Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development 

Brief Overview

The purpose of Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development is to examine how students make meaning of the teaching and learning process. More specifically, this model is used for understanding how college students come to know, the theories and beliefs they hold about knowing, and the manner in which they are a part of and an influence on the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning.


About the Author

Dr. William Perry was a professor and psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  During the 1950s and 60s he conducted a 15 year study of the intellectual and cognitive development of Harvard undergraduates.

For more information on William Perry, please click here.


Printable Summary (PDF)

Previous cohorts of FSU students have developed these printable summaries and used them to prepare for test and papers.  We hope they’ll be of help to you too.

 Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development

Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory

Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory:  

Summary of stage Basic Example
Basic Duality: The authorities know e.g. “the tutor knows what is right and wrong”
Full Dualism: The true authorities are right, the others are frauds e.g “my tutor doesn’t know what is right and wrong but others do”
Early Multiplicity: There are some uncertainties and the authorities are working on them to find the truth e.g “my tutors don’t know, but somebody out there is trying to find out”
Late Multiplcity: (a)Everyone has right to their own opinion
(b) The authorities don’t want the right answers. They want us to think in certain way
e.g “different tutors think different things”
e.g “there is an answer that the tutors want and we have to find it”
Contextual Relativism: Everything is relative but not equally valid e.g “there are no right and wrong answers, it depends on the situation, but some answers might be better than others”
“Pre-Commitment:” You have to make your own decisions e.g “what is important is not what the tutor thinks but what I think”
Commitment: First commitment e.g “for this particular topic I think that….”
Challenges to Commitment: Several Commitments e.g “for these topics I think that….”
“Post-Commitment:”Believe own values, respect others, be ready to learn e.g “I know what I believe in and what I think is valid, others may think differently and I’m prepared to reconsider my views”
Application of Theory to Practice
This section is designed to provide student affairs professionals, staff, and faculty members with tips and tools to apply theory to practice.
Annotations of Associated Literature

Annotations listed below are associated with the author’s original work to provided a more in-depth look at the theory.

 Perry’s Annotations of Associated Literature

Full Citation:   Zhang, L., & Watkins, D. 2001. Cognitive development and student approaches to learning: An investigation of Perry’s theory with Chinese and U.S. university students. Cognitive Development and Student Approaches to Learning: An Investigation of Perry’s Theory with Chinese and U.S. University Students, 41(3), 239-261.

Abstract or Short Summary:  The purpose of this research was to provide cross-cultural evidence of the relationship between student approaches to learning and stages of cognitive development and of the validity of Perry’s theory of such development. The participants for this study were 67 U.S. and 193 Mainland Chinese students. The participants rated their ability on several scales, responded to the Zhang Cognitive Development Inventory1 (Zhang 1995) and the Study Process Questionnaire (Biggs 1987a, 1992) as well as a demographic questionnaire. Self- report measures of achievement scores were also obtained. There were four major findings. First, cognitive development and student learning approaches were related in predictable ways. Second, the cognitive-developmental patterns of the American and Chinese participants differed. Third, for both American and Chinese students, extracurricular activities positively contributed to their cognitive development. Finally, a statistically significant relationship between cognitive development and achievement was identified among the American group, whereas no relationship was found between cognitive development and achievement among the Chinese group. Implications of these findings are discussed.

Original Citation

Perry, William G., Jr. (1981), “Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning”, in Arthur W. Chickering and Associates, The Modern American College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass): 76-116. Drew S and Bingham R. The Student Skills Guide: Second Edition pp 282 -283.

Additional Resources
  • This video provides a brief history and overview of the theory.
  • How students think about knowledge, learning, and teaching.

This page was written and created by Andrew Mason. The webpage is maintained by Amanda Peerce and Jesse Ford.  For information on the page, please contact Amanda Peerce at or Jesse Ford at