diversity digest
Winter 01
Student Experience
next story
previous story
previous issue
institution profiles
recommended resources
diversity web

Charting Cognitive and Moral Development in Diversity Classes
By Maurianne Adams, Associate Professor of Education, Social Justice Education Program, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Anyone who has ever taught or taken a diversity class knows that the issues are complex and the classroom dynamics emotionally charged. We also know that these classes can facilitate significant advances in student learning and skill development (Gurin, 1999). Theories of cognitive development can help us understand and anticipate some of the challenges posed and learning fostered by diversity classes for teachers as well as students.

Theories of cognitive and moral development have been used to illuminate the evolution in college student thinking from simple to complex and from clear-cut certitudes to comfort with doubts, uncertainty, and independent inquiry. These developmental patterns act as filters through which individuals ascribe meaning to their experiences and ideas.

I have examined whether these theories of cognitive development can shed light upon the processes of social justice and social diversity education in my undergraduate general education classes. As AAC&U's survey on diversity in the undergraduate curriculum suggests (Diversity Digest, Fall 2000), more and more colleges and universities are developing courses that deal with social justice and social diversity, and these courses call for many of the qualities described in the developmental literature--critical thinking, openness to conflicting perspectives from readings or classroom discussions, and, most especially, the ability to reflect upon one's experience, prior beliefs, and feelings, from another's perspective.

These kinds of courses often present challenging issues for undergraduate students. They may include "difficult dialogues" that involve cognitive and intellectual, as well as emotional and affective, differences among student peers as well as teachers. Often, students are understandably reluctant to give up clear-cut, societally-endorsed beliefs and stereotypes about complex issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation when the end-point seems fraught with guilt or shame and the intellectual and emotional journey full of uncertainty.

The beliefs and biases students and instructors bring to these classes, their stereotypic and entrenched modes of thinking, and their emotional attachments to thought processes rooted in trusted home, school, and religious communities affect these classes. Taken together, they suggest a powerful, multidimensional developmental agenda for social diversity and social justice education in colleges and universities.

The research summarized here examines cognitive developmental change among culturally diverse college students enrolled in sections of a required social diversity course, designed using cognitive developmental theory. This research establishes a developmental profile for students in social diversity classes; it enables course instructors to redesign classes according to the "fit" of students to classroom environment; it helps us rethink educational goals, reshape the curriculum, and plan further study.

Cognitive Development Theory

The process of cognitive development used in this research, initially outlined by William Perry (1970, 1981) and carried forward by Marcia Baxter-Magolda, Mary Belenky and her colleagues, Pat King, Karen Kitchener, Lee Knefelkamp, Bill Moore, and many others, enables teachers to map students' journeys through qualitatively different views of knowledge, from certainty through uncertainty toward relativistic or contextual thought. Understanding this journey helps teachers make sense of the complex learning that takes place in diversity and social justice courses, complexity rooted in multiple sources of information, contradictions to unexamined thinking, and new and startling perspectives, which taken together suggest a developmental pressure cooker.

Cognitive and moral development are attributed, in part, to "dissonance" between current ways of knowing and challenging new information or experience, in the paradigmatic models of Perry, Belenky and her colleagues, and Baxter-Magolda. The epistemological journey depicted in these models is an evolution away from a Dualist or Received Knower's perspective based on the conviction that knowledge is certain and authority absolute. This way of knowing does not long survive in college, but gives way to the Multiplist or Subjective Knower's realization that truth may not always be known, some truths may derive from subjective knowing, and authorities suggest procedures rather than definitive answers.

Further experience with new perspectives and procedures of critical inquiry leads students (over years, not months) to Relativistic or Procedural Knowing, whereby they accept uncertainty without criteria for making informed judgments. Finally (but likely not while still in college), the Contextual or Constructed Knower may learn to construct the criteria or informed judgments, think contextually, and establish commitments within a framework of uncertainty.

For social justice educators, this evolution in students from multiplicity or subjective knowing to relativism or procedural knowing can seem especially dramatic and rewarding. At the same time, some more resistant students may appear firmly entrenched in unexamined belief systems that they learned from family or religious mentors or peers and for whom inquiry on complex issues of social justice poses an acute and terrifying threat.

Designing an Effective Diversity and Social Justice Class

The undergraduate class on social diversity and social justice that I used as a setting for this study, fulfilled the general education "Social and Cultural Diversity" at my own university, which has a Land Grant tradition but is also a Research I university. These general education classes are conducted in informal residence hall classrooms. The curriculum at the time of this study covered five topics of societal discrimination and oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism, and disability oppression), introduced one at a time, in two week segments over a fourteen week semester at the same time that parallels and interconnections are incrementally drawn among the different topics. (Since then we have reduced the formal curriculum to three or four issues, to provide more class time for peer interaction and exploration of questions and concerns raised by our students.)

The instructional design for this class takes into account the fact that many of our students, whether from mainstream or underrepresented social groups, have grown up in de facto segregated and essentially monocultural neighborhoods and high school peer cultures. Their socially homogeneous backgrounds have poorly prepared them for the diverse social identity groups they encounter on campus, the complex intergroup conflicts and perspectives they experience in residence halls, the multicultural content of some of their classes, and the multicultural norms, policies, and programs articulated generally on our campus.

Like most general education courses, our goals include knowledge and critical analysis, but unlike most others we focus upon student awareness, their ability to recognize real-world examples by linking new concepts to students' everyday observations and experiences. We also help students identify and practice new ways to apply new knowledge to real-life experiences (for course goals, see Adams and Marchesani 1997; for underlying pedagogy, see Adams 1997).

