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Student Development Theories

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Baxter Magolda conducted longitudinal research on how students move from socialized mind status to self-authorship. She concluded that college environments succeed best in helping students make the transition to appropriate self-reliance when the facilitators provide validating feedback to students about their potential, pay attention to the learner\'s experience when designing the curriculum and supporting learning experiences and accept that learners will actively construct meaning out of those experiences in college 



The posting below is a brief review of student development theories. It is from Chapter Six, Student Development: Solving the Great Puzzle, in the book, Using Quality Benchmarks for Assessing and Developing Undergraduate Programs, by Dana S. Dunn, Maureen A. McCarthy, Suzanne C. Baker and Jane S. Halonen. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. 989 Market Street San Francisco, CA Copyright (c) 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Student Development Theories


In the early twentieth century, college campuses became a natural setting in which to apply theories from the emerging disciplines of psychology and sociology (Evans et al,. 2010).  Although the earliest emphasis in student development stressed vocational guidance, the 1937 publication by the American Council of Education (ACE) advocated for focusing on the development of the \"whole student\" to facilitate better contributions by college graduates to society as a whole. A subsequent ACE statement (1949) reinforced the \"whole student\" perspective and stressed the importance of recognizing and attending to the needs of diverse kinds of students.

Formal theories regarding student development began to surface in the middle of the twentieth century (Pascarrella & Terenzini, 2005). The focus of student development varies from research that is targeted at a specific aspect of the student experience (such as learning style) to researchers who are more comprehensive or ecological in their consideration of multiple variables that make a difference in student experience.

Cognitive Complexity

One of the first formal theories of student development has proved to be one of the most enduring. Interviewing male students at Harvard, Perry (1968/1999) described how students evolve in their cognitive complexity during the college years. He observed students progressing from simplistic or \"dualistic\" view of the world (that is, thinking of the world in \"black and white\" terms) to more complex and contextual deliberations as a function of their liberal arts experience. Inspired by the work of Piaget, Perry was particularly attentive to the characteristics of the transition points from one stage of cognitive complexity to the next, including the impact of individual differences (Knefelkamp, 1999).

Later cognitive theories expanded upon Perry's observations. Pointing to the limitations of using an all-male population, Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) applied Perry's stages to explain cognitive growth in female students. They posited five separate \"ways of knowing\" that women experience, from the position of silence, a mindless and voiceless stance, through a position of constructed knowing, which recognizes that knowing reflects thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and the characteristics of the learner herself. King and Kitchener (1994) further speculated about other cognitive transformations that were possible beyond the limits of the relativism stage that Perry described.

Moral Development

Kohlberg (1976) developed a stage theory of moral development that has had a big impact on the understanding of student development. He asked male students at Harvard to reason their way through various moral dilemmas and captured the patterns in their rationales. Kohlberg characterized the students' moral decision making as representing three levels of development. At the preconventional level, individuals have not fully grasped or adopted societal norms regarding morality. As such, their judgments tend to be focused more on the individual impact of actions than on societal concerns. In conventional reasoning, individuals embrace social norms and appear to demonstrate obedience to authority; in effect, this stance protects the status quo.

Postconventional reasoners transcend social norms and justify their moral decisions based on a richer understanding of complex moral situations and an appreciation for universal and generalizable principles.

Kohlberg's work remains controversial. Gilligan (1982) argued that an obedience-based schema did not adequately account for moral reasoning in women. She counterproposed a \"care based\" scheme to augment Kohlberg's \"justice based\" theory as more appropriate for the patterns she discovered in women students. Similarly, some critics (such as Heubner &Garrod, 1993; Logan, Snarey, & Schrader, 1990) argue that Kohlberg's stage theory may not accurately portray moral reasoning in all cultures. However, Pascarella and Terrenzini (2005) concluded that college enhances moral reasoning skills beyond a level that would be expected from maturation alone.

Identity Formation

Perhaps the most influential of the early theories is that of Chickering (1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993). Chickering conducted comprehensive psychological assessments of students in their sophomore and senior years with the explicit goal of providing guidance to educators to enhance student development. Supporting the \"whole student\" philosophy, Chickering identified seven vectors along which development occurs among college students: achieving competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity. He argued that student growth is not a linear process and suggested that students may have to recycle through issues as they become more individuated.

