Understanding, Using, and Translating Student Development Theory
Regina is about to begin her masters program in student affairs administration. In addition to maintaining a 3.5 GPA, Regina was active as an undergraduate in student government and the Association for Multicultural Understanding (AMU). When she decided early in her senior year that a career in business was not for her, the advisor to AMU suggested she think about student affairs administration. Regina had never heard of this profession, but she enjoyed the college environment and thought that the work her advisor did was important and interesting. She wanted to have the same kind of impact on others as he had on her. So she investigated various graduate programs and ended up with an offer from one of the best programs in the country along with an assistantship in Multicultural Student Affairs. Needless to say, she is excited but also a little anxious.
Regina is hoping the course in student development theory for which she is registered will give her some clues about how to approach the students with whom she will be working. After her orientation to the Multicultural Student Affairs office, all she knows is how the phone system works, what her email address is, and who the other people in her division are. Aside from a brief meeting with her assistantship supervisor, no one has provided much information about the issues students are facing on campus or how to go about addressing them. At this point all she has to go on is her own experience as an undergraduate, and she is perceptive enough to know that students at this large research university might have different concerns from hers and those of her peers who attended a historically Black college.
In preparation for her first class, Regina pages through her student development theory text. There are so many theories! How will she ever learn them all? Surely she won't be expected to memorize them all? Will she be able to use all of these concepts meaningfully in her work? Regina is feeling overwhelmed.
As Regina has intuited, understanding student development is crucial in order to be an effective student affairs educator. The growth and development of students is a central goal of higher education, and student affairs professionals play an integral role in its achievement. To accomplish this goal, educators must be familiar with an extensive literature base focusing on student development and be able to use relevant concepts and ideas effectively in their daily interactions with students. In addition, program planning and policy development are enhanced when student development concepts are used as a guide. Becoming knowledgeable about student development requires serious study, including critical analysis and evaluation of theory and research.
In Part One
, “Understanding, Using, and Translating Student Development Theory,” we set the stage for examining student development. We introduce a number of concepts to provide a context for the study of specific student development theories presented later in the book. While some of this material may initially seem abstract, we encourage readers to refer back to the text of Part One
when exploring later chapters that describe specific student development theories. In Part Four
, we will revisit many of these ideas by examining the use of theory in practice, the role of student affairs educators as learning partners, and the current state of the student development knowledge base.
In Chapter 1
, “An Introduction to Student Development Theory,” we present definitions of the term student development and clarify the various ways in which the concept has been applied. To provide historical background and a sense of how and why student development became the foundation of the student affairs profession, we trace the evolution of the student development approach, provide an overview and trajectory of the theories examined later
in the book, and connect student development to student learning.
In Chapter 2
, “Foundations for Understanding Student Development Theory,” we introduce a diverse array of worldviews and paradigms to illustrate the complexities that undergird the creation of theory. We discuss their influence on student development theory and research related to college students. We also describe content and process models and theories, which focus more on the context of development and the influence of the environment. These models and theories are helpful for understanding, analyzing, and critiquing theory.
The content in Chapter 3
, “Using Student Development Theory,” details recommendations and strategies for using and applying student development theory. We explain the critical role of theory in student affairs practice, provide suggestions for evaluating the potential utility of theories, and offer both cautions and challenges associated with using student development theory. We present a theory-to-practice model and offer examples of integrative approaches for using theory. The chapter concludes with a brief case scenario to help readers begin the practice of considering theoretical application from a holistic perspective.
Though the study of student development can be overwhelming at first, the present wealth of knowledge about what happens to students in college is also gratifying and exciting. In an effort to promote learning and theory application throughout this book, we have provided a larger case study scenario in the appendix. The case ushers readers into an introductory, graduate-level student development theory course at Prescott University. We then provide individual portraits of students in the course and focus on their individual developmental journeys. We also offer thought-provoking questions about each student's portrait, to foster the application of various theories to their stories. While readers may review the case and portraits at any point, we recommend visiting the case study in the appendix before proceeding to Chapter 5
, which begins our full discussion of specific
An Introduction to Student Development Theory
College student development theory is a body of scholarship that guides student affairs and higher education practice. “College students” are individuals engaged in postsecondary learning experiences, typically those taking place in formal settings such as colleges, universities, and other higher education institutions; college students are also engaged in learning outside of institutions, when they are at work, doing service, studying abroad, or living in the community. “Development,” simply defined, is the process of becoming increasingly complex. In this chapter, we describe development in depth and then elaborate on developmental theories and processes throughout the book.
