Monday, September 10, 2007

Article Note: On Cognitive Development and Instruction

Citation for the article:

Jackson, Rebecca. "Cognitive Development: The Missing Link in Teaching Information Literacy Skills." Reference and User Services Quarterly 46.4 (Summer 2007): 28-32.

Read via EBSCO.

This article presents an interesting idea: that in addition to considering teaching and learning styles, those of us in instruction should also be considering the students' cognitive development level. In other words, where are the students in their cognitive development and how it may explain certain actions and behaviors. More importantly, how can we make good use of such knowledge is considered in the article as well.

The article opens with four common comments/questions that librarians may have about their students, using them to introduce the argument. We have heard these questions at one point or another. Two examples Jackson uses:

  • "They'll do a database search, and they will invariably choose the first five articles in the list. Doesn't matter if they're good or bad, relevant or not" (28).
  • "Their professor suggests a particular journal and when they come into the library, that's the only journal they want. It has to be that very one" (28).
I know I have faced those situations quite often, and I will likely continue to do so. The observation is that students tend to be too literal when a professor gives instructions. Now, this article comes along to explain it may be that students are at a cognitive level where they do take things literally because they come from an authority figure (the professor). Let's look at this some more.

In the literature review, Jackson provides a summary of William Perry's research on cognitive development. This review also looks at others who have expanded and/or drawn on Perry's work. Perry basically argued that students go through a series of positions during their school years:

"In his writing, Perry posited nine 'positions' that students go through in their college years. They have been grouped into four categories: dualism (positions one and two), multiplicity (positions three and four), relativity (positions five and six) and commitment (positions seven through nine)" (29).

In essence, students usually come in at the first category, and they grow into the others over their time in college. I would suggest it is part of the educator's role to nurture this growth. Jackson does provide a brief description of each category. You probably need to read Perry's work to get more details, but the article will give you the basics.

Some highlights from the article:

  • In dualism, students see authority (with a capital "A") as having all the answers. They seek right and wrong, black and white. There is not much wiggle room here. This may then explain why you get the many students just wanting the one answer or the single article. I know this not only from my experience as a librarian, but as a teacher. Trying to move students past this stage takes some work. For them, there is either an answer, or there isn't any. "'A characteristic phrase used by students in the Dualistic stage is: 'What is the right answer?' Students move from dualism to multiplicity as a result of all the diversity they encounter in their lives at the college level, especially among their peers" (29).
  • In multiplicity, they are moving to consider there may be more than one answer. Problematic is the fact that this stage embodies the "everyone has a right to his or her own opinion." So, on the one hand, they are moving towards independent thinking, but they still need to move on to supporting their ideas with evidence.
  • In the relativistic stage, the students understand differences in views, but they are learning there are areas that will have a right answer. This is where knowledge is seen as based on context; it is relative. Authorities may disagree and often do. "It is at this position, too, that students recognize the need for evidence to support their own opinions. It is important to weigh the evidence, both pro and con, to come to a reasonable opinion or answer that is 'right' for the student in his or her context" (29).
  • The final stage is commitment. This is a more ethical area where choices are more carefully considered based on evidence and alternatives. "In most cases, these commitments are constantly reaffirmed or altered based on new evidence. It is only these positions of commitment that truly allow for fulfillment and lifelong learning" (29).
  • "Therefore, based on these studies, it appears that upon entering higher education institutions, students are dualistic or early multiplistic, relying on Authority, believing in right/wrong, good/bad, and having difficulty recognizing differing points of view. By the time they graduate, most of them are able to deal with differing points of view, but still rely on Authority and have difficulty relating evidence to argument" (30). I think the implications of this are important. Think of what this means for the ideal of an educated and well-informed citizenry if most college graduates do not progress in their cognitive development. I am willing to venture this could even explain certain dynamics in the current political discourse.
  • "The information literacy standards may include many competencies that are beyond the cognitive level of the students librarians encounter, especially from classes like freshman composition or basic communication classes" (30). Jackson discusses some examples from the standards to illustrate some of the student difficulties and how to deal with them.
  • This is something that pretty much represents my philosophy of service and library instruction. You have to get to know your students, and it takes significant effort for the librarian. This is fine by me; I enjoy talking to students, but I worry not all librarians in a similar position are so well disposed. In fact, if you were to ask me for one thing I don't think my colleagues appreciate about my duties, this would definitely be it. Anyhow, the article author writes, "to help ascertain a students' stages, librarians need to spend some time talking to them, getting to know how they perceive their assignments. It is possible to get some idea of their position or stage by the way they explain their assignments, by their confusion over the various resources they are being asked to use, by their interest in finding different opinions on an issue [or their lack of such interest, I would add], or by their inability to judge resources they retrieve in a search" (31). The closer you get to the students, the better sense you can get. I think I have known this for a while, sort of have done it by instinct or intuition (yes, a good teacher uses instinct quite a bit). It is good to get it expressed here.
  • This also goes with my philosophy that an instruction librarian (or any librarian) should not be afraid to show some vulnerability. Sure, it is a risky move, but it establishes you as someone who is learning as well. I like the idea that it makes you a fellow traveler in the learning experience. Jackson writes that "librarians should take students with them in the search for information to answer their questions. They can also show students that they do not always have all the answers--that they, too, are learning" (31).
  • And this may explain why often students refuse to do anything other than what the professor said word for word. This may also be another good argument for better outreach efforts. "It is also important to keep in mind that students in the early stages of development may not recognize librarians as authorities; thus, it is extremely important for librarians to reach out to teaching faculty to ensure that they confirm for their students the authority of the librarians with whom they may interact" (31). I will add that I am willing and free to guide students as needed. If it is a matter of a professor giving out incomplete information (i.e. we don't have that journal in print, and yes, I know he said no internet sources) or a bad assignment, I will be ready to provide the student other options and reassure them they will be ok. Dr. Clueless may also be getting an e-mail from me to explain any situation (i.e. we don't carry that list of journals in print and have not done so for five years now. It's online now). After all, I believe in asserting my own authority as well. Cognitive development aside for a moment, some professors simply do give bad assignments or incomplete information. It is my job as a librarian to act accordingly.
  • Remember that scaffolding--"giving prompts or asking questions that help students build from what they already know" (31)-- is a good thing.
  • And something to do if you ever get the time. "It might be a useful exercise to map all of the standards, indicators, and outcomes to the various cognitive levels of students, keeping in mind, of course, the need to keep students comfortable while at the same time offering challenges" (32).
This was a pretty good article. I may review Perry and others a bit further to gain new insights. I thinking this area of research would be a good opportunity as well to get some data from students and do a more formalized study at some point. But I am just speculating now.

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