Student Development

This resource was developed in collaboration with Student Affairs partners Franzi Gibbs, Assistant Director, Advising & Programming, Dartmouth Center for Professional Development and Todd Gibbs, Assistant Director for Health Improvement, Dartmouth Student Wellness Center.

Student Development

Rodgers (1990) defines student development as “the ways that a student grows, progresses, or increases his or her developmental capabilities as a result of enrollment in an institution of higher education.” Student development theory aims to take into account the “cultural nature of learning, including the social, emotional, motivational, cognitive, developmental, biological, and temporal contexts in which learning occurs,” in order to support the “well-rounded development of the whole person” (National Academies of Science, 2018; Walker, 2008). 

While student development theory seeks to attend to the needs of diverse students in the learning setting, student development occurs in the historically and predominantly white, male, Christian, able-bodied, and upper class context of higher education. Understanding the impacts of privilege and oppression within the higher education system, and on students who hold identities traditionally marginalized in the academy, is critical to the study of student development (Hurtado and Ruiz Alvarado, 2015).


How students learn in a given moment, term, course, or degree experience is inextricably tied to the developmental, environmental, and individual contexts in which that learning occurs for each student. In your teaching, an understanding of how students develop, and which factors influence that development, may help with:

  • Understanding student behavior and interactions
  • Setting developmentally appropriate expectations
  • Providing appropriate levels of challenge and support
  • Designing learning experiences relevant to developmental stages and norms
  • Making informed decisions about course content and teaching strategies
  • Creating inclusive learning environments for the developmental, cultural, contextual, and historical diversity of learners
  • Increasing the likelihood for student engagement
  • Supporting students in navigating their developmental journeys

Key Concepts

Students of traditional college age experience phases of great instability and regularly make critical decisions about identity, school, work, relationships, and other aspects of life (Arnett, 2000). 

Students develop greater cognitive complexity in college (Perry, 1968). While capable of abstract thinking, students evolve on a continuum from reliance on personal biases and the opinions of authorities to greater self-regulation and independent thought (Kegan, 1994).

Students develop in ethical and moral complexity in college, evolving from simple to more complex ways of interpreting the world (Kohlberg, 1969, 1976; Perry, 1968).

Students develop their self-concepts and social identities during college through the processes of differentiation from others and integration of self (Heath, D. 1968; Sanford, 1962).

Social dimensions of identity play a central role in student development and self-definition during college. Concepts of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, religion, ability, geography, and other aspects of identity interact in complex ways, are socially constructed, and are unique for each individual. These intersecting identities are situated within larger societal structures of privilege and oppression that affect individuals in different ways (Jones and Abes, 2013; Evans, 1998; Newcomb & Wilson, 1966; Banning, 1978).

Men and women exhibit different developmental patterns in college, particularly in regard to “ways of knowing” and perceptions of peers and authority figures as sources of information (Belenky, 1997; Magolda, 1992).

Contextual factors including peers, norms, family, stereotypes, campus climate, and sociopolitical conditions, among others, influence development (Evans, 1998; Newcomb & Wilson, 1966; Banning, 1978).

Individuals cannot exhibit certain behaviors until they are developmentally ready to do so (Sanford, 1967).

Individual differences in personality, interests, and styles influence development and play a role in how individuals respond to stimuli, support, and challenge. (Jung 1971; Myers 1980; Holland, 1973; Kolb, 1984).

Both a sense of marginality, or not fitting in, and the belief that one matters to someone else influence students’ development and learning (Schlossberg 1989a).

Implications for Teaching

Support students’ growth by challenging the beliefs that characterize their current development levels, particularly about the nature of knowledge, the role of authorities, and the procedures that should be used to make judgments. The level of challenge should be tempered so as to not paralyze students, and should be paired with appropriate support (Felder, 2004).

Spur students’ transition away from reliance on peers and authority figures and toward self-authorship and independent thought by providing validating feedback about students’ potential, situating learning in the learner’s own experience, and defining learning as mutually constructed. (Magolda 2001; Magolda and King, 2004). 

Provide a variety and choice of learning tasks to ensure a learning experience is accessible and provides reasonable challenge to learners across the spectrum of intellectual development. Consider varying problem types, levels and structure of assignments, types of assignments and assessments, and grading policies (Felder, 2004 Part 2).

Communicate learning objectives and explain expectations clearly, and be explicit about the purpose of those objectives and expectations to help students see the relevance to their learning and promote a sense of student belonging (Felder, 2004 Part 2; Freeman et. al, 2007).

Model for students effective ways of using the skills and knowledge that you want them to learn. Demonstrate required methods and provide examples of high-quality work to more clearly delineate your expectations for students (Felder, 2004 Part 2).

Provide opportunities for students to practice using the skills and knowledge they are developing in your class, and pair this practice with constructive feedback (Felder, 2004 Part 2).

Encourage self-reliance in students by requiring students to take an active role in their own learning and to learn from one another. Anticipate developmentally-appropriate resistance to this requirement, and shift your teaching strategies away from simple information delivery, testing, and grading and toward facilitation, guidance, and coaching. Offset resistance by sharing with students the purpose and rationale for these instructional decisions (Felder, 2004 Part 2).

Foster a supportive classroom environment and inclusive culture by attending to the full spectrum of students’ diverse identities. Build rapport by learning student names, giving students a voice in establishing course policies and norms, soliciting recommendations for change, responding to feedback, and seeking ways to connect outside the formal class structure. (Felder, 2004 Part 2).

Help students feel heard and understood by making efforts to fully ascertain and respectfully acknowledge students’ positions, and avoid overtly defensive, inquisitional, or purely logical responses to those positions when they are flawed or developmentally immature. Doing so well help students feel safe in moving outside their comfort zones into higher developmental levels. (Felder, 2004 Part 2).

Plan developmentally stimulating curricula that engage students in the psychological, social, and moral dimensions of your discipline in addition to the cognitive or purely academic dimension. 

Draw on the support and collaboration of other campus offices and individuals invested in students’ development, including other faculty and administrators, Residential Life and Student Wellness professionals, Undergraduate Deans, and co-curricular staff.


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