Conducting Investigations

Designers Should Provide Support by Fostering Multiple Abilities

Steven McGee & Lisa Ann Scott
Copyright © 2001.

What are multiple abilities?

The latest theories regarding student intellectual abilities involve the nature of intelligence, a topic of considerable debate for more than a century. On one side of the debate, psychologists define and measure general intelligence as a single, fixed trait. From the early 20th century Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, tests have been the most commonly used instruments for measuring general intelligence. The idea that a single number can signify someone's level of intelligence is entrenched within the education community. Because IQ scores are a strong predictor of academic performance, schools still use them to sort students into academic tracks (gifted, special needs, college prep, vocational, etc.).

On the other side of the debate, psychologists have recently pointed out that IQ scores are not a good predictor of success outside of school. In their landmark work on intelligence, Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg crystallized many of the arguments against IQ testing when they each proposed a theory of multiple intelligences. They believe a single number cannot capture the complexity of real world, human performance. Instead, both Gardner and Sternberg theorize that there are a variety of intellectual abilities and that it is possible for schools to cultivate all of them.

Gardner's multiple intelligences theory (1993a) is descriptive and encompasses seven intellectual abilities; Sternberg's (1997) is predictive and focuses on three intellectual abilities that predict success in the real world: analytic, creative, and practical.

The National Science Education Standards recommend that students engage in independent scientific research. However, that's a tall order for students new to scientific inquiry. They aren't proficient in the range of intellectual abilities a robust research challenge requires. To prepare students, instructional designers should develop authentic, ill-structured investigations that engage students' analytic, creative, and practical abilities.

Why is fostering multiple abilities important?

  • Fostering multiple abilities improves academic achievement.
    Authentic, ill-structured investigations that foster multiple intellectual abilities are better at improving academic achievement than traditional curricula, which focus on memorization and analytical intelligence (Sternberg, Torff, & Grigorenko, 1998). Authentic, ill-structured investigations enable students to employ their strengths and also challenge them to cultivate their weaker intellectual abilities (Gasiorowski, 1998).
  • Fostering multiple abilities creates positive attitudes toward science.
    Instead of traditional memorization and analytic activities, students with strong creative and practical abilities enjoy authentic, ill-structured investigations (Howard, McGee, Shin, & Shia, 2001). Such investigations give all students the opportunity to contribute meaningfully. That instills a more positive attitude toward science. Conversely, students with strong analytic abilities might be frustrated at first by authentic, ill-structured investigations. Their challenge is to cultivate their creative and practical abilities (Howard et al.; Sternberg & Clinkenbeard, 1995).
  • Fostering multiple abilities makes team research more effective.
    Students bring different abilities to an investigation. That's an advantage for team research because it's unlikely that any one student has all of the abilities needed to complete the investigation. Designing investigations that foster multiple abilities is an effective way to engage students in team research (Cohen, 1994).

How does a designer foster multiple abilities?

  • Design investigations that require the use of analytic, creative, and practical abilities.
    It is important to cultivate different abilities within an investigation (Gardner, 1993b). Instructional activities should not be matched to students' strengths (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000). Instead, they should prompt students to use analytic, creative and practical thinking at different points in the investigation. It's not necessary to engage all three abilities within each activity, but they should be represented across the set of activities within an investigation. By engaging all three abilities, students capitalize on their strengths as well as exercise their weaker abilities (Sternberg, 1998).
  • Help students identify their intellectual strengths and weaknesses.
    Knowing one's cognitive abilities is part of self-regulated learning. The more students are aware of their intellectual strengths and weaknesses, the better they will perform on authentic, ill-structured investigations. See self-regulated learning for details on helping students become more aware of their intellectual abilities.


Cohen, E. G. (1994). Restructuring the classroom: Conditions for productive small groups. Review of Educational Research, 64(1), 1-15.

Gardner, H. (1993a). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1993b). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gasiorowski, J. H. (1998). The relationship between student characteristics and math achievement when using computer spreadsheets. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, West Virginia University, Morgantown.

Howard, B. C., McGee, S., Hong, N. S., & Shia, R. (2001). The triarchic theory of intelligence and computer-based inquiry learning. Educational Technology Research & Development (ETR&D), 49(4), 51-71.

Sternberg, R. J. (1997). Successful intelligence. New York: Plume.

Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Principles of teaching for successful intelligence. Educational Psychologist, 33(2/3), 65-72.

Sternberg, R. J., & Clinkenbeard, P. C. (1995). A triarchic model for identifying, teaching, and assessing gifted children. Roeper Review, 17, 255-260.

Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence. Arlington Heights, IL: SkyLight Training and Publishing Inc.

Sternberg, R. J., Torff, B., & Grigorenko, E. L. (1998). Teaching triarchically improves school achievement. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 90(3), 1-11.

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