A brief examination of the developmental stages of higher education students can provide valuable insight into the changing patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving of students we find in our nation’s colleges and universities. Through careful reflection of what we know about the developmental attributes of students, higher education instructors can establish a baseline from which to select or formulate the learning experiences and outcomes for all higher education students.

Several perspectives are salient in forming operational understandings of higher education student development. Chickering (1993) offers several questions for consideration pertaining to the predictability of stages that mark developmental shifts in student development:  “Are they sequential, invariant, and irreversible? Are some developmental tasks prerequisites for others? Are there basic differences between males and females, either in the process of development or in the content of their thoughts, feelings, and values? Are there differences based on ethnic background, sexual orientation, or age?” (p. 6)

While there may be no single or best answer to these questions, we can perhaps gain valuable insight into the developmental make-up of the higher education student through ongoing reflection of each question. Several theories addressing student development may prove helpful in this regard.


Cognitive theories offer illuminating perspectives concerning the intellectual development or thinking processes of our students. Jean Piaget (1932) offers a two dimensional model of cognitive development. One dimension asserts that student learners possess intellectual capabilities that range from a concrete view of the world to the ability to form abstract ideas. The second dimension is characterized as an egocentric, active model which extends to a reflective, internalized way of knowing (Kolb, 1981; Chickering, 1993).  Piaget’s long respected work on intellectual development provides insight into three fundamental