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Forms of Intelligence

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Gardner (1999) refers to these varying degrees of proficiency as forms of intelligence. He identified nine forms of intelligence that people use to create something new, solve life’s problems, or find a solution to a complex physical, structural, or biological problem.


The posting below looks at various forms of intelligence particularly as they relate to learning in on-campus residence halls, but which clearly apply in many other settings. It is from Chapter 3, How Students Learn in Residence Halls, in the book, Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why, by Gregory S. Blimling. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Brand, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594, Copyright © 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Forms of Intelligence


Most universities offer admission to students who demonstrate linguistic intelligence, logical/mathematical intelligence, and analytical (existential) intelligence. Common standardized tests used in the college admission process, such as the SAT and the ACT, assess students’ knowledge in these areas. Also, the core curricula of most colleges emphasize increasing students’ knowledge in these areas. Yet being knowledgeable and being intelligent are not the same. Being knowledgeable generally refers to having access to information and facts as well as the ability to recall them. Intelligence usually refers to a person’s ability to reason, solve problems, think critically, comprehend subject matter, use language to communicate effectively, construct relationships, employ logic, and manipulate numbers (Gardner, 1999). College students are not either intelligent or not intelligent; instead, they are likely to be better at some learning tasks than others.

Forms of Intelligence

Gardner (1999) refers to these varying degrees of proficiency as forms of intelligence. He identified nine forms of intelligence that people use to create something new, solve life’s problems, or find a solution to a complex physical, structural, or biological problem:

1. Linguistic intelligence is the ability to use language and express oneself orally and in writing.

2. Logical/mathematical intelligence is the ability to understand mathematical logic and use the principles of mathematics to manipulate numbers, quantities, and
mathematical operations.

3. Musical rhythmic intelligence is the ability to think in music, hear musical patterns, manipulate patterns, feel the music, and reproduce it in an aesthetically
pleasing way.

4. Bodily/kinesthetic intelligence is the physical ability to use one’s body to solve a problem, create something (dance or act), or accomplish something (speed or

5. Spatial intelligence is the ability to perceive spatial relationships, or employ this intelligence to create something, navigate somewhere, solve a chess problem,
or accurately sculpt something.

6. Naturalist intelligence is the ability to understand and differentiate among elements of the physical/natural world – the type of intelligence seen in those skilled
at farming, hunting, herbal medicine, botany, and environmentalism.

7. Intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to understand self and what one can and cannot do well, how to react and how to avoid conflict, and how to accept
personal responsibility for self-direction.

8. Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to correctly interpret social interactions and to understand other people.

9. Existential intelligence is the capacity for deep reflective thinking about complex questions concerning reality, life, death, and cosmology.

Individuals possess all nine forms of intelligence, but to varying degrees. Cultures and occupations use and value forms of intelligence differently. The ability to navigate in open seas without a global positioning satellite (GPS) device requires spatial-relationship intelligence. This was highly prized among Polynesian people who navigated among small islands in the Pacific Ocean and is also valued among architects, artists, and chess players. However, universities do not normally assess this form of intelligence when selecting students for admission, even though certain curricula help students develop it for some occupations.

Merely living in a traditional RH (residence hall) does not directly increase students’ abilities in the first six of these forms of intelligence. A student does not become better at calculus or composition by living in a RH. Although it is possible to advance learning in these areas by constructing a special residential learning environment, it does not happen without organizing the peer environment to specifically facilitate that form of learning. Most forms of learning in RHs occur through the intermediate peer environment of conversation, social encounter, intentional and unintentional experiences, and opportunities to explore interests. Students might become better chess players by living in RHs because they find other students who enjoy playing the game and a nightly chess match becomes recreation. Over time, the experience of playing chess might improve students’ spatial relationship intelligence, but most RHs are not designed to increase chess skills or spatial intelligence. Learning of this type takes place because RHs create environments in which students of common interest live, interact, connect, and engage with each other in activities that result in learning.