In social science research, where many student development theories originated, “theory is a unified, systematic causal explanation of a diverse range of social phenomena” (Schwandt, 2007, p. 292, emphasis in the original). It is a set of ideas that attempt to explain something in the social world. Theory may be relatively informal or simple, as in concepts that guide analysis or understanding, or it may be formal and have broad application to explain complex social phenomena (for example, cognitive development or racial identity development). Theory in student affairs practice is a useful tool that answers the question “Why?” (Jones & Abes, 2011) and is beneficial when it “helps explain a piece of the world to us” (Brookfield, 2005, p. 4). From this perspective, “theorizing is a form of meaning making, born of a desire to create explanations that impose conceptual order on reality” (p. 5). Some social scientists see theory as a guide for “ways to make decisions and think about how to interpret individuals, environments, and organizations” (Jones & Abes, 2011, p. 163), not to dictate a single explanation.
Most scientific traditions define theory as a tested and testable hypothesis proven often and over time. Over 20 years ago student development scholars Moore and Upcraft (1990) defined theory as a “[set] of definitions and statements specifying a relationship between concepts” (p. 179). They considered theory as definitive, highly structured, and based on deductive reasoning, causal connections, unitary understandings of truth, and separation between the researchers and researched.
Contemporary theorists frame theory as a way to “describe, explain, predict, influence outcomes, assess practice, and generate new knowledge and research” (Jones & Abes, 2011, p. 151). In short, theory framed from any worldview or paradigm can be a tool to enrich practitioners' and scholars' work with students. In Chapter Two
, we discuss worldviews and paradigms and their relevance for student development theory and practice.
Early student development theorists Knefelkamp, Widick, and Parker (1978) grouped student development theories by “theory clusters” or “families” of theories (p. xi). Adding to their developmental nature, these theories include those that “focus on the individual, including social identities; those that examine students in the collegiate context such as student success and engagement, and learning; theories that explain the relationship of the campus environments to student development and success; and those focused on organizations and institutions of higher education” (Jones & Abes, 2011, p. 152). Renn and Reason (2013) pointed out that some student development theories derive from research on college students, while others have been adopted from academic fields including psychology, sociology, and human ecology. Regardless of their origin, all student development theories can influence practices and opportunities designed to promote student learning and growth (Renn & Reason).
Taking these multiple concepts into account, we define student development theory as a collection of theories related to college students that explain how they grow and develop holistically, with increased complexity, while enrolled in a postsecondary educational environment. In this book, we present and describe the growing number of student development theories and perspectives applied in higher education and student affairs. We highlight theories and perspectives that focus primarily on the individual student in a variety of collegiate contexts, and those we believe are most useful to and used by higher education and student affairs researchers and educators. Given the impracticality of creating one book with all of the theories that might possibly be of use to student affairs educators, we included what we believe is most applicable to the college student experience.
Defining Student Development Theory
This chapter provides an overview of the definitions of college student development and examines the origins and evolution of major student development theories created since the second half of the twentieth century. We begin with a discussion of definitions of student development and their historical roots and end with the ways in which student development theory is linked to student learning. Overall, we outline the underpinnings of this broad concept.
Definitions of Student Development
Student development is a term used extensively in student affairs practice and research, yet it evokes many meanings even within the student affairs professional community. Professionals talk about “facilitating student development,” offices are titled “Student Development,” and graduate students study “student development theories.” Student development is almost universally viewed as a good thing, despite Parker's (1974) critique of student affairs professionals for attaching vague and nonspecific meanings to this term. Parker suggested that for many, student development had become a catchphrase with no direct application to their work. What, then, does the term “student development” mean exactly?
In 1967, Sanford defined development as “the organization of increasing complexity” (p. 47). Sanford distinguished development from change (which refers only to an altered condition that may be positive or negative, progressive or regressive) and from growth (which refers to expansion but may be either favorable or unfavorable to overall functioning). He saw this positive growth process as one in which the individual becomes increasingly able to integrate and act on many different experiences and influences. Rodgers (1990) defined student de...