Student development theories

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Student Development Theory refers to the body of educational psychology that theorizes how students gain knowledge in post-secondary educational environments.


The earliest manifestation of student development theory — or tradition — in Europe was in loco parentis.[1] Loosely translated, this concept refers to the manner in which children's schools acted on behalf of and in partnership with parents for the moral and ethical development and improvement of students' character development. Ostensibly this instruction emphasized traditional Christian values through strict rules, enforced by rigid discipline.[1] As such, the primary objective of in loco parentis[1] was on the conditioning of social and individual behavior, rather than intellectual cultivation.[1]

The second distinct shift toward a unified student development theory emerged in the late nineteenth century, through the first quarter of the twentieth century, marked by the growth of colleges and universities throughout Europe and the United States, simultaneous with the development of social science disciplines like psychology.[1] By mid-twentieth century, behavioral psychologists such as B.F. Skinner and Carl Rogers influenced educational theory and policy, and a new paradigm emerged known as the Student Services paradigm. As the name indicates, the "Student Services" perspective articulated that students ought to be provided with the services that benefit knowledge acquisition.[1]

By the mid-twentieth century, the service paradigm started to be replaced with the student development paradigm.[1] This paradigm was influenced by the growing body of psychological and sociological theories, reflecting the idea that students learn both in-class and out-of-class, and are influenced both by their genetics and social environment (see nature and nurture).[1]

Basic assumptions guiding the student development movement:[1]

  1. Each student is a different individual with unique needs.
  2. The entire environment of the student should be taken into account and used for education.
  3. Student has a personal responsibility for getting educated.


Student development theories generally can be divided into five categories:[1]

  1. Psychosocial. Psychosocial theories focus on long-term issues that tend to occur in sequence and are correlated with chronological age, concentrating on individuals progress through various 'life stages' by accomplishing certain deeds.
  2. Cognitive-Structural. Cognitive-structural theories address how students perceive and rationalize their experiences.
  3. Person-Environment. Person-environment theories address interaction between conceptualizations of the college student and the college environment, looking at behavior as a social function of the person and the environment. Those theories are particularly common in career planning.
  4. Humanistic Existential. Humanistic existential theories concentrate on certain philosophical concepts about human nature: freedom, responsibility, self-actualization and that education and personal growth are encouraged by self-disclosure, self-acceptance and self-awareness. These theories are used extensively in counseling.
  5. Student Development Process Models. Student development process models can be divided into abstract and practical.

There are dozens of theories falling into these five families. Among the most known are:[1]

Schlossberg’s Transition Theory[edit]

Schlossberg's Transition Theory has been worked on over time and has changed some of it original context. This theory is mostly based on the individual and what they consider to be a transition in their life.[2] This theory is used as a guideline from what steps should be taken during the transition to help the young adult to continue to work on and transition into what they need. We use different questionnaires to determine and assess the ability of a certain person to cope with the transition. Here is a quick review of the steps and ideas behind Schlossberg's Theory:

  • Events or nonevents resulting in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, or even roles
  • Meaning for the individual based on
    • Type: anticipated, unanticipated, nonevent
    • Context: relationship to transition and the setting
    • Impact: alterations in daily life
The Transition Process
  • Reactions over time
  • Moving in, moving through, and moving out
Coping with Transitions
  • Influenced by ration or assets and liabilities in regard to four sets of factors:
    • Situation: trigger, timing, control, role change, duration, previous experience, concurrent stress, assessment
    • Self: personal and demographic characteristics, psychological resources
    • Support: types, functions, measurement
    • Strategies: categories, coping modes

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development[edit]

Using ideas of Piaget and cognitive development Kohlberg looks into the judgments of people and what they consider justifiable to determine about their ideas of Morality come into play.[2] Using only these ideas, not culture, we see how people develop their own moral code and how it changes or stays the same over time.

