The Effectiveness of Triarchic Teaching and Assessment

Spring 2000 Masthead

Robert J. Sternberg, Elena L. Grigorenko, and Linda Jarvin
Yale University
New Haven, CT

Pamela Clinkenbeard
University of Wisconsin
Whitewater, WI

Michel Ferrari
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Bruce Torff
Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY

According to Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, intelligence results from information processing components being applied to experience for the purposes of adaptation to, shaping of, and selection of environments. According to this theory, intelligence and the intellectual skills that constitute it and form the basis of intellectual achievements are forms of developing expertise-they can be developed just like any other forms of expertise. Abilities are not fixed, but rather, flexible.

Basics of the Triarchic Theory

The triarchic theory is based on the notion that all students need to learn a problem solving cycle. First, they need to identify problems. In other words, they need to know that they must get their homework done, study for a test, write a paper, and get it in on time. Second, they need to allocate resources for solving the problem. For example, they need to think in advance about how much time and effort to allocate to doing homework, studying for a test, or writing a paper. They also need to plan when they will start and finish their work. Third, they need to formulate a strategy for solving the problem. For example, they need to decide how to get their homework done, or study for the test, or get their paper written. What kinds of notes will they use? What kinds of study strategies will work best given what they need to do? What kind of help will they need? Fourth, they need to monitor their problem solving. For example, as they are studying or writing a paper, they need to be aware of whether things are going smoothly, or whether they are encountering problems they need to fix. Fifth, they need to evaluate their problem solving. After they are done with the task on which they are working, they have to decide whether their work is adequate or whether they need to improve on what they have done.

According to the triarchic theory, three kinds of thinking are essential to problem solving, in particular, and to human intelligence, in general.

  • Analytical thinking occurs when the components are applied to relatively familiar types of problems in their abstracted form. Analytical thinking is involved when people analyze, evaluate, judge, compare and contrast, and critique. For example, a student might be asked to evaluate the assumptions underlying a logical argument or to compare and contrast the themes underlying two short stories.
  • Creative thinking occurs when the components of information processing are applied to relatively novel types of problems. Creative thinking is involved when people create, invent, discover, explore, suppose, and imagine. For example, a student might be asked to create a poem or to invent a better mouse trap.
  • Practical thinking occurs when the components of information processing are applied to highly contextualized, everyday problems. Practical thinking is involved when people apply, use, utilize, implement, and contextualize. For example, a student might be asked how the lessons of the Vietnam War are and are not relevant to the situation that has arisen in Serbia, or how to apply algebraic techniques to determining compound interest on an investment.
Validation of Theory

We are interested not just in proposing theories, but also in conducting rigorous tests of these theories in the laboratory, classroom, and workplace. Some of the main findings from these studies are the following:

  1. The analytical, creative, and practical aspects of intelligence can be measured via both multiple-choice and essay formats. Formal modeling supports the triarchic model of intelligence over competing models, such as a model of an overarching general factor and a model of content factors. Analytical, creative, and practical intelligence are essentially distinct; there is no general factor of intelligence that applies across all kinds of intellectual tasks.
  2. Tests of analytical intellectual abilities tend to correlate well with conventional tests of intellectual abilities because these tests measure what the conventional tests measure.
  3. Tests of creative intellectual abilities are relatively domain specific and correlate weakly to moderately with conventional tests of intelligence, with the correlations being higher the more novel the content of the conventional tests.
  4. Tests of practical intellectual abilities correlate weakly or not at all with conventional tests of intelligence and predict real world occupational success as well as or better than conventional tests of academic intelligence, thus complementing conventional tests. Under special circumstances, tests of practical intelligence may show negative correlations with conventional ability tests.
Our Data

In our earlier research, we showed that it is possible through instructional interventions to improve analytical-thinking skills, creative-thinking skills, and practical-thinking skills. In our more recent research, we have shown that the triarchic theory can be applied to improve students’ achievement in school (Sternberg, 1997; Sternberg et al., 2000).

