Sudent Development Theory as a Foundation for Educational Practice: A Call to the Profession

Sudent Development Theory as a Foundation for Educational Practice: A Call to the Profession

The following article presents the outcomes of discussions from a student development think tank held in November 2002 in Indianapolis and funded by a grant from ACPA’s Educational Leadership Foundation. The think tank was an outgrowth of programs on student development theory held at the 2001 and 2002 ACPA National Conventions in which both presenters and participants affirmed the importance of student development theory. The think tank discussions addressed the future direction for student development theory research, theory-based practice, and related education, training, and professional development. Participants were: Dea Forney, Marylu McEwen, and Linda Reisser (the grant authors); Marcia Baxter Magolda, John Hernandez, Susan Jones, Terry Piper, Raechele Pope, Donna Talbot, and Vasti Torres (invitees). A draft of this document was presented for discussion and feedback at a program during the 2003 ACPA Convention in Minneapolis. This end product is an invitation to the profession to engage in reflection, dialogue, and action to integrate student development theory and practice for 21st century education.


We’re living in topsy-turvy times, and I think that what causes the topsy-turvy feeling is inadequacy of old forms of thought to deal with new experiences. I’ve heard it said that the only real learning results from hang-ups, where instead of expanding the branches of what you already know, you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974, pp. 163-164)

We are still living in topsy-turvy times that, perhaps more so than ever before, are demanding new ways of thinking, believing, and acting, and this is more likely to happen in the presence of multiple perspectives and diverse life experiences. The environmental contexts of today’s higher education institutions pose challenges such as declining resources, institutional values and reward systems that may be based more on student satisfaction than student learning and development, technological advances that may limit face to face relationships, ever more increasing demands on a fixed amount of faculty and staff time, and student behavioral problems that violate safe and civil learning environments (e.g., alcohol abuse, relationship violence, and hate incidents).

Student affairs educators have a responsibility to respond to such challenges. Student development theories, along with critical analysis of these theories, can serve as a powerful guide for practice as a framework for viewing, comprehending, and reflecting on today’s campus climates and as a potential design tool for action. While not the only guide for practice, student development theories represent a resource that may be even more valuable now than in the past. As always, using theory intelligently, tentatively, and empathically is recommended.

We, as think tank participants, advocate for reflective practice, an approach to one’s work that integrates thinking and doing, that resists the tendency to permit the urgent to displace the important, and that recognizes the value of informal theory, i.e., theory generated from observations of the individual practitioner’s students and context, as a guide. We argue for a shift away from a reactive, problem driven practice to a more proactive, educational role. Clearly, at times a problem focus must dominate practice. However, as an ongoing, overriding operating style, such an approach imposes limits in regard to the impact of the student affairs profession on both students and institutions. Moreover, student development theory is not at odds with the day to day reality of student affairs work nor with the need to address problems. In fact, student development theory can be used to create a more meaningful and purposeful educational experience; it is a tool for constructing meaning; it speaks to the deepest reasons for being on the planet: to actualize potential, offer gifts, and evoke the best self. Student development theory has the potential to contribute to answers to pressing questions.

It is crucial that undergraduate education be reshaped to achieve the goal of preparing learners for adult life in the 21st century United States. The expertise to accomplish this goal potentially rests to a large degree with student affairs educators because of both our deep knowledge of students and our unique role in the academy. Student affairs educators also need to reshape student affairs practice to promote development. Although the profession has for the past thirty years endorsed student development as a foundation for practice, there are some who question whether student affairs educators as a whole know the knowledge base and use it in consistent, intentional, and appropriately sophisticated and complex ways.

A 21st Century Vision of Student Development Theory

We, as think tank participants, advocate a more integrated, less fragmented approach to theory development and use. We advocate both evolution and revolution. Evolution of theory, for example, encourages theory changes as populations change. Revolution, on the other hand, suggests the creation of new “interdisciplinary” theories (e.g., a more effective linking of cognitive and psychosocial theories) and additional focus on the multidimensionality of students. In the best of all worlds, we, as a profession, collectively share the role of educator, with different emphases characterizing our specific jobs. We recommend continuing to move toward this ideal role and to share collectively, regardless of job title, the responsibility for building the desired future of theory development and use. In the past, Knefelkamp (1980) has argued for a common language across higher education institutions. What may be more useful today and tomorrow is an ability for student affairs educators to be multilingual, i.e., to be able to acquire and understand multiple languages, lenses, and perspectives, to adapt one’s language to different audiences such as faculty, administrators, and students, to bridge communication gaps in order to provide leadership in reshaping undergraduate education so that the developmental transformations necessary to achieve many of the goals of higher education (e.g., learning, citizenship, ethical behavior, intercultural maturity) happen.

