Remaking the Concept of Aptitude: Extending the Legacy of Richard E. Snow

reviewed by Norman Milgram - 2003

coverTitle: Remaking the Concept of Aptitude: Extending the Legacy of Richard E. Snow
Author(s): Lyn Corno, Lee J. Cronbach, Haggai Kupermintz, David F. Lohman, Ellen B. Mandinach, Anne W. Porteus and Joan E. Talbert
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805835326 , Pages: 312, Year: 2001
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A reviewer has two major tasks. The first is easy, to provide information about the book so that review readers will know if the book is of interest to them. The second task is more difficult, namely to provide a critique of the book so that readers will have the benefit of a professional opinion on the importance of its goals and the extent to which these goals are achieved. The title and subtitle of this book makes the first task easier than usual. The book is the product of the collaboration of seven intimate colleagues (including the widow) of Richard Snow, a prominent educational psychologist at Stanford University. Following Snow’s untimely and sudden death at age 61 in 1997, the seven banded together to review his published and unpublished work and to prepare a volume that would summarize where he had been and to project ahead where he was going.


Snow’s own research on the concept of aptitude as it applies to academic settings extended over a 35-year period, and the collaborative labor of love that produced this book extended over several years. The outcome of their endeavors does honor to the man and to the authors, as indicated below, but presents considerable difficulty for the intended lay and professional audience. Teachers and parents lack the background to comprehend the concepts and the research findings cited. Many psychologists and educational researchers will also find technical sections of this book difficult to understand. 


The title of the opening chapter, “The Once and Future Concept,” conveys the high aspirations of Snow and his colleagues to make the concept of aptitude central to psychology in general and to educational psychology in particular. Consider the broad definition of aptitude in the preface written by Snow himself, “the characteristics of behavior that make for success or failure in life’s important pursuits.” Although he worked exclusively in educational psychology, Snow regarded the multi-faceted concept of aptitude as central to all human endeavors. The operational definition of aptitude, “the degree of readiness to learn and to perform well in a particular situation or in a fixed domain,” emphasizes several key ideas in Snow’s work.


(1) Unity of inner and outer: An aptitude in isolation may be regarded as a potential propensity within the individual, but in practice, an aptitude is an application of an ability to a specific situation; it yields a successful result only if it meets the requirements/challenges of a given situation. As a consequence a given aptitude may be advantageous in one situation and deleterious in another.


(2) Aptitudes differ in quality as well as quantity. Aptitudes are typically associated with cognitive abilities and refer to situation-specific applications of fluid-analytic reasoning, crystallized-scholastic achievement, memory, visual-spatial-mechanical abilities, etc. There are, however, in Snow’s theory, conative and affective aptitudes as well. Conative aptitudes refer to successive motivational processes (e.g., wishes, wants, intentions, and sustained implementation) and to various aspects of self-regulation (action orientation, action controls, investment of mindful effort, and self-regulation). Affective aptitudes include not only characteristic moods and personal-social traits, but also beliefs and values. These aptitude categories and a number of category exemplars are clearly defined, and many of the measures to which they refer meet high psychometric standards. Snow is not alone in asserting that variables associated with intelligence and personality are relevant to success or failure in a given pursuit. Few theorists, however, incorporate cognitive, conative, and affective aptitudes in a single overarching theory that assigns cognitive aptitudes to the intelligence, affective to personality, and conative to both.  


(3) Means and ends. Aptitudes are not only a proper subject for individual assessment, but are also a proper target for formal and informal educational intervention. Snow believed that aptitude is the most important raw material of education, but also its most important product; hence, his interest in research on the aptitude-treatment interaction (ATI).


The book provides examples of educational research on ATI and discusses at length the many methodological and conceptual problems that arise in comparing the effects on criterion learning measures of different instructional methods in learners who differ in relevant learning aptitudes. There are numerous difficulties in conducting ATI research. They arise in any and all of the following tasks:  s election of aptitudes to be assessed, selection or construction of reliable and valid measures of these aptitudes, selection of appropriate criterion learning measures, training of teachers in the instructional methods to be implemented, monitoring the requisite cooperation of these teachers over the course of an instructional program of substantial length, and finally interpretation of findings.


Given the prodigious effort required, the harvest is at best modest because of the constraints against broad generalization of the findings to the educational enterprise. What kind of instruction reduces the achievement gap between students who differ in baseline aptitude and what kind increases it? Does high aptitude in one learning component compensate for low aptitude in another component of the same criterion task, or is there a minimal necessary level on the one that permits a higher level on the other to exercise a beneficial and compensatory effect? Under what task requirements (“affordances”) is the relationship between performance and conative and affective aptitudes linear and under what circumstances is it curvilinear? There are no simple answers to these and other educationally important questions. As a consequence of the enormous investment required and the modest return forthcoming from ATI research, Snow himself did not pursue this kind of research assiduously throughout his career.


Interesting experimental studies of ATI are strewn throughout the book, some with thought-provoking findings that defy intuitive interpretation. A study of film versus live demonstration of principles in a basic physics course produced two fascinating aptitude-instruction interactions. College students high in assertiveness did better on short-term recall with the live demonstration than with the film. Conversely students who were low in personal responsibility did better with the film than with the live demonstration. The two superior subgroups (high assertive on live and low responsible on film) were at the same high level of immediate recall. These kinds of findings are challenging or frustrating, depending on one’s own cognitive, conative and affective aptitudes and goals. 


There are many positive features to this book. It is an excellent guide on how to conduct important, complex experimental studies that attempt to answer practical questions in education. It achieves this goal in a number of ways. It provides margin-marked exhibits of experiments or illustrative examples of concepts, and in the appendix it defines the major theoretical constructs and the psychometric operations that assess these constructs. Its most positive feature is the cogent and authoritative commentary by the authors throughout the book on the psychometric assessment of “the “cognitive-affective-conative triad,” the various conceptualizations, and their inclusion in ATI research.


One of the many rewarding insights is a study on the prediction of freshman year grade point average. The multiple correlation of high school grades and SAT scores was .48. These scores were subjected to three adjustments: the selective character of the sample included in the correlation (e.g., those who attended college, not the larger sample of those tested on the SAT), the less than perfect correlation of first and second semester marks in a course sequence in college, and the variability of grading practices across courses. The corrected multiple correlation increased to .76, impressive evidence of the “true” predictive validity of these conventional, frequently maligned measures.


The volume is not for everyone. Some will be turned off by statistical and methodological data and discussion. Others will not be satisfied with the relatively brief reviews of theories of cognitive aptitudes. Still others will be perplexed by the compression in a single paragraph of a number of complex concepts and their relationships. Nevertheless, we find here the state of the art in ATI research and “a scaffold for future theory, research, and practice organized around the concept of aptitude”  (quoted from the Foreword). 






Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 82-85 ID Number: 10904, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:09:43 PM

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