Psychology Retooling Institute and Seminar for the Mid-AtlanticII

Learning and Memory



Child and Adult Development

Social Psychology

Child Development

 Biological Psychology



Intellectual Development in Adulthood
Rhonda L. Munford
Adjunct Professor
Department of Psychology
Trinity College

I. Objectives   II. Intellectual Development     III.Changes in Intellectual Development

IV. Mental Stimulation         V. Related Activities

I. Session Objectives

To introduce intelligence and intellectual development from the psychometric and contextual perspectives

To facilitate discussion on evidence regarding cognitive decline and cognitive growth.

To introduce one practical application of research on cognitive growth in adulthood and contribute further support that development and learning are lifelong processes.

Time: One 50-minute class period

a. Introduction

The following section provides lecture topics and supporting information designed to expand the current view of intellectual development in adulthood. We have all heard the cliche, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Unfortunately, this longstanding view of human capacity has had seriously negative implications for how we think about "being smart" across the lifespan. The topics and activities associated with this session are aimed at helping students discover their own views as well as debunking any myths associated with those views.

b. Topic Outline

II. Intellectual Development: Moving from Psychometrics to Context

Activity/ At the close of the preceding session (approximately 5-10 minutes prior to the end of class), pass out an activity sheet that you will need to develop. There will be three versions of the activity sheet (but, students should not know this). The activity sheet could be a half sheet of paper that has the following instructions--"Take a minute or two and write down the first three terms or words that come to mind when you hear the terms "intellectual development and __________________." The three versions of the activity sheet will have one of the three phases of adulthood inserted--(1) young adults; (2) middle-aged adults; or (3) older adults. One third of students will receive an activity sheet that contains the terms "intellectual development and young adults," "intellectual development and middle-aged adults," and so forth. Collect the sheets from students and tally the information on a master list. During the following class meeting, use this information to open this topic and begin discussion on views of intellectual development in adulthood. Provide frequencies and briefly link this activity to research methods in psychology.(1)

Content/ Introduce to students the historical view of intelligence by sharing that even 40 years ago, psychologists believed that intelligence universally declined after youth and that skills involved in being "intelligent" were stable and unchanging. Until recently, the notion of intelligence and the measurement of intellectual performance was considered the domain of psychometrics. And, for adults, this typically translated into measuring intellectual capacity by administering a standardized intelligence test--particularly the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Adults (WAIS). Explain that the psychometric approach is not really a theoretical approach as much as a method used to describe cognitive performance through the administration of standardized measures. While this approach is very narrow, research in this vein has contributed a tremendous amount of descriptive data about cognitive performance throughout the lifespan.

Currently, increasing numbers of researchers and scholars are thinking about age and intelligence from a contextual perspective. Forerunners of this view include Lev Vygotsky and Baltes, Dittman-Kohli, and Dixon. Essentially, contextual models view intellectual change as multidirectional and individual-specific. That is, because cognitive development is the result of a complex interaction among the individual's genetic nature and his/her social, cultural, and historical environment, there are notable variations among individuals in terms of the nature, direction, and timing of intellectual development.

Point out that while the meaning of intelligence is generally a controversial debate in psychology, these two approaches make the use of the term intelligence among adults even more complex and problematic to define.

III.Changes in Intellectual Development: Isn't Decline Inevitable?

Content/ Charles de Gaulle once said, "Old age is a shipwreck." His statement represents one perspective of intellectual change known as the decrementalist view. According to this view, universal, inevitable, and pervasive decline characterize intellectual development in adulthood. While cross-sectional research on intellectual changes in adulthood seems to support this perspective (e.g., abilities peak at midlife, abilities plateau through the late 50s and early 60s, accelerated decline by the 70s), students should realize that such findings reflect group data that does not account for vast and increasing individual differences. For instance, researchers such as Shaie and Salthouse demonstrate that marked decline in older adults is often a function of pathology and illness rather than an inevitable course experience by all older adults. In order words, good health--which is often a function of lifestyle and habits that begin in young adulthood--significantly affects the degree, rate, and pattern of cognitive change across the lifespan. In fact, findings from Schaie's Seattle Longitudinal Study found a large number of elderly who showed little cognitive decline. What made the difference among Schaie's sample? Evidence showed that these older adults (1) were in good health (no cardiovascular disease); (2) were of average economic status; (3) were actively involved in life; and (4) described themselves at mid-life as having developed flexibility in their attitudes and behaviors.