Intrapersonal Intelligence

RHs have the most direct effect on intrapersonal, interpersonal, and existential intelligence. Intrapersonal intelligence is concerned with self-knowledge including self-awareness, self-motivation, introspection, and appreciating the conditions of others (Gardner, 1999). Because students live together in RHs, they are confronted by multiple social and academic situations that require them to think about themselves in relationship to their peers. Students quickly learn what they do well and what others do better. Living with other students creates friendships that compel disclosure of personal information that, in turn, allows students to better articulate aspects of their identities. In return, these students benefit from similar disclosures about the life experiences and beliefs of their peers. These social interactions enhance intrapersonal skills by allowing students to gauge their own self-knowledge against that of other students. Consistent with exposure to intrapersonal sharing is the psychosocial and neurobiological development process that creates the capacity to engage the experience of self-reflection and learn from it (Siegel, 2012). Students improve these skills through practice and by being placed in increasingly more complex social situations (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Lee & Kalyuga, 2014).

Interpersonal Intelligence

RHs also facilitate the development of interpersonal intelligence. The simple act of group living requires the development of knowledge and skills for collective coexistence. Students learn to understand the motives of other people, how to communicate, and how to perceive and understand the feelings and expressions of others. Some students have strong interpersonal skills, and they thrive in RHs. Other students struggle with what to say, how to say it, how to engage others, and how to make friends. RHs facilitate the development of social knowledge and skills in this area by exposing students to other students, some of whom serve as models of highly skilled interpersonal intelligence. In other circumstances, students learn through the process of trial and error. Learning to relate to others in a group can happen only in part by observation. At some point, students need to engage others, and in doing so they receive positive and sometimes negative feedback about those interactions. “Interpersonal experiences directly influence how we mentally construct reality,” and the pattern of those relationships “directly affects the development of the brain” (Siegel, 2012, p. 9).

Emotional Expression

One type of interpersonal skill students learn is how to interpret and express emotions in socially appropriate ways. Neurobiological research shows that emotional intelligence in late adolescence is still under development; it is still being processed in the medial prefrontal cortex instead of the dorsolateral cortex area of the brain used by adults (Blakemore, 2005; Burnett et al., 2009). Traditional-age students are in the process of learning to understand and accurately interpret the emotions of others and to adapt their emotional expressions to conform to adult expectations.

People have access to the same basic emotions; however, they must learn how to express them. Plutchik (1980) identifies eight basic human emotions that serve as mechanisms for human survival and social group living. He believes that these basic emotions were learned as part of evolutionary human experience. Although there are many ways to express emotions, Plutchik believes that only eight are prototype emotions common to all people: trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation, and joy. Emotions are psycho-physiological reactions to experiences expressed with different degrees of intensity defined by social/emotional circumstances. This fits with Siegel’s (2012) assertion that emotions serve as a “central organizing process within the brain … [that] directly shapes the ability of the mind to integrate experience and to adapt to future stressors” (p. 9).

Learning how to express emotions within a social system is knowledge acquired through social interaction governed by the rules and customs of the culture. One culture may encourage open and intense expression of emotional feelings, whereas another may see that same behavior as inappropriate. The exception is primal emotions, such as fear when confronted by a predator. Emotional expression is a matter of how much or the degree to which one expresses an emotion. Plutchik’s (1980) eight basic emotions include continuums from minimal to extreme expression:

Trust: acceptance to admiration
Fear: timidity to terror
Surprise: uncertainty to amazement
Sadness: gloominess to grief
Disgust: dislike to loathing
Anger: annoyance to fury
Anticipation: interest to vigilance
Joy: serenity to ecstasy

Combinations of these basic emotions create other forms of expressions. For example, the combination of the emotions joy and trust produce love, while the combination of the emotions anticipation and anger produce aggression (Plutchik, 1980).

Social interactions in RHs establish expectations for emotional expression and provide students with peers who model emotionally mature responses as well as those who do not. Emotional expression is tied to gender and is reinforced through interactions with members of the same gender. In her longitudinal study of young males, Way (2013) observed a significant change in the manner in which young men expressed emotions as they entered late adolescence. The young men decreased their use of vulnerable words such as love and sadness and increased words related to frustration and anger. She attributes this change in emotional expression to the “mainstream perception in the United States … that autonomy, independence, and emotional stoicism are the most important aspects of maturity” for men (p. 210). Eliot’s (2009) research on neuroplasticity, emotions, and cognition shows that women are not naturally more emotional than men. She found that social and cultural influences are responsible for shaping gender-related stereotypes that discourage emotional expression in men and support it in women. The social interpersonal environment in RHs tends to reinforce gender stereotypes for fulfilling adult role expectations consistent with commonly held notions of how adult males and females are expected to behave.

