Part One, Perspectives from Several Fields

 by William Peirce  © 2007

(Part two describes the perspectives of learning and
cognitive styles. Click here to read it.)

Send e-mail to wpeirce@verizon.net


I. Poor High School Preparation

Data from 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress
Summary of article by Sherrie Nist: 10 Ways . . .
What helps: Explicitly train students in how to take notes

II. Perspectives from the Field of Critical Thinking

Low aptitude students were not of low intelligence
What limits thinking
What helps: Explicitly teach students in how to reason in your course

III. Psychological Resistance to Thinking

Enculturation, ego defenses, rationalization
Analogy of resistance in psychotherapy and classroom
What helps: Create a classroom climate conducive to risk taking

IV. Levels of Intellectual Growth

Perry: stages of intellectual and ethical growth
Belenky et al.: perspectives on women's ways of knowing
What helps: Use strategies that move students to higher stages

V. Perspectives from Gender Differences

Women's dislike of adversarial discourse
What helps: Use pedagogical strategies that promote connected knowing

VI. Conclusion

Use a variety of teaching strategies to teach disciplinary reasoning


This is the longer text version of a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation at the AFACCT conference at Harford Community College on January 12, 2006. The handouts are incorporated here in a normal font as part of the narrative, with links to other versions of the handouts in more appealing formats.


Results of 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress

The results of the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress in writing were reported by the Department of Education in The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2002 (2003).  The assessment was administered to 19,000 12th graders at 7000 schools and included samples of narrative, informative, and persuasive writing.

Below Basic
Basic:  The "writing should show some analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking. It should include details that support and develop the main idea of the piece. . . . The grammar, spelling. punctuation, and mechanics  . . . should be accurate enough to communicate to a reader; there may be some errors."
Proficient:  The writing should be "an effective and fully developed response . . . that uses analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking. . . . [S]tudents are able to use precise language and sentence structure to engage the audience. . . . few errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, capitalization, and sentence structure."
Advanced:  The writing should be "a mature and sophisticated response . . . that uses analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2002. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/writing/results2002/

Much worse were the results of the persuasive writing task, which requires critical thinking; 60% were below the Basic level. According to the Report (2003), "Persuasive writing . . . involves a clear awareness of what arguments might most affect the audience being addressed. Writing persuasively also requires the use of such skills as analysis, inference, synthesis, and evaluation."

Low Academic Literacy

A good deal of the research into students' ability to reason in their college courses suggests that they don't reason well because they haven't been taught to in high school. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 1992 discovered that even the best students have great difficulty developing arguments using evidence and reasons. Four years later, the 1996 NAEP showed that most high school students do not read and write well.  The percentage of high school students who arrive in college ready to learn independently from their textbooks is only 6 %. The percentage who write well is even lower (2 %) and  those who write adequately is not high--less than a third (31 %).

Yet another body of research suggests that reasoning in college is closely linked to a variety of academic skills and that improving students' reasoning ability means improving their academic literacy--a  holistic approach to solving a variety of problems caused by students' lack of preparation for college.  According to Sherrie L. Nist of the University of Georgia, "Academic literacy is a term that is used to describe the skills and strategies that college students need in order to be successful in the courses they take. It covers reading, writing, listening, studying, and critical thinking processes." Nist's article "What the Literature Says About Academic Literacy" presents first the bad news (students haven't been taught the reading, thinking, and study skills they need) and then the good news: We can do something about it. Her article is summarized here (Georgia Journal of Reading, fall-winter 1993).

Nist's article points to ten differences in how the academic literacy expectations of college teachers differ from high school teachers:

1. Most high school students "enter college believing that learning is merely a compilation of facts. Students with such beliefs have problems in conceptualizing . . . . Such beliefs are especially true in courses such as history where high school teachers may have emphasized learning names, dates, facts, etc. at the expense on conceptualization. Certainly some memorization of facts is necessary at the college level, but most courses require students to go beyond this basic level of understanding and thinking."

2. "Students are unprepared for the reading demands [of college] because they have not had to read in high school. When students come to college and expect to receive a rehash in lecture of what was presented in the text (as is often the case in high school), they have a difficult time adjusting."

3. Students are not taught explicitly in high school "how to carry out basic studying and note-taking procedures to meet college academic literacy demands. . . . What little they knew, they picked up instinctively. In addition, most students were surprised to discover that what worked in high school didn't work in college. [Even students with good HS grades] discovered that the study processes they used in high school were both inefficient and ineffective for getting good grades in college."

4. Even when college professors are quite clear about an academic task, students did not know what to do to produce what was asked. "Many waited until the night before to begin thinking about [a history essay exam question given a week in advance] then found they didn't really understand the question. Many more continued to memorize names and dates, although nothing in the academic task outlined by the professor suggested that this would be the correct thing to do. In short, students 'hung on for dear life' to what had worked for them in high school and then subsequently performed poorly on the test."