As student affairs educators, we may want to pay particular attention to identifying, promoting, and asserting our unique expertise throughout higher education. Our expertise in student development and its relationship to student learning have virtually untapped potential to transform higher education. By more thoroughly educating our academic colleagues about our unique knowledge base, we may be better able to advocate for students, engage faculty in meaningful exchanges, and more fully transform the academy. It may be helpful at times to substitute “personal transformation” for “student development” and to acknowledge that everyone in the higher education setting has the potential to influence positively the transformation process. Collaborative efforts among faculty, student affairs educators, and students are required to address the complexities and multiple dimensions of these transformations.

We need to re-center student development in the profession. We need to regard facilitating student development as a process of being rather than only a process of doing. We need to integrate theory into ourselves, rather than seeing it only as a tool in a toolbox, so that it becomes a part of who we are. We need to resist the urge for a quick fix and embrace student development as a process that requires deliberate thought and action and care. We need to re-conceptualize theory as being about meaning making and relationships, not just as a vehicle to foster movement toward a particular outcome. In other words, knowledge and use of theory can help student affairs educators develop more effective relationships with students and create environments and opportunities to assist students with their meaning making. Our profession has been prone to trying to create a formula that will work versus cultivating a way of thinking that would give rise to particular actions in particular contexts. We need to encourage student affairs educators to stretch intellectually and to understand and use theories in their complexity instead of providing overly simplistic recipes or one-shot interventions that look good on paper but have few, if any, long-term solutions for complex problems.

We need to remember that theory evolved out of practice and that theory-based practice requires reflection. In turn, reflective practice includes ascribing to the values and beliefs described in the next section; viewing development as a process, not just a targeted activity; focusing on meaning and purpose; and becoming multilingual.

We, as a profession, have the potential to integrate the roles of theorist, practitioner, and educator, but we probably cannot play all of these roles equally well as individual professionals, nor are we likely to be given the time or support from our institutions to try to do so. We, as think tank participants, do believe, however, that it is viable and desirable to strive for the role of intentional educator. This role requires: knowledge of theory; the ability to reflect upon, critique, and challenge self and context; the ability to ground practice in knowledge; and the ability to identify appropriate educational outcomes.

Core Beliefs/Values

The position we advance emerges from a set of core beliefs and values. At the outset, it is important to recognize that the application of student development theory to practice revolves around a nexus of socially constructed theories and individuals’ interactions with them. Perhaps our existing theory base is not only about description of students, but because of the relationship of environments to people within most of the theories, the base is also about description of our educational institutions and how students have responded to them.

An underlying assumption of student development is that the promotion of intentional practice depends on engaging with the following core values:

  • an in-depth understanding and critical analysis of the student development theory knowledge base;
  • an ability to use the existing knowledge base to guide construction of new theory to address contemporary particulars;
  • an in-depth understanding of self in relation to one’s environment;
  • an ability to ground our work in knowledge of self and theory through reflective practice.

Student development theory is important because of its contributions to understanding self and others, meaning making, the core values of the profession, and credibility for the profession. Student development theory can help in the following ways:

  • by serving as a way of understanding, informing, critiquing, and assessing practice;
  • by serving as a design tool to create safe and civil learning environments;
  • by contributing to the development of educational relationships among all members of the campus community that can serve as contexts for transformation.

Engagement with these core values generates the development of certain competencies and promotes intentional practice. Appropriate use of student development theory is not a luxury. Instead it is an essential component of intentional practice.

Principles Underlying Education, Training, and Professional Development

Student personnel workers should not so much be expert technicians as they should be educators in a somewhat unconventional and new sense.

Esther Lloyd Jones & Margaret R. Smith, Student Personnel Work as Deeper Teaching (1954, p. 12)

The ability to use student development theory depends upon a student affairs educator’s depth and breadth of knowledge of theory and how this knowledge is integrated into the core of one’s professional thoughts and behaviors. Knowledge about theories is necessary but not sufficient for effective application.

Education, training, and professional development of student affairs educators is most effective when grounded in theoretical perspectives. Graduate education and professional training and development ought to help practitioners think about and respond to the question, “What guides my practice?”.

It is important to consider the context in which theories were developed. Theories describing intellectual, moral, ego, and psychosocial development and development of social identities have served us well. We need to be well versed in these theories as well as expand our theory base. Continual creation of theory in contemporary contexts is critical.

As a profession, we need to help educators (including graduate students, student affairs educators, and faculty) develop the skills to critique and implement theory and the habit of doing so. We also need to expand the base of those who are knowledgeable about how to construct and critique theory. All student affairs educators, not just selected faculty and practitioners, have the responsibility to be knowledgeable about student development theory and how to construct and critique theory.

