Theory is a tool to help make complex situations more easily understood. Theory provides a framework and guidance in supporting students. Using theory, it may be easier to design programs and lessons, and advise and supervise students. We’ve studied many theories in AHE 552, Student Development Theory I and II, and I’ve come across others in my own reading and in other classes related to specific disciplines within education, such as advising or teaching. The authors of the theories come from many different disciplines, including cognitive psychology, counseling, sociology, cultural studies, and communication, in addition to education. This interdisciplinary aspect of student development theory means that established and new theories can emerge from almost anywhere in the social sciences and humanities. For instance, with my background in literary theory coming from my degree in Creative Writing, I saw correlations between student development theories and several theories I was already familiar with and even saw crossover with Judith Butler’s (1990) theory of gender performance.

There are too many theories of student development to discuss them all here. So, I will simply focus on several that resonated particularly with me. These are the theories I will most readily use in my day-to-day work because, after studying them, they stuck with me, and they made sense to me in a way that simplified my interactions with students. Although I know the foundational theories of the discipline, Chickering’s (1969) vectors or Perry’s (1970) stages, I did not immediately connect with these theories. They often seemed too rigid, too universal, discounting diversity and difference. The theories that I use take difference into consideration within their structure: Josselson’s (1996) theory of identity development; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s (1997) theory of women’s ways of knowing; Krumboltz’s (2009) theory of planned happenstance in career development; and Astin’s (1984) theory of student involvement.

Josselson (1996) developed a theory for women’s identity development, based on Marcia’s (1966) four ego-identity statuses, that places women into four identity categories. In individuals, these categories can shift through time or remain static throughout the life span. There is no set trajectory for the categories, meaning all people don’t start at one end and move through to another end. People who identify in one category as college students may move into other categories in college and throughout adulthood. Although Josselson (1996) studied only women, I apply this theory to all students. Research should be done to show validity for men, but the concepts of identity development in Josselson’s (1996) theory can be applied universally as one of many tools. The four categories of identity that Josselson named in her theory were Guardians, Pathmakers, Searchers, and Drifters. Each category was defined by the level of committment to the identity and the experience of crisis, very similar to Marcia’s (1966) formulation. However, the titles Josselson (1996) used help me to readily understand  the differences between the four categories. Guardians have not experienced a crisis of identity, yet are committed to the identity instilled in them by family and childhood. They are the guardians of their family lines. Pathmakers experienced an identity crisis, explored other options, and then committed to a new identity, separate from their family. These subjects forged a path to a settled identity distinct from their childhood and family. Searchers were in active and continual identity crisis. These subjects were truly searching for a committed identity but had not yet found it. Finally, Drifters were classified as having neither crisis nor commitment. Simply drifting from moment to moment, there were not looking for or committed to being any particular person. They were unpredictable and avoided making decisions. These four categories can help me in working with students, in that I may be able to see how they fit into a particular category and help them move toward identity commitment if they are not already Guardians or Pathmakers. These two categories are more stable and the potential for success is higher with higher identity commitment. I wrote about Josselson’s (1996) theory in relation to my own development in a paper for AHE 552, Student Development Theory I. Because of the very personal nature of this text, I ask that, if you are interested in reading it, please email me directly for a copy. I also wrote about Josselson’s (1996) theory in a paper for AHE 552, Student Development Theory II, on the likelihood of women to report sexual assault based on their development, which can be found here, Sexual Assault on Campus.

I have written quite a lot about Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s (1997) women’s ways of knowing in several different classes. It is one of the theories that I most connect with in my understanding of how students grow cognitively as knowers. Based on Perry’s (1970) stages of cognitive-structural development, it distinguishes itself from Perry (1970) by looking at a wider diversity of people as research subjects. Where Perry’s (1970) research subjects were white males from an elite institution, Belenky et al.’s (1997) subjects were women in elite colleges but also in various other locations, including inner city community colleges and “invisible colleges”, which were social service agencies for women in poverty. They identified five perspectives from which women know and view the world. Silenced was a perspective from which women viewed themselves as incapable of knowing. Received knowing included women who relied on external authorities for knowledge. Women in the subjective knowing perspective depended exclusively on the self for knowledge and understanding. Women in the procedural knowing perspective were broken into two types of knowers. The separate knowing perspective created and understood knowledge through critique of others. The connected knowing perspective came to know through empathy and connecting with others. Both categories used procedure and process to understand the self as knower. The final perspective, constructed knowing, was able to use different procedures and self-knowledge in different contexts and was comfortable with ambiguity and a lack of absolutes. In application, I again feel I can apply this theory to all students, even though the research was performed only on women, because the theory helps me to understand stages of cognitive development. For more specifics on the ways in which I use this theory in my work with students, this paper on a Feminist Philosophy of Teaching, which I wrote for WS 535, Feminist Teaching and Learning, goes into depth on Belenky et al.’s (1997) application.

Useful in a more practical way, both Krumboltz (2009) and Astin (1984) provide concrete actions that educators can take to aid in successful student development. After studying the reasons why students drop out of college, Astin (1984) determined that increased involvement was the most salient predictor of student success and accelerated development. He defined involvement as “the investment of physical and psychological energy” (1984, p. 298). Therefore, according to Astin (1984), student affairs and higher education should produce programming and services that increase student involvement, whether these be increased time involved in studying, joining a student organization, doing an internship, or participating in an intramural sport. Krumboltz (2009) came to similar conclusions from a different perspective. As a career counseling researcher at Stanford, Krumboltz (2009) developed the Happenstance Learning Theory, also call planned happenstance. He theorized that, “human behavior is the product of countless numbers of learning experiences made available by both planned and unplanned situations” (2009, p. 135). Based on this theory, he encouraged career counselors and advisors to teach the importance of engaging in various opportunities and activities, to encourage students to try new things and engage in unfamiliar situations, in order to actively learn through experience what career might suit them best. This theory implies that, as a career or academic advisor, I should be encouraging my students to explore and challenge themselves by trying new things, explaining that only by doing will they truly know what career path is right for them.

I have written here about only four theories, but these four do help guide my practice, along with many others and in connection with each other. I will always return to theory throughout my career as a way to help me understand complex challenges. The models I use, however, are only models, and I still need to listen and engage actively with each student I serve to understand how I can best support the unique individual.