Marcia (1966) targeted identity formation processes in young adults that contribute understanding to predictable student dilemmas. Marcia's four-part taxonomy of identity status reflects the certainty, confusion, crisis, and commitment that can be applied to many elements of the undergraduate journey through college. Marcia posited the state of diffusion as an orientation in which students show little motivation in resolving identity concerns. They are vulnerable to conforming, in part because they are unable to make an individual commitment. In Marcia's foreclosure state, students prematurely commit to a position because they simply rely on authority figures to forge their direction. For example, students may come to college convinced they should pursue a particular major and show no variation from that decision even when their performances suggest their selected majors might not be good matches for their abilities. Students can also demonstrate moratorium, in which ambivalence emerges. Original decisions may prove unworkable, and that recognition can fuel a crisis that can often propel a student into the final status: identity achievement, the healthiest of the four stages. Individuals who have achieved identity have thoughtfully resolved the identity crisis and are more willing to take risks and examine multiple viewpoints. For example, a student may abandon the cherished family goal of her becoming a physician in favor of a career in botany because she recognizes the botany major as a better fit with her interests and abilities.

Learning Styles

Kolb (1984) developed the concept of experiential learning to emphasize how the quality or efficiency of learning can differ according to individual preferences for modes of learning. He constructed a four-part taxonomy to describe those differences. Accommodators are geared toward action and prefer trial-and-error strategies in their problem solving. Divergers show special strengths in coming up with imaginative alternatives in their problem-solving attempts. Convergers show a preference for working with technical challenges rather than social ones. Assimilators are more comfortable with ideas than with people and prefer theoretical modeling and abstract reasoning to other forms of learning.

In practice, faculty and other student developers may demonstrate their own learning styles in their architecture of learning and curricular experience. However, awareness that any given group of students will have variable learning preferences encourages the development of an array of learning experiences that appeal to all learning styles rather than rigidly playing out the preferences of the architect.

Personality Variables

An emerging common practice among student developers is the use of personality inventories to capture individual differences. One of the most commonly used approaches involves the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (Myers & McCaulley, 1987). Based loosely on Jungian theory, the MBTI captures and contrasts student personality styles along the following dimensions: extroversion versus introversion, thinking versus feeling, intuiting versus sensing, and judging versus perceiving. The resulting personality code communicates distinctive ways in which a student might approach an interpersonal or academic challenge. College officials have used the MBTI to identify or rule out career aspirations, to promote personal insight about style differences among peers, and even to select roommates with the best potential for surviving the strain of living together.

The MBTI has demonstrated beneficial effects for the enhancement of leadership skills (Fitzgerald & Kirby, 1997). Many students attest to the usefulness of personality inventory as a means of giving them insight when they encounter others who behave in unpredictable ways. However, the test is not without its critics (see Pittenger, 1993), who expresses concern about the instrument's reliability and validity. Although MBTI results may be stable in adulthood, the preferences expressed during the college years may be much more transitory. In addition, MBTI preferences may not readily translate to stable skills sets. Some critics conclude that widespread use of the MBTI in college setting may overreach the inventory's original purpose.

Ecological Models

More recent scholarship in areas that enlighten student development has attempted to produce more comprehensive developmental models that have an ecological foundation. Kegan (1994) created a stage theory based on resolving evolutionary challenges that emphasized the skill needed to cope with complex modern life. He noted that troubles develop in college settings when students engage with what he termed \"the socialized mind,\" or \"third order consciousness.\" Although capable of abstract thinking, students may be swayed by feelings and personal biases and may rely too heavily on designated authorities, such as college teachers, for how to think or believe. In contrast, faculty may have reached \"the fourth stage of consciousness,\" which Kegan called \"the self-authoring mind.\" Most academic professionals can self-regulate and demonstrate independence, but they also may inappropriately expect students to navigate their lives with the same conscientiousness, rather than accept their own role in promoting these chances in students.

Baxter Magolda (2001) conducted longitudinal research on how students move from socialized mind status to self-authorship. She concluded that college environments succeed best in helping students make the transition to appropriate self-reliance when the facilitators provide validating feedback to students about their potential, pay attention to the learner's experience when designing the curriculum and supporting learning experiences and accept that learners will actively construct meaning out of those experiences in college.

Regardless of the specific puzzle pieces, researchers have tried to contribute to optimizing student development, and universities have incorporated research principle in several emerging best practices that have been widely adopted to enrich student experience and facilitate their development. In this next section, we'll explore some contemporary practices that report success in promoting student development.