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Intellectual and Ethical Development


Perry (1968) proposes that college students can progress (journey) through 9 positions (perspectives) of intellectual and ethical development. The characteristics describe the students' attitude toward knowledge; a journey toward more complex forms of thought about the world, major, and self.

The 9 positions are grouped into 4 major categories:

  • Dualism (concrete knowledge/perspectives)
  • Multiplicity (subjective knowledge/perspectives)
  • Contextual Relativism (procedural knowledge/perspectives)
  • Commitment in Relativism (constructed knowledge/perspectives)


Position 1: Basic Dualism

  • Identification of an authority figure (parent, teacher, text book, bible, etc.)
  • Right and wrong; good and bad, etc. 
  • Only truth/correct answers exist and authorities (teachers) know them
  • Students task is to learn the right solutions

Position 2: Full Dualism

  • Recognition of other perspectives
  • Those that differ from own are wrong/bad
  • Students task is to learn the right solutions and ignore other perspectives
  • Knowledge is quantitative
  • Simplicity is correct and complexities are wrong
  • Transition - when cognitive dissonance begins


Position 3: Early Multiplicity

  • Recognition that ambiguity exists and there is uncertainty in the world
  • Two forms of problems:
      • Ones with solutions
      • Ones whose solutions are yet to be known (maybe the result of a lack of expertise?)
  • Students task is to identify the "right" solutions
  • A very difficult transition time for students

Position 4: Late Multiplicity (a and b)

  • 4a: Rebellion
      • Some problems cannot be solved, therefore all could be correct (no accountability)
      • All opinions can be valid
      • Realization there are multiple perspectives and therefore everyone has a right to their own opinion
      • Realization that may not be able to rely on "authorities" for solutions/answers
      • Struggles to discern the 'better' answers
      • Subjective unsubstantiated answers are offered
      • Metacognition is yet to be developed
  • 4b: Playing the Game
      • Providing what the "authorities" want is as appropriate as the 'right answers'
      • Seeks to identify the 'rules' by which the "authorities" operate to be successful (e.g. grading)
      • Parroting back answers and solutions already provided
      • Transition - with acknowledgment of the need to support positions with data and/or logic

Contextual Relativism

Position 5: Relativism

  • Multiple solutions, some better than others
  • Ambiguity is part of life
  • Need to support with evidence
  • Context becomes important to glean meaning from 'facts'
  • Students need to evaluate solutions
  • Make an effort to be 'balanced' when evaluating differing perspectives
  • "Authorities" are seen as those with more experience and knowledge
  • Ways students deal with the uncertainty of relativism is:
  • Temporize (postpone decisions and commitments)
  • Retreat (move back to a previous position) which can result in prejudice and closed mindedness
  • Escape (denying the reality of relativism)

Position 6: Commitment Foreseen

  • Tentatively making choices and committing to these solutions/options/perspectives
  • A narrowing of potential choices
  • Greater inner strength develops as a result of commitment
  • Choices become more personal (ownership) and proactive
  • Recognition that other perspectives have merit also, if they can be validated in some way
  • Transition - initiation of ethical development rather than cognitive structural changes

Commitment in Relativism

  • Rarely attained, even by graduate students?
  • Integration of knowledge/learning with own experiences

Position 7: Commitment

  • The evolution of 'considered choices'
  • Students make commitments
  • Beginning to establish one's identity

Position 8: Challenges to Commitment

  • Exploration of responsibility as a result of commitment
  • Revelation of the implications of commitment

Position 9: Post Commitment

  • Realization that commitment is on-going and ever evolving
  • Lifestyle consistent with one's beliefs, values, and identity
  • Ambiguities and uncertainty become an integral part of personal identity

Measurement Instruments

Several instruments have been developed based on Perry's scheme.

Instructional Models

Knefelkamp and Widdick produced an instructional model (briefly outlined below) for Perry's scheme.

