Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


Course Description

Welcome to 9.85. This is a communication intensive course on cognitive development. We will treat developmental psychology as "applied philosophy"—a way to answer fundamental questions about the origins and nature of knowledge. You should expect to gain an understanding of the questions that motivate developmental research and the methods that can answer these questions.

We will focus on how children acquire commonsense knowledge about the world, focusing particularly on their understanding of objects (shoes, ships and sealing wax), agents (you, me, and sometimes fuzzy green blobs) and causality (the relations that bind these together). We will examine the evidence for innate representations and also look at the processes that underlie learning and conceptual change.

The course is structured around primary sources, not a textbook. Most days, you will read one brief review article and one or two empirical articles.


The class assignments (200 points total) are intended to give you experience with things you will be expected to do if you become a research scientist. Thus you will participate in a lab meeting to design a research method, critically review an empirical article, create an educational brochure for the general public, present a research poster, write a literature review, and develop and write-up an original experimental design.

Daily Mini-lectures (1 Point Each, 2 Points Poster Session/20 Points Total)

Every day marked with an* (18 days) you will pick up a red or blue index card at the start of class. I'll start class by telling you which of the day's readings each colored card is responsible for. You'll then be asked to find a partner (a new one each day so you get to know each other) with the other color of card.

You have 3 minutes to tell your partner:

  1. The main question(s) at stake
  2. The main finding(s)
  3. The main implications

You will then spend 3 minutes listening to your partner's summary. The TA's and I will randomly choose partners among you as well. After the summary, we will ask you to write your partner's name with a 1 if the partner clearly knew the reading and a 0 if not (Honor system) and that will be your point for the day.

On the poster session days, there will not be a mini-lecture but the group not presenting will complete a peer evaluation of the posters (2 points).

Group Practicum (10 Points Credit/No Credit)

This is the only group project and will be assigned the second day of class. The meeting should take ~1 hour outside of class. You will propose a method to answer a single developmental question and produce 5 powerpoint slides explaining your design.

One Public Information Brochure (20 Points)

This will be assigned the second day of class. You will be given a question a parent might pose on cognitive development (or if you prefer, choose your own topic). You are expected to research the answer by finding and reading 4–6 empirical papers on the topic.

You will then synthesize the findings into a public information brochure of 1,000 words or less. A draft of this will be returned to you with comments (but no grade).

The rough draft is required. If you do not submit it, 10% (2 points) will be deducted from your final grade. The best 3–5 brochures in the class will be sent to the Boston Children's Museum. With their approval, they will be made available to the public there at the end of term.

One 2-page Critical Response Paper (20 Points)

You may choose any of the suggested articles or any other journal article you like for a critical response. Critical response papers are intended to simulate the peer-review process. You will write the type of paper scientists write when deciding whether some new research merits publication. The first paragraph should summarize the question the authors wanted to answer and how the authors addressed the question (e.g., the experimental design). The remainder of the paper (2 pages max) should be devoted to considering the merits of the question the author(s) are addressing, whether the design is a good test of the research question, whether the interpretation of the results is justified, and ways you might improve or expand upon the research. You are allowed, but not required, to revise and resubmit this. If there are substantial improvements, your grade can go up 10% (2 points).

Poster (20 Points)

At the end of the second full week of class, you will be assigned an article and a poster session. Poster groups A and B will present on session 15; poster groups C and D will present on the last day of class session 16. This project will be explained in detail in class and sample posters will be available. You are expected to display the background, design, results, and conclusions of your article in the poster. You are also expected to be able to talk about the research and summarize highlights clearly for anyone who stops by and asks. Quality of presentation is critical but you are not expected to print (expensive) professional quality posters.

Proposal Description and Topic Seminar (10 Points Credit/No Credit)

You will submit a 2-page description of your proposed research project. This will form the basis of your Topic Seminar and will be circulated to all the other students in your seminar group. It should be sufficiently developed that A. you are comfortable presenting it and having it discussed by your peers and B. it forms a useful basis for developing an experiment. It does not need to include any citations. BOTH the 2-page description AND seminar attendance are required for credit.

Original Research Proposal (100 Points)

You may propose research on any topic in cognitive development that interests you. It must be on cognitive development but it does not have to be a topic specifically covered in the course. This project has four parts:

  • A 4–5 page literature review of your topic ending with the specific question you'd like to address and an explanation of its connection to the literature. The format should be APA style and comparable to the Introduction of the articles you will read in class. A draft of this will be returned to you with comments (but no grade). The rough draft is required. If you do not submit it, 10% (10 points) will be deducted from your final grade.
  • A 3–4 page description of your proposed experiment. The experiment should specify the population to be tested, the materials and procedure you will use, and the conditions you hope to test. The format should be comparable to the Procedures section of the articles you will read in class.
  • A 3–4 page discussion section. This section should discuss the conclusions you would draw if your hypothesized results were confirmed. It should also anticipate possible objections to your approach and suggest areas for further study. The format and tone should be comparable to the Discussion and General Discussion section of the articles you will read in class.
  • A reference section (APA style; not counted in 13-page limit).

