Cultivating Reasoning Skills

One of the defining goals of a college education is to cultivate in students a discerning mind. Students demonstrate this intellectual characteristic when they are able to analyze issues critically and make informed decisions on questions for which there may not be a single or "right" answer. Faculty demonstrates this analysis and evaluation routinely in lectures and discussions, but often students seem to struggle and to differ greatly in their ability to develop these kinds of thinking skills. Students, particularly freshmen, are easily frustrated and confused when faced with deciding between multiple theories or explanations for ideas or in dealing with complex issues. William Perry studied this problem among Harvard undergraduates more than thirty years ago, and his findings continue to be significant. He recognized nine stages of intellectual development that may be condensed and described as:

  • Dualism--students exhibit a right/wrong approach to knowledge. Students in this stage typically view instructors as all-knowing authorities and perceive their role as students to be receiving this knowledge from instructors and repeating it back at appropriate times.

  • Multiplicity--students begin to recognize that some important questions do not have clear right or wrong answers. As a consequence, they may think that since some knowledge is uncertain, all views or opinions are equally valid. They may be confused by instructors' criticism of their work, assuming that it is based on personal whim. They may cope with this frustration by parroting what they perceive the teacher wants them to say, without personal epistemological conviction. Most college graduates remain at this stage of development in most areas of inquiry.

  • Relativism--students begin to recognize how to use reliable information to make informed decisions. They perceive an instructor as an expert resource or consultant on disciplinary methods of analysis, and their role as students as not just knowing facts but applying knowledge in different contexts and making conclusions based on evidence.

  • Commitment in relativism--students come to see knowledge as constructed and decisions as contextual, and recognize the need to make choices based not only on informed judgment but also personal values. Students may view instructors as models for making decisions consistent with sound intellectual judgment and personal ethics.

An important message from Perry's work is that the ability to think critically is attained incrementally. Students may exhibit different levels of intellectual maturity at the same time depending on the course material and the various stresses that they may feel in coping with certain ideas or course requirements. Students may not naturally progress through these stages without support, and faculty may find it helpful to order assignments deliberately to recognize the struggles students have with knowledge in the field. Faculty may help students' development by:

  • Providing examples, both historical and current, in which the knowledge of your field
    evolves as new ideas emerge.

  • Making explicit comparisons of theories and criteria for "best" theories in your field.
    Delineating the limits of your field, the values inherent in the practice of your field, and
    the consequences that follow from applying these values.

  • Showing how your decisions about complex issues are based on best analysis of
    information and grounded in your inherent set of values.

  • Using pedagogical strategies that allow students to rehearse or practice deliberating on
    important ideas through writing, speaking, discussing and reviewing.

  • Allowing students opportunities to engage in structured small group discussions to
    practice critical thinking skills.

References and Resources:

Kloss, R. J. (1994). A nudge is best: helping students through the Perry scheme of intellectual development. College Teaching 42,151-154.

Nelson, C. (1999). On the persistence of unicorns: the trade-off between content and critical thinking revisited. In B. A. Pescosolido & R. Aminzade (Eds.), The social worlds of higher education:handbook for teaching in a new century (pp. 168-184). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Perry, W. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: a scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. (Originally published in 1968 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston,Inc.)