Friday, September 17, 2010

Perry’s Theory on Intellectual and Ethical Development by Elvina Adakai

Overview of Theory
Perry’s Theory on Intellectual and Ethical Development was conducted in 1968 at Harvard University when Perry was serving as a Director in the Bureau of Study Council (Evans, 2010).  He did his research on some male students at Harvard and some female students at Radcliffe, and he conducted year-end interviews on these students during their four years at the institution.  The theory consists of nine positions and these positions are a tool for interacting with students that will help us understand students better.

Duality is when a student thinks there is an authority who knows the right answer and the authority should share the answer with them because they are all knowing. You can only be right or wrong there are no other answers to the problems you are faced with.  Multiplicity is when you are willing to find out the right answer to the question you are faced with.  Students in multiplicity are not so quick to have an answer given to them, but they want to find out for them selves through research so they can come up with their own opinion.  Relativism is initiated by recognition of the need to support opinions and knowledge is viewed more quantitatively (Evans, 2010).  Commitment in relativism is when students are required to make decisions in the real world, such as making decision about majors, relationships or their sense of identity (Evans, 2010).  The last set of positions is the deflection from cognitive growth.  Temporizing is the timeout period.  Students who are in this position do not know where their next step should be and let outcomes from tests determine their next step.  Escape is when a student is abandoning their responsibility and they do not want to make commitments.  Retreat is when a student goes back to dualism and wants a counselor or another type authority to give them the answers to what their next step should be.

Use in Higher Education
Residence Hall, Academic Advisors, Financial Aid Advisors or Admissions advisors use Perry’s Theory in counseling with students.  The residence hall advisors could use this theory with the way they pair up students in their halls.  They would be able to figure out what type of students they are dealing with when a student has a problem.  Financial Aid advisors could also benefit from this theory because the advisors deal with different types of students who do not want to take responsibility for why their paperwork did not get turned in on time.  Students usually want someone to tell them if they are doing the process correctly.  Sometimes with where I work we call this handholding.  With Perry’s Theory we can figure out what kind of student we are dealing with and help them move (or reposition) from the dualistic position to a position that accepts multiple views. 

Annotated Bibliography Entry
Zhang, L., & Watkins, D. (2001). Cognitive Development and Student Approaches To Learning: An Investigation of Perry's Theory with Chinese and U.S. University Students. Higher Education, 41(3), 239-61. Retrieved from ERIC database.

The authors, Zhang and Watkins conducted research using Perry’s theory on 67 US students and 193 mainland Chinese students to see if they could find relationships between the cognitive developments of these students.  They had three main goals 1) to examine the relationship between Zhang Cognitive Development Inventory and the Study Process Questionnaire, 2) to explore the differences in cognitive developmental patterns between American and Chinese students, and 3) to identify the similarities and differences between American and Chinese students in the relationships of cognitive development with academic achievement and with selected student characteristics.  American students showed more of a relativistic way of learning.  Chinese students were more dualistic.  Chinese students when they first enter college have a predetermined major.  US students are more open to finding out what interests them and are more open to trying different fields than Chinese students are.  I found this article helpful because when Perry conducted his initial research he did not take into consideration students from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds.  He also did not conduct his research on other types of students besides males. 

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F., Patton, L.D., & Renn, K.A. (2010). Student development
in college: Theory, research, and practice. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Zhang, L., & Watkins, D. (2001). Cognitive development and student approaches to learning: An investigation of Perry's Theory with Chinese and U.S. university students. Higher Education, 41(3), 239-61. Retrieved from ERIC database.

Additional Readings
Perry, W.G., Jr. (1968).  Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years:  A scheme.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.


  1. I really appreciate Perry’s theory and find it very applicable. I did not realize I would prefer Perry’s theory to Chickering’s until we started working on the in-class assignment. Upon hearing the scenario, I found myself immediately looking at the situation through the Perry lens, noting that the student was coming from a dualist perspective and thinking of ways to help move her to multiplicity and beyond. I was assigned to the Chickering group and found it initially difficult to analyze the scenario through the use of the seven vectors. It was helpful as the group talked through the scenario to see how Chickering’s theory would be applied, but if I were to encounter the scenario as a practitioner in the field, I still believe I would use Perry’s model.

  2. Although Perry did not take other races or ethnicities into account in his research, I believe that his contributions to intellectual and ethical developmental theories are still evidenced in today's colleges. Duality and multiplicity are evidenced throughout cultures, after all.

