The Perry Scheme of Intellectual Development

What Are Your Students Thinking?

Using the “Perry Scheme” to understand and promote your students’ intellectual growth

Our Students are on a journey that takes them through various stages of thinking. If we can recognize and anticipate those stages, we are better able to respond effectively and assist students en route to becoming critical thinkers. We will also be able to let go of the frustration that comes our way when students resist certain kinds of thinking, or seem stuck with perspectives that do not serve them well in their learning.  Such is the function of the “Perry Scheme.” The late William Perry, professor at Harvard, originally published his research in 1970, using as his subjects the white males in his university courses. Subsequent researchers (for example, M. Belenky, Women's Ways of Knowing) have updated the original thesis, to uncover its relevance for a broader population.

Perry identifies four basic stages in the evolution of an individual’s thinking. The summary provided here is a pragmatic simplification of the scheme. In general, Perry’s research describes the four basic stages in the following terms.

 Dualism (black and white thinking)

  • Knowledge is viewed as received Truth; things are either right or wrong
  • Teacher is the authority who has all the Answers
  • Learning means memorizing, finding the “right” answer, getting the “A”
  • Common Dualist question: Will this be on the test? Will you tell us the right answer?

Frustrations for students at the dualist phase

Memorizing worked in high school, why not now?

Why won’t the teacher answer my questions?

Questions without clear-cut answers are “tricky,” unfair and not useful.

Multiplicity (everything is grey)

  • All knowledge is suspect; all opinions and statements are equally OK
  • Teacher may be the authority, but he/she represents just another opinion
  • Learning means playing the teacher’s game to get the “A”

Frustrations for students at the multiplist phase           

How can the teacher evaluate my work if it’s just a matter of OPINION whether it’s good or bad?

Grades are based on whom the professor likes…

Relativism (Everything has a context)

  • Knowledge is suspect, but some things are supported by evidence and reasons
  • Teacher is a conversation partner, acts as guide, shows the direction, helps students discover
  • Learning means realizing that what we “know” is colored by perspective and assumptions. Facts, data are essential, but not sufficient.

Frustrations for students at the relativist stage             

I need more information and more than one perspective, but this class is narrow.

Traditional university classes are often not challenging enough

I’m surrounded by students who are clueless.

Commitment in Relativism (our knowledge is not isolated; it has an impact on our moral being)

  • Knowledge affects personal actions outside the classroom
  • What matters: facts, feelings and perspectives and how I will act upon them
  • Teacher is a source among other sources
  • Learning includes making choices, and taking responsibility for those choices

Further Reading

Robert J. Kloss, A Nudge Is Best: Helping Students through the Perry Scheme of Intellectual Development, in
College Teaching,Vol. 42, No. 4 (Fall, 1994), pp. 151-158. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: