Most college curricula are organized in a progression from introductory to intermediate to advanced study in a particular discipline like biology or physics or philosophy. As students make academic progress along this trajectory, what changes?
1. The depth and the complexity of the material increases
2. The way the material is covered changes
3. Expectations for success change
4. How a student uses the material changes
The journey through an academic course of study involves a number of cognitive and intellectual transformations. At the introductory level of a discipline a student learns the working vocabulary of the field, along with some of the major underlying concepts. In Biology, for example, students learn what makes up a cell, how DNA is packaged into a cell, how genes are transferred across generations, etc. Many of the terms need defining, the ideas are often presented in a somewhat simplified way. Students learn basic laboratory skills and rudimentary approaches to experimental design (the idea of a controlled experiment) and statistics and data analysis. How to write a scientific paper, etc. Perhaps in a way it’s like learning to drive first using a car with automatic transmission, to master basic skills like steering and applying the brakes safely.
At the intermediate level of an academic discipline, the students use their working vocabulary and major fundamental concepts and begin to delve more deeply, to read the experimental literature in the field, to deepen their exploration into concepts. For example, in Biology, concepts like transmission genetics expand to consider not just independent assortment of alleles, but also concepts like incomplete dominance and codominance, pleiotropic effects and penetrance. At this level of the curricular journey, students can begin to appreciate that any field of study is a complex mixture of subdisciplines with many different levels of organization and analysis. Laboratory projects deepen and begin to resemble much more the type of research that goes on in the field; less emphasis is placed on learning the techniques and more is placed on the design and implementation of experiments, testing hypotheses and interpreting data. Students can read and understand the language of the field with effort, perhaps still needing a translation dictionary. Speaking the language of the field still requires effort, but increased opportunities to write and present material strengthen those skills. To return to the driving analogy, here is where one might begin to drive a car with standard transmission, to feel the car and interact more deeply with the process of driving.
At the advanced level of a curriculum is where students become experts in the field. Students delve deeply into the discipline and experience the controversies, debate and uncertainties that characterize the leading edges of a field. For example, advanced study in neurobiology might explore the impact of back-propagation of action potentials into the dendritic tree of a cortical neuron and how different ion currents shape whether a signal out in a distal dendrite even makes it to the initial segment of an axon. An advanced student can be expected to be able to relate course material across different courses, to begin to synthesize and integrate and achieve fresh insights. Students at this level are working with the knowledge very differently, perhaps even creating new knowledge through independent investigation. Perhaps, although this analogy is breaking down a bit, it’s like becoming a race car driver or stunt car driver.
It turns out that a student’s progress through an academic field of study mirrors the different cognitive stages involved in what William G. Perry, a Harvard professor of education who described what is now known as the Perry scheme*, termed “epistemological development”.
By recognizing the explicit process of intellectual growth during the college years, we as teachers can better design our courses and our curricula to maximize the success of our students and help them achieve their intellectual potential.
What are your thoughts?
*William G. Perry, Jr. “Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning.” In The Modern American College: Responding to the New Realities of Diverse Students and a Changing Society, edited by Arthur Chickering and Associates. Jossey-Bass, 1981.