI scores for both types of teachers were virtually identical, and close to the theoretical mean.

In a parallel study, 32 female and 16 male undergraduates (mean age = 18.3 years) simulated the cognitive style of an “academically strong” or “academically weak” student. As predicted, the results of Study Two mirrored those of Study One, that is, better students were ascribed higher O and lower E and R scores than their weaker counterparts. Again, overall KAI scores were very similar and near the theoretical mean. The findings of these two studies suggest that, notwithstanding differences in the specifics of their approaches to problem solving, successful and unsuccessful teachers and students are adaptors rather than innovators.

This striking finding may be a reflection of the morphology of contemporary undergraduate psychology courses (at least in North America). Forty years ago, Cattell asserted that the classrooms of the day favoured submissive students. Though it can be argued that little has changed since Cattell’s original pronouncement, Study Three tested the hypothesis that the docility and imitativeness of the good examination-passer are less a function of temperamental submissiveness than the adaptor’s preference for orderliness and rules. A substantial positive correlation (r = 0.43) was found between adaption (KAI) and submissiveness (16 PF) in 91 female and 44 male introductory psychology students (mean age 19.3 years). In addition, correlations of 0.36 and 0.14 were found between adaption and examination performance and submissiveness and examination performance, respectively.

The latter findings suggest that the present format of most undergraduate psychology courses fosters the greater success of adaptive (submissive) than innovative (dominant) students. In light of the considerable evidence that dominant individuals perform better at the postgraduate level and beyond, the desirability of restructuring the top-down, content-oriented structure of traditional undergraduate instruction is clear.

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© 2008 Victor Karandashev