What cognitive skills develop in adolescents?

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Adolescence brings the potential for logical and theoretical reasoning, systematic problem solving, and acquisition of abstract concepts; adolescent cognitive skills are reflected in social and personality development as well as in learning and problem-solving behavior.
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Psychologists approach the study of adolescent cognitive skills from three perspectives: the psychometric, the developmental, and the information-processing. The psychometric approach focuses on defining and measuring intellectual skills. Psychometric research typically involves studies of performance on intelligence tests. The developmental approach seeks to identify the types of cognitive skills that are unique to the adolescent years. This approach has been heavily influenced by the cognitive stage theory of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. The information-processing approach examines the characteristics of memory and problem solving. It views adolescent cognitive skills as parameters that determine how the brain stores and analyzes information.

Psychometric Approach

In the psychometric view, adolescence is a period of cognitive stability. Intelligence quotient (IQ) scores show little change during adolescence. Although IQ scores often fluctuate during early childhood, scores generally stabilize about age eight. It is common to find temporary periods of instability in IQ scores after age eight, such as at the onset of puberty or during other stressful times, but dramatic and long-term score changes are rare. According to this perspective, adolescence does not bring significant changes in cognitive skills.

Theory and research on cognitive skills began with the development of modern intelligence tests, such as Alfred Binet’s 1916 test; however, the intelligence-testing, or psychometric, approach has contributed little to an understanding of adolescent cognitive skills. Intelligence tests are best suited to the study of individual differences, or how people compare to others of their age. It is difficult to use intelligence testing to compare and contrast cognitive skills at different ages.

Intelligence tests also are used to study the stability of intellectual level and the likelihood it will change in later years. Research indicates, however, that intelligence test scores in adolescence generally are similar to scores during childhood, although scores may fluctuate during childhood as a function of changes in factors such as diet, socioeconomic status, and education. Again, the psychometric approach seems poorly suited to the study of adolescent cognitive skills.

Developmental Approach

The developmental approach seeks to identify the cognitive skills of adolescence and to contrast them with the skills found at other ages. This approach addresses both the qualities of thought and the process of change. In 1958, Piaget and his coworker Barbel Inhelder published The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood Through Adolescence, a detailed account of his four stages of cognitive development. In addition to proposing that specific cognitive skills emerge in each stage, Piaget proposed that the move from one stage to the next is largely maturational.

This statement may be confusing. Clearly, sixteen-year-olds must “know more” than eight-year-olds, and adolescents have the capacity to learn school subjects beyond the grasp of elementary school children. The psychometric approach, however, is not designed to contrast the nature of cognitive skills at different ages. Intelligence tests are scored by comparing a specific person to other people of the same age. A score of 100 at age eight means that a person performs similarly to the average eight-year-old; a score of 100 at age eighteen means that a person performs similarly to the average eighteen-year-old. IQ score is expected to remain the same if the person matures at a relatively normal rate.

Two of Piaget’s stages are of particular importance to the study of adolescence: the concrete operational stage (ages seven to twelve) and the formal operational stage (age twelve and up). During the concrete operational stage, children acquire basic logical concepts such as equivalence, seriation, and part-whole relations. Children also master reversibility, a skill allowing them mentally to restore a changed object or situation to its original state. With reversibility, children can recognize that a small glass of juice poured into a taller and thinner glass may look like more juice but is actually the same amount. During concrete operations, children can think logically as long as their reasoning is in reference to tangible objects.

The formal operational stage follows the concrete operational stage and is the final stage of cognition, according to Piaget. Beginning at adolescence, thinking becomes more logical, more abstract, more hypothetical, and more systematic. Unlike their concrete operational counterparts, formal thinkers can study ideologies, generate a variety of possible outcomes to an action, and systematically evaluate alternative approaches to a problem. Formal thinkers also are better able to adopt a new course of action when a particular strategy proves unsuccessful. In the Piagetian model, adolescents are compared to scientists as they use hypothetical-deductive reasoning to solve problems. Although children during the concrete operational stage would solve problems by trial and error, adolescents could be expected to develop hypotheses and then systematically conclude which path is best to follow to solve the problem.

Information-Processing Approach

The information-processing approach provides additional information about these contrasts between children and adolescents. According to John Flavell, cognitive growth is the acquisition of increasingly sophisticated and efficientproblem-solving skills. For example, adolescents can hold more information in memory than can children, which enhances their ability to solve complex problems. Improvements in memory reflect more than changes in capacity: Adolescents are better able to develop associations between words and ideas, which in turn facilitates remembering them. Part of their improvement is a result of the fact that adolescents know more than children. Adolescents also are better able to think abstractly and develop hypotheses.

These skills in part reflect improvements in generalization, identifying similarities between previous situations and new ones. Changes in thinking and hypothesizing also enable adolescents to generate a wider variety of problem-solving strategies, which also enhances their performance. Finally, adolescents know more about the nature of thought and memory. This metacognition, or ability to “think about thinking,” increases the planning in their problem-solving behavior.

Information-processing research has helped explain some of the inconsistencies that appear in Piagetian research. According to Piagetian theory, people are located within particular cognitive stages and will reason at those levels of maturity in all problem-solving situations. Why, then, do most people show features of several stages, depending on the type of problem presented? According to information-processing research, variability in performance across different problem types is to be expected. The more one knows, the easier it is to use efficient cognitive processes. People will appear more cognitively mature performing tasks about which they are knowledgeable.

Application of Research

The research on adolescent thinking has been applied to the study of learning, personality, and social behavior during adolescence. For example, research on adolescent cognition has influenced the development of both curricula and teaching methods at the middle-school and high-school levels. As individuals who are entering the stage of formal thinking, adolescents are better equipped to handle abstract topics such as geometry and physics. Their emerging ability to consider systematically the effects of several factors when solving a problem make adolescents good candidates for laboratory science courses.