All papers must be submitted both in hard copy and electronically. Please keep this between 11–13 pages (Times, 12-font, double-space, 1" margins).


Daily mini-lectures (1 point each—credit/no credit) 20
Group practicum (credit/no credit) 10
Public information brochure (10% deducted if no draft) 20
Critical response paper 20
Poster session 20
Proposal and meeting (credit/no credit) 10
Final paper (10% deducted if no draft) 100

Letter Grade Assignments

98%–100% A+ 88%–89% B+ 78%–79% C+
93%–97% A 83%–87% B 73%–77% C
90%–92% A- 80%–82% B- 70%–72% C- etc.

For group assignments, every member of the group receives the same grade, unless there's a clear discrepancy in the distribution of effort. Please see the peer evaluation page of this syllabus for how to handle the exceptional case of differential grading on group assignments. For all other assignments, you will be graded on the quality of your own work—there is no curve or pre-set grade distribution for this class.

Late assignments will only be accepted with a note from Student Services. Please do not ask me or the TA's about late assignments because there is no further information we can provide—they will always be accepted if you have a note from Student Services; they will never be accepted if you do not.

The brochures and critical response papers will be graded by the teaching assistants. The posters will be graded by a TA, a writing instructor, and myself. The TA's and I will grade the final papers. You are required to revise your initial draft of the brochure and the literature review before submitting final drafts. Final papers will be available on request for you to pick up at the end of the grading period or the beginning of the following term.

Plagiarism Policy

This is a Communication Intensive class and its primary goal is to insure that you can communicate original ideas about the content of cognitive science in your own words. Consistent with university policy (please see the MIT webpage on Academic Integrity) copied material not in quotation marks, whether verbatim or not, will be treated as plagiarism, even if the plagiarism is unintentional and even if the original reference is cited. Copied material takes credit for someone else's work and provides no evidence that you have fulfilled the communication requirement. If you have any questions about the difference between paraphrasing and plagiarizing, please consult the website and see a TA, a writing tutor, or me. Any form of plagiarism will result in a zero on the assignment and a record sent to the Office of Student Citizenship. It can result in hearing leading to expulsion from the institute.

Please let me know on an individual basis if you have a learning disability or other special concern you would like me to be aware of.

Class Attendance/Participation

As much as possible for a relatively large, lecture-based introductory course, I try to make this a conversational, seminar-style class. See me if you have a disability that requires you to have a computer in class—otherwise, please stick all electronic devices in your backpack before entering the room; they distract from thought and interaction. If you have an illness or emergency, please be sure a TA gets a note from student services and you will not be penalized for that day's mini-lecture.

I do not use email as part of my teaching. A quality undergraduate education should encourage students to talk to professors (and vice-versa). Because email tends to discourage such communication, you may use email only to set up an appointment to meet with me. If you cannot make my office hours, I will make individual appointments. I generally reserve time before and after class as well. I also strongly encourage you to meet with the TA's and writing tutor.


This calendar outlines the proposed schedule. During the teaching of the course, the topics covered in each session shifted for some sessions. As a result, the topics covered in the lecture notes and the sessions they correlate with may differ from the table below.

1 Commonsense and cognitive science  
2* Piaget Group practicum, brochure project, poster, and critical response papers assigned
3* Central debates, post-Piaget Methods assignment due the day after session #3 by email
4 Methods 1  
5 Methods 2  
6* Perception  
7* Object knowledge Critical response due in class
8* Number  
9* Statistical learning Two page proposal description due in class
10 Topic seminars/CIM workshops: social cognition and brain disorders  
11 Topic seminars/CIM workshops: empathy and morality Deadline for critical response revisions (optional)
12 Topic seminars/CIM workshops: music cognition, perception, and attention  
13 Topic seminars/CIM workshops: education and learning Draft of brochures due in class
14 Topic seminars/CIM workshops: language, imagination, pretend play, and religion  
15 Poster session groups A/B  
16* Computational models of cognitive development/spatial navigation  
17* Concepts  
18* Causal reasoning

Draft of literature review due in class

Brochure drafts returned

19* Agents and goals  
20* Theory of mind  
21* Autism Final brochures due in class
22* Word learning Literature review drafts returned
23* Language  
24* Moral reasoning  
25* Imagination and pretend play Final paper due in class
26 Poster session groups C/D Last day of class

*Daily mini-lecture session