5. College teachers assume certain behaviors that students do not, in fact, have. High school students often have only to listen in class to do well on a high school test, yet college teachers assume that they have learned to take notes (which they haven't) and that they use them to study well (which they don't).

6. College teachers also assume that students have learned how to write answers to essay questions, when in fact they have written only multiple-choice tests in high school. In Nist's study, "Students often wrote essays that lacked supporting information, were poorly organized, and lacked analysis and synthesis--something that had been conveyed rather clearly by the professor. In fact, many of the students in the study had a distorted view of what an essay in this class should entail. They wrote three or four sentences and then wondered why they received only a small number of points, or . . . no credit at all."

7. "In terms of critical thinking, . . . even 'ambitious college-bound seniors' don't think about and interpret information in a discipline the way a college professor does."

8. "The way students study for and think about a discipline may be highly dependent on their epistemological views of learning. . . . How students define learning relates strongly to how they go about defining and pursuing academic literacy. . . . Students disproportionately define learning as memorizing and thus proceed to learn in this manner whether or not it is appropriate to the situation." Many students do not seem to know that they have taken surface approaches to learning; whereas their college professors are taking deep approaches.

9. "In general, students seem not to be metacognitively aware." Some students are unaware they don't understand something; others may be aware of "what they don't understand but don't know what to do about it. Many students go back and reread and reread information that they don't understand only to find that repeated rereadings help very little."

10. The level of cognitive tasks in high school is more often tied to standardized test criteria than it is to teaching students to think, analyze, and synthesize at higher levels. . . . Success in college is generally not tied to standardized tests.


1. Students need to be taught "to be active, strategic readers and learners." According to Elizabeth Chiseri-Slater, "Extensive and demanding reading is at the heart of most [college courses]. The close reading of texts, in fact, is an "assumed" college literacy skill, based on very little evidence of students' reading abilities, and with no guidance offered on how to accomplish this." (from Academic Literacies: The Public and Private Discourse of University Students, 1991)

2. "Students need to be taught a repertoire of study strategies (not skills)." They need to be taught how to think conceptually and how to problem solve.

3. "Students need to learn that writing is a tool that can be used to refine, synthesize, and reflect knowledge. Because students tend to be memorizers, they have a difficult time putting what they have read and heard into their own voice. . . . Many fail to note that much of the way they learn is through writing--taking lecture notes, isolating key ideas from a text, constructing strategies from which to study, being responsible for summarizing and paraphrasing."

4. Colleges must teach what high schools do not, rather than assume they have learned it.

5. "Much more needs to be done with teaching monitoring and metacognitive awareness."

6. "We need to think more about how motivation and other affective variables influence academic literacy."

Source: Sherrie Nist, "What the Literature Says About Academic Literacy," Georgia Journal of Reading, fall-winter 1993).

For more on teaching study strategies, see METACOGNITION: Study Strategies, Monitoring, and Motivation at the MCCCTR web site.    

How do you as a disciplinary expert teach poor readers, writers, and thinkers to function well in your course?

Outlined below is a list of
Strategies for Teaching Critical Reading

1.  Preview the assigned reading

2.  Do not repeat the reading in a lecture

        Do not make listening to your lecture become the student's reading strategy. It is tempting when students do not or can not read the textbook chapters to make sure the course content is "covered" by telling the students what they should have learned by reading the textbook.  Among the reasons for not lecturing on assigned reading are

    1. Your students will not learn to read for comprehension--a valuable skill in your discipline.
    2. Your students will not learn to read critically--also a valuable skill in your discipline.
    3. Your passive learners will not learn how to apply the course information if the time they spend on task is spent on the tasks of listening and taking notes.
    4. Enough class time will not be spent on higher order thinking tasks, such as applying, conceptualizing, analyzing, synthesizing, classifying, comparing, evaluating.

3.  Have students write something in response to the text

Demonstrate how to do it; provide a model.

Write your daily instructions in the daily course syllabus.

4.  Design a focused, informal writing-to-learn task based on the reading

       For example:         For some suggestions for designing informal writing tasks that promote thinking, see the workshop on designing writing assignments that promote thinking, especially sections 7 and 8.

5.  Monitor compliance

       Develop ways to ensure that students do their homework without burdening yourself with daily feedback or recordkeeping.

    See A Strategy for Getting Students to Arrive in Class Prepared to Think

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Students have difficulty doing the thinking we ask of them in our classes not because of low intelligence but because of their attitudes or thinking styles. Arthur Whimbey's study of characteristics of low-aptitude college students showed that they

Source: Research by Arthur Whimbey, reported in Raymond S. Nickerson, David N. Perkins, and Edward E. Smith, The Teaching of Thinking. Laurence Erlbaum, 1985

Notice that "low intelligence" is not among the characteristics.

Thinking well is often a matter of attitude or disposition, rather than intelligence. Robert Ennis has devised a well-known list of dispositions for critical thinking. It is not enough to teach students to perform thinking operations and tasks, says Ennis. They should also be taught the attitudes and willingness to carry them out on their own, unasked.

