Students' Intellectual Growth
How often have you found students' comments such as these frustrating?
(adapted from Perry, 1985):
this rigmarole about three theories of the economic cycle? Why doesn't
she give us the right one and forget these games? How can we study
for the exam?"
roommate says his instructor really knows; maybe I should go to that
said three to five pages. Does that mean four? Double-spaced or single?"
has a right to his own opinion."
and disturbing as such perspectives are, they are common to many young
people who still believe what they learned as children: that knowledge
comes from authority and if one memorizes and restates the "facts,"
one will receive good grades and be educated. Because these attitudes
are, in fact, normal stages of cognitive development, faculty members
and TAs need to know how to help students move to higher levels of understanding
and graduate as people who reflect thoughtfully, or think critically,
about the world around them.
Understanding Students' Perspectives
of "critical thinking" as a buzzword during the past two decades
at times threatens to overshadow the usefulness of this concept for teachers.
Yet critical thinking refers to those advanced cognitive processes through
which educated people 27 make a rational response to questions that cannot
be answered definitively, a response that integrates all relevant, available
information to justify conclusions (Kurfiss, 1988, p. 2). People who think
critically recognize that, in effect, little in the world is absolutely
known but that we need to learn all we can and make reasoned judgments
about what we believe and why. You can better encourage your students'
progress to this level of intellectuality when you understand their different
conceptions of knowledge. Through hundreds of interviews over many years
in several different contexts, cognitive psychologists have documented
young people's development through different stages, or levels, of understanding
what constitutes knowledge (see especially Perry, 1970, 1981; Belenky
et al., 1986). Kurfiss (1988, pp. 52-56) offers a clear overview, integrating
Perry's nine "positions" and the seven ways of knowing outlined
by Belenky et al.:
1: Knowledge as facts. As some of the comments above show, many
students believe that knowledge is a collection of discrete facts that
one simply has to acquire from the professor or text and articulate
on papers and exams. They see the professor as an authority who should
give them the right answers. For such students, the concept of interpretation
is puzzling, and they have no awareness of the complexity of the world.
2: Knowledge as opinion.
Students progress to this level when they have been convinced by the
presence of conflicting theories, perspectives, and interpretations
that one cannot always know what is right. But since they have not yet
moved to a position from which they truly understand the reasons behind
different points of view, they attribute them solely to personal opinions,
all of which they see as equal: "I mean if you read them [critics],
that's the great thing about a book like Moby Dick. [Laughs] Nobody
understands it!" (Perry, 1981, p. 84). These students believe that
giving one's opinion is enough and that teachers have no right to call
the student "wrong" on matters of "opinion" (Perry,
1970, p. 97).
3: Knowledge as reason. At this stage, students realize that there
are indeed reasons why some opinions are better than others and that
people use logic and evidence to support their arguments. In studying
people who have progressed this far cognitively, Perry (1970) and Belenky
and associates (1986) find different ways of understanding another's
way of thinking. (Perry and colleagues interviewed Harvard University
male undergraduates in the 1960s; in the 1980s, Belenky et al. interviewed
female students and female parents.) Perry's scheme focuses on the traditional
academic view that reasoning is primarily objective analysis and argument,
whereas Belenky and her colleagues found that some women focus on trying
to understand the reasons for another's way of thinking (hence, the
term "connected knowledge"). In either case, the student realizes
that "you've got to have some facts under the opinion, I guess"
(Perry, 1981, p. 86).
4: Knowledge as commitment.
At this final stage, individuals recognize the complexity and uncertainty
of knowledge while realizing their need to make commitments to reasoned
positions. Perry's imaginary student sums up this stage this way: "I
must be wholehearted while tentative, fight for my values yet respect
others, believe my deepest values right yet be ready to learn"
(1981, p. 79). Also described by Belenky and colleagues as "constructed
knowledge," this stage for some people consists of integrating
knowledge they learn from others with knowledge they feel intuitively
is personally important: "Once knowers assume the general relativity
of knowledge, that their frame of reference matters and that they can
construct and reconstruct frames of reference, they feel responsible
for examining, questioning, and developing the systems that they will
use for constructing knowledge" (Belenky et al., 1986, pp. 138-39).