Stages of Kohlberg's Moral Development Theory
  • Level I: Preconventional
    • Stage One: Heteronomous Morality: Obeying rules so not to be punished (focus more on self than the other)
    • Stage Two: Individualistic, Instrumental Morality: Focusing on only following the rules that benefit themselves.
  • Level II: Conventional
    • Stage Three: Interpersonally Normative Morality: The person begins to start living up to the expectations of the important people around them. (i.e.: friends, parents, teachers)
    • Stage Four: Social System Morality: We begin to realize that everyone has morals and we live in the society's morals established by the people in it.
  • Level III: Postconventional or Principled
    • Stage Five: Human Rights and Social Welfare Morality: Being able to depend on everyone around you to carry out the social justices and entering groups to maintain these ideas that you hold as well.
    • Stage Six: Morality of Universalizable, Reversible, and Prescriptive General Ethic Principles: Coming up with your own generalized morals that can apply to everyone and everything that you do.

Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning[edit]

Looking at how you learn as an individual is a huge part in your development of self according to Kolb and his model.[2] By knowing what you need to do to learn it makes it easier for you as an individual to grow as a person. Using the different personality types and ways to learn, we become more self-aware and willing to learn from new ways.

Kolb's Cycle of Learning
  • Concrete Experience (CE): Full and unbiased involvement in learning experience
  • Reflective Observation (RO): Contemplation of one's experiences from various perspectives
  • Abstract Conceptualization (AC): Idea formulation and integration
  • Active Experiment (AE): Incorporation of new ideas into action
Kolb's Learning Style Model
  • Accommodator (CE + RO):
    • Is action oriented and at ease with people, prefers trial-and-error problem solving
    • Is good at carrying out plans, is open to new experiences, adapts easily to change
  • Diverger (RO + AC):
    • Is people- and feeling-oriented
    • Has imagination and is aware of meaning and values, is good at generating and analyzing alternatives
  • Converger (AC + AE):
    • Prefers technical tasks over social or interpersonal settings
    • Excels at problem solving, decision making, and practical applications
  • Assimilator (AC + RO):
    • Emphasizes ideas rather than people
    • Is good at inductive reasoning, creating theoretical models, and integrating observations

Sanford's Theory of Challenge and Support[edit]

Sanford's Theory of Challenge and Support states that for optimal student developmental growth in a college environment, challenges they experience must be met with supports that can sufficiently tolerate the stress of the challenge itself.[3] Nevitt Sanford, a psychologist, was a scholar who theorized about the process college students would encounter throughout their college development.[4] He addressed the relationship between the student and their college environment. Sanford proposed three developmental conditions: readiness, challenge, and support.[3]

(1) Readiness refers to internal processes associated with maturation or beneficial environmental factors. This condition of readiness can aid a student's developmental growth if he or she is physically or psychologically ready. If not, it could limit their developmental growth. (2) Challenge refers to situations in which an individual does not have the skills, knowledge, or attitude to cope. (3) Support refers to buffers in the environment that help the individual to successfully meet challenges. Sanford speculated that if students are met with too much challenge, they could regress in their developmental growth and give up on the challenge at hand. For example, in a review by the University of California, Los Angeles, Chaves discussed the juggling of multiple challenges that adult student learners encounter such as integration into an institution, commuting to campus, social integration, and absence from school for a number of years that cause adult student learners to regress in their time to graduation or not graduate at all.[5] If students are met with excessive support, they may not understand what they need and their development would be limited. For example, in a qualitative study grounded in constructivist theory methodology, Marx concluded that college campuses provided too much support, limiting students' forward movement in their ability to internally define their own beliefs, identity, and relationships during college.[6] In both studies, the research indicated that students were unable to reach optimal developmental growth without the appropriate amount of challenge or support.