Critical Thinking Dispositions

Seek a clear statement of the thesis or question

Seek reasons

Try to be well informed

Use and mention credible sources

Take into account the total situation

Try to remain relevant to the main point

Keep in mind the original or basic concern

Look for alternatives

Be open-minded

Take a position (and change a position) when the evidence and reasons are sufficient to do so

Seek as much precision as the subject permits

Deal in an orderly manner with the parts of a complex whole

Use one's critical thinking abilities

Be sensitive to the feelings, level of knowledge, and degree of sophistication of others

Source: Robert H. Ennis. "A Taxonomy of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities" in Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice; eds. Joan Boykoff Baron and Robert J. Sternberg. Freeman, 1987.

Notice that these are skills and attitudes that can be taught daily and explicitly. Students' dispositions to think critically can improve over their college years. An 8-step procedure for modifying students' behavior, attitudes, and motivation has been designed by Dr. James Bell of Howard Community College.

Limitations Because of Thinking Style, Know How, Etc.

What limits thinking?

There are several ways of diagnosing students' difficulties in carrying out the reasoning process we ask them to undertake. A book titled The Teaching of Thinking has a handy list:

Problems with Thinking and Learning Style

Problems with Know How; Making errors in encoding, operations, and goals: Missing important data or not separating relevant from irrelevant data. For example, some students in classes in writing about literature will base their interpretation of a poem on just the first stanza. Failing to select the right subskills to apply

Failing to divide a task into subparts. For example, some math students will jump right to what they think is the final calculation to get the desired answer.

Misrepresenting the task. For example, students in a speech communication class instead of doing the assigned task of analyzing and classifying group communication strategies in their group discussion will instead just write a narrative of who said what. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have investigated how students interpret college academic writing tasks' discovering that sometimes students did not engage in the critical thinking that the professors' assignments intended (Flower (1987); Nelson (1990); Kantz (1989).

Not understanding the criteria to apply. For example, when asked to evaluate the support provided for the major claim of an article, students will explain why they liked the article rather than apply appropriate judgmental criteria.

Problems with Cognitive Load Problems with Abilities Source: Raymond S. Nickerson, David N. Perkins, and Edward E. Smith. The Teaching of Thinking. Erlbaum, 1985.

A good way to discover what kind of errors students are making in their thinking processes is to get them to unpack their thinking, to tell you step by step how they are going about the task. By listening to how they are solving the problem, an instructor can detect where the student is going wrong. Asking students to describe their thinking processes develops their metacognitive abilities—a very necessary skill to improve thinking.

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If thinking well is such a good idea, why isn't everyone doing it? Answer: There are sometimes psychological barriers to clear thinking, even in those who are trying to be effective thinkers.

Enculturation, Ego Defenses, and Inaccurate or Incomplete Schemata

Most general textbooks intended for critical thinking courses open with a brief section challenging students to confront their hidden obstacles to good thinking. Enculturation (the process of acquiring the basic beliefs and values of one's culture) provides a primary obstacle to thinking about new ideas. It is impossible for students not to be influenced by their economic class, location, schools, race, customs, and family. Their attitudes about romance, marriage and divorce, work ethic, patriotism, what it means to be a man or woman, religion, authority, outsiders, insiders, social change, education, conformity, and dozens of others of their beliefs have all been formed by these influences.

How does enculturation interfere with our students' thinking?

People tend to fear ideas that oppose or challenge their sense of identity. Because enculturation has shaped their identity, they are likely instinctively to resist ideas that threaten their self-concept. Students, like everyone else, perceive what they want to see—especially when it preserves their self-image and sense of identity. In a science class you might have religious students who have acquired the belief that science and faith are enemies. They might resist becoming comfortable with the assumptions of scientific procedures that challenge their upbringing. Students whose high school experience has taught them that significant learning is memorizing facts presented by teachers will believe that working in small groups is a waste of time.

Ego defenses such as denial and rationalization are coping strategies that protect ourselves from anxiety, guilt, and other bad feelings. Doing poorly on a test and then blaming the test or the instructor is a way of denying that the real cause was poor study habits, low motivation, or lack of preparation. Not persevering in reading difficult material because it makes you feel stupid is another example.

A schema based on misperceptions, wrong information, and incomplete information can also interfere with accepting new or contradictory facts and ideas. A schema (the plural form is schemata) is one's understanding of something based on your previous information and experience. For example, students have schemata of photosynthesis, algebra, marriage, Buddhism, Germans, justice, critical thinking, killer bees, immigrants, roses, labor unions--all based on a combination of all that they have heard, seen, and accepted from the mass media, family and friends, school textbooks, the playground and workplace, authorities, whatever. As the Sherrie Nist article (above) pointed out, students often have a misconception that significant learning means memorizing, not learning to reason about alternatives.

