Understanding Learning Theory
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Intellectual Development During the College Years

Have you ever noticed differences between younger and older students in their expectations about how a class should be taught?

If you have, you're not alone. The ways freshmen think about knowledge, their expectations about the instructor's role, and their ideas about how best to learn often differ from how older students think about the same issues. For one thing, freshmen tend to be more dependent on the instructor, expecting to have knowledge "fed" to them. As students progress through college, they become more willing and able to think independently.

Researchers have investigated the developmental changes that occur in students' beliefs about knowledge and learning. William Perry (1970, 1981) was the first to identify a pattern of changes in assumptions about teaching and learning that students go through while they are in college. He described a pattern of nine "positions" regarding beliefs about knowledge that college students progress through as part of a transformation in intellectual development. Adding to Perry's work, which focused on males, Belenky and her colleagues (1986) identified similar developmental changes in a group of college women.

Kurfiss (1988) integrated Perry's and Belenky's work to describe four levels in a developmental sequence through which students proceed over the college years. These are the levels in the model:

Phases of Intellectual Development

Level 1: Dualism/received knowledge
Level 2: Multiplicity/subjective knowledge
Level 3: Relativism/procedural knowledge
Level 4: Commitment in relativism/constructed knowledge

As you read through the descriptions of each level of thinking that follow and the examples of students' reactions to instruction, think about how they fit with what you've seen in your students. Erikson & Strommer (1991) reported this same work and considered its implications for teaching college freshmen.

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