It’s Just a Stage

How Students’ Reasoning Develops

If you’ve ever felt frustrated that your students seem to think only in black and white, or that they seem reluctant to do their own reasoning, and expect you to provide the “right” answers to every question, you might be reassured to know that what you’re noticing is not intellectual languor, but a developmental stage.

William G. Perry’s influential theory of student development (1970, 1998) traced the ethical and intellectual journey that students undergo as their thinking matures. Although progress may not be strictly linear–we can develop and then regress, especially under stress, or in novel circumstances; and we may make progress in a particular domain but remain more dependent learners in another–the stages are surprisingly predictable.

Most students embark on their college careers at the stage Perry labeled dualism: at this stage they see learning as the accumulation of right answers, and look to authorities or experts (in this case, you!) to be the source of these answers. Their moral schemata may tend to be binary (good/bad, right/wrong). Students at this stage may be suspicious of collaborative learning, since they view the authority/expert as the only legitimate source of knowledge.

At the next stage, multiplicity, students grow able to accept many truths (or perhaps decide there is none), but cannot yet prioritize amongst them. Students at this stage may feel that all “opinions” are equally valid, and have difficulty distinguishing between an opinion and a reasoned position. Many students leave college at this stage.

The following stage, to which we aspire to bring students, is relativism, where they gain more facility at contextualizing problems, and see that appropriate evidence is necessary to help us weigh a range of interpretations, arguments, or narratives, in order to select the soundest. This work remains challenging for them, but students at this stage may become more comfortable with ambiguity and resigned to dealing with messy problems, where solutions cannot be clear-cut. They often still need the scaffolding of a course or formal learning experience in order to fully exercise their newly-developing skills, however.

Few undergraduates reach the fourth stage, commitment within relativism. Learners at this stage are able to appreciate uncertainty and tend to have more practiced metacognitive skills. They are likelier to enjoy discovering, evaluating, probing, contextualizing. They may have assessed and committed to moral as well as epistemological frameworks.

The purpose of a college education is to attain these later stages of development: we want our students to have criteria by which they can evaluate competing interpretations of reality, and practice in using these tools, in the university and beyond. Since they are growing as thinkers, and as moral agents, merely collecting information (as they wished to do, in the first stage) will not help them to develop. We must provide them with opportunities to hone their reasoning on complex problems, and to practice making difficult decisions. We should also be aware that there are affective hurdles to achieving each new stage: especially for students moving through the dualistic stage, the loss of perceived clarity and stability can be a source of frustration and genuine grief.

The journey is not an easy one, for students or for the faculty who guide them, but it’s very gratifying to observe students’ progress. We’d love to help you design your courses and your assignments to nudge students along in their development, so please contact us at if you’re interested in thinking more explicitly about how you craft learning experiences that help students stretch. And next week we’ll offer some more concrete suggestions for helping students feel more comfortable with error and struggle in learning. Thank you for all you do to help your students grow into our future neighbors and leaders.