Understanding Students and Learning

Teaching in higher education can no longer be facilitated through lecturing the masses. Today’s composition of the American higher education consists of a great diversity of students varying in gender, race and nationality. “The percentage of American college students who are minorities has been increasing. In 1976, 15 percent were minorities, compared with 32 percent in 2007” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010, p 1). With the growing diversity of the student population, education must be molded to meet their growing needs. Understanding Students and Learning

Rapaport (2008) shares William Perry’s scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development which focuses on four main stages. Each student progresses through each phase, starting with “dualism” which states that there is an absolute answer. Next they come to “multiplicity” where they believe there is no way to determine what is right to “contextual relativism” which is the ability to use evidence to determine a position. Lastly, they come to “commitment.” “It is this final stage that instructors hope their students will achieve: when they will go out in the world and cope with uncertainty, define their own values and identity, make educated choices, evaluate options, create new knowledge, and become lifelong learners” (Plunk & Rohdeick, 2010, p 1).

Nilson (2003) adds that three of these stages can be broken down further. Duality remains unchanged as the level were there are only answers and no uncertainty. Multiplicity breaks into two different pieces. First, individuals believe that the uncertainty exist due to the incompetency or fault of authorities until they move to the next piece of this stage where uncertainty is only a piece of an existing puzzle until experts derive an answer.

Relativism also can be further divided into two parts. This stage begins as the student believes that everything has a degree of uncertainty. “Uncertainty is inherent and pervasive, rendering all opinions equal in value” (Nilson, 2003, p 13). The following piece of this stage demonstrates the movement of an individual’s progress toward the last stage of commitment. They reason that all relativism is qualified for many different reasons. It can be based not only on  facts or intellectual levels but also on ethical and moral decisions.

The last stage of commitment has four different levels. The student is seeking for an intellectual and ethical foundations as they determine the need to make a commitment to one view or another. The student makes a temporary alignment with a point of view as an examination of the pros and cons are adherently investigated. The individual scrutinizes what demands may be made by aligning themselves with their new theory. The final stage in commitment is a lifelong process. It is the “making and adjusting of commitments becomes part of the life-long pursuit of personal growth and wisdom” (Nilson, 2003, p 13).

Malcolm Knowles, accredited for the discovery of self-directed learning, believed that “it should be a goal of education to give each individual those skills necessary for him to make full use of his capacities” (Smith, 2002, p 1). However, Perry noted that many student graduated from both undergraduate and graduate programs without having achieved the highest level of cognitive development. In many cases, students do not pass levels three or four. Students can avoid progress through these stages through “temporizing, retreat and escape” (Wankat & Oreovicz, 1992, p 276).

It is essential for educators to have an understanding of these stages and to help students navigate through each level successfully. A travesty for both the individual and society is the student who matriculates with little progress. These students have lost not just the opportunity to become constructive thinkers but also society has lost the contributions of one of their members. Sadly, many times the student is lost as a critical thinker after receiving an education in a field with little controversy.

A thorough understanding of each level helps the educator to cater and mold instruction for the students who need to be guided through these stages. Wankat & Oreovica (1992) comment the necessity to direct student thinking by pushing them to think one position above their current level of understand. However, by attempting to push students into stages which are two or more levels higher causes frustration and insecurities for the individual. Students feel comfortable answering any question which lies below their current stage of cognitive development.

Perry’s stages of development are a natural progress. They should be encouraged by instructors. The progression through these stages is a natural progression which is desirable (Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2010) for both the individual and the society in which they live. This knowledge leads the instructor to approach how to deliver information to students in their varying levels of understanding.

To achieve this ultimate goal, educators must adapt their teaching to teach their diverse learners. This can be accomplished through planning instruction around the different levels of development, to ensure that each stage is addressed. Courses need to be less structured and move away from the lecturing stereotype associated with higher education. Diverse learning opportunities need to be introduced to students as well as encouraging students to take risks in their critical thinking (Wankat & Oreovicz, 1992).

Our diverse society demands an evolution in higher education. With more than 18 million students on the American higher education campuses, it is essential for educators to provide them with “the skills, background, knowledge and habits of mind that will prepare them to meet the challenges” of this increased diversity. It will be accomplished through “the efforts of the nearly 1.2 million faculty members” (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2010). Theses educators must pave the road for our future through an understanding of how our students learn.


Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology. (2010). Moral development. Retrieved September 19, 2010 from www.iep.utm.edu/moraldev/

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2010). College enrollment. Retrieved September 17, 2010 from nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98

Nilson, L. (2003, reprinted 2007). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Plank, K. & Rohdieck, S. (2010). The assumptions we make about diversity. Retrieved      September 17, 2010 from www.nea.org/home/34691.htm

Rapaport, W. (2008). William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development. Retrieved September 13, 2010 from www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/perry.positions.html

Smith, M. K. (2002). Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and        anadragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved September 19, 2010             from www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm.

Wankat, P. & Oreovicz, F. (1992). Teaching engineering. Retrieved September 19, 2010 from https://engineering.purdue.edu/ChE/AboutUs/Publications/TeachingEng/chapter14.pdf

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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