Coping with Student Resistance to Reasoning

An article in  College Teaching sees an analogy between patients' resistance to personal growth through therapy and college students' resistance to intellectual growth through independent thinking. According to Keeley and his co-authors, teachers need "to recognize and overcome students' natural resistance to learning to think critically, a process that requires considerable behavioral change" (140). Believing that in several important ways the instructor/student relationship and psychotherapist/patient relationship is similar, the authors find good suggestions for teachers in psychotherapy literature. One similarity, for example, is the discrepancy between a student's (or patient's) wish for the expert teacher (or therapist) to provide single right answers and the teacher's wish that the students pursue their own investigations with a lot of hard work, coming to their own solutions. The behavioral changes needed to think critically require in the student a desire to change and the ability to endure frustration. It requires self-confidence in order to try techniques they are not good at and risk failure; it likewise takes self-confidence to rely on one's own thinking, rather than on an expert's.

Among their tips for professors:

1. Create credibility and classroom security by establishing your expertise. Secure leadership in the classroom can be established by good communication skills; for example, appearing interested, talking at the students' level, and being articulate and well-prepared.

2. Create a supportive rapport by being empathetic, communicating your respect for students; acting genuinely, and listening actively.

3. Create a climate where students feel they can take risks.

4. Be aware of students' expectations about teaching and learning; change those expectations when appropriate. For example, find out if students expect you to lecture--especially if you intend to use inquiry methods for students to obtain their own knowledge. Explain how your teaching methods might be different from what they are used to.

5. Handle homework assignments effectively. Homework that requires time and self-discipline is typical of classes that encourage critical thinking. Prepare students to meet your demands by showing them the techniques they need to employ to succeed. Make instructions clear and within student's capabilities.

6. Recognize signs of student resistance. Examples: "students either clowning around or monopolizing discussions, excessive complaining, passive withdrawal, missing classes or skipping assignments, and inappropriate emotional dependency" (143). Take a problem-solving approach to these cases, rather than personalizing them. Don't blame yourself.

7. Encourage students to discuss their resistance.

Source: Keeley, Stuart M., Kenneth M. Shemberg, Brenda S. Cowell, and Brian J. Zinnbauer. "Coping with Student Resistance to Critical Thinking: What the Psychotherapy Literature Can Tell Us." College Teaching, v. 43, no. 4 (Fall 1995), 140-145.

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Two influential studies of how college students develop personally and intellectually provide a good deal of insight into the steps students take as they become mature thinkers. In the process outlined by both William Perry and by Mary Belenky and her associates, personal and intellectual growth comes in stages over time—and it doesn't always come easily. Students in one stage sometimes will have difficulty before settling into the next stage.

How do your students usually deal with two-sided issues in your discipline? Do they choose the side backed by what they learned from authorities (parents, teachers, or religious leaders)? Do they feel that both sides are "just opinions" and equally right? Are they aware of the reasons and evidence that support both sides on a complex issue and assessed the support for both points of view? Have they chosen their own position after assessing both sides?

On the abortion issue, for example, consider the different levels of intellectual complexity and emotional engagement in the following questions. (1) Do students automatically adopt the position of their religious authorities or favorite political organizations? Do they see themselves emphatically on the right side, pitted against evildoers on the opposite side? Or (2) do they feel that all Americans have the right to their own opinions, and both sides are correct on the abortion issue? Do they believe there are two sides to every question, and it doesn't make any difference what side someone takes? Or (3) do they feel that one's position on the abortion issue depends a great deal on the definition of when a fetus becomes a person, and that this definition is not fixed or determined by a single expert authority. Are they aware of disagreement in the medical communities about these issues? Are they aware of differing ethical views about which issues should have priority: ethical issues affecting the pregnant woman and her family and social relationships or ethical issues affecting the fetus? Have they assessed the evidence and reasoning used by both sides of the abortion issue? Or (4) have they taken a position on the issue after a difficult emotional struggle because they fully considered the powerful emotional, moral, and practical concerns on both sides?

These questions illustrate four levels of complexity in dealing with intellectual and ethical issues. The first two levels of questions are easy to handle because students' minds at that level of intellectual growth quickly reach closure on the issue, avoiding a struggle between rival ethical and intellectual reasons. Reaching early closure on an issue is psychologically comforting because they avoid the stress of dealing with contradictions (see, the section above on psychological resistance to thinking). But early closure and a rush to judgment also prevent a full understanding of a complex issue such as abortion or rival approaches or theories in your disciplines. And the easy way of uncritical thinking retards one's intellectual growth. Your courses, I hope, encourage your students to take the more difficult path of genuinely considering both sides of an issue, accepting the emotional stress that accompanies genuinely identifying with opposing views.

As your students become self-directed, reflective practitioners of critical thinking and disciplinary reasoning, they will become increasingly aware of the complexity of knowledge and the need to recognize that no knowledge is definitely "true." This awareness develops in stages. The two most influential models of intellectual development in recent years are described by W. G. Perry, Jr. (1970) in Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme) and M. F. Belenky, B. V. Clinchy, N. R. Goldberger, and J. M. Tarule (1986) in Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. Both books chart intellectual development from a beginning position of accepting factual knowledge from authorities without questioning either the facts or the authorities. The highest stage is commitment to a position that you have arrived at through genuinely considering opposing views, examining personal experience, and engaging in personal reflection, without relying on the assurance of external authorities.

