Is It Nature or Nurture? Beliefs about Child Development Held by College Students in Psychology Courses

By McDEVITT, Teresa M.; Jobes, Rebecca D. et al. | College Student Journal, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Is It Nature or Nurture? Beliefs about Child Development Held by College Students in Psychology Courses


McDEVITT, Teresa M., Jobes, Rebecca D., Cochran, Kathryn F., Sheehan, Eugene P., College Student Journal


Research on conceptual change indicates the benefits of addressing students' prior understandings of topics of instruction. This article addresses the beliefs that college students in educational psychology and introductory psychology courses had about basic issues in child development. In response to open-ended questions, 150 students articulated distinct views about the social-emotional, physical, and cognitive domains. In their ratings, most students showed a preference for multidimensional explanations of development but adapted their responses to particular developmental domains and skills. Some evidence indicated that previous instruction in child development and the experience of raising children were associated with multifaceted beliefs. Implications are offered for future research and instruction.

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College students enter educational psychology and related courses with distinct beliefs about children. For example, some students believe that children worldwide undergo common changes, perhaps due to shared maturational processes, whereas others assume that developmental sequences vary dramatically among individual children, depending on unique child-rearing experiences. Such beliefs play a role in students' interpretations of academic concepts about children (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2008). In this article, we examine college students' beliefs, focusing on their ideas about basic developmental issues--factors that contribute to psychological and physical growth, the universality of developmental sequences, and forms of developmental change.

Preliminary evidence indicates that some college students, including some prospective teachers, have a few convictions about child development that are refuted by research and incompatible with sound educational practices. For example, a few aspiring and practicing teachers view children's personalities and intellectual abilities as fixed and resistant to change, assume children from diverse backgrounds see the world exactly as the teachers do, and believe that didactic instruction is consistently the most effective method of teaching children (Borko & Putnam, 1996; Daniels & Shumow, 2003; Holt & Reynolds, 1992; Kilgore & Ross, 1993; McIntyre, Jeffries, Turner, & Gilbrane, 2009; Patrick & Pintrich, 2001). In many cases, teachers hold these beliefs despite having been exposed to alternative concepts in child development (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development & National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, 2007).

Of course, exposure to concepts in child development does not inevitably yield new insights about children. Students need to undergo conceptual change, the process of revamping or augmenting existing ideas to accommodate exposure to new information (Carey, 1985; Mortimer, 1995; Murphy, 2007; Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982). Worthwhile instructional strategies include those that foster active participation, present concrete and engaging activities, create disequilibrium in thinking, challenge non-productive ideas, and support self-reflection (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2008; McIntyre et al., 2009; Patrick & Pintrich, 2001). These tactics may be particularly powerful when instructors become aware of students' typical preconceived ideas ahead of time and then challenge these misconceptions during lectures, discussions, and assignments. Yet it is not always possible to gain in-depth insights into students' perspectives prior to presenting information on relevant topics. Thus, instructors of psychology may benefit from access to data on students' commonly held beliefs about teaching, learning, and child development (Deemer, 2009; Patrick & Pintrich, 2001).

This investigation contributes to this instructional need by examining college students' beliefs about child development, a basic topic in educational and introductory psychology courses. Three central themes in child development were of concern to us: the manner in which nature and nurture combine in developmental change, the presence of both individual patterns and widespread trends, and the existence of dramatic reorganizations and minor incremental progressions (Fisher & Immordino-Yang, 2006; Kagan, 2008). …

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