What is Student Development Theory?

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Some students come to college and struggle to fit in, or have difficulty with roommates, or aren't able to transition from dependent to independent. The application of student development theory helps students and college officials achieve success.

Let's Understand

For us to understand why some students succeed where others fail, or why some students handle roommate issues that cause others to sink in a pool of frustration and failure, we need to look at theories of student development. It is more than happenstance that some students come to college and never experience a moment of difficulty fitting in, while others struggle to find their place. Student development theory looks at how students' growth and development happens during the years they are attending college.

These theories are important for college personnel, including faculty, staff, and administrators to know so they can provide better programs that are based on student body needs and developmental stages.


There are four broad theories associated with student development theory which helps school personnel better understand and support students as they enter the university and transition through their four-year program. It is important to keep in mind that these will not apply to all students.


The psychosocial theory looks at identity. It explores how students define themselves, what they want to do with their lives, and their relationships with others.

  • Arthur Chickering and Linda Reisser - Theory of Identity Development

They suggested that there are seven vectors of development that students move through during their college years. The stages are: developing competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy towards interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing an identity.

Basically, students move through the first four vectors during their first two years and the last three during their last two years. There is a fluidity to the movement; however, so students may move faster or slower depending on the person.

Cognitive Structural

The cognitive structural theory considers how students understand their experiences. There are many values such as learning, teaching, and change that are at the core of the cognitive structural theory.

  • William Perry - Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development

Perry considered how students considered and organized information. Perry's system offers a window of understanding about first-year students' approaches to information. First-year students often find it difficult when they are presented with a world that is other than black and white. Perry shows how helping the student move from the dualistic stage to the relative stage can be helpful to the learning process.

  • Stages
    • Dualism - In this stage, the world is black and white, and teachers have all the answers. Students have a difficult time analyzing or reflecting. In their minds, school is all about giving back what the teacher told you.
    • Multiplicity - Now we are seeing students who feel that peers have legitimate knowledge. They are beginning to recognize that there are shades of gray and that teachers and parents can make mistakes.
    • Relativism - Students are aware that there is a need to support opinions. We see higher level critical thinking skills such as synthesis and evaluation. Students find that they are able to empathize.
    • Commitment to Relativism - Students develop a set of values, and they can make choices in a contextual world. Learning takes on importance.

Moral Development

In theories of moral development we are asking the question, how does a student's ability to reason will affect the way they behave?

  • Lawrence Kohlberg Stages of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg describes six stages of moral development where students develop a sense of personal responsibility for their actions and ultimately for a morally just society. In order to move from one stage to the next, the student must go through a moral conflict. The six stages are broken up into three levels:

Pre-conventional morality - In this stage, there is a wish to avoid punishment. There is usually a limited interest in others unless it benefits the child.

Conventional morality- This is a move from egocentricity to the need to conform, or in other words the desire to be a 'good little girl.' In the latter part of this stage, shades of gray are still not recognized.

Post-conventional reasoning - This is where we see ethics in full bloom. Integrity is also front and center. People are able to apply their ethical position to a set of problems.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account