The Perry Scheme

Perry began interviewing first-year students at Harvard in the mid-1950s to study how students dealt with intellectual and moral relativism; he continued for about 10 years, interviewing many of the same students each year during their 4-year stay at Harvard. To avoid structuring the students' answers by how the researchers phrased the interview questions, he and his staff began the interviews with the open-ended question, "Would you like to say what has stood out for you during the year?" They followed the students' responses with, "As you speak of that, do any particular instances come to mind?" (Perry, 1970, p. 7).

From their answers Perry discovered that many students had passed through the same stages of intellectual development. Based on a careful analysis of their tape-recorded interviews, he constructed a map of their intellectual journey, now called the Perry scheme. Perry describes nine positions through four basic stages: Dualism, Multiplicity, Relativism, and Commitment.

Dualism At this stage of intellectual development, one is very certain of what one knows and of what makes it true. All questions have a single right answer and the authorities will tell you what that answer is. Dualists are passive learners; in their view the only appropriate response to course knowledge is to memorize it because the textbook and professor are the authorities; therefore, their knowledge must be true. The only appropriate response to ethical issues of right and wrong is to find out what the authorities say about it (church, parents, the state). None of the college students were at this stage when Perry and his staff interviewed them at the end of their first year--but some had begun their first year at this stage and gave it up during their first year of college as they became less dependent on authorities and more independent in their thinking.

<>Multiplicity Sooner or later, one must give up the comfort of certainty for the realization that not everything is known, even by the experts. In some areas it must be acknowledged that there is no single known truth. The attitude of students during the multiplicity stage is "Everyone has a right to his own opinion" and "Where authorities do not know the answer, my opinion is asgood as any other" (Perry, 1981, p. 84). The belief at this stage is that no opinion can be wrong, that any moral principle is as right as any other. Multiplists see no point in criticizing other points of view because it doesn't make any difference--all opinions are equally valid. At the multiplist stage, the lessening of devotion to authority is an advance from dualism into independent thought, and the egalitarian respect for others' views is also an advance. But the multiplist's attitude uncritically levels all opinions without distinguishing between more valid or less valid reasoning.

Relativism Some other commentators, but not Perry, use the term relativism to describe the stage that Perry calls multiplicity--the uncritical acceptance of all points of view without considering the evidence and reasoning that supports them. As Perry uses the term, relativism is the stage where one recognizes that there are several approaches to an issue, that these approaches are not of equal validity in all situations, and that the context has an effect on the validity of knowledge and a way of knowing. The relativism stage is an intellectual and ethical advance over the automatic acceptance of any personal opinion (the multiplicity stage). At this stage, students come to understand several points of view by analyzing the thinking processes displayed, by examining the use of evidence and reasoning. And also at this stage they judge those points of view and the thinking that supports them. At the previous multiplicity stage they automatically accepted them, without judgment. At the relativism stage, students understand the importance of learning procedures and criteria for judging some viewpoints as better or worse, for assessing how well some writers support inferences, for determining whether one view explores consequences more deeply than another, for approving the higher moral principles of one viewpoint over another.

But employing the procedures and criteria of the relativist can leave one longing for the deceptive certainty of authorities and the single one right answer of the dualist stage. In the students' interviews, Perry heard students sometimes back away from the psychological risks and uncertainties of the relativist stage. When students became too psychologically uncomfortable with the decisions made available at the relativist stage, Perry discerned three ways of avoiding intellectual growth: temporizing, retreat, and escape. Temporizing means postponing a commitment to a decision between alternatives. An example of temporizing is to wait a little longer to take a position on such complex social issues as abortion, affirmative action, or assisted suicide; or to not vote in the next election, rather than take a stand on the current political candidates--especially if taking a stand might cost the student someone's goodwill or go against the way he or she was raised. Retreat is Perry's term for returning to the dualist stage, usually with allegiance to an all-or-none, we-against-them, extreme position of right against wrong. Students retreating to the dualist stage needed an enemy; they were full of complaints about the side opposite to their own. In the interviews, the students in retreat railed against professors who wouldn't tell them exactly what position to take in their term papers. Escape is another form of alienation that avoids dealing with the complexity and uncertainty of the relativist stage. Sometimes the awareness of diverse approaches leads to a paralysis of decision making; some students drifted from major to major, never committing themselves to a single course of study. Others kept learning the knowledge of experts, never taking a position of their own on the issues they read about. Their escape was to stay in the relativism stage, avoiding the commitments and postponing making their own meanings.

Commitment Making choices and decisions after the reasoned explorations of the relativist stage is the next developmental step. An example of the commitment stage is choosing a position on controversial ethical issues (for example, abortion, assisted suicide, affirmative action) based on values you have chosen after considering the moral complexity of the issues--rather than choosing based on the values that were handed to you by authorities or enculturation. For the college students, the choices at the commitment stage also involved choices of majors, careers, and relationships.