Sociocultural Acumen

Another form of interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand and learn from interactions with people from other racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Crisp and Turner (2011) argue that experiencing social cultural diversity, such as what students are likely to encounter in RHs, challenges stereotypes and has long-term positive consequences on cognitive processes that positively influence other domains of thinking and reasoning. Experiencing diversity challenges expectations not only by increasing acceptance of different cultural, ethnic, and racial groups but also by enhancing students’ overall psychological functioning (Crisp & Turner, 2011). Pascarella (1996) reached a similar conclusion from the national study of student learning that found that diversity experiences in the first year of college had long-term positive effects on critical thinking throughout college, particularly for white students.

Interpersonal intelligence and other cognitive skills increase as a result of living in RHs because RHs bring together students from different racial, ethnic, cultural, and social class groups during a time of their lives when they are predisposed to learn, connecting with peers, engaged in a common pursuit (college), and open to new experiences. Students who live at home with parents and commute to college are less likely to have these opportunities.

Existential Intelligence

Living in a RH offers ample opportunity for students to engage and challenge each other about complex moral and religious issues concerning the purpose of life and personal goals. Such questions are the subject of reflective thought with others who may share divergent opinions about these questions. However, each question requires students to construct cogent arguments to offer other students in discussions. If their arguments are weak or dogmatic, peers are likely to challenge them and force greater reflective thinking and more coherent reasoning.

In situations where students live together and take one or more academic course together, RHs create opportunities for cognitive elaboration by using information discussed in class in out-of-classroom conversations. It is easy to imagine how a group of students in a world history class who live together in an RH might enter into a conversation about the morality of war or whether atomic bombs should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. If the residents participating in that discussion include both American and international students, the conversation could open a wide range of political, social, moral, religious, and racial issues that challenge the students to restructure previously held beliefs and alter cognitive schema to accommodate more complex ways of understanding the inherent issues. This is exactly the type of synergistic learning that RHs offer. However, these experiences do not necessarily occur by programmatic design. Instead, they occur indirectly by virtue of the collective experience of students living together and interacting.

It is highly likely that most students experience some of these intellectual engagements in RHs (Cullum & Harton, 2007). Yet students do not experience the same conversations on the same subjects or engage other students in discussions of deep moral and social issues in the same way. As a result, RHs have different effects on different students, and the degree of learning that takes place with students is partially idiosyncratic to students’ individual experiences.

RH research does not attempt to detail what each student learns. Instead, it explores the collective learning experience compared with students in different living situations. This generalization or averaging of what most students learn may be useful for describing common learning outcomes, but it misses the individuality of student learning through the experiences of RH living. Attempts to capture the quality of students’ individual experiences are best gained through qualitative and ethnographic research that adds depth and dimension often missing in quantitative research (Moffatt, 1989; Nathan, 2005; Seaman, 2005).

Experiential Learning

Some learning in RHs may increase the mastery of content-specific information, such as an educational program or workshop on a topic of interest. Other forms of learning are experiential, such as participating in RH student government, organizing an educational program or field trip, volunteering, and serving as a resident assistant (RA). These experiences teach functionally transferable skills such as organization, working within policy structures, civic engagement, cultural awareness, and management skills.

Experiential learning creates cognitive understanding and information retention through the transformative process of experience (Kolb, 1984; Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 1999). Siegel (2012) explains that the transformative process of learning through experience “directly shapes the [neurological] circuits responsible for such processes as memory, emotion, and self-awareness … [by] altering both the activity and the structure of the connections between neurons” (p. 9).

Kolb (1984) outlines four stages of experiential learning: (1) concert experience; (2) reflective observations; (3) abstract conceptualization; and (4) active experimentation. Students can start anywhere in the process but return to test their understandings and modify them based on experience. For example, a student could experience giving a speech at an RH student government meeting (concept experience), consider how well she did (reflective observation), make certain generalizations about the experience to previous speeches (abstract conceptualization), and based on this process modify her speaking style in future speeches (active experimentation). Students’ choices about where to start in the experiential learning cycle are based on their epistemological beliefs about their own learning strength and weaknesses.

Students must take the initiative to learn by engaging other students and participating in formal learning opportunities, such as programs and workshops offered in RHs. When students struggle with how to learn or process experiences on their own, RAs and residence life professionals are available to help them translate their experiences into learning through advising, feedback, and counseling.


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