How to identify your students’ stage of cognitive development

Keep these points in mind as you assess your students.
By Susan Wolcott, CPA, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles to help you explore student abilities, and how critical thinking is taught and learned, to better enable you to help your students thrive in today’s complex business and accounting environment.

This series of articles has provided specific recommendations for helping students improve their critical thinking within accounting courses. In the introductory article, I described the three most common “stages” of critical thinking, and the next three articles provided learning ideas for those three stages.

This last article in the series addresses how to determine which stage of cognitive development your students have reached, and presents some of my observations and suggestions for teaching critical thinking.

Most college students are in stages 1 and 2

When you’re trying to determine what stages of cognitive development your students have reached, it’s helpful to have a starting point. A 1994 meta-analysis of data across many institutions and degree programs found the following average stages of cognitive development for undergraduate and graduate students:

Undergraduate first-year average: Stage 1.63

Undergraduate fourth-year average: Stage 1.99

Master’s/early doctoral average: Stage 2.62

(Note: These averages are based on data reported on page 161 by P.M. King and K.S. Kitchener, 1994. I converted reflective judgment stages 3, 4, and 5 in their model to Stages 1, 2, and 3 in my model.)

In general, the above data suggests that many students in introductory accounting courses are likely to operate at Stage 1 (“Confused Fact-Finder”), while the average for fourth-year undergraduate students is Stage 2 (“Biased Jumper”). In my accounting classrooms, I have found similar cognitive patterns, although the distribution varies across schools and programs. I have not observed any significant changes in the distributions during recent years.

How to gain information about your students’ stages of cognitive development

The second, third, and fourth articles in this series each provided indicators to help you recognize students who are operating at cognitive Stages 1, 2, and 3. In addition to those indicators, a quick way to gather information about student thinking is to give them five minutes during class to write a paragraph explaining why some aspect of the course involves uncertainty. Below are examples of possible questions:

  • Introductory financial accounting: Explain why even the manager might not know the actual amount of bad debts for the company.
  • Introductory management accounting: Explain possible reasons why managers might be unable to accurately estimate future costs.
  • Cost accounting: Identify and explain possible reasons why managers would be uncertain about the effects of a new performance measure on employee behavior.
  • Auditing: Identify and explain possible reasons why auditors might not discover evidence that an important internal control for an audit client is not always operating correctly.
  • Tax accounting: Identify and explain possible reasons why a tax client cannot be certain about future income tax rates.

Stage 1 (Confused Fact-Finder) students have very little to say in response to these types of questions, and they often make irrelevant statements. For example, they might recite definitions or technical knowledge instead of answering the question. Or they might state that the company needs to hire a better manager, who will know the amount of bad debts.

Although failure to recognize uncertainty is a key characteristic of Stage 1 thinking, I have found that answers to questions about uncertainty provide me with useful information about all students. Stage 2 (Biased Jumper) students identify at least some uncertainty but provide little explanation. Stage 3 (Perpetual Analyzer) students often provide very thorough discussions about the types and causes of uncertainty. You can quickly sort student papers into three “stacks” to gain an estimate of the number of students at Stages 1, 2, and 3.

Students might not be ‘at’ a stage

Developmental psychology research suggests that people do not necessarily operate at one cognitive stage and that development can be slow. Below I discuss two major implications for accounting educators.

First, students often exhibit inconsistent patterns of thinking while they are learning new skills. For example, a student at Stage 2 may begin to more thoroughly and objectively analyze information, suggesting they are moving toward Stage 3. The student’s critical thinking might seem to improve but later revert to Stage 2. I have found that student performance often drops during times of stress (such as a final exam) and when an assignment raises emotions (such as an ethics case). It is normal to observe development followed by regression. It might take students two academic years to develop stable Stage 3 skills.

Second, students’ levels of cognitive development might vary across subject matters based on preconceived ideas. For example, students might enter an introductory accounting classroom expecting to learn well-defined material with single correct answers. Students who operate at Stage 2 in another course might revert to Stage 1 in introductory accounting. More importantly, students who prefer single correct answers might choose accounting as a major if their introductory course is taught as subject matter that involves concrete answers.

Because development can take a long time and because perceptions of accounting as a subject where the answers are clear-cut can hinder development — and can attract misguided students to accounting —it is essential that critical-thinking development begin in introductory accounting courses.

In addition, faculty members need to remain patient as they help students develop critical thinking. Try not to become frustrated when students fail to quickly demonstrate and maintain new skills!

Don’t confuse clear communication with critical thinking

When I grade student papers, some students with strong communication skills initially seem to demonstrate strong critical thinking. But when I look more carefully, I discover that their analyses and conclusions are biased and that the paper displays skepticism only toward other viewpoints (i.e., Biased Jumper thinking). Other times, a student’s poor communication initially gives an impression of weak critical thinking — which turns out to be incorrect upon closer inspection. To minimize these types of assessment/grading errors, I first assess a student’s writing and then reread the paper to assess the critical-thinking skills.

A teacher’s journey

When I initially learned about cognitive development and its impact on student learning, I discovered that many seemingly odd student responses to coursework could be readily explained by their levels of cognitive development. I have improved my abilities as a teacher by paying close attention to student responses and by trying to understand why students respond the way they do. I encourage you to take this same journey.

Susan Wolcott, CPA, Ph.D., CMA, is a founder of WolcottLynch, which conducts research and develops educational resources for critical-thinking development. She has taught accounting courses at seven universities and is currently a visiting professor at the Indian School of Business. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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