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Theories and Models of Student Change in College

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Psychosocial theories of development fall into two categories. The first group, which deals with overall development, has been dominated by Arthur Chickering's seven vectors model since it first appeared (Chickering, 1969). The second cluster of psychosocial theories deals specifically with identity formation overall or with specific aspects of identity, such as those relating to gender, race-ethnicity, or sexual orientation.


The posting below is a brief review of two major psycosocial theories (Erikson and Chickering) and their implications for college student development.. It is from Chapter 2, Theories and Models of Student Change in College, in How College Affects Students,Volume 2, A Third Decade of Research by Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 89 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [] Copyright ? 2005 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Theories and Models of Student Change in College

Psychosocial Theories


Psychosocial theories view individual development as the accomplishment of a series of "developmental tasks." Partly through growing older and partly through sociocultural or environmental influences, individuals over their life span face several developmental challenges. The nature of the challenge varies with age and developmental status. Although these developmental tasks tend to be presented in a sequence heavily influenced by age-related biological, psychological, or sociocultural influences, the individual may not resolve these challenges in the order they are encountered, and the pattern may vary by gender and culture. In addition, most psychosocial theories assert that the individual's success in resolving each task can significantly affect the resolution of succeeding tasks and, consequently, the rate and extent of psychosocial development (Rodgers, 1989).

Psychosocial theories of development fall into two categories. The first group, which deals with overall development, has been dominated by Arthur Chickering's seven vectors model since it first appeared (Chickering, 1969). The second cluster of psychosocial theories deals specifically with identity formation overall or with specific aspects of identity, such as those relating to gender, race-ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

The psychosocial theory literature builds to a large extent on the work of Erik Erikson (1959, 1963, 1968), whom Chickering and Reisser (1993) refer to as "the progenitor of the psychosocial models" (p. 21). Three elements are apparent in Erikson's work and that of others who followed in his footsteps. The first is the epigenetic principle, which states that "anything that grows has a ground plan, and that out of this ground plan the parts arise, each part having its time of special ascendancy, until all parts have arisen to form a functioning whole" (Erikson, 1968, p. 92). The principle implies not only sequential, age-related, biological and psychological development but also the view that the individual's environment shapes the particular character and extent of development in important ways. Second, according to Erikson, development occurs through a series of crises, when biological and psychological changes interact with socio-cultural demands to present a distinctive challenge or threat characteristic of a given stage. For Erikson, a crisis does not mean a physical or psychological emergency, but rather a time for decision requiring significant choices among alternative courses of action. The result is developmental progression, regression, or stasis. Embedded in this conception is the view that developmental change involves stimulus (or challenge) and response, with development (or the lack thereof) determined by the nature of the response (see Sanford, 1967). Third, Erikson considered the identity versus identity confusion crisis (Stage 5) as the dominant developmental task for people of traditional college age. As discussed in the following paragraphs, identity development is a prominent issue in the most psychosocial theories of change among college students.

Chickering's Seven Vectors of Student Development. Probably no psychosocial theorist has had more influence on the research on college student development or administrative efforts to promote it than Arthur Chickering (1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993). Recognizing the absence of any systematic framework for integrating or synthesizing the abundant empirical evidence on college students (almost exclusively traditional age and enrolled at four-year institutions) and based on his review of that literature, Chickering (1969) identified seven vectors of development, each of which has several subcomponents. He labeled his seven dimensions vectors "because each seems to have direction and magnitude-even though the direction may be expressed more appropriately by a spiral or by steps than a straight line" (p. 8). Identity development occupies a central place in Chickering's theory, and his seven vectors both give greater specificity to this central construct and describe the developmental dynamics that lead to and follow from it. For Chickering, development involves differentiation and integration as students encounter increasing complexity in ideas, values, and other people and struggle to reconcile these new positions with their own ideas, values, and beliefs.

Chickering and Linda Reisser (1993) subsequently revised and reordered the vectors and their specifications in light of the substantial volume of research completed since the model appeared in 1969. The revised model is presumed to apply to college students of all ages, and Chickering and Reisser "tried to use language that is gender free and appropriate for persons of diverse backgrounds" (p. 44). The rate of movement along any of the vectors may be simultaneous with change on another. Progress "from 'lower' to 'higher' brings more awareness, skill, confidence, complexity, stability, and integration" (p. 34), but moving backward and retracing steps are possible. The vectors are "major highways for journeying toward individuation-the discovery and refinement of one's unique way of being-and also toward communion with other individuals and groups, including the larger national and global society" (p. 35).

The seven vectors are as follows:

1. Achieving competence. According to Chickering, the college years lead to increased competence in intellectual areas, physical and manual skills, and interpersonal relations with both individuals and groups. Increases in intellectual competence are particularly important and involve knowledge acquisition; increased intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural sophistication; and development of higher-order cognitive skills. Increased intellectual competence enables development along other vectors inasmuch as it entails the symbolic expressions of "the events and objects of our experience" (Chickering & Reisser, 1993, p. 62).