The Triarchic Aptitude Treatment Interaction Study

In this study, we examined whether the triarchic theory would give rise to an aptitude treatment interaction in the context of a college level psychology course taught to high school students who were selected for their triarchic ability pattern, and then taught in a way that either better or more poorly matched their ability pattern, and whose achievement was assessed triarchically as well. Thus, a crucial aspect of this study was that identification of participants, instruction of participants, and assessment of participants’ achievement all were based on triarchic theory of intelligence. The motivation for this study was to show that conventional means of teaching and assessment may systematically undervalue creatively and practically oriented students. These students may have the ability to perform quite well, but they may perform at lower levels than those of which they are capable because neither the form of instruction nor the form of assessment well matches their pattern of strength.

Participants consisted of 199 high school students (146 females and 53 males) from among 326 who were tested and who were selected for participation in a summer program on the basis of their patterns of abilities. Program participants were 60% European-American, 11% African-American, 6% Hispanic-American, and 17% American from another ethnic minority (thus a total of 34% U.S. ethnic minority). Another 4% were from South Africa and 2% were from other locations.

Participants were identified as high in analytical ability (20%), high in creative ability (19%), high in practical ability (18%), balanced high (i.e., high in all three abilities—20%), and balanced low (i.e., low in all three abilities—24%). Identification was accomplished via a research form of the Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test (STAT), which is based on the triarchic theory. There were 9 multiple choice tests, crossing 3 types of abilities (analytical, creative, practical) with 3 types of content (verbal, quantitative, figural), plus 3 essay tests (analytical, creative, practical). For example, the analytical verbal multiple choice test involved inference of meanings of unknown words from paragraph contexts, and the practical figural multiple choice test involved route planning use maps. As another example, the creative essay required participants to design their ideal school.

The 4-week long instruction for the course involved common and unique elements for each instructional group. Two parts were common: the college level psychology text, which contained analytical, creative, and practical content; and the morning lectures, taught by an award winning teacher, which involved analytical, creative, and practical elements. The experimental manipulation occurred in the afternoon when participants were assigned to a discussion section that emphasized either memory, analytical, creative, or practical processing, and that either was a better or a poorer match to the participants’ tested pattern of abilities.

As an example, memory oriented instruction might ask students to recall the main elements of the cognitive theory of depression; analytically oriented instruction might ask students to compare and contrast the cognitive to the psychoanalytic theory of depression; creatively oriented instruction might ask students to invent their own theory of depression, drawing on, but going beyond past theories; and practically oriented instruction might ask students to show how they could use existing theories of depression to help a depressed friend.

All participants were tested via homework assignments, a midterm examination, a final examination, and an independent project. All assessments were evaluated for analytical, creative, and practical achievement. The examinations also included multiple choice items that measured memory achievement.

All correlations of ability tests scores (analytical, creative, practical) with all measures of achievement were statistically significant, reflecting perhaps the fact that the instruction and assessment were guided by the same theory as was the identification instrument (i.e., the STAT). More important was the aptitude-treatment interaction, which also was statistically significant for all ability groups. In other words, students who were better matched triarchically in terms of their pattern of abilities outperformed students who were more poorly matched. Perhaps as interesting was the result that the analytical (IQ-like) test tended to identify as gifted, mostly White children, of middle to upper middle socioeconomic class background, who were students in so-called “good” schools. The creative and practical tests, however, identified students from a much wider mixture of ethnic groups, socioeconomic levels, and educational backgrounds as gifted.

The Triarchic Instructional Studies in Social Studies and Science

In a follow-up set of studies, we sought to show that in terms of simple main effects, triarchic instruction is potentially superior to other forms of instruction, regardless of students’ ability patterns. The triarchic theory holds that students should be instructed in a way that helps them both capitalize on their strengths and correct and compensate for weaknesses. Thus, ideally, students will be taught in all three ways (analytically, creatively, practically), as well as for memory. These studies were conducted in the students’ own schools rather than in a special summer school setting; their teachers were their actual classroom teachers; and the material they studied was the actual material they were studying as part of their regular instruction, suitably modified as necessary for the study.

Participants in a primary school study included 213 third grade students (106 boys and 107 girls) in two elementary schools in Raleigh, NC. Both schools serve a diverse population of almost exclusively lower socioeconomic status students, including large groups of African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian students. A total of nine classes of 20-25 students each participated in the research.

During the intervention, students received an instructional unit on the topic of communities—a social studies unit required for third grade students in North Carolina. No formal text was used for the unit, rather, materials were developed by teachers. The intervention took place for 10 weeks, 4 days per week, for 45 minutes per day, for a total of 30 hours of instruction.

