Date of Award

Summer 1999

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Urban Services - Urban Education

Committee Director

Dana Burnett

Committee Member

J. Worth Pickering

Committee Member

Chris Lovell

Committee Member

Petra Snowden

Committee Member

Donna B. Evans


This study compared cognitive complexity between student groups based on cultural background and academic class utilizing William Perry's (1970) cognitive theory of intellectual and ethical development. In addition, the study examined the influence of gender and socioeconomic status (SES) on cognitive development. The goal was to ascertain whether Perry's theory, developed from his research on a relatively homogeneous college student population without consideration of the impact of a culturally diverse environment, would be valid for culturally diverse students.

The research design employed to investigate cognitive development used a cross-sectional sample of entering freshmen and graduating seniors attending a predominantly White, public urban university. The total population used in the investigation consisted of 1,248 students. Cognitive development was measured and defined by the Cognitive Complexity Index (CCI) on the Learning Environment Preferences (LEP; Moore, 1987).

Analyses of the cross-sectional samples revealed evidence of significant differences in cognitive complexity as defined and measured by the LEP between cohorts of African American and White students. Between freshmen cohorts, CCI scores indicated that White freshmen averaged higher than African American students on the LEP when gender and SES were controlled. Although similar differences in cognitive development were found between senior cohorts, significant differences were not found when SES and gender were controlled. Further, cross-sectional analysis of the interaction between culture and academic class status indicated no significant differences in cognitive development when SES and gender were controlled.

The qualitative component utilized comparative analyses to determine whether themes, representing cognitive development, would develop along cultural and academic levels. Although interview responses generally supported Perry's (1970) scheme, analyses of responses revealed that not all subjects understood and interpreted the questions in the same manner. Themes found within interviewee responses indicated that students may have either similar or distinct worldviews based on their culture, academic class status, or socioeconomic level. Cultural differences were found to exist around themes of learning orientation and perceptions of authority

In conclusion, Perry's scheme provides a framework and description of the routes for intellectual potential. However, the present study indicated inadequacies of the Perry scheme to assess the cognitive complexity of African American students.


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