Increasing evidence supports an alternative to the decrementalist perspective--the continued-potential view. This view focuses on maintenance and improvement. It emphasizes what is going well rather than what's wrong. Like the contextual model, supporters characterize cognitive development as multidirectional, multidimensional, and multicausal in nature.

What is meant by multidimensional? Psychologists interested in adult cognition realize that as we move across adulthood, our style and manner of problem solving changes qualitatively. These new ideas and findings have been synthesized into a concept known as postformal thought. This area of cognitive development has been referred to as the next stage following Piaget's "formal operations." In fact, Riegel argues that the poorer performance of adults on tests of formal thinking have little to do with actual intellectual declines and more to do with the development of totally new ways of thinking. Key features of postformal thinking include (1) a shift from a problem solving orientation to one focused on problem finding and the joy of developing new questions for exploration; (2) dialectical thought which accepts incongruities and inconsistencies. Moreover, these disparities are synthesized into a workable solution; the ability to integrate emotion and logic since mature thinkers understand that handling life situations requires consideration of social and affective phenomenon; and a general relativistic approach that represents the acceptance of "gray" areas and conflicting opinions. Other important functions of intelligence that evolve in adulthood are: (1) expertise--the development of advanced skills and knowledge in a particularly well-practiced activity such as an occupation or hobby; (2) wisdom--another type of expertise associated with the important, fundamental, and uncertain matters of life; and (3) creativity--the ability to construct extraordinary products and achievements that are novel, original, unique, and relevant.

IV. Mental Stimulation--The Elderhostel Experience

Content/ Many investigators have documented that people who participate in mentally stimulating activities including reading, attending classes, and doing crossword puzzles tend to remain more intellectual flexible across the lifespan. In fact, according to Schaie and his colleagues, training referred to as cognitive remediation can reverse declines in intellectual performance. One well-known example of the application of new research on adult cognition is the Elderhostel program. In 1975, five New Hampshire colleges implemented a small pilot project to open their campuses to "hostelers" of retirement age. This elderhostels live on-campus, usually for a week or so, and participate in mini-classes that range in topics and interests. Today, there are over 2,000 colleges, universities, and other institutions which offer classrooms, residence halls, and staff to Elderhostel. The program can be found in over 70 different. Indeed, this and other similar programs demonstrate that development and learning are lifelong processes.

V. Related Activities/ The following are suggested activities that can be given as outside class assignments.

a. Reflection Papers: Ask students to write a short, reflection paper that briefly summarizes (1-2 paragraphs) the information covered in the classroom discussion. Students should answer the following questions in their papers:

1. What were the major themes from the lecture?

2. What concepts were most appealing to you? Why?

3. What concepts were most difficult for you to agree with or understand? Why?

4. What questions did the topics covered raise for you?

5. What questions, if any, did the lecture answer?

6. How will you use this information personally?

b. Experiental

Learning: If there is a project required in your course, students might consider volunteering at a local Elderhostel (or similar) program. Ask students to identify a local program. The student should telephone the agency and request an interview with its director or other appropriate staff member. During this conversation, the student should explain his/her desire to volunteer as part of a course requirement and to gain hands-on experience with the program. The interview should be informational (including the mission, goals, objectives, activities, and relevant policies of the program) in nature. The student should also request and get permission from the program director to interview a participating elderhosteler. Permission should also be attained from the interviewee. The interview questions should relate to uncovering how the interviewee's experiences at Elderhostel relate to the topics covered in the lecture. The student and the director should identify what role s/he can play in facilitating a class, etc. in the Elderhostel program. They should develop a learning contact for your review that reflects a meaningful experience for the student. The student's final project should be a paper which contains: (1) an overview of what we know about adult cognition; (2) a description of the program (this information should be compiled from program materials and the program director interview); (3) a description of his/her experiences and specific activities at the program site; (4) the information from the elderhosteler's interview with the students; and (5) a reflective portion that describes changes that the student experiences because of the process.

Contributed by

Rhonda L. Munford
Adjunct Professor
Department of Psychology
Trinity College
125 Michigan Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20017
202/884-9000 x7526

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Source/ Research information included in this section of the module can be found in Lemme, B. (1999) Development in Adulthood, 2nd Edition, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon Publishers.

1. This activity is borrowed and modified from American Psychological Association's Handbook of Activities in Psychology.