Berry O'Donovan

  • Learning in higher education: developmental or instrumental?

    Berry O’Donovan, Margaret Price
    Oxford Brookes University

    Session 5d

    Wednesday 5 September 2007, 09.30-10.30

    Research paper

    Themes: Skills development

    This paper puts forward the argument that improving student learning involves not only the transmission of disciplinary knowledge, but more importantly the intellectual development of students. Most academics hope to facilitate their students’ intellectual development, consequently, of great concern are indications that higher education may not be supporting such intellectual development. Indeed, there are indications that the ways courses are taught and assessed can even hinder intellectual development through an emphasis on declarative knowledge and specific techniques (Entwhistle & Entwhistle, 1991). Nowadays a strong emphasis on disciplinary knowledge may be even less appropriate as meaningful information becomes increasingly prevalent and accessible.

    Accordingly this study sought to determine, within a large business and management programme, the extent to which students move up the intellectual development ladder. Prior research suggests that students move through stages of intellectual development in education in which their epistemological beliefs about the nature of knowledge change and develop in complexity and understanding, the best known of which is probably that of Perry (1970) but also includes the influential work of Belenky et al, (1986), King and Kitchener (1994) and Baxter Magolda, (1992).

    Using Baxter-Magolda’s Measure of Epistemological Reflection (2001) this study identifies and maps first year undergraduate business students’ stage of intellectual development and beliefs. Secondly, determines if there is a relationship between students’ stage of intellectual development and their assessed performance, prior education, gender, age and nationality. Thirdly, re-measures students’ beliefs and stage of intellectual development at the end of their second year to assess change. Data analysis of 200 qualitative questionnaires was undertaken by two researchers to support dependability of interpretations.

    Overall, the findings show that that the majority of first year students arrive with largely dualistic perspectives in which knowledge is seen as absolute truth - defined by authority and learnt reproductively. Consequently, didactic delivery and reproductive learning are highly valued whilst discussion seminars and ambiguous answers are considered to be ‘poor teaching’. Relatively few students held pluralistic positions in which they acknowledged uncertainty, ambiguity and multiplicity of perspectives.

    Students who held pluralistic perspectives (and therefore considered to be at a more advanced stage of intellectual development) tended to perform better on assessed coursework, but there was no significant correlation between this higher stage of intellectual development and exam performance and again no significant correlation with age, gender or prior education. However, nationality was strongly correlated. By their second year students beliefs on the nature of knowledge were hard to discern through a thick fog of instrumental and strategic perspectives suggesting that the students’ educational experience falls short of aspirations. The results of this study have clear implications not only for learning and teaching processes but also question fundamental assumptions about student learning in higher education and its outcomes.


    • Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992) Knowing and reasoning in college: gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
    • Baxter Magolda M.B. (2001) ‘A constructivist revision of the measure of epistemological reflection’, Journal of College Student Development, vol. 42, no. 6, pp. 1-15
    • Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.M. (1986). Women's ways of knowing. New York:
    • Entwistle N.J. & Entwistle A (1991) Contrasting forms of understanding for degree examinations: the student experience and its implications, Higher Education, 22, pp. 205-227
    • Grey, C., Knights, D., & Willmott, H., (1996) ‘Is a critical pedagogy of management possible?’ in French R and Grey, C (eds) Rethinking management education, Sage, London
    • King, P.M. & Kitchener, K.S. (1994) Reflective judgement concepts of justification and their relationship to age and education’ Studies in Higher Education, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 205-221
    • Perry, W.G (1970) Forms of intellectual development in the college years, New York, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston