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The Cognitive Changes
of Adolescence
4 The Cognitive Changes of Adolescence
• Chapter Overview
• Development of the Brain in
• How Adolescents Think
• Explaining Cognitive Development
• Implications for the Classroom
• Implications for Everyday Life
4 Chapter Overview
• The brain continues to develop through
three related processes.
• The psychometric approach views
cognitive development as a continuous
growth in the abilities that underlie general
• An information processing approach
focuses on age-related changes in
adolescents’ use of strategies for holding
onto and retrieving information, and in their
ability to monitor their thinking.
4 Development of the Brain in Adolescence
Three processes in the remodeling of the
adolescent brain:
• Cell proliferation – the overproduction of
both neurons and their interconnections
that results in increased cortical gray
• Synaptic pruning – the selective
elimination of the least-used cells and their
Figure 4.1 Changes in gray matter density in different regions of the brain
4 Development of the Brain in Adolescence
• Myelination of neural pathways that
connect different areas within the brain
continues and increases efficiency.
Myelinated pathways have a whitish
appearance – regions with these tracts are
called white matter.
Myelin is a sheath and functions like insulation
resulting in faster and more efficient
Figure 4.3 Myelin sheath coating axon
4 Development of the Brain in Adolescence
Prefrontal cortex – region of the cortex
located behind the forehead, involved in
abstract thought.
• One of the last brain regions to undergo
• Responsible for “executive functions” such
as decision-making, evaluating, and
Figure 4.4 Areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in the use of rules of increasing complexity
4 Development of the Brain in Adolescence
Sub-regions of the prefrontal cortex
develop with age.
Thinking becomes more flexible and
behaviors are modulated according to
Univalent versus bivalent or conditional
4 Development of the Brain in Adolescence
Multitasking requires switching from one
activity to another.
Activities are not done as well as when
done alone.
Example: Using a cell phone while
4 Development of the Brain in Adolescence
The limbic system:
• Processes social and emotional
information and evaluates rewards.
• Matures before the prefrontal cortex and
can override executive control.
• Is involved in risky decisions made by
adolescents, more likely when peers are
Figure 4.5 Not all parts of the brain mature at the same rate
4 How Adolescents Think
Adolescent thinking may be abstract,
hypothetical, or logical.
Abstract thinking allows classification
outside of physical characteristics.
Example: Animals may be classified by
their appearance or by where they live,
or by a combination.
Box 4.1 In More Depth: Science Project
1. Terrestrial vertebrates (TV)
2. Aquatic vertebrates (AV)
3. Terrestrial invertebrates (TI)
4. Aquatic invertebrates (AI)
5. Only vertebrates (TV and AV)
6. Only invertebrates (TI and AI)
7. Only terrestrial animals (TV and TI)
8. Only aquatic animals (AV and AI)
9. TV and AI
10. AV and TI
11. TV, AV, and TI
12. TV, AV, and AI
13. TV, TI, and AI
14. AV, TI, and AI
15. TV, AV, TI, and AI
16. No animals at all
4 How Adolescents Think
Hypothetical thinking, in terms of what
might be, allows adolescents to solve
As the prefrontal cortex develops,
adolescents can limit impulsive behavior
and monitor their activity.
Metacognition is the awareness of one’s
thinking, cognitive abilities, and style.
4 How Adolescents Think
Logical thinking allows adolescents to
see logical relations among ideas.
They can use logical consistency to
evaluate their thoughts.
Example: An experimenter uses a poker
chip to ask if a statement is true or
untrue; an adolescent can answer,
whether the chip is seen or unseen.
4 How Adolescents Think
Emerging adults and adolescents differ in
their thinking.
Adolescents may be logical, but adults
may be more practical and consider
which logical options are available.
Example: An employee arrives late again
after being told he would be fired.
4 How Adolescents Think
Emerging adults also have more
tolerance for ambiguity.
They know that facts may actually be
interpretations by a group, and that
each perspective can be a legitimate
point of view.
More likely to work toward a solution than
to try to find the “right” answer.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
A constructive perspective assumes:
• Individuals must interpret all experience.
• Events remain ambiguous until responded
Example: Noam Chomsky’s statement
“Flying planes can be dangerous” is
ambiguous, yet will be responded to
according to individual experience.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Jean Piaget suggests a constructive
perspective that varies with developmental
• Says that we construct what we know of
the world.
• We organize that understanding in
different ways with age, resulting in a
different stage of thought and equilibrium
with the environment.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Equilibrium with the environment is
• Assimilation – new events and
experiences are processed to fit existing
cognitive structures.
• Accommodation – cognitive structures
are altered to fit new events or
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
To maintain equilibrium, for each
assimilation, accommodation must
Piaget called this equilibration – the
process responsible for growth of
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Robert Kegan says intellectual growth takes
place through a differentiation of self
from other.
The process defines new aspects of one’s
surroundings as well as of one’s self.
Giving meaning to an event in the world
also changes one’s sense of self in
relation to the event.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Piaget’s test of conservation
demonstrates whether children know
that things remain the same even when
they appear different.
Moving between perspectives, older
children use the processes of negation
and reciprocity to give their world
Figure 4.8 Piaget’s conservation of volume task
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
A contextual perspective:
• Lev Vygotsky and Barbara Rogoff
believe cognitive development is
shaped by culture.
