Robert Sternberg's mental self-government theory and its contribution to our understanding of first-year distance learners' multiple thinking style preferences

  • WJ Fraser University of Pretoria,
  • D van Ede University of South Africa
  • N Hislop-Esterhuysen University of Pretoria
  • R Owen University of Pretoria


Empirical investigations have revealed that the diversity and flexibility of students' opinions on common thinking style issues and the apparent elusive nature of learning styles account for the often-unpredictable array of personal thinking style preferences. Sternberg contributes to our understanding of mental ability and cognitive performance by equating mental self-governance to the way we manage businesses and institutions. This intelligence (the perception we have of information systems and the way we manage them) will influence the way we think and learn. This also applies to students and specifically to distance learners whose academic performance often depends on their ability to organise and manage information and information systems effectively. To assess this assumption, the Sternberg-Wagner Self-Assessment Inventory was applied to a sample of 503 first-year university and college students at five institutions in South Africa. The measuring instrument and items generated a Cronbach's alpha reliability coefficient of 0.8676, while the first-order and second-order factor analyses reaffirmed the presence of multiple self-management preferences among the distance learners included in the sample. The clustering of an external or field dependent style among respondents was prominent. Another preference supported by the empirical investigation and factor analysis was the association between an executive and a conservative thinking style, the existence of learners who prefer to be critical and analytical when reviewing learning material, and learners who apply a variety and wide range of techniques and strategies when problems have to be solved. The implications of these findings for a better distance education praxis are also explained in the article.

South African Journal of Higher Education Vol.18(2) 2004:206-232

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eISSN: 1011-3487