Perry’s Scheme – Understanding the Intellectual Development of College-Age Students

While attending the Educause conference in Anaheim, CA in October, I heard a talk on Flipping the Classroom that referenced Perry’s Scheme – the classic study and resulting model of cognitive development of college-age students. Back in the Center for Educational Resources, looking for more on Perry, I uncovered a trove of information, distilled for you in this post.

William G. Perry, Jr. was a psychologist at Harvard and professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. During the 1950s and 60s he conducted a 15 year study of the intellectual and cognitive development of Harvard undergraduates. In 1970 he published Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston; reprinted November 1998; Jossey‐Bass. The long-term impact of Perry’s scholarship is captured in a quote from the book jacket of that publication: “Since its original publication in 1970, this landmark book by William Perry has remained the cornerstone of much of the student development research that followed. …Perry derived an enduring framework for characterizing student development – a scheme so accurate that it still informs and advances investigations into student development across genders and cultures.”

An excellent summary of the key points of Perry’s book for practical application is provided in James M. Lang’s On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 163-173.

In a nutshell, Perry “described the development of Harvard students as progressing from the dualistic belief that things are either true or false, good or evil, through a stage of relativism in which they feel that all beliefs are equally valid, to a stage of commitment to values and beliefs that recognized to be incomplete and imperfect but are open to correction and further development.” [Wilbert J. McKeachie, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 296.]

Diagram showing the progression of Perry's Scheme from Dualism to Multiplicity to Relativism to CommitmentMore specifically, Perry’s Scheme of intellectual development proposes nine positions or levels with the transformative sequences that connect them. Googling William G. Perry or Perry’s Scheme (be sure to add the middle initial to avoid being inundated with links to William “Refrigerator” Perry, the former NFL lineman) will provide a number of summaries of his model, which is often reduced to four levels:

1. Dualism – knowledge is received, not questioned; students feel there is a correct answer to be learned.
2. Multiplicity – there may be more than one solution to a problem, or there may be no solution; students recognize that their opinions matter.
3. Relativism – knowledge is seen as contextual; students evaluate viewpoints based on source and evidence, and even experts are subject to scrutiny.
4. Commitment within relativism – integration of knowledge from other sources with personal experience and reflection; students make commitment to values that matter to them and learn to take responsibility for committed beliefs. There is recognition that the acquisition of knowledge is ongoing activity.

An individual student at a single point in time may be at different stages in regards to different subject areas. Hofer and Pintrich note that change from one stage to another “…is brought about through cognitive disequilibrium; individuals interact with the environment and respond to new experiences by either assimilating to existing cognitive frameworks or accommodating the framework itself.” [Barbara K. Hofer and Paul R. Pintrich, The Development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing and Their Relation to Learning, 1997 67: 88 Review of Educational Research, p. 91.]

While Perry himself acknowledged the limitations of his work – the majority of his subjects were white, male students at Harvard and the interviewing process was not subjected to protocols that would be considered mandatory today – as the book jacket claims, the study is still considered to be a seminal work.

So why is it important to you as an instructor? Let’s say that you’ve just given a brilliant lecture on different theoretical models for economic development in Mongolia or presented several philosophical approaches to the question of nature or nurture. Afterwards a student comes up to the podium and asks you, “But which is the right one?” Understanding that for this subject at least, your student is stuck in the dualism stage might help you in responding and providing appropriate guidance.  Although today dualistic thinking is less prevalent among college-aged students than in Perry’s time – most students come into a college education at the stage of multiplicity – your first year students may still perceive the instructor to be the disseminator of truth. Students who have not reached the stage of relativism may be less comfortable in a classroom setting that is focused on active learning. When students push back on teaching and learning strategies that shift their roles from being recipients to being participants and collaborators, it may be because they are not yet developmentally up to the task. Such teaching approaches may, however, help students transition to higher levels as they experience the “cognitive disequilibrium” that Hofer and Pintrich describe (see above).  As our faculty-centered pedagogies shift to learner-centered approaches, a key to success will be in understanding how students view their acquisition of knowledge.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC (some rights reserved) Macie Hall