In today’s world of constant education reform, theories of intelligence and intelligence testing have become essential aspects in the quest to improve student learning. It is no wonder that the measurement of cognitive abilities has become big business in the United States. Developed around the same time, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence are two conflicting theories that seek to explain a person’s capacity for learning. These theories have had a direct impact on the way intelligence is assessed and measured.

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The theory of multiple intelligences was first described by Howard Gardner’s Frame of Mind. According to Hoerr (1996), Gardner’s theory grew out of his work with brain-damaged patients at a Boston hospital (p. 9). Gardner began to question whether abilities or potentials are separate from intelligences. Through his research, Gardner identified eight intelligences: “linguistic (comprehension and expression of written and oral language), logical-mathematical (computation, deductive and inductive reasoning), musical (pitch, melody, rhythm, texture, musical themes, harmony), bodily-kinesthetic (control and coordination, balance, locating self or objects in space), spatial (design, color, form, perspective, balance, contrast), intrapersonal (knowledge and understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses), interpersonal (ability to inspire, instruct, or lead others and respond to their actions, emotions, motivations, and situations), and naturalist (noting the differences that are key to discriminating among several categories or species of objects in the natural world)” (Cantu & Ruban, 2006, p. 866). Gardner’s perspective of intelligence is that people possess different skill sets that make them intelligent in different ways. For example, an artist is intelligent in a way that is different from an athlete or scientist.

According to Cantu and Ruban (2006), Gardner’s popular theory is “a reflection of a more pluralistic view of the mind, which recognizes that many different and discreet facets of cognition exist, and which acknowledges that people have different cognitive strengths and cognitive styles” (p.866). While Gardner initially viewed these intelligences as being independent of each other, he also recognized their tendency to interact.

Another pluralistic theory is Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence which he later renamed the theory of successful intelligence. This theory is composed of three subcategories. The first is the componential subtheory which deals with “the components of intelligence with focus on information processing, including metacomponents, performance components, and knowledge acquisition components” (Cantu & Ruban, 2006, p. 866). The second is “an experiential subtheory dealing with the importance of coping with relative novelty and situational demands and automatization of information processing” (Cantu & Ruban, 2006, p. 866). Finally, the contextual subtheory deals with “processes of purposive adaption and shaping and selection of real-world environments” (Cantu & Ruban, 2006, p. 866). This means an individual whose abilities are within the componential subtheory is more likely to perform well on traditional IQ tests. Alternatively, a creative individual’s strengths would be found within the experiential theory and an academic professional would have strengths in the contextual subtheory.

When analyzing Gardner and Sternberg’s theory, it can be difficult to imagine how an intelligence test can be constructed that produces accurate information about cognitive ability. Although it has become more sophisticated in recent years, intelligence testing continues to be accused of unfairly evaluating test-takers of different races, genders, and socioeconomic statuses. According to Benson (2003), Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has had little impact on intelligence testing because “the kinds of qualitative factor-analytic studies that might validate the theory in the eyes of the testing community have never been conducted” (p.48). In contrast, Sternberg’s Triarchic Abilities Test which relates to his triarchic theory has taken a more direct approach to changing the world of intelligence testing. Sternberg created a project designed to predict college success. Benson (2003) states that “Sternberg and his collaborators found that triarchic measures predicted a significant portion of the variance in college grade point average (GPA), even after SAT scores and high school GPA has been accounted for” (p. 48). Not only did this test seem to provide a more accurate gauge of college success, it also provided less testing bias between ethnic groups. Sternberg’s ultimate goal is to create a test that could replace the SAT.

Two approaches to intelligence testing are the neuropsychological approach and the dynamic approach. In his article, Daniel (1997) describes the differences between the two and states that “whereas the neuropsychological approach to intelligence testing offers a conceptualization of abilities that is an alternative to that of the psychometric model, the dynamic assessment approach is less concerned with the structure of abilities and more interested in a different aspect of intelligent behavior, namely, the ability to learn” (p.1040). While these may be trends assessing cognitive ability, intelligence testing is in a constant fluid state. Daniel (1997) states that “the evolution of intelligence testing will be shaped by developments in theory and in basic and applied research” (p. 1042). However, with so many broad theories on how to understand the complex capacity of the mind, the future of intelligence testing may take on many forms.

In conclusion, intelligence testing is directly related to the research conducted by theorists who have conflicting views on what intelligence looks like. In order to accurately assess a person’s intelligence, there must be a concrete definition of intelligence. To create this definition, one must place value on what skills and talents constitute a person as being intelligent. It is possible, however, to assess many different facets of a person’s cognitive ability and apply them to academic and professional success.

  • Benson, E. (2003, February). Intelligent Intelligence Testing. American Psychological Association, 34(2), 48.
  • Cantu, C. A., & Ruban, L. M. (2003). Multiple Intelligences. Encyclopedia of Human Development, 864-871.
  • Daniel, M. H. (1997, October). Intelligence Testing: Status and Trends. American Psychologist, 52(10), 1038-1045.
  • Hoerr, T. R. (1996, November). Introducing the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. National Association of Secondary School Principals, 80(3), 9.