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Student Development - The Basics

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Student Development theorists are interested in the process of development of a person who is participating in post-secondary education. This means that every parent, advisor and instructor of a University of Calgary student should be familiar with what the most recent Student Development theory has to say about how institutions, faculty members, and parents can best challenge and support individual students to promote their psychosocial and cognitive development. While some of this development can be achieved through coursework, out of classroom experiences and living environments can further enhance and extend students' learning and development.

Student Development theories focus on human growth and environmental influences and designs that provide environments to promote students' learning and maturation, both in and outside of class. As both a theory base and a philosophy about the purposes of higher education, Student Development encourages educational interventions that strengthen skills, stimulate self-understanding and increase knowledge.

The development of students requires consideration of equality, cooperation and collaboration among all parties - students, faculty, staff and administration. Individual students can be assisted to build on their own unique developmental processes. The more individualized this development and the activities that support it, the better. The well-rounded development of the whole person is the primary goal of those who promote Student Development.

Basic Assumptions of Student Development

  • The individual student must be considered as a whole person.
  • Each student is a unique person and must be treated as such.
  • The student's total environment is educational and must be used to help the student achieve full developmental potential.
  • The major responsibility for a student's personal and social development rests with the student and his/her personal resources.

Student Development Theories

Student Development theories generally fall into four broad categories, each of which represents different perspectives on the post-secondary student:

  1. Psychosocial Theories focus on the personal and interpersonal aspects of students' lives as they accomplish various developmental tasks, or resolve the inevitable crises that arise.
  2. Cognitive-structural Theories focus on the intellectual development of students-how they think, reason, and make meaning of their lives. It addresses a sequence of meaning-making structures through which students perceive, organize, and make sense of their experiences. The stages are hierarchical and each successive stage incorporates and builds on previous stages.
  3. Person-environment Interactive Theories address conceptualizations of the student, the educational environment and the degree of congruence that occurs when the student interacts with the educational environment. Behaviour is looked at as a function of the interaction between the person and the environment. Many person-environment interactive theories are used in career planning.
  4. Humanistic Existential Theories address the philosophy of the human condition. Humans-including students!-are responsible, self-aware, potentially self-actualizing, and capable of being fully functioning. The forces of growth within each person are facilitated by self-disclosure, followed by self-acceptance and self-awareness. These theories are used extensively in counselling. Two of the most influential theories are Chickering's Theory of Psychosocial Development and Perry's Theory of Cognitive Development. These two schools of thought are described below.

Chickering's Psychosocial Theory of Student Development

Perhaps the most widely known and applied theory of student development is Chickering and Reisser's psychosocial development model (1993). Chickering and Reisser suggest that establishing identity is the key developmental issue that arises for students during the university years. They propose seven vectors along which traditionally aged university students develop:

  1. Developing Confidence: intellectual, physical/manual, and interpersonal
  2. Managing Emotions: recognizing, accepting, appropriately expressing and controlling emotion
  3. Moving Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence: increasing emotional independence, self-direction, and problem-solving abilities, as well as recognizing and accepting interdependence
  4. Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships: developing capacity for healthy intimate relationships that contribute to sense of self, while accepting and appreciating differences
  5. Establishing Identity: based on feedback from significant others, developing comfort with self (physically and emotionally), one's lifestyle, gender, sexuality and cultural heritage
  6. Developing Purpose: developing clear vocational goals and committing to personal interests and activities
  7. Developing Integrity: moving from rigid, moralistic thinking to a more humanized personalized value system; acknowledging and accepting the beliefs of others.

According to the theory, students' progress through the first four vectors simultaneously during their first and second years and (generally) through the fourth vector during their second and third years (given a standard four-year program). During the third and fourth years, they progress simultaneously through the last two vectors. Students move through these vectors at different rates and may even move back and forth through them, depending on levels of challenge, support and maturity. Although based on traditional-aged students, elements of Chickering's theory can be used with all students.

Environmental Influences on Psychosocial Development

Psychosocial development is influenced by the following components of the university environment:

  1. Clarity and consistency of objectives
  2. Size of institution
  3. Curriculum, teaching, and evaluation
  4. Living arrangements
  5. Interaction with faculty and administration
  6. Friends, groups, and student culture.

