Cognitive Structural Theories: Processing Knowledge

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            Cognitive Structural theories concern how individuals come to assess how they think, make meaning, and process their experiences. Cognitive structural theories are separated by stages. For each theory, these stages are fixed and occur in order. The age and period of development the stages are experienced varies. Each stage in a respective theory gets progressively complex. New experiences and ideas are meant to create a cognitive conflict within the individual. The individual will attempt to assimilate this new information into their already established way of thinking. If the new information cannot assimilate, the individual must accommodate the information in a new, more complex structure. How an individual develops cognitively depends on different variables, such as biology and neurological development, environment and social development.

            The four cognitive structural theories being examined are derived from Perry's (1981) Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development. Perry's 1981 theory (as interpreted by Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, and Renn, 2010) moves on a continuum from duality to evolving commitments. Dualistic thinkers view the world as a dichotomy, where there are only right and wrong answers. Multiplistic thinkers view all opinions as valid or at least worth consideration when there are no right answers. Individuals who are multiplistic thinkers begin to think more independently, than dualistic thinkers who rely on others for information. Multiplistic consider all opinions as equally valid. The final progression of Perry's (1981) theory is relativism. Relativistic thinkers do not consider all opinions as equally valid. Relativistic thinkers' seek valid evidence and support for arguments. Relativistic thinkers understand that it is ok for people to disagree and for an individual to stay committed to his/her/hir position.

            The other cognitive structural theories explored: Baxter Magolda's (1992) Epistemological Reflection Model; Belenky et al. (1986) Women's Ways of Knowing; King and Kitchener's  (1994) Reflective Judgment Model, and to a certain extent Kegan's (1992) Orders of Consciousness all stem from Perry's 1981 work.  Baxter Magolda's Epistemological Reflection Model (as interpreted by Evans et al. 2010) identifies how to create learning environments that empower students both in and out of the classroom and examines specific gender-related patterns of knowing. Belenky et al. Women's Ways of Knowing (as interpreted by Evans et al, 2010) looks specifically at women's process of meaning-making and knowledge. King and Kitchner Reflective Judgment Model (as interpreted by Evans et al. 2010) examines how reflective judgments are meant to bring closure to uncertain situations. Finally, Kegan's Orders of Consciousness according to Love & Guthrie (1999) "incorporates interpersonal and affective sense making directly" and "focuses on what knowers are able to know rather than how they can know or justify knowledge claims."

            In synthesizing all five cognitive structural theories, Love & Guthrie (1999) create three categories: unequivocal knowing, radical subjectivism, and generative knowing. Unequivocal knowing refers to the early stages in which knowers believe there is a single, universal truth, and there is an authority behind that truth. In this stage "truth and knowledge are external to the knower." Radical subjectivism refers to the stages in the respective theories where the idea of absolute knowledge or the "big T" truth is dissected. There is no clear right or wrong in these stages and it leaves the individual in a state of confusion and ambiguity. Between radical subjectivism and generative knowing is what Love & Guthrie (1999) term The Great Accommodation.  The Great Accommodation refers to "when uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity is accepted as the norm and one's experience and opinion are considered in light of the knowledge and truths of experts and authorities." The individual will begin to accept his/her/hir's role as the authority. The final category of Generative Knowing differs depending on the theories, but all the theories share the commonality that the knower begins to develop a sense of self-efficacy in the knowing process. Individuals in this stage consider context, evidence, the validity of other's viewpoints and forming their own individual viewpoints. Thinking and meaning-making in this category is complex.

            Cognitive structural theories are an interesting way to organize the process of knowledge. While these theories are valuable, there are two things that did not resonate with me entirely. First, is the fact that these theories are structured in stages. This seems like a linear way to think about cognitive development. The idea that to advance in a stage, an individual must face a cognitive conflict that he/she/ze cannot assimilate into their current thinking seems inflexible. At the same time, I understand that developmental theories function under the assumption that complex development can only be attained by fulfilling the developmental requirements of a prior stage. The second thing that did not resonate was that the end stages of the cognitive structural theories involve returning to a sense of dualism with reasoning. For example, Perry's Commitment to Relativism stage, simply put, believes that there is a right and wrong answer (dualism) and after taking everything into account, the individual stays committed to what he/she/ze believes is right. It was a little confusing, because it makes cognitive structural theories' goal seem like progression toward a higher-level dualism.

            Cognitive structural theories set the foundation for how we as student affairs professionals view how our students engage in making meaning of knowledge. While these theories have their strengths, it is important to be cognizant that certain things like culture and gender are not taken into account in all of the theories. As with any theory, there is additional research that can be done. What cognitive structural theories do provide student affairs professionals with is the ability to begin to understand how the students we work with conceptualize knowledge in arenas, such as the classroom, social interactions, and group interactions to name a few. Cognitive structural theories give student affairs professionals the insight to meet our students where they are at and create effective interventions and learning environments to facilitate their growth.



Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Love, P. G., & Guthrie, V. L. (1999). Understanding and applying cognitive development theory.  New directions for student services, No. 88. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.   

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