Participants in a secondary school study consisted of 141 rising eighth graders (68 boys and 73 girls) drawn from around the nation from predominantly White middle-class backgrounds. Students took a summer psychology course either in Baltimore, MD, or Fresno, CA, in connection with the Center for Academic Advancement at John Hopkins University. The 10 section course took place in two intensive 3-week sessions. Classes met 5 days per week with 7 hours of class time per day.

In both studies, students were divided into three instructional groups: traditional (memory oriented), critical thinking (analytically oriented), and triarchic (analytically, creatively, and practically oriented). Instructional time was the same in each condition, and all teachers were appropriately in-serviced.

To illustrate the three different instructional treatments, consider three ways in which a third grade unit on public services (e.g., fire, police) can be taught. The approach taken in the traditional instruction was to have children memorize the names and functions of the various public services. In critical thinking instruction, an additional analytical effort was undertaken whereby students would compare and contrast the different services and evaluate which ones to keep—and why—in case of a budget crisis. In triarchic instruction, students might additionally be asked to invent their own public service, to describe its means and ends, and to compare this new public service with conventional ones.

Students in both studies were evaluated for memory-based achievement (via multiple choice tests), as well as for analytical, creative, and practical achievement (via essay tests). For example, a memory oriented assessment might ask which of several officials is an elected official. An analytical assessment might ask students to write a page explaining what a person in a given governmental position (e.g., Mayor of Raleigh) does, why the position is needed, and why the position is one of authority. A creative assessment might ask the student to imagine a place where no one tried to be a good citizen, and to write about a third grader’s visit to this place. A practical assessment might ask the student how to handle a situation in which he or she is in charge of teaching 8-year-old students visiting from England different kinds of government services available in Raleigh, NC.

The results from the two studies were roughly comparable. In general, triarchic instruction was superior to the other modes of instruction, even on memory based multiple-choice items. In other words, students showed better academic performance through triarchic instruction even if their achievement was measured in terms of pure memory-based performance. In the elementary school study, students also were administered a self-assessment questionnaire for which the students were asked how much they liked the course, how much they thought they learned in the course, and how well they thought they did in the course. The students in the triarchic group generally gave significantly higher ratings than did the students in the other two groups.

The Triarchic Reading Studies

More recently, we have extended our work on applying the triarchic theory in the classroom to the goal of improving reading performance (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000). We chose as a target a group of students with the average reading scores among the lowest in the state of Connecticut (according to the Connecticut Mastery Test scores), namely, students in New Haven public schools. The project had three parts. One part was a middle school community study, a second part a Summerbridge (summer program) study, and a third part a study in a community high school. All of these studies were long-term and were fully infused, building on existing curriculum units rather than introducing new ones. As in the earlier studies, we were trying to help teachers improve what they were already doing (e.g., teaching reading), rather than giving them a new curriculum that they would most likely reject for lack of time.

The first, the middle school study, involved two phases. In phase 1, 2 schools (10 teachers and 146 students) participated as an experimental group and 2 schools (4 teachers and 171 students) participated as a control group. In phase 2, 4 schools (14 teachers and 350 students) participated as an experimental group and 3 schools (9 teachers and 225 students) participated as control groups. The reading material in this study was the actual material the students were studying in school, namely, stories from Light Up the Sky, a Harcourt Brace Treasury of Literature basal reader. In this study, all students received a pretest involving 2 vocabulary, 2 comprehension, and 2 homework (a take home section) assessments, and a posttest with the same elements. Only the experimental students received the intervention, with the other students receiving their normal reading instruction. All teachers (experimental and control) were involved in professional development geared to their appropriate role. Thus, experimental group teachers were involved in triarchic teaching, and control group teachers on the use of mnemonics to help improve student memory performance. The program lasted from November through the remainder of the school year.

The second, the Summerbridge study, was smaller in scope, involving 5 teachers and 33 seventh graders as an experimental group and no teachers and 29 seventh graders as a control group. In this study, all students were accepted for a summer program, and then the experimental students who were selected at random from the total group were told that they would get the summer program in the summer of 1998. The control students, also randomly selected, participated in the summer program in the summer of 1999. In the Summerbridge study, the reading material was chosen by regular teachers of the program, and included two novels, A Raisin in the Sun and The Lottery Rose. All students received a pretest and posttest. The 6-week intervention was given only to experimental group students.