Another realization made by many students at the commitment stage is that there is no final stage. Intellectual and ethical development is a recursive process. It repeats itself. As Perry, puts it, "Indeed the development we have traced in college students reveals itself now as 'age-free'" (Perry, 1981, p. 97). Issues never really get settled; new knowledge replaces old; the context of knowledge and values changes.

You can exhibit all these stages at one time, depending on the area of thought. Advancing to the commitment stage in one area of thought does not mean that you have reached that stage in all areas. For example, in the areas of disciplinary reasoning, you are probably at the commitment stage. You have read the experts, noticed where they disagreed, examined their evidence and reasoning, and made up your own mind. You selected what to emphasize in your course and decided what to leave out. But while at the commitment stage with disciplinary theory, when I first encountered Windows 3.1, I was a dualist. I relied completely on authorities (a guidebook I bought and my expert son), refused to experiment or press any key not designated by the guidebook or my son, and wanted a list of written rules and keystrokes to follow for every application. In general, one can move through the stages of the Perry model as one acquires the knowledge and experience to assess claims and to make independent judgments.

Perry's Scheme of Cognitive And Ethical Development (summarized)


Division of meaning into two realms:

Good vs. Bad, Right vs. Wrong, We vs. They.

Right Answers exist somewhere for every problem, and authorities know them. Right Answers are to be memorized by hard work.

Diversity of opinion and values is recognized as legitimate in areas where right answers are not yet known. Opinions are atomistic without pattern or system. No judgments can be made among them so "everyone has a right to his one opinion; none can be called wrong."


Diversity of opinion, values, and judgment derived from coherent sources, evidence, logics, systems, and patterns allowing for analysis and comparison. Some opinions may be found worthless, while there will remain matters about which reasonable people will reasonably disagree. Knowledge is qualitative, dependent on contexts.


An affirmation, choice, decision (career, values, politics, personal relationship) made in the awareness of Relativism. Agency is experienced as within the individual.

Perry also discovered that students at the Multiplicity stage used three different ways to avoid intellectual development to a more uncomfortable higher stage:

SOURCE: William G. Perry, Jr. "Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning." In The Modern American College: Responding to the New Realities of Diverse Students and a Changing Society, edited by Arthur Chickering and Associates. Jossey-Bass, 1981.

Belenky et al.: Women's Ways of Knowing

Mary Field Belenky and the other three women who worked with her studied a very different population than William Perry's subjects. Perry interviewed only male students at Harvard University from 1954 to 1963; Belenky et al. (1986) interviewed only women, mostly from colleges but also from family agencies, in the late 1970s. Thus Belenky's group studied women in a much broader range of social classes and ethnic backgrounds. Although Perry's study was designed very well to study intellectual and moral development in its male subjects, Belenky et al. write that "it was poorly designed to uncover those themes that might be more prominent among women. Our work focuses on what else women might have to say about the development of their minds and on alternative routes that are sketchy or missing in Perry's version" (p. 9). When Belenky et al. began to classify their data, it did not "fit so neatly into his categories" (p. 14). Whereas Perry's scheme sees a linear progress from position to position, Belenky et al. did not discover the same stage-to-stage sequence in the intellectual movement of the women they interviewed. Rather, from listening to their subjects' stories, Belenky et al. constructed five perspectives on knowledge that these women held, noting that at some points in their lives they shifted from one perspective to another. Still, the Belenky et al. observations about intellectual and moral development in women have many similarities to Perry's.

Silence  Among the women they interviewed, the feeling of being "mindless and voiceless and subject to the whims of external authority" (p. 15) was rarely observed and was held only by some of the youngest and most deprived of those interviewed. These women had grown up in isolation subjugated by authoritarian figures, not exploring their potential for speaking their own minds.

Received Knowledge  This perspective is much like the dualistic position in Perry's scheme. Knowledge comes from authorities, not from oneself or peers. Authorities are the sources of truth and know the single right answer for each problem. Those who took the perspective of received knowledge believed in a sharp dichotomy of right and wrong, a belief typical of dualistic thinkers, and they accepted the pronouncements of authorities (parents, teachers, religious leaders, laws)

Subjective Knowledge  Subjective knowledge is a "conception of truth as personal, private, and subjectively known or intuited" (p. 54). Knowledge from external authorities is rejected in favor of an intuitive feeling that something is so. This move towards autonomy, independent thought, and inner strength is an advance over silence and received knowing. Often the subjective knower still contains characteristics of the two earlier positions: dualist and absolutist notions of right versus wrong, although in the subjective knowledge perspective these concepts come from within. "I just listen to the inside of me and I know what to do" (p. 69) is a characteristic comment by subjective knowers. Women who maintain this extreme subjective position are at a disadvantage in college and workplace, where objectivity and rationalism are valued.