Some applications of research on adolescent cognitive skills are the subject of much debate, however; ability tracking is a case in point. Psychometric research indicates that intellectual functioning becomes relatively stable in preadolescence. From this point onward, children continue to perform at the same level relative to their age mates on standardized measures such as IQ tests. The stability of test performance has been used to support the creation and maintenance of ability “tracks” beginning in the middle school years.

Proponents of tracking maintain that ability grouping or tracking enables teachers to challenge more able students without frustrating less capable students. Opponents of tracking maintain that less able students benefit from both the academic challenges and the competent role models provided by superior students in ungrouped classrooms. In fact, critics of tracking charge that the level at which performance stabilizes actually results from subtle differences in how teachers interact with their students, differences often based on inaccurate assumptions about student potential. Perhaps students with low test scores, many of whom are poor or minority students, perform poorly in part because people expect them to be less capable.

Adolescents and Social Cognition

Although Piaget primarily limited his research of adolescent reasoning to mathematical and scientific concepts, he did consider the role that formal operations play in the adolescent’s social life. David Elkind continued research in this area by noting that features of formal thinking are reflected in adolescent personality characteristics. According to Elkind, the ability to think abstractly and hypothetically enables adolescents to develop their own idealistic, theoretical views of the world. The ability to distinguish between reality and theory, however, can lead to disillusionment and the recognition that adolescents’ idols have “feet of clay.” Elkind identified an adolescent egocentrism that he equates with the heightened self-consciousness of adolescence. This egocentrism demonstrates itself in two types of social thinking—personal fable and imaginary audience.

In personal fable, young adolescents see themselves as unique and special. Personal fable may lead adolescents to take unnecessary risks because they believe they are so different from others: “I can drink and drive.” “Only other people get pregnant.” Personal fable also makes adolescents believe that no one else can understand how they feel or offer any useful suggestions: “No one has ever had a problem like mine.” In imaginary audience, adolescents believe that “everyone” is watching them. Elkind sees this self-consciousness as an application of hypothetical thinking: “If my characteristics are so obvious to me, they must also be obvious to everyone else.”

Cognitive changes also affect social behavior by inducing changes in social cognitive development. Social cognition refers to an individual’s understanding of people and of interactions between people. According to Piaget, changes in cognition are reflected in the way people think about themselves and others. The thinking of preadolescents (seven to eleven years old) begins to focus less on the obvious features of objects, events, and people. They are better able to translate patterns of behavior into psychological characteristics, such as concluding that a particular person is “nice” or “rude.” They become less egocentric, better able to appreciate that people have different points of view. It is not surprising, then, that they are better able to see the world from the perspective of another person. As they enter formal operations (eleven or twelve years and older), adolescents are able to think in more logical and abstract ways. These changes are reflected in their ability to describe people in abstract terms, such as “cooperative” or “uncoordinated,” and compare people along psychological dimensions.

Robert Selman has observed that changes in social cognition occur in stages that closely parallel Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. According to Selman’s research, most concrete operational preadolescents (ages ten to twelve) recognize the existence of different points of view. Many of them, however, have difficulty evaluating conflicting perspectives or understanding how perspectives relate to membership in different social groups. As adolescents become more fully formal operational (twelve to fifteen years and older), they become able to understand the relationship between other people’s perspectives and their membership in social systems. For example, the difference between two people’s points of view may reflect their membership in different racial or ethnic groups. Progress through Selman’s stages also is influenced by social experiences. In other words, it is possible for a person to mature intellectually and to become less egocentric without becoming skillful at adopting others’ points of view.

Formal Operations Controversy

Piaget believed that formal operational thought, entered between eleven and fifteen years of age, was the fourth and final stage of cognitive development, although he did hold that adults are quantitatively more knowledgeable than adolescents. Some experts argue that young adults demonstrate a fifth, postformal stage that is different from adolescent thinking. Postformal thought is characterized by an understanding that the correct answer to a problem requires reflective thinking that may vary from one situation to another. Truth is viewed as an ongoing, never-ending process. Critics of this view argue that research evidence is lacking to document this as a qualitatively more advanced stage than formal operational thought.

Research has called into question the link between adolescence and the stage of formal operational thought. It is estimated that only one in three young adolescents is a formal operational thinker. Many adolescents think in ways characteristic of concrete operations or use formal thinking only part of the time. In fact, even many adults have not mastered formal operations. Critics argue that individual differences and cultural experiences may play a greater role in determining formal operations than Piaget envisioned.

Piagetian theory has been notoriously difficult to evaluate. Research indicates that performance on Piagetian tasks depends on understanding the instructions, being able to attend to the relevant aspects of the problems, and being interested in the problems themselves. Adolescents who perform best on formal operational tasks are often those with interests in the natural sciences—an unlikely finding if cognitive change is largely maturational.

Adolescents who do use formal operations may experience development in two phases, one early and the other during late adolescence. The initial stage is primarily assimilation and involves incorporating new information into existing knowledge. Rather than using hypothetical-deductive thinking, adolescents at this point may simply be consolidating their concrete operational thinking. They tend to perceive their world in subjective and idealistic terms. During the later phase, adolescents are more likely to accommodate, restoring intellectual balance after a cognitive upheaval occurs.

Although the popularity of Piagetian theory has declined, it remains one of the most influential theories in developmental psychology. In fact, it was Piagetian theory that led information-processing psychologists to become interested in cognitive development. In summation, understanding adolescent cognitive skills requires some familiarity with all perspectives, in spite of their respective weaknesses. Each has made a unique historical contribution to current views of cognition.


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