February 2016 | Issue 22


Knowledge is so much more than knowing the right answer

Editors photo.jpg

By Dr Preman Rajalingam
Deputy Director and Head, Educational Development and TBL Facilitation

​A few months into her medical degree, a Year 1 student says to the Team-Based Learning (TBL) facilitator, "I don't see why I should listen to my classmate's opinions. I just want to hear the right answer from the content expert!"

The initial novelty of TBL has worn off and the facilitator is a convenient target for her frustration. The facilitator explains that by engaging in conversation with her classmates, she will develop reasoning skills and realise how others may think differently from her, and perhaps even reconsider her own views on the topic. He was almost too quick to respond. He has given this speech many times before. The student raises an eyebrow, probably not very convinced. She still wants to know what the content expert thinks.

As most educators know, knowledge is so much more than just having the right answer. But how does a university student develop this level of intellectual insight? How does anyone for that matter? William G Perry Jr., a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was a well-known educational psychologist who studied the cognitive development of students during their university years. Through careful observation over a 15-year period in the 1950s and 1960s, Perry developed a model for understanding how university students develop their ideas about knowledge. This aptly came to be known as Perry's Model of Cognitive Development.

Perry proposed that students develop more sophisticated views of knowledge in a predictable sequence of stages. He found that students move from having a dualist view (black and white, right and wrong) to a relativistic view (other opinions exist, ambiguity exists, different positions have strengths and weaknesses). Students will ultimately move to a commitment position, where they can weigh the evidence and commit to a reasonable position. This is a subtle but significant transition in a university student's life.

Time has passed and our M1 student is now an M2 student on the cusp of the notably demanding clinical phase of her education. The facilitator asks her if she thinks that TBL has prepared her for this transition. "I still feel that the discussion sometimes goes off-topic and that may not be time well spent, but I think I have developed the skills to bring it back to what's relevant. That will probably be useful".

She needs more time, but she's getting there.