Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




James P Barber

Committee Member

Judi Harris

Committee Member

Ronald Sims


Intellectual humility is understood as the attentiveness to and owning of intellectual limitations and operates as an Aristotelian golden mean along a spectrum of its absence (i.e., intellectual arrogance) and excess (i.e., intellectual servility). This study investigates the nature and formation of intellectual humility contextualized to an undergraduate, liberal arts and sciences education. A grounded theory approach was employed to conceptualize and develop two models of intellectual humility: a process for unlearning as an appropriate response to owning intellectual limitations and a way to cultivate intellectual humility in undergraduate students. This qualitative study comprised of tenured faculty from a highly selective, public, liberal arts and sciences research university by first examining responses to 90 descriptive survey submissions. From these entries, a total of 33 semi-structured interviews—11 Arts and Humanities, 10 Business, and 12 Sciences participants—were conducted, transcribed, coded, categorized, and member checked with each individual. Faculty identified a process of unlearning that took place in students who owned their intellectual limitations. Intellectually humble students were described as able to unlearn old, forced, or narrow mental mindsets. Examples of these mindsets included study habits developed in high school, mental models of receiving feedback, or prior ways of thinking that no longer proved successful or were prohibitive to further learning. Students who rejected, owned, or stressed their intellectual limitations followed a bi-directional path of growth or stagnation in how they responded to feedback and displayed intellectual arrogance, humility, or servility. Regardless of academic community, faculty described students who had intellectual humility owned their intellectual limitations, operated with a tolerance for discomfort, and developed a love of learning. In some cases, that love of learning was renewed. When displayed, intellectual humility was described by faculty members as a mixture of confidence and empathy and was instilled by counterbalancing for the quality students lacked. Undergraduates who responded to their intellectual limitations by denying, rejecting, or remaining ignorant of them (i.e., displayed intellectual arrogance) lacked empathy to consider the position of the professor or a peer providing the feedback. Nearly all of my participants, however, shared that they more often experienced the converse: students who—when receiving feedback—stressed their limitations as too great and needed confidence. Professors also confirmed their own attentiveness to and owning of intellectual limitations. Implications for pedagogy are offered that include fostering a tolerance for discomfort and multiple strategies to build the intellectual confidence and empathy of undergraduates.


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