It is likely that most students will face an academic, social, or personal challenge during their postsecondary college or university journey. Research shows that challenges are different for traditional age students and adult student learners,[5] various marginalized and majority identity groups,[7] international students,[8] students in specific learning communities,[9] and numerous other characteristics.[3] Research indicates that support for students can be in the form of mentoring and involvement from faculty, staff, family, and peers,[3][5][8][9][10] ability to be involved in meaningful college activity,[3][5] believing they matter,[3][5] and designing their own curriculum or programs,[7][8] among other support options. When challenges are met with appropriate support, students' developmental growth in a college environment is optimal. For example, a longitudinal study conducted by Ong, Phinney, and Dennis examined 123 Latinx college students attending an ethnically diverse urban university in southern California.[10] These Latinx students faced challenges of being low socioeconomic status (SES), psychological stress, feelings of alienation, and low rates of college retention.[11] However, these students were met with consistent parental support, family interdependence, and an affirmation of their membership in their ethnic group. The support correlated positively to an increased grade point average and greater academic achievement, resilience, and positive adaptation.[10]

Student development theories, such as Sanford's Theory of Challenge and Support, are not meant to be used alone in practice. It is important to acknowledge that multiple theories, such as Astin's Involvement Theory, Chickering's Theory of Identity Development, Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development, Rendon's Theory of Validation, Schlossberg's Theory of Mattering and Marginality, Schlossberg's Transition Theory, among others, can be cross pollinated in an individual student's situation. Often the intersection of many student development theories is what is most effective in working with postsecondary college or university student environments.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Student Development Theory, University of Texas, Dallas, last accessed on 30 June 2006
  2. ^ a b c Evans, Nancy J., Deanna S. Forney, and Florence DiBrito. Student development in college: theory, research, and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998. Print.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Patton. L. D., Renn. K. A., Guido. F. M., & Quaye S. J. (2016). Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice Third Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. pp. 12–36. ISBN 9781118821817.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Strange, C. (1994). Student development: The evolution and status of an essential idea. Journal of College Student Development, 35, 399-412
  5. ^ a b c d e Chaves, C. (2006). Involvement, development, and retention: Theoretical foundations and potential extensions for adult community college students. Community College Review, 34(2), 139-152.
  6. ^ Marx, E. (2012). Advising to promote self-authorship: exploring advising strategies and advisor characteristics among new student affairs professionals (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of San Diego, California.
  7. ^ a b Alvarez, A. N. (2002). Racial identity and Asian Americans: supports and challenges. New Directions For Student Services, (97), 33-43.
  8. ^ a b c Berg, M. V. (2009). Intervening in student learning abroad: a research-based inquiry. Intercultural Education, 20, S15-27.
  9. ^ a b Zhao, C. & Kuh, G. D. (2004). Adding value: Learning communities and student engagement. Research In Higher Education, 45(2), 115-138.
  10. ^ a b c Ong, A. D., Phinney, J. S., & Dennis, J. (2006). Competence under challenge: Exploring the protective influence of parental support and ethnic identity in Latino college students. Journal of Adolescence, 29(6), 961-979
  11. ^ Castillo, L. G., & Hill, R. D. (2004). Predictors of distress in Chicana college students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 32(4), 234-248.

Further reading[edit]

  • Astin, A. Student involvement: a developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(4), 297-308, 1984.
  • Creamer, Don G. (Ed.). Student Development in Higher Education: Theories, Practices and Future Directions. Cincinnati: ACPA, 1980.
  • Knefelkamp, Lee, Widick, Carole and Parker, Clyde (eds.). Applying New Developmental Findings. New Directions for Student Services No. 4. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1978.
  • Miller, T.K. and Winston, Jr., R.B. "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., 1991
  • Rodgers, R. F. "Student Development." In U. Delworth, G. R. Hanson, and Associates, Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.
  • Sanford, N. Self & society: social change and individual development. New York, NY: Atherton Press, 1967.
  • Strange, C. "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., 1991.
  • Strange, C. C., & Banning, J. H. (2001). Educating by design: Creating campus learning environments that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Upcraft, M. Lee and Gardner, John L. (Eds.). The Freshman Year Experience. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989. p. 41–46.
  • Upcraft, M. Lee and Moore, Leila V. "Evolving Theoretical Perspectives of Student Development." In Margaret J. Barr, M. Lee Upcraft and Associates. New Futures for Student Affairs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.
  • Rona F. Flippo, David C. Caverly, Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research, Google Print, p.28ff Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999, ISBN 0-8058-3004-9