Student as Learner
 
Making Learning Happen: What We Know About What Works  
Learning to Think More Critically: Perry's Stages of Cognitive Development  
Elements of Critical Thinking & Common Pedagogical Practices  
Other Ways of Knowing: Beyond Perry's Model  
   

Learning to Think More Critically: Perry's Stages of Cognitive Development
   
  Perry’s Study   Strategies for Developing Critical Thinking
  Shortcomings of Perry’s Study   Original Article in PDF
Positions
   
1

There is no gray area

6

Everything is so confusing

2
The instructor doesn’t know the answer.
7
Time to take a stand
3

Grades are subjective

8

Time to support my views

4

My opinion versus the instructor’s

9

Critical thinking is an on-going

5

It’s all a matter of opinion

 


  Perry’s Study
       
 

Based on Piaget’s work, W.B. Perry detailed the stages (or positions) of intellectual and ethical development of college-age students. According to Perry’s model, a student “moves from perceiving the world in absolute terms...to making more room for diversity and recognizing the problematic nature of life...to finding one's own place through personal commitment in a relativistic world."

In brief, development moves through sequences--from simplicity to complexity and from differentiation to integration (Cross, 1981).  

 
       
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  Shortcomings of Perry’s Study
     
 
  • Study participants do not represent the diverse student populace of today.  Done during the 1950s and 1960s, Perry’s study focused on white, male Harvard undergraduates; therefore, the findings may not apply to other contingents, such as women ( see Other Ways of Knowing for studies that use different subjects).
  • Perry’s model is linear and moves from the simple to the complex.   While this may be true, it is now believed that most stages of development seem to be recursive, much as is the thinking process. A student may operate at Position 9 on one assignment and Position 3 on a subsequent one. Factors such as audience, purpose, experience, and subject all influence at which stage a student operates. Most students have operated at all nine positions by the time they get to college—they may be able to operate at Position 9 when engaged in their favorite hobby or in a subject they have great interest in, but only at Position 1 or 2 in an area with which they are unfamiliar, especially if that field involves reading and writing critically.
 
       
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Position 1: There is no gray area

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • The student sees the world in polar terms, as one side or opinion being categorically right and another wrong.
  •  Right answers for everything exist in the absolute, presumably known to authority, in this case, the instructor.
  •  Knowledge is assumed to be acquired through hard work and obedience.
  • Many students tend to see issues in extreme or dichotomous terms, therefore students may have difficulty with the "gray" areas inherent in interpretation and critique.
  • Students are often very uncomfortable in the absence of definitive answers.
 
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Position 2: The instuctor doesn’t know the answer

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • The student may perceive diversity of opinion and uncertainty, but accounts for them as unwarranted confusion in poorly qualified Authorities or as mere excuses used by Authority to force students to find “The Answer” by themselves.
  • This stage partly accounts for some students' resistance toward TAs and even professors.
  • Students may see grading standards as a kind of intellectual hazing or "weeding out" process.
 
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Position 3: Grades are subjective

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • Students accept diversity and uncertainty as legitimate but still temporary in areas where Authority hasn't found “The Answer” yet.
  • Students suppose that Authority grades them in these areas on good expression, but remain puzzled as to standards. In other words, grading seems idiosyncratic and subjective.
 
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Position 4: My opinion versus the instructor’s

  Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • Students perceive legitimate uncertainty (and therefore diversity of opinion) to be extensive and raise it to the status of an unstructured epistemological realm of its own, in which 'anyone has the right to his own opinion,' a realm which is set against Authority's realm, where right/wrong still prevails.
  • Students view qualitative, contextual, relativistic reasoning as a special case of what instructors want within the Authority's realm.
  • This stage often manifests itself as students' belief that it is their opinion to which the teacher objects and that is the reason for a low grade, even though the students see their opinion to be equally as valid as the teacher's. Generally, the problem is not so much the opinion as the lack of an effective argument and support for it.
  • Students may believe that teachers can and do change the rules to fit their own needs.
 
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Position 5: It’s all a matter of opinion

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • Students perceive all knowledge and values (including Authority's) as contextual and relativistic, and subordinate dualistic right/wrong thinking to the status of a special case, within a particular context.
  • At this point students begin to contextualize situations and to consider more sides of an argument.
 
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Position 6: Everything is so confusing

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • Students apprehend the necessity of orienting themselves in a relativistic world through some form of personal commitment (as distinct from unquestioned or unconsidered commitment to simple belief in certainty).
  • This stage is unstable, and often to achieve it students will experience tremendous confusion.
  • Confusion is actually a good sign, as it suggests that students are less certain about previously held beliefs. They haven't yet figured out what to replace their uncertainty with, however.
  • Often students attribute their confused state to lack of help from the teacher or to the "vagueness" or difficulty of the assignment.
 
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Position 7: Time to take a stand

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • The student makes an initial Commitment in some area.
  • There is a greater sense of control, and willingness to question and take risks.
 
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Position 8: Time to support my views

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • Students experience the implications of Commitment and explore the subjective and stylistic issues of responsibility.
  • Students begin to develop their own reasoned opinions and are willing and able to defend them through logical and rhetorical means
  • Students may see that having achieved this stage doesn't always result in an A grade.
 
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Position 9: Critical Thinking is an on-going process

Characteristics

Educational Implications

  • Students experience the affirmation of identity among multiple responsibilities and realize Commitment as an ongoing, unfolding activity.
  • Students realize that learning to think is an ongoing process.
 
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  Strategies for Developing Critical Thinking  
     
 
  • Discussion
  • Students write multiple drafts of a paper
  • Students share their work with each other
  • Students are given comprehensible feedback on their work in progress
 
     
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  Related Links:   Adjustment Stages for Incoming Freshman
    Other Ways of Knowing
   
 
   
 
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