2. Managing emotions. Students of any age must recognize and wrestle with emotions that can interfere with the educational process, including "anger, fear and anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and dysfunctional sexual or romantic attraction (Reisser, 1995). Development occurs when students learn to control impulses and to develop appropriate responses (both immediate and long-term) for handling intense, potentially disruptive, emotions. Not all emotions are negative, however, and movement along this vector includes increased capacity to experience feelings such as wonder, sympathy, relief, caring, and optimism. Growth comes with learning to balance tendencies to assertiveness with tendencies toward participation.

3. Moving through autonomy toward interdependence. The redefinition of this vector, originally labeled "developing autonomy," retains the importance initially ascribed to developing independence and also attributes more developmental prominence to gains in interdependence, a component less prominent in the original statement of the vector. Development involves increased emotional freedom from the need for reassurance and the approval of others as well as greater instrumental independence, the self-sufficiency evident in individuals' ability to organize their own affairs, solve problems, and make decision. Movement on this vector may take different gender-related forms but is generally toward interpersonal relations that rest on equality and reciprocity and that occur in a broader theater involving community and society. Balance emerges between the need to be independent and the need to belong.

4. Developing mature interpersonal relationships. Conceived originally as the fifth vector and as an outcome that follows establishment of identity, this vector's updated placement and definition reflect the view that students' interactions with peers provide powerful learning experiences and help shape the emerging sense of self. Maturing interpersonal relationships reflect an increasing awareness of and openness to differences in ideas, people, backgrounds, and values. "At its heart is the ability to respond to people in their own right" (Chickering & Reisser, 1993, p. 48), respecting differences. Movement along this vector also entails an increased capacity for healthy intimacy and commitment, for relationships that are increasingly independent and founded on mutual interdependence. The vector involves the complex interplay "between autonomy, interdependence, and intimacy" (Reisser, 1995, p. 508).

5. Establishing identity. The vector, shaped by movement on the previous vectors and influencing progress on subsequent ones, is pivotal. It retains some of the original vector's elements relating to conceptions of physical characteristics and personal appearance, but extends beyond them to a broader age range and to comfort with self-conceptions relating to gender and sexual orientation. Identity formation also involves a developing sense of self in a context shaped by historical events and social and cultural conditions and by issues emanating from family and ethnic heritage. Self-esteem and stability grow. "A solid sense of self emerges, and it becomes more apparent that there is an I who coordinates the facets of personality, who 'owns' the house of self and is comfortable in all of its rooms" (Chickering & Reisser, 1993, p. 49).

6. Developing purpose. According to Chickering and Reisser, expanding competencies, developing interpersonal relationships, and clarifying identity require some sense of direction and purpose. Development along the sixth vector occurs as an individual answers not only the question "Who am I?" but also "Who am I going to be?" and not just "Where am I?" but "Where am I going?" Growth requires increasing intentionality-developing plans that integrate priorities in vocational goals and aspirations, interpersonal interests, and family. The emerging identity and values help guide decision making.

7. Developing integrity. Growth along the seventh vector involves clarification and rebalancing of personal values and beliefs. An absolutistic reliance on rules yields to a relativistic consideration of rules and the purposes they are intended to serve as well as recognition of the interests and values of others. Values previously taken on authority are reviewed, and those found consistent with the emerging identity are retained, personalized, and internalized. Finally, the emerging values and identity find expression in ways that are internally and consistent and manifest themselves in socially responsible behavior. Evans, Forney, and Guido-DiBrito (1998) discuss the model's assessment techniques; its validity for women, students of color, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual students; and its educational programming applications.

In both the original and revised models, Chickering tries to bring knowledge and practice closer together. To do so, he and Reisser (1993) identify seven (six in the original) primary areas where they believe colleges and universities can encourage student development along each of the seven vectors. There areas of influence are (1) clarity of institutional objectives and the internal consistency of policies, practices, and activities; (2) an institutional size that does not restrict opportunities for participation; (3) frequent student-faculty relationships in diverse settings; (4) curricula oriented to integration in both content and processes; (5) teaching that is flexible, varied in instructional styles and modes, and aimed at encouraging active student involvement in learning; (6) friendships and student communities that become meaningful subcultures marked by diversity in attitudes and backgrounds and by significant interpersonal exchanges; and (7) student development programs and services characterized by their educational content and purpose and offered collaboratively with faculty.

Chickering and Reisser (1993) also suggest that educationally powerful environments reflect several "principles" or characteristics: (1) a view of education as systematic, comprising interrelated parts; (2) a willingness to re-evaluate existing assumptions; (3) the integration of work and learning; (4) recognition and respect for individual differences; and (5) an understanding of learning and development as "cycles of challenge and response, differentiation and integration, disequilibrium and regained equilibrium" (p. 280).