• Knowledge is acquired in a social
context and others’ discoveries are
passed along as “social tools.”
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Vygotsky considers the adolescent as part
of a group with distinct cultural tools.
Thinking develops as a person internalizes
those tools, and as such is a social
An adolescent must be close enough to
obtain cultural tools in the zone of
proximal development.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Rogoff regards the use of cultural tools as
an apprenticeship in thinking.
Apprenticeship suggests an activity that is
shared with others and guides practical
Strategies for learning involve observation
and participation in what is valuable to a
particular culture.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
A psychometric approach:
• Focuses on individual differences in
abilities contributing to intelligence:
 One can profit from experience.
 Can adapt to surroundings.
 Often involves abstract reasoning.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
• Intelligence tests reflect how one
performs relative to others the same
However, people with different
experiences will fare differently
depending on which questions are
Figure 4.9 Percentage of individuals and intelligence classification at different points from the mean
IQ of 100
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
The WISC-IV is an intelligence scale for
children and adolescents up to 16
The WAIS-III is an intelligence scale for
adolescents and adults.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Intelligence tests are arbitrary because
they draw on one’s capabilities and also
on knowledge gained from living in a
Adolescents from a minority who have
exposure to the dominant culture will do
better than those with no exposure.
The nature of the question can affect
performance measures.
Figure 4.10 Example o f a type of item in the picture arrangement subtest of the WAIS-R, a
previous version of the WAIS-II
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Gender differences exist in patterns of
performance, but not in overall
Females score higher on measures of
verbal fluency, written comprehension,
and logical relations.
Males do better on information and
arithmetic subtests, and tests of spatial
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
The Raven Progressive Matrices Test was
developed as a culture-fair test, to
minimize cultural bias.
On the tests of spatial ability, adolescents
performed similarly until age 16, when
males perform better.
If the difference is controlled for statistically
it goes away; if not, it introduces a gender
bias to the test.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Gender differences also appear in the SAT,
the most widely used college entrance
Males generally score higher on the math
portion, but in a comparison of grades in
college mathematics classes for males and
females with the same SAT scores,
females had better grades.
Because of its importance in determining
college entrance, the SAT should be
structured so that it reflects mathematical
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Sternberg’s Componential Intelligence:
Defines intelligence as achieving life’s goals,
as well as success in school.
Individual differences are due to the
intellectual functioning of three
• Metacomponents determine when more
information is needed and if a particular
strategy will work, as well as monitor
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
• Performance components carry out
procedures selected by metacomponents.
• Knowledge-acquisition components
acquire new information as needed, sifting
through information and integrating
relevant pieces into what is known.
Sternberg applied this analysis to analogies,
which reveal that all ages use the same
components but spend different amounts
of time on each.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences:
Gardner proposes multiple intelligences.
He also defines intelligence as one’s
ability to solve problems as they arise,
but expands the range of problems that
may be used to study intelligence.
Talents may also be considered as
domains of intelligence.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Practical intelligence is distinguished
from the academic intelligence
measured by tests.
Intelligence tests are designed by others,
and problems are well-defined with one
right answer.
Practical intelligence involves discovering
the problem and finding different
approaches and solutions.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
Information Processing Approach:
This approach focuses on the processes
by which information is encoded,
retrieved, and utilized.
Many developmental processes show
changes with age.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
• Automaticity is the ability to perform
practiced cognitive functions without
conscious attention.
• Speed of processing is the rate at
which one or more cognitive operations
can be performed.
• Working memory holds information
briefly, under one minute, while further
processing occurs.
4 Explaining Cognitive Development
• Encoding is the transfer of information
from one form of memory to another.
• Strategies are activities to organize
cognition to improve performance.
Adolescents are more likely to use
strategies as they are more aware of
their thinking – metacognition.
4 Implications for the Classroom
Reasoning improves during adolescence:
• Inductive reasoning moves from the
particular to the general.
This thought process allows extrapolation
from a single fact to a general rule.
• Deductive reasoning goes from the
general to the particular, checking a
hypothesis by observation.
4 Implications for the Classroom
Adolescents are able to use a systematic
approach that works well in science.
They can analyze a situation, identify
relevant variables, and discover the
Next they can form a strategy that will test
combinations of variables – adolescents
think in terms of possibilities.
4 Implications for the Classroom
Adolescents also use strategies to
improve their study skills.
They can recognize and direct their
attention to what they don’t know.
Uses of language such as metaphor,
irony, sarcasm, and satire are
understood, as adolescents are able to
think in terms of hypothetical situations.
4 Implications for Everyday Life
The ability to think abstractly about their
own thoughts and the thoughts of others
underlies egocentrism.
Adolescents may fail to distinguish their
own concerns from those of others.
They may feel that others think about
them as much as they themselves do –
an imaginary audience.
4 Implications for Everyday Life
The imaginary audience may make them
feel special.
The personal fable is the feeling that
they are unique, and their experiences
are not like those of others.
Social cognition develops as
adolescents become better at assuming
another’s perspective, and coordinating
it with their own.
4 Implications for Everyday Life
Doubt and skepticism also arise as
adolescents realize that a truth may be
only one interpretation of reality, and that
others are possible.
They become skeptical of knowing
anything with certainty.
Arguing is related to the ability to consider
the multiple possibilities in a situation,
and adolescents are good at it.