    Elvina's application of Perry's theory to the Zhang and Watkins study is still interesting to me. I was not surprised by the results of their research on Chinese students, though I do think it would be very dualistic of me to say that the Chinese culture fosters only dualism. There are certainly many other types of Chinese students who have multiplistic perspectives, but the Chinese education system tends to stifle creativity in exchange for conformity and national harmony.

    Thanks, Elvina, for that great presentation! :)

  3. The results from Zhang and Watkins fit the dominant culture and educational views of Chinese students, especially those with parents who immigrated to the United States. Because competition for prestigious higher education in China is so high, and degrees lead directly to certain careers, the culture emphasizes focus and determination versus the more American approach of exploration.

  4. I like that his theory is not in hierarchal stages because it seems from personal experience that depending on ones socialization one can bypass stages. My thought is that if one is exposed early on to one line of thought, like, for instance, that there is no such thing as good and bad that they will have more time to think about this concept and accept it than one who discovers it on their own. They may jump from duality to commitment to relativism without experimentation with multiplicity and relativism (for instance). One may conversely say that one who jumps to this commitment does not have a true commitment to Perry's position rather they have habitualized their socialization. I am thinking, however, of the case in which early socialization and acquiring of a social consciousness can allow people to think about advanced concepts and naturalize them if they see them reflected in the outside world and consider them valid.

  5. I also find Perry’s Theory extremely applicable to academic advising and have been gravitating towards it when speaking with students. Looking back at the first week of the semester, I saw many incoming freshman multiple times. Many of them wanted me to tell them exactly what they needed to do and when I offered different options, they became frustrated. This is a very different approach than that of my senior students. Many of my seniors just come in to make sure they are on track to graduate or to have paperwork signed. Using Perry’s Theory I can see that the freshman students are in a dualist stage and were looking at me for the answers. Whereas, the senior students were in the commitment to relativism stage and were no longer dependent on others for information or answers. It will be interesting to see how the freshman students change in the upcoming semesters.

  6. Perry's theory has really hit home for me because when I am counseling students I find alot of them want me to just give them the answer. I also used to notice this when I was an undergraduate student in my business classes. Some of the students would be given a critical thinking assignment and then they would ask the instructor if their answer was the right answer. As I progressed throughout my degree I noticed we weren't so quick to want to know the right answer. We slowly wanted to find out if our answers suited us and the instructors would grade us on our outcomes. I use Perry's theory even now. When I started graduate school, in my mind I wanted the instructors to tell me if I was doing the right method or I was on the right track to the right answer. So even now I am back in the dualistic stage and hopefully can return back to being in the multiplistic stage.

  7. I have a significant experience happened last week at work and I agreed that it related to Perry's theory. I advise a student group and we had a service trip to go to. I needed to arrange for transportations and payments. A week before the trip, we had our final count of participants and I went to meet with the financial advisor at the student government. I was told what I need to turn in. I also contacted the rental place and was instructed of what to do. I also met with my supervisor and made sure that she was aware of the trip. During all of this, I stayed in contact with the students through emails and keep them posted. Up to the week that we were traveling I made the final arrangement in the beginning of the week. I continue to communicate with all these different areas for two days. All of a sudden I felt like I was not getting anywhere, the more I know the more things I needed to do and I have all the paper work but there is always one extra step. On the second day of doing this I was on the phone with the lady from the rental place and I was very frustrated and simply asked her to “please just tell me what is it that she needs from me and I will give it to her.” Wow! I just experienced "duality" where I demanded to be told what to do. I believe that somewhere in our lives we experience these different phases. In this particular situation, I began with figuring out my options by gathering all the information that was necessary for the trip. It was a phase of "multiplicity" because I was only asking questions but made the decision on my own later. When I finally made the decision on what to do, I still ran into complex situations where I experience "relativism" of agreeing with the different changes and identifying what was best for the group. Indeed, I asked for a simple formula of what to turn in but it also happened momentarily during the process.

  8. It was interesting to see that you talked about how this theory can be related to residence life. I usually meet with students who have reached the last set of positions in deflection from cognitive growth. Some students who have to see me for conduct meetings are in a state of temporizing, as they know that they have broken a policy and do not want to argue their case. These students just want to see what their sanctions are so that they can move on. I sometimes also meet with students in the escape stage. These students may know that what they are doing is wrong, but they do not want to make a commitment to their roommate contract or the housing contract. It is important for their RA to be watching for such behavior changes and identify this issues before they get to this stage. However, having to meet with a hearing officer may impact future growth.