Activity: Cognitive Development
in College Students
Is the formal operational stage the end of the cognitive line--or will
your thinking abilities continue to develop as you go through college?
A study by developmental psychologist William Perry suggests that your
perspective on learning will change and mature as your college experience
unfolds. Of special note, in a sample of students that he followed through
their undergraduate years at Harvard and Radcliffe, students' views of
psychology and their other social science courses changed radically, as
did their view of what they were there to learn (Perry, 1970, 1994). Students
in Perry's study had the most difficulty coming to grips with the diverse
and conflicting viewpoints they encountered in their courses. For example,
many confronted, for the first time, the idea that reasonable people can
disagree-even about their most cherished "truths" concerning good and evil,
God, nature, and human nature. Perry says:
A few seemed to find the notion of multiple frames of reference wholly
unintelligible. Others responded with violent shock to their confrontation
in dormitory bull sessions, or in their academic work, or both. Others
experienced a joyful sense of liberation. (Perry, 1970, p. 4)
In dealing with this academic culture shock, Perry's students passed
through a series of distinct intellectual stages that were reminiscent
of Piaget's stages. And, although they arrived at college at different
levels of cognitive maturity and continued to develop at different rates,
all progressed through the same intellectual stages in the same sequence.
Here are some of the highlights of this intellectual journey:
At what stage do you find yourself?
Students at first typically see a college or university as a storehouse
of information – a place to learn the Right Answers. Thus, they believe
it is the professor's job to help students find these answers.
Sooner or later, students discover an unexpected diversity of opinion,
even among the experts. At this stage they are likely to attribute conflicting
opinions to confusion among poorly qualified experts.
Eventually, students begin to accept diverse views as legitimate--but only
in the fuzzy areas (such as psychology, other social sciences, and humanities)
where experts haven't yet found the Right Answers. They decide that, in
subjects where the Right Answers haven't been nailed down, professors grade
them on "good expression" of their ideas.
Next, some students discover that uncertainty and diversity of opinion
are everywhere-not just in the social sciences and humanities. They solve
this problem in their minds by dividing the academic world into two realms:
(a) one in which Right Answers exist (even though they haven't all been
discovered) and (b) another in which anyone's opinion is as good as anyone
else's. Often, at this stage, they perceive math and the "hard" sciences
as the realm of Right Answers, leaving the social sciences and humanities
in the realm of opinion.
Finally, the most mature students come to see that multiple perspectives
exist in all fields of study. The students who achieve this final stage
begin to see "truth" as tentative. They now realize that knowledge is always
building and changing---even in the "hard" sciences. And, they realize
that a college education is not just learning an endless series of facts.
Rather, it is learning about the important questions and major concepts
of a field.