In these studies, the goal was to supplement standard reading instruction—which included both phonic and whole language elements—with a specifically triarchic intervention. An example of an analytical activity would be to create a time line that requires students to order a series of major events that happened in a story. For the story “Teacher for a Day,” students are told that first Belva went to school, then Miss Englehardt became dizzy, then Belva taught the class, then ____, then Belva used the lever to move the rock. The students had to fill in the blank with one of four events. An example of a creative activity, performed after reading the story “Many Moons,” required students to speculate, on the basis of incomplete information, on why there are rainbows after storms, why rainbows might have so many different colors, and why cows say “Moo” so much of the time. An example of a practical activity, done after the students read “A New Home in Ohio,” required students to plan an escape from slavery using an underground railroad. Students were given a map, a set of tools, and a set of survival rules to aid them in planning the escape route.

The third study at the high school involved our working with teachers in different subject matter areas (English, mathematics, science, arts, social science, history, and foreign languages), with a focus on teaching reading for content. The participants in the study were high school students attending grades 10 through 12 in high schools in New Haven and Ansonia, Connecticut. A total of 432 students (130 females, 215 males, and 87 of unreported gender) participated in the study. Of these students, 201 (46.5%) were attending schools enrolled in the triarchic group (2 New Haven schools) and 231 were attending the control school (in Ansonia). Teachers’ guides and student assessments were developed based on each teacher’s specific curriculum.

We analyzed the data from these studies in a variety of ways. One way was to look at changes in teacher behavior. Before our middle school intervention, teachers in a typical classroom lesson used an average of 18 memory analytical activities (combined), 0 creative activities, and 3 practical activities. After the intervention, experimental group teachers used an average of 18 memory analytical activities, 13 creative activities, and 17 practical activities. The intervention thus had a huge (and significant) effect on teacher behavior in the teaching of reading. Analysis of individual teacher behavior revealed that almost all individual teachers showed changes in behavior as a result of the intervention. Teachers also were asked to rate the program on various facets on a 1 (low) to 7 (high) scale. Sample ratings were 6.4 for interest to the teacher, 6.0 for interest to students, 6.2 for motivating the teacher, and 6.1 for motivating the students. Students were also asked for their feedback. Of the total, 35% liked the activities very much, 51% liked the activities, 10% did not care much one way or the other, 2% disliked the activities, and 2% hated the activities. Most importantly though, were the assessments of objective improvement. In the middle school study, the experimental students showed significantly greater gains than the controls in reading and vocabulary. For the Summerbridge study, the experimental students in the program showed significantly greater gains than the control students in analytical, creative, and practical achievement. Overall gains were significantly greater for experimental than for control group students. In the high school study, a comparison of students’ reading/writing skills before and after the intervention suggested that the triarchic teaching improved students’ performance significantly more than did conventional teaching. As was the case at the middle school level, both teachers and students rated the program positively.


Triarchic teaching—teaching students not only for memory, but for analytical, creative, and practical processing—works. It improves achievement assessed via either conventional or performance assessments at all grade levels and in all subject matter areas we have examined, across a range of socioeconomic and achievement levels of students.

Triarchic teaching is easy to do. The main principles are simple:

  1. Some of the time, teach analytically, helping students learn to analyze, evaluate, compare and contrast, critique, and judge.
  2. Some of the time, teach creatively, helping students learn to create, invent, imagine, discover, explore, and suppose.
  3. Some of the time, teach practically, helping students learn to apply, use, utilize, contextualize, implement, and put into practice.
  4. Some of the time, enable all students to capitalize on their strengths.
  5. Most of the time, enable all students to correct or compensate for their weaknesses.
  6. Make sure your assessments match your teaching, calling upon analytical, creative, and practical as well as memory skills.
  7. Value the diverse patterns of abilities in all students.

Any teacher knows how to teach triarchically. Our goal is simply to give teachers a simple-to-follow “recipe” to make sure the teachers do what they already know how to do. You can start teaching triarchically right away, and start seeing significant improvements in your own students’ achievements and attitudes.

Sternberg, R. J. (1997). Successful intelligence. New York, NY: Plume.
Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight.
Sternberg, R. J., Forsythe, G. B., Hedlund, J., Horvath, J., Snook, S., Williams, W. M., . . . & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Practical intelligence in everyday life. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


Back to Newsletter Articles Page