In the end, critical thinkers continually question received knowledge
and their own assumptions, approaching life with a spirit of inquiry.
development research provides useful background for understanding critical
thinking, but we academics have our own understanding of what it entails
in our disciplines. Still, we can generally agree on several aspects of
critical thinking, including many, if not all, of the following:
- it requires
open-mindedness o it proceeds from a sense of curiosity and/or inquiry
- it is
self-reflective, recognizing the need to examine one's own assumptions
- it takes
evidence into account
- it is
logical, or ordered o it is purposeful
- it is
individual and independent
- it is
tenacious, persevering in asking questions and seeking answers
- it is
not averse to taking some risks
- it proceeds
to develop a clear argument meant to persuade
- in fact,
because critical thinking is difficult, it requires that people be
willing to make the effort to do it.
students insights into how you and your colleagues think critically about
your discipline broadens their outlook and develops their own skills.
Moreover, since Perry's (1970) study shows that students can progress
at different rates in different academic disciplines, what they learn
to understand in your course may well help them better grapple with new
ideas in another.
Students to Think Critically
how can you help your students develop such habits of mind as to make
them reflective, engaged citizens? First, recognize that you are not alone;
advisors, academic deans, and students' peers (many of whom are at different
stages of cognitive development) engage your students in situations that
provoke puzzlement and growth. And know that intellectual growth is usually
unsettling and upsetting, although we tend to forget that once we've arrived.
Since some students resist or are angered by activities that make them
question their assumptions and previous understandings, telling them the
purpose of such exercises is usually helpful. Consider how to incorporate
some of the recommended activities below, or create your own (for more
ideas, see "Further Reading").
my greatest joys is to see the classroom become a vibrant intellectual
community, with students and professor dynamically engaged in the animated
exchange and discovery of ideas. Cooperative devices can help students
to learn more by taking active responsibility for their own educations.
students' interest and their awareness of complexity by highlighting
problems, issues, and topics that experts wonder about. By showing them
that all is not known, you invite students to engage their minds; their
own questions will open new avenues of thought to them (Meyers 1986).
- Design assignments
that require students to argue positions not their own. Those who have
difficulty understanding others' positions gain new understanding. Students
who are cautiously considering embracing a position can "try it
on" without taking the responsibility inherent in actual commitment.
- Create activities
that enable students to juxtapose their current model of understanding
with a better one. For instance, students who have learned an Aristotelian
view of the universe will not forego it for a more accurate model until
they see their theory fail (see A Private Universe).
change as inherent to the learning process. For instance, ask students
to write briefly about how and why their perceptions about a certain
issue have changed since the beginning of the course.
- Model the
critical thinking process. For example, you might describe how you modified
your position on an issue, emphasizing changes attributable to students'
comments and ideas. Or, you can point out discrepancies in different
texts, and explain how you came to be at ease with them. You might also
ask students to point out assumptions in your thinking that you may
students that embracing a position is not a lifelong commitment. With
more information, they will reevaluate and change positions accordingly.
Moreover, even wrong positions can lead to positive outcomes when wholeheartedly
and encourage each student. Students considering abandoning their family's
world view may consider you a role model and need to know that you will
stand by them, even if they lose familial support. Students who do not
yet trust their own thinking process (and would prefer indisputable
external evidence about "truth") are heartened by knowing
that someone they respect trusts them to embrace the right position.
In contrast, attacking students' positions (no matter how narrow-minded
these seem) may make them cling to biases even more tightly, impeding
their intellectual development.
the general principle behind students' comments and "mirror"
it back to them, giving them a chance to ask, "Is that what I really
believe?" and to reconsider: For example, "so you think moral
principles differ in war time and peacetime?"
- Ask students
to list and then compare the pros and cons of an issue. By juxtaposing
their ideas with those of peers, they are prone to perceive some of
their assumptions and might begin questioning them (Angelo and Cross,
- Show students
that writing is, in effect, thinking: that in writing they clarify and
refine their thoughts in wording them so as to communicate with others.
For practical tips, see "Conceptualizing and Assigning Papers and
Projects" in "Evaluating Students' Work."
you define this issue as one of intellectual growth, reflective habits
of mind, critical thinking, or thinking "like a mathematician, historian,
etc.," you and your courses are essential to helping our students
achieve an advanced level of understanding and thought. Consciously teaching
them how to think about your discipline along with what to know
about it will help them develop into reflective, engaged members of
that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty,
& that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree,
I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession
unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.
Jefferson, letter to