The Research Project

At the time of our study, this general education course was offered in multiple sections which used the same syllabus but served two general sub-groupings of students, one solely made up of Resident Assistants (RA) within the residential program, the second consisting of students who lived in the residence halls but were not RA's. The RA cohort, compared to the general student cohort, was a year older, one year further along in college, and selected through a process that emphasized peer interaction skills and openness to diversity. They also were confronted, in their RA positions, with social justice "dilemmas" on an everyday basis, unless members of the general student cohort for whom social justice issues often seemed theoretical, at least at the outset of the semester. All students in both cohorts were sophomores or older.

All students enrolled during one semester in the multiple-section course "Social Diversity in Education" were asked to participate in our on-going developmental and attitudinal study. Of the 301 students enrolled, 165 agreed to participate and completed the study. Of these 165, 68 were the undergraduate RAs whose staff role called for intensive and daily involvement with issues of diversity and social justice, and 97 were students from the general population. Sixty-three percent of the entire sample of 165 was women; 37 percent were male. The proportion of students of color in the sample was somewhat larger than the 20 to 25 percent they represented within the class as a whole. The age range of the group was 18 to 24. (The demographics, research design, developmental assessment instruments, and findings can be read in Adams and Zhou, 1994, and in Adams, in press.)


This study revealed that both cohorts of students entered our course toward the end of a developmental transition from dualism to multiplicity, but left the course firmly in command of multiplistic thinking. The Resident Assistants were almost indistinguishable from the students in the general population on the cognitive measures, but were more advanced--and also showed greater gain scores--on the measures of moral judgment. When we examined the data that measures openness to peers in classroom learning (a dimension of learning that is important in our experiential, participatory, and interactive social justice pedagogy), we found that only 20 percent of the overall sample of students used dualistic thinking (preferring "experts" to "peers") while nearly three-quarters of the sample (72 percent) use multiplistic thinking (believing that other students would offer interesting and new perspectives), and 10 percent use relativistic thinking.

The predominance of multiplicity in the domain of peer-learning suggests that our students are likely to find peer opinions interesting because they raise new ideas and because they help students better understand themselves as distinct from others. Dualistic thinkers in this domain, on the other hand, tend to be wary of the value of peer perspectives and prefer to rely upon instructors' authority, whereas relativistic thinkers value diverse perspectives as providing new perspectives on others.

By the end of the course, we found that nearly three-quarters of our dualistic knowers were exploring contradictions, multiple perspectives, and were now assessed as multiplistic thinkers. The proportion of multiplistic thinking across both student cohorts remained constant, at about the same, at 73 percent, but the overall relativistic thinking increased to 24 percent while, as noted already, the number of dualistic knowers decreased.


These findings were richly suggestive to us as educators. First, the confirmation that we had many dualistic learners in our classes provided empirical support for our efforts to provide ample support as a counterweight to the many challenges posed by the curriculum and pedagogy. We provided clear goals, guidelines for activities and papers, emphasized the concrete and the personal prior to the abstract and the systemic, and allowed time for students to respond to burning issues--and to each other.

But second, the confirmation that by semester's end most of our students were multiplistic or relativistic (with few die-hard dualists remaining) encouraged us to make explicit use of our authority, as college teachers, to model and facilitate the inquiring, respectful, open modes of thinking our curriculum fosters. We were encouraged by the slightly higher measures concerning "role of peers" to create different kinds of interactive environments based on structured dialogues, small group discussions, focus groups and peer panels, as well as homework assignments for peer interviews or campus and home neighborhood observations.

While additional research is certainly called for, this initial study suggests that cognitive development theories offer an illuminating framework for the special challenges and opportunities that occur in social justice and social diversity education. They help account for students' initial resistance to multiple perspectives. They help explain student discomfort in the absence of certainties in social justice problem-solving. And they shed light on the cognitive skills needed for complex problem-solving and abstract thought in an emotionally charged, personalized domain of learning.

For readers unfamiliar with cognitive developmental theory as a lens for understanding diversity education, these overviews are helpful:

Patricia M. King and Marcia B. Baxter Magolda (1996), "A developmental perspective on learning." Journal of College Student Development, 37 (2), 163-173.

Patricia M. King and Bettina C. Shuford (1996), "A multicultural view is a more cognitively complex view: Cognitive development and multicultural education." American Behavioral Scientist, 40 (2), 153-163.


Adams, M. (1997). Pedagogical frameworks for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook for teachers and trainers (pp. 30-43). New York: Routledge.

Adams, M., & Marchesani, L. (1997). Multiple issues course overview. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook for teachers and trainers (pp. 261-275). New York: Routledge.

Adams, M., & Zhou-McGovern, Y. (1994). Connecting research to practice in "social diversity" classes: Implications of developmental findings for instructional design. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. (ERIC Accession Number: ED380345).

Baxter Magolda, M. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students' intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N., and Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women's ways of knowing. New York: Basic Books.

Gurin, P. (1999). Expert report of Patricia Gurin, in "The compelling need for diversity in higher education," presented in Gratz, et al. v. Bollinger, et al., No. 97-75321 (E.D. Mich), and Grutter, et al., v. Bollinger, et al., No. 97-75928 (E.D. Mich). Washington, DC: Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering. Full text http://www.umich.edu/ ~newsinfo/Admission/Expert/gurintoc.html

King, P.M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, W.S. (1994). Student and faculty epistemology in the college classroom: The Perry schema of intellectual and ethical development. In K.W. Prichard and R. M. Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook of college teaching: Theory and applications (pp. 45-67). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1981). Cognitive and ethical growth: The making of meaning. In A. Chickering (Ed.), The modern American college (pp. 76-116). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

back to top