Introductory Psychology

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?