In order to successfully apply theory to practice, educators must have a clear sense of expected outcomes. Numerous national reports and particular institutional missions guide us in identifying the desired learning outcomes of college and the characteristics of a college-educated person. Educators must balance these desired outcomes with knowledge about where theory presumes students might be headed and student-constructed desired outcomes (e.g., recognize developmental issues and patterns as well as individual differences).

Recommended Actions

Student development theory has the potential to aid in creating optimal environments, interventions, and opportunities. To this end, we, as think tank participants, offer the following recommendations. Although we recognize that theory development, practice, and education are not discrete variables, we offer recommendations in these categories as a way to begin the process of moving forward toward a more integrated view and a more integrated role for those who engage in student affairs work. To support all three aspects, we recommend the creation of a student development clearinghouse.

Theory Development

We recommend:

  • identifying, reviewing, and critiquing what constitutes the current knowledge base;
  • a shared responsibility in the profession for improving our theory base by engaging in research needed to enhance and expand our theory base;
  • comprehensive, multi-dimensional, multi-campus, multi-method longitudinal studies that address both enduring characteristics and relevant particulars in order to produce a holistic vision;
  • a community of scholars approach, with involvement of faculty, students, and practitioners;
  • changing the culture in regard to the dichotomy between theory and practice;
  • bridging the gap between practitioners and researchers/theorists by reinforcing the idea that practitioners and students can also be researchers and construct theory;
  • hearing students’ voices directly, for example, by listening to and carefully studying student narratives to capture the complexities, richness, and variation in students’ developmental journeys;
  • a collaborative approach to conceptualization, implementation, and interpretation.

Theory-based Practice

We recommend:

  • thinking of using theory as the foundation from which one’s practice emerges rather than thinking of theory as something done after or in addition to one’s day to day practice;
  • showcasing examples of effective theory-based practice, including providing a forum for sharing via publications, presentations, and other formats and reducing the bureaucracy involved;
  • developing an essential reading list, updating it periodically, and maintaining it on a website;
  • having a theory-based practice track at national conferences and creating other conference-like vehicles such as traveling workshops and summer institutes;
  • generating conversations among preparation program faculty, administrators, graduate students, and new professionals about theory-based practice;
  • incorporating standards of theory-based practice into job performance evaluations; research on theory-based practice;
  • finding effective means to utilize theory to address pressing campus issues.

Education, Training, and Professional Development

We recommend:

  • that faculty in graduate education programs be well versed in traditional and emerging theoretical perspectives;
  • that faculty nurture theory development by both themselves and their students by emphasizing both theory content and approaches to theory construction;
  • that faculty serve as role models for students in regard to theory use and construction;
  • re-conceptualizing the professional role from that of “practitioner” to that of “educator”;
  • ongoing professional development opportunities that emphasize increasing self-knowledge and knowledge of students;
  • innovative methods and diverse delivery systems for education, training, and professional development (e. g., e-learning, training tapes, conferences, one time and longer term seminars) to reach as many individuals as possible and to meet the needs of those with varying degrees of prior education and experience;
  • that graduate preparation programs, with the cooperation of supervising practitioners, provide multiple opportunities for intentionally designed structured activity focusing on application of theory to practice and for developing the skills necessary for ongoing reflection.
An Invitation to Dialogue

This document’s aim is to encourage reflection and discussion about student development in the 21st century. To that end, we pose the following questions for both individual and group consideration:

  • To what extent is theory evidenced in our practice?
  • To what extent does our practice influence future theory development?
  • How do we reinforce theory use by practitioners?
  • Have we underestimated the role of context?
  • How can we balance the complexity of theory with the need for the “sound-bite” sized conceptual lenses for busy institutional leaders?
  • Has “putting out brush fires” replaced professional practice?
  • Do we teach theory as an answer versus a process? Do we view theory as a resource to help students make meaning of their own journeys?
  • Do we, as faculty and supervisors, ask our graduate students to be reflective in their practice?
  • Is theory use being masked in a different language, making it more difficult to identify and label?
  • What kind of evidence do we expect to see to know that theory in use is working? What are the expectations for validating theory use in practice, and how will we know when the expectations are achieved?
  • Although there has been an evolution of theory over the past 30 years, has the evolution been commensurate with the changing demographics of students in higher education? Further, has there been an evolution of practice?
  • Can we/do we wish, as a profession, to change the culture of the field?
  • Do we want to infuse student development theory in the student affairs profession? If so, how do we accomplish this infusion?

We invite and encourage student affairs professionals to engage in this dialogue about re-centering student development theory within student affairs. Re-centering student development theory involves embracing this body of knowledge as a way of being in our work. Re-centering student development theory also means engaging in reflective practice and using the knowledge to create more meaningful and purposeful educational experiences for students.

Student development theory became a cornerstone for the student affairs profession in the 1970s and 1980s. It is now time for student affairs professionals to renew our emphasis upon student development theory through theory-based practice, theory development, and education, training, and professional development.

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