Procedural Knowledge  Women who decide to rely on procedures, criteria, and reasoned judgment are rejecting subjectivism. Some of the women college students reported that in some ways it felt like a return to obeying the voice of authority--obeying the expert professor telling them how to think in the course. But knowing how to analyze, how to follow a disciplined method, and how to be objective gave them a sense of empowerment and control that felt like independent thinking, as indeed it was.

Constructed Knowledge  The final perspective in the Belenky et al. model is analogous to Perry's final position in that both models place the highest value on knowledge gained by one's own search for meaning, both models recognize the importance of context, and both models acknowledge the relative and uncertain nature of truth. "To see that all knowledge is a construction and that truth is a matter of context in which it is embedded is to greatly expand the possibilities of how to think about anything" (p.138). From a perspective that acknowledges the importance of the context, asking questions about the context becomes a crucial method of inquiry: Who is making a claim? why? in what context? how are various answers judged?



A position in which women experience themselves as mindless and voiceless and subject to the whims of external authority;


A perspective from which women conceive of themselves as capable of receiving, even reproducing, knowledge from the all-knowing external authorities but not capable of creating knowledge on their own;


A perspective from which truth and knowledge are conceived of as personal, private, and subjectively known or intuited;


A position in which women are invested in learning and applying objective procedures for obtaining and communicating knowledge;


A position in which women view all knowledge as contextual, experience themselves as creators of knowledge, and value both subjective and objectives strategies for knowing.

Source: Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. V., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: HarperCollins, p. 15

[Note: Much of the material in Section IV, Levels of Intellectual Development, is slightly modified from material I wrote for the University of Maryland University College Course Guide for ENGL 396, Critical Analysis in Reading and Writing.]

Promoting Growth to Higher Stages of Intellectual Development

Both the Perry and Belenky models of intellectual growth present as a final position the mature thinker who seeks to understand the full context of an issue to make up his or her own mind. The way to help students reach this stage is by presenting them with several views: What Richard Paul calls dialogical thinking. Determining knowledge for yourself is a dialogical process that analyses the evidence and reasoning presented in opposing arguments, fully considers opposing values, becomes aware of conflicting disciplinary methods of inquiry, assesses the reasoning of experts who disagree, and explores opposing worldviews. Active learning strategies that explore two-sided issues promote intellectual growth.

For some suggestions for designing informal writing tasks that promote thinking, see the workshop on designing writing assignments that promote thinking, especially sections 7 and 8.

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Is there anything inherent in academic discourse that makes a student's gender a relevant issue? Will a student have difficulty just because she's a woman? According to several scholars, yes.

Carol Huber, addressing a conference on inquiry across the disciplines, "The thesis-driven argument, the primary form of academic discourse, . . .is incompatible with most female students' preferred style of learning." It is also the basis of Western male-centered educational institutions since the classical Greek academy (see also Walter Ong; Janice Moulton in the list of resources, below.)

Several researchers (e.g., Carol Gilligan; Paula Treichler & Cheris Kramarae, Elizabeth Chiseri-Slater) have written that women are alienated by higher educational institutions. Women students are uncomfortable with the combative model of debate where "women are expected to be publicly assertive authorities who challenge the intellectual views of others" (Elizabeth Chiseri-Slater). Women, according to these researchers, prefer using reasoning to understand issues and to persuade open-minded people—not to defeat adversaries or prove them wrong.

Separate and Connected Knowing

One of the Belenky group's observations was that "women often feel alienated in academic settings and experience 'formal' education as either peripheral or irrelevant to their central interests and development" (p. 4). What Belenky's group discovered that Perry did not is the distinction between two kinds of procedural knowledge: separate knowing and connected knowing. Women present a variation on Perry's model in that they wish to connect with the knowledge of another person, "to enter the other person's frame to discover the premises for the other's point of view" (p. 101). On the other hand, separate knowing is "based upon impersonal procedures for establishing truth" (p. 102). Connected knowing is based on empathy, on trying to experience another person's point of view through his or her thinking process. Belenky speculates that more men may prefer separate knowing and more women may prefer connected knowing, but she acknowledges that her study has not developed hard data on this subject.

What Belenky et al. did discover is that many women in college did not prefer the typical separate-knowing procedure of coldly analyzing a logical argument. The stance of the skeptical critic ferreting out something wrong in a logical argument is an adversarial form of debate reasoning that many women did not automatically enjoy the way men seemed to. Women became adept at playing the debate game, but many considered debate and detached analysis an empty exercise.

More fruitful for many women were procedures for connected knowing, for postponing judgment, for empathetically seeing through the perceptual lens through which other thinkers viewed an issue. Collaborative learning and collaborative exploration were preferred forms of procedural knowing among many of the women interviewed.

"Women apparently are less concerned with proving opponents in error than with changing their thinking" (Huber, p. 350). The problem with informal logic courses and similar kinds of critical thinking courses is their "emphasis on analysis and assessment of arguments advanced by others" and defending one's position. The emphasis on defending a position encourages a rush to closure and puts the reader of your argument into the position of agreeing or disagreeing. Women prefer active questioning, understanding opposing views, and understanding why people think that way. They would rather change the minds of neutral readers than oppose dogmatists.

