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Cognitive Development
It is useful to think of students within the context of their cognitive development, or the continuum from simple to more complex stages of thinking and knowing.  This concept is relevant to all instructors as they design their courses to initially "meet students where they are" and then create activities that will encourage students' development toward the more complex stages or positions.  There are several well-known models of cognitive development.  Below are very brief summaries of each and links to resources for further exploration.

Perry's Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development

William Perry's 1970 study of mostly young male students resulted in a scheme with four major stages or "positions" in their development: Dualism, Multiplicity, Relativism, and Commitment.  (Each of the four is further differentiated, but it's sufficient to start with the four overarching categories.)  Each position represents increasing complexity in how learners think about knowledge, authorities or experts, and their peers.

Stage View of Knowledge  View of Professor  View of Peers 
Students think knowledge is "out there," teachers have it, and the students' job is to get it from the teachers.
Indication of change toward Multiplicity:
acceptance of multiple views, some ambiguity
Black vs. White, Right vs. Wrong
Dispenser of Truth
Should just provide the answers
They do not have expert Knowledge. 
Students begin to be uncertain. Since experts don't have the answers, students think they can accept whatever each source says, even if when contradictory.
Indication of change toward Relativism:
able to back up opinions, argue, consider alternatives
Knowledge is a matter of opinion.  All opinions are equal.  Not an authority
Just another opinion 
Just another opinion 
Students realize they have to make decisions on what to believe.
Indication of change toward Commitment:
creation of a personal world view
Quality of knowledge 
A resource to help learn methods of analysis  A legitimate source of knowledge 
Initial commitment in some important aspect of life. Emergence of additional commitments.  Commitments seen as ongoing activities. Sense of self as source of knowledge, authority figure to self.
Knowledge intrinsic
Convinced of knowledge 
Not an absolute authority
A resource
A colleague 
A legitimate source of knowledge 
 --Table from Laurie Richlin's Blueprint for Learning: Constructing College Courses to Facilitate, Assess, and Document Learning
(Stylus, 2006, p. 42)   See green callout box to the right for discount purchase.

Resources for Further Study, Reflection, or Discussion

Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's Women's Ways of Knowing

This 1986 study of female students complements Perry's work based mostly on young men.  They found five positions from which learners develop beliefs about knowledge: Silence, Received Knowing, Subjective Knowing, Procedural Knowing, and Constructed Knowing. 

Perspective Characteristics
Silence  Signifies the voicelessness of women.
These women have difficulty hearing as well as speaking.
Silence grows out of a background of poverty, isolation, subordination, rejection, and often violence.
This is often not a step in normal development but a failure to develop.
Received Knowing  Truth is absolute and ambiguous.
Received knowers believe that for every question there is a correct answer.
There is no room for ambiguity.
Equivalent to Perry's position of Dualism. 
Subjective Knowing  In some respects, the opposite of Received Knowing.
Deeply suspicious of information dispensed by others.
Subjectivists look inside themselves for knowledge.
Similar to Perry's position of Multiplicity. 
Procedural Knowing  No longer believes that one can acquire knowledge through immediate apprehension.
Knowledge is a process.
Separate Knowing:  Implies a separation from the object of knowledge and mastery over it.  Use of impersonal logical rules. Conforming to the demands of an external authority.
Connected Knowing:  Builds on the subjectivists' conviction that the most trustworthy knowledge comes from personal experience rather than the pronouncements of authority.
Constructed Knowing  All knowledge is constructed, and the knower is an intimate part of the known.
Women weave together the strands of rational and emotive thought and integrate objective and subjective knowing. 
Question posing is central to the constructivist way of knowing.
 --Table from Laurie Richlin's Blueprint for Learning: Constructing College Courses to Facilitate, Assess, and Document Learning
(Stylus, 2006, p. 43)    See green callout box above for discount purchase. 

Resources for Further Study, Reflection, or Discussion
    • Ferris State University Center for Teaching, Learning, and Faculty Development has an excellent summary (which right now is offline, so until it returns, here's Wikipedia's entry, which isn't too bad).
    • The original research is available in their book, Women's Ways of Knowing.

Baxter Magolda's Epistemological Reflection Model, or Path to Self-Authorship

Marcia Baxter Magolda's earlier work (1992) synthesized Perry and Belenky, et al., by studying an equal number of males and females, though they were mostly white.  Her model includes four stages that roughly correspond to Perry's: Absolute Knowing, Transitional Knowing, Independent Knowing, and Contextual Knowing.  This paper by Karla C. Carney effectively summarizes these stages.

In more recent years, she has adopted the metaphor of self-authorship to describe the developmental process of college students' thinking.  Her 2009 article with Hodge and Haynes offers a concise summary of this updated version, which is represented in this chart from that article:

Resources for Further Study, Reflection, or Discussion

Reflect, Respond, or Interact

Think about how you see your students fitting into this model. What does it help you understand about them and their learning?

To respond to the notion of cognitive development and your students, feel free to send your thoughts to  You can also interact with the content and each other more directly on this VoiceThread page.  (Need a VoiceThread tutorial?  Go here.)