Major Experiences Central to Psychosocial Development

  1. Engaging in decision making in a range of settings (academic and non-academic)
  2. Interacting with diverse individuals and ideas
  3. Involvement in direct and varied experiences
  4. Solving complex intellectual and social problems without being required to conform to authority's view
  5. Receiving feedback and making objective self-assessments.

Perry's Theory of Cognitive Development

William Perry's theory of cognitive development of students (1968) examines nine positions that trace the way in which students typically move from a simplistic, categorical view of the world to a realization of the contingent nature of knowledge, relative values, and the formation and affirmation of one's own commitments. The theory is useful in establishing, implementing and evaluating a curriculum. These "positions" serve as filters through which students see their world through both their academic and personal experiences.

Level 1: Dualism (From this perspective, there are only two approaches, being: right and wrong - and uncertainty indicates an error of some sort)

  • Position 1: All information is either right or wrong.
  • Position 2: All information is right or wrong, and where uncertainty seems to exist it is really an error committed by a wrong authority.
  • Position 3: All information is either right or wrong, but uncertainty is acceptable in areas where experts don't know the answers yet. Someday, the right answers will be discovered.
  • Curriculum challenges for this level include providing relative viewpoints in course content and instructional method; providing experiential learning modes; and requiring analysis of conflicting viewpoints. Students seeing the world from this perspective are best supported by highly structured instruction, a personal atmosphere in the classroom and limited degrees of freedom (2 or 3 options).

Level 2: Relativism (All knowledge is uncertain or valid only within a context)

  • Position 4: Ideas have equal value and no one has "the answer." Non-absolute evidence or standards for judgment within context are not yet integrated into the structure. A few right and wrong categories may still exist.
  • Position 5: Knowledge is contextual. Non-absolute evidence can help a person make contextual judgments regarding what is better or worse, but not to decide between absolute right and wrong. This position also raises questions about personal values, actions and destiny.
  • Position 6: A person's life, especially his/her values, emerge as commitments are made. Life commitments are foreseen as one applies contextual criteria to identify issues.
  • Curriculum challenges for this level include relativistic, diverse content that enables commitment; vicarious experiential learning; and a low degree of instructional structure. Students at the relativism level are best supported by highly diverse content, a personal atmosphere in the classroom and a high degree of freedom.

Level 3: Commitment (An individual's identity is defined as commitments are made and lived)

  • Position 7: Active affirmation of self and responsibility in pluralistic world, establishing identity in process.
  • Position 8: Personal commitments are made out of a relativistic frame of reference, allowing for recognition of diverse personal themes.
  • Position 9: Understand role in pluralistic world by establishing own identity and lifestyle consistent with own personal theme.

While there is still much to learn about the ways in which students grow and develop during their post-secondary years, these theories are the foundational ones · but you may want to learn more! If so, please review the references below and stay tuned to this site for updates. Enjoy!


Chickering, A.W. and Reisser, L. (1993) Education and Identity (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Creamer, Don G. (Ed.). (1980) Student Development in Higher Education: Theories, Practices, and Future Directions. Cincinnati: ACPA.

Knefelkamp, Lee, Widick, Carole and Parker, Clyde. (Eds.) (1978). "Applying New Developmental Findings." New Directions for Student Services No. 4., San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, T.K. and Winston, Jr., R.B. (1991). "Human Development and Higher Education." In T.K. Miller, R.B. Winston, Jr. and Associates, Administration and Leadership in Student Affairs: Actualizing Student Development in Higher Education. Muncie, Indiana: Accelerated Development, Inc.

Perry, W.G. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. Troy, Mo.: Hold, Rinehart & Winston.

Rodgers, R. F. (1989). "Student Development." In U. Delworth, G. R. Hanson, and Associates, Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Strange, C. (1991). "Managing College Environments: Theory and Practice." In T.K. Miller, R. B. Winston, Jr. and Associates, Administration and Leadership in Student Affairs: Actualizing Student Development in Higher Education. Muncie, Indiana: Accelerated Development, Inc.

Thompson, Jill M. (1999). "Enhancing Cognitive Development in College Classrooms: A Review." Journal of Instructional Psychology 26 (1).

Upcraft, M. Lee and Gardner, John L. (Eds.) (1989). The Freshman Year Experience. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p. 41-46.

Upcraft, M. Lee and Moore, Leila V. (1990) "Evolving Theoretical Perspectives of Student Development." In Margaret J. Barr, M. Lee Upcraft and Associates. New Futures for Student Affairs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.