Pedagogical Strategies that Encourage Women's Reasoning

According to Chiseri-Slater (1991), Academic Literacies: The Public and Private Discourse of University Students, the pedagogical strategies that promote inquiry and connected knowing and that women are more likely to see as encouraging their intellectual development are

As it happens, these strategies also improve the reasoning skills of men.

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So, what have we learned?

That students come to our courses with many understandable reasons for having difficulty doing the reasoning tasks we ask of them:

  1. Their high school preparation has taught them that memorizing the correct answer is how to succeed in school and has not taught them the reading, writing, and techniques that do promote success. They have misconceptions about significant learning.
  2. They may lack the dispositions or thinking styles and procedures for doing the reasoning we ask of them.
  3. They may have psychological barriers or resistance to inquiry methods of learning.
  4. They may not have developed intellectually to a level that is comfortable with opposing views and no single right answer.
  5. Women may be alienated by the adversarial discourse of academe.
And we learned that a variety of teaching strategies can help our students, from teaching note-taking techniques to using a full range of active learning strategies.

Click here to read Understanding Students' Difficulties in Reasoning, Part Two: The Perspective from Research in Learning Styles and Cognitive Style.

For further reading, check out the resources listed below, which include the references cited in this document. You might want to check out the series of handouts of the workshop on designing writing assignments that promote thinking,  and the additional Resources for Teaching Thinking and the links to other web sites for teachers of thinking.

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Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. V., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.

Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bers, T. H., McGowan, M., & Rubin, A. M. (1996). The disposition to think critically among community college students: The California critical thinking dispositions inventory. The Journal of General Education, 45, 197-223.

Beyer, B. K. (1987). Practical strategies for the teaching of thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Brookfield, S. (1993). Breaking the code: Engaging practitioners in critical analysis of adult educational literature. Studies in the Education of Adults, 25, 64-91.

Chiseri-Slater, E. (1991). Academic literacies: The Public and private discourse of university students. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Farley, M. J. & Elmore, P. B. (1992). The relationship of reading comprehension to critical thinking skills, cognitive ability, and vocabulary for a sample of underachieving college freshmen. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 52, 921-931.

Flower, L. (1987). The role of task representation in reading-to-write. Technical report no. 6. Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley: National Center for the Study of Writing.

Hauser, J. (1992). Dialogic classrooms: Tactics, projects, and attitude conversions. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English Louisville, KY, November 18-23.

Huber, C. (1989). Toward a more commodious academic discourse. In M. Weinstein & W. Oxman-Micheli (Eds.) Critical thinking: Language and inquiry across the disciplines; Conference 1988 proceedings (pp. 347-353). Montclair, NJ: Montclair State College Institute for Critical Thinking.

Kantz, M. (1989). Shirley and the Battle of Agincourt: Why is it so hard for students to write persuasive researched analyses? Occasional Paper no. 14. Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley: National Center for the Study of Writing.

Keeley, S. M., Shemberg, K. M., and Zinnbauer, B. (1995). Coping with student resistance to critical thinking: what the psychotherapy literature tells us. College Teaching, 43, 140-145.

Moore, W. S. (1994). Student and faculty epistemology in the college classroom: The Perry schema of intellectual and ethical development. In K. W. Prichard and R. M. Sawyer (Eds.) Handbook of college teaching: Theory and applications (pp. 45-67). Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

Moulton, J. (1983). A paradigm of philosophy: The adversary method. In S. Harding and M. Hintikka (Eds.). Discovering reality. London: Reidel Holland.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2003) The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2002. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/writing/results2002/

Nelson, J. (1990). "This was an easy assignment": Examining how students interpret academic writing tasks. Technical report no. 43. Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley: National Center for the Study of Writing.

Nickerson, R. S., Perkins, D. N., & Smith, E. E. (1985). The teaching of thinking. Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum.

Nist, S. (1993). What the literature says about academic literacy. Georgia Journal of Reading, (Fall-Winter), 11-18.

Ong, W. (1981). Fighting for life. Ithaca: Cornell U Press.

Perry, W. G. Jr. (1970). Intellectual and ethical development in the college years. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Perry, W. G. Jr. (1981). Cognitive and ethical growth: The making of meaning. In Arthur Chickering and Associates (Eds.) The modern American college: Responding to the new realities of diverse students and a changing society. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sternberg, R. J., & Martin, M. (1988). When teaching thinking does not work: What goes wrong? Teachers College Record, 89, 555-78.

Treichler, P. A. & Kramarae, C. (1983). Women's talk in the ivory tower. Communication Quarterly, 31, 118-132.

Tishman, S. & Andrade, A. (1995). Thinking dispositions: A review of current theories, practices and issues. Interthink.

William Peirce © 2007

Send e-mail to wpeirce@verizon.net

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