Student Development Theories OVERVIEW
A.W. Astin (Student Involvement Theory, 1984)
Alexander Astin's theory of Student Involvement explains how desirable outcomes for
institutions of higher education are viewed in relation to how students change and develop as a
result of being involved co-curricularly. The core concepts of the theory are composed of three
elements. The first, a student's "inputs" such as their demographics, their background, and any
previous experiences. The second is the student's "environment", which accounts for all of the
experiences a student would have during college. Lastly, there are "outcomes" which cover a
student's characteristics, knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and values that exist after a student has
graduated college.
Astin also created five basic assumptions about involvement. He argued that:
1. Involvement requires an investment of psychosocial and physical energy.
2. Involvement is continuous, and that the amount of energy invested varies from student
to student.
3. Aspects of involvement may be qualitative and quantitative.
4. What a student gains from being involved (or their development) is directly proportional
to the extent to which they were involved (in both aspects of quality and quantity).
5. Academic performance is correlated with the student involvement.
B. Magolda (Theory of Self Authorship, 2004)
Baxter Magolda defines self-authorship as “the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity,
and social relations” and answers the three following questions: How do I know? Who Am
I? How do I want to construct relationships with others?
Four phases towards self-authorship:
 Phase 1: Following Formulas—allowing others to define who you are, “young adults
follow the plans laid out for them” while assuring themselves they created these plans
themselves (p.185)
 Phase 2: Crossroads—The plans a student has been following do not necessarily fit
anymore, and new plans need to be established. Students are dissatisfied with self. As
student development professionals, we should be extremely adept at seeing this stage
and know how to guide our students to a life of purpose when they are at the
 Phase 3: Becoming the Author of One’s Life—creating the ability to choose own beliefs
and stand up for them (especially when facing conflict or opposing views)
 Phase 4: Internal Foundation—“grounded in their self-determined belief system, in their
sense of who they are, and the mutuality of their relationships” (p. 186)
 In order to develop a strong internal foundation, students need to trust the internal
voice and build an internal foundation.
W.G.Perry (Theory of Moral Reasoning, 1981)
William Perry’s theory is based on his studies of the cognitive and ethical development
in undergraduate students. He believes that college students go through four stages of mental
and moral development: dualism, multiplicity, relativism, and commitment. Perry's theory is
especially useful because he details not only specific stages but how people arrive and change to
get to each stage.
 Stage 1 (typically discussed relative to the very young) Dualism: the belief that every
problem is solvable, that students are to learn the right answers, and that one must
obey authorities.
 Stage 2 Multiplicity: there are two types of problems -- solvable, and ones for which that
the answer yet unknown. Also, in this stage students put trust in their own inner voice.
 Stage 3 Relativism: all solutions to problems must have reasons, and be viewed within a
specific context. The basis for this stage is that every issue must be evaluated because
everything is contextual.
 Stage 4 Commitment: an acceptance of uncertainty as part of life. During this stage,
students use the combination of personal experience and evidence learned from
outside sources to arrive at conclusions.
These four stages are then further divided into nine positions.
V. Tinto (Model of Student Departure, 1993)
Vincent Tinto (1993) identifies three major sources of student departure: academic difficulties,
the inability of individuals to resolve their educational and occupational goals, and their failure
to become or remain incorporated in the intellectual and social life of the institution. Tinto's
"Model of Institutional Departure" states that, to persist, students need integration into formal
(academic performance) and informal (faculty/staff interactions) academic systems and formal
(extracurricular activities) and informal (peer-group interactions) social systems.
S.R. Komives (Social Change Model of Leadership Development, 2009)
The Social Change Model (SCM)of Leadership Development particularly appeals to
undergraduate students because it’s an approach to leadership development that views
leadership as a purposeful, collaborative, values-based process that uses multiple perspectives
to enact positive social change. The SCM, emphasizes a nonhierarchical approach to leadership.
“Key assumptions” upon which the model is based include:
 Leadership is collaborative. Effective leadership is based on, collective action, shared
power, and a passionate commitment “to social justice.”
 Leadership is the process a group experiences as it works collaboratively toward a
goal. It is not the acts of an individual with authority.
 Leadership is based on values. To have the trust necessary for collective action, students
and groups must be clear about their values and consistent with their actions.
 All students can do leadership. Leadership development is not reserved for students
holding leadership positions, but is for any student wanting to engage with others to
create change.
 Leadership is about change. Effective leadership involves being able to accomplish
positive change for others and for the community.
U. Bronfenbrenner (Developmental Ecology Model, 1993)
In his original theory, Bronfenbrenner postulated that, in order to understand human
development, the entire ecological system in which growth occurs needs to be taken into
account. This system is composed of five socially organized subsystems that support and guide
human development. Each system depends on the contextual nature of the person's life and
offers an ever-growing diversity of options and sources of growth. Furthermore, within and
between each system are bi-directional influences. These bi-directional influences imply that
relationships have impact in two directions, both away from the individual and towards the
individual. Because we potentially have access to these subsystems we are able to have more
social knowledge, an increased set of possibilities for learning problem solving, and access to
new dimensions of self-exploration.
Microsystem: The microsystem is the layer closest to the child and contains the
structures with which the child has direct contact. The microsystem encompasses the
relationships and interactions a child has with his or her immediate surroundings such
as family, school, neighborhood, or childcare environments. This core environment
stands as the child's venue for initially learning, and offering a reference point, about
the world.
Mesosystem: Mesosystems connect two or more systems in which child, parent and
family live. Mesosystems provide the connection between the structures of the child's
microsystem. For example, the connection between the child's teacher and his parents,
between his church and his neighborhood, each represent mesosystems.
Exosystem: The exosystem defines the larger social system in which the child does not
directly function. The structures in this layer impact the child's development by
interacting with some structure in his/her microsystem. Parent workplace schedules or
community-based family resources are examples. The child may not be directly involved
at this level, but he does feel the positive or negative force involved with the interaction
with his own system. The main exosystems that indirectly influence youth through their
family include: school and peers, parents' workplace, family social networks and
neighborhood community contexts, local politics and industry.
Macrosystem: The macrosystem is composed of cultural values, customs and laws. It
refers to the overall patterns of ideology and organization that characterize a given
society or social group. Macrosystems can be used to describe the cultural or social
context of various societal groups such as social classes, ethnic groups, or religious
affiliates. This layer is the outermost layer in the child's environment. The effects of
larger principles defined by the macrosystem have a cascading influence throughout the
interactions of all other layers.
Chronosystem: The chronosystem encompasses the dimension of time as it relates to a
child's environment. Elements within this system can be either external, such as the
timing of a parent's death, or internal, such as the physiological changes that occur with
the aging of a child. Historical influences in the macrosystem can have a powerful
influence on how families respond to different stressors. Bronfenbrenner suggests that,
in many cases, families respond to different stressors within the societal parameters
existent in their lives.