  • Four variables on a continuum challenge and support learning.
  • Teachers utilize the four variables below to construct learning activities and environments to support and enhance cognitive development.
  • Structure
      • The framework and structure provided
      • Continuum from high to low
  • Diversity
      • The framework and structure provided
          • Quantity
          • Quality
      • Continuum from 1-2 simple concepts and/or tasks to many complex concepts and/or tasks
  • Experiential Learning
      • The degree of concreteness, directness and involvement in activities
      • Continuum from direct to vicarious
      • Early development students are in most need of these experiences
  • Personalism
      • The degree of environmental safety in regard to risk taking
      • Continuum from high to moderate

Another strategy often cited to support student cognitive development is known as plus-one staging (Kholberg, 1978). Similar to Vygotsky's (1978) Zone of Proximal Development, that learners are capable, with guidance, and are attracted to reasoning/concepts/perspectives somewhat more advanced than what they currently know or of which they are capable.


  • Baxter Magdola, M. and Porterfield, W. (1988) Assessing intellectual development: The link between theory and practice. American College Personnel Association, Alexandria, VA
  • Knefelkamp, L., Widick, C., and Parker, C. (1978). Applying new developmental findings. New Direction for Student Services, No.4.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Kohlberg, L. (1978).The cognitive - developmental approach to moral education. In P. Scharf (Ed.), Readings in moral education. Minneapolis:Winston Press, 1978.
  • Moore, W. S. (1989, November). The learning environment preferences:Exploring the construct validity of an objective measure of the Perry scheme of intellectual and ethical development. Journal of College Student Development, 30, 504-514
  • Perry, W. (1999). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  • Perry, W. (1981). Cognitive and ethical growth: The making of meaning. In A. Chickering (Ed.), the modern American college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass pp 76-116
  • Perry, W. (1968). Patterns of development in thought and values of students in a liberal arts college: A validation of a scheme. Final report. US Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Further Reading

  • Baxter Magolda, M. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students' intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Baxter Magolda, M.B. (2001) 'A constructivist revision of the measure of epistemological reflection', Journal of College Student Development, 46(6), pp.520-534
  • Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F. Patton, L., and Renn, K. (2010). Student development in college: theory, research and practice. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Gallagher, S. (1998). The road to critical thinking: The Perry scheme and meaningful differentiation. NASSP Bulletin, 82(595), 12-20
  • Goleman, D. (1995).Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than I.Q. New York: Bantam Press
  • Kohlberg, L. and Mayer, R. (1972).Development as the aim of education. Harvard Educational Review, 42(4), 449-496
  • Moore, W.S. (2001). "Understanding Learning in a Postmodern World: Reconsidering the Perry Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development." In B. Hofer and P. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: the psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing.Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.
  • Piaget, J. (1952).The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Zhang, L. and Watkins, D. (2001). Cognitive development and student approaches to learning: An investigation of Perry's theory with Chinese and US university students. Higher Education, 41(3), 239-61


Metacognitive knowledge refers to acquired knowledge about cognitive processes, knowledge that can be used to control cognitive processes (thinking about thinking). Flavell (1997) further divides metacognitive knowledge into three categories, knowledge of:

  • Person variables
  • Task variables
  • Strategy variables

Metacognition, or the ability to control one's cognitive processes (self-regulation) has been linked to intelligence, (Borkowski et al., 1987; Brown, 1987; Sternberg, 1984). Knowledge is considered to be metacognitive if it is actively used in a strategic manner to ensure that a goal is met.

Further Resources


  • Borkowski, J., Carr, M., and Pressely, M. (1987). "Spontaneous" strategy use: Perspectives from metacognitive theory. Intelligence, 11, 61-75
  • Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert and R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. pp.65-116
  • Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F., Patton, L., and Renn, K. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research and practice. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of co gnitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911
  • Flavell, J. H. (1987). Speculations about the nature and development of metacognition. In F. E. Weinert and R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, Motivation and Understanding. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. pp.21-29
  • Sternberg, R. J. (1984). What should intelligence tests test? Implications for a triarchic theory of intelligence for intelligence testing. Educational Researcher, 13 (1), 5-15
May 26, 2022