Cultivating Complexity: Helping Students Recognize and Deal with Plurality and Uncertainty

Does it often seem the students beginning to work in your discipline struggle with uncertainty and regularly look to you for the “right” answer? Perhaps you seek to cultivate in students an appreciation of the inherent complexity of your discipline and the uncertainties of research. As “scholars in action” (McKeachie 1999) professors demonstrate this routinely in lectures and discussions, but how can we teach students to carry out inquiries for which there may not be a straightforward answer? When William Perry studied this issue among Harvard undergraduates more than 30 years ago, he observed nine approaches to learning that may be condensed as:

Dualism--students exhibit a right/wrong approach to knowledge. They view their own role as receivers of knowledge who must repeat it back correctly.

Multiplicity--students begin to grasp uncertainties and recognize that some important questions do not have clear right or wrong answers. Students may think that all views are equally valid and are confused by instructors’ criticism of their work. They respond by parroting what they perceive is correct but without full understanding or conviction.

Commitment--students come to see knowledge as a constructed process and decisions as contextual.   Seeing their professors as disciplinary experts and as models, students begin to make choices based on reliable information and draw conclusions based on appropriate evidence and analytic frames.

Perry showed that students move from seeing themselves as recipients who must correctly repeat a stable set of facts and ideas to becoming active thinkers who can select among competing frames of analysis to interpret evidence and reach conclusions.   He also showed that students may exhibit different levels at the same time depending on the course material and the various stresses of coping with certain ideas or course requirements. Perry's work has been expanded and modified in studies in diverse educational settings, but most models do acknowledge the sequence of absolutism-relativism-evaluativism (see Hofer and Pintrich 1997).

To address the ways that students process knowledge in fields that are new to them,   faculty may find it helpful to order their course narratives and deliberately direct assignments toward these moments in the learning process. We also suggest:

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

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

• Showing how your decisions about complex issues are based on careful analyses of information and grounded in your own set of values.

• Engaging students, even in large classes, by enabling them to actively participate in the knowledge-making process. Build in time for students to think or reflect independently in the class by assigning a one-minute paper during or at the end of the lecture in which students identify a question or work on a problem the lecture has raised.

• Guiding them in revealing their frames of analysis and show how specific facts become available more significant or desirable, depending on these contextual frames. Ask them to deduce what theoretical connections or arguments cannot be supported within these frameworks.

• Using pedagogical strategies that allow students to rehearse or practice deliberating important ideas through writing, speaking, discussing and reviewing and doing the work of your discipline.

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

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.