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Student development theory refers to the body of theories related to how students gain knowledge in post-secondary education environments.


The earliest student development theory — or tradition — in Europe was in loco parentis.[1] Schools acted on behalf of parents for the good of their students and concentrated on character development which mostly meant instilling students with traditional Christian values through strict rules and enforced by rigid discipline.[1] Thus the main focus was on the development of students' character rather than on their intellect.[1]

The first changes came in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, with the increasing growth of universities and development of the social sciences like psychology.[1] By mid-twentieth century, theorists such as B.F. Skinner and Carl Rogers influenced the thinking about students and a new paradigm developed: the student services paradigm as the name indicates stated that students should be provided with services they require in order to better gain knowledge.[1]

Soon after, the student service paradigm started to be replaced by 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 vs nurture dilemma).[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 student perceives 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 is 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[2]

Overview: Schlossberg’s Transition Theory has been worked on over time and has had 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. 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 
         o Type: anticipated, unanticipated, nonevent
         o Context: relationship to transition and the setting
         o 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:
          o Situation: trigger, timing, control, role change, duration, previous experience, concurrent stress, assessment
          o Self: personal and demographic characteristics, psychological resources
          o Support: types, functions, measurement
          o Strategies: categories, coping modes

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development[3]

Overview: 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. 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.

Stage’s of Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory:

     • Level I: Preconventional
         o Stage One: Heteronomous Morality: Obeying rules so not to be punished (focus more on self than the other)
         o Stage Two: Individualistic, Instrumental Morality: Focusing on only following the rules that benefit themselves.
     • Level II: Conventional
         o Stage Three: Interpersonally Normative Morality:  The person begins to start living up to the expectations of the important people around them. (ie: friends, parents, teachers)
         o 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
         o 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.
         o 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[4]

Overview: Looking at how you learn as an individual is a huge part in your development of self according to Kolb and his model. 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): 
         o Is action oriented and at ease with people, prefers trial-and-error problem solving
         o Is good at carrying out plans, is open to new experiences, adapts easily to change
    • Diverger (RO + AC):
         o Is people- and feeling-oriented
         o Had imagination and is aware of meaning and values, is good at generating and analyzing    alternatives
    • Converger (AC + AE): 
         o Prefers technical tasks over social or interpersonal settings
         o Excels at problem solving, decision making, and practical applications
    • Assimilator (AC + RO): 
         o Emphasizes ideas rather than people
         o Is good at inductive reasoning, creating theoretical models, and integrating observations

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Student Development Theory, University of Texas, Dallas, last accessed on 30 June 2006
  2. 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. Evans, Nancy J., Deanna S. Forney, and Florence DiBrito. Student development in college: theory, research, and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998. Print.
  4. Evans, Nancy J., Deanna S. Forney, and Florence DiBrito. Student development in college: theory, research, and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998. Print.

Evans, Nancy J., Deanna S. Forney, and Florence DiBrito. Student development in college: theory, research, and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998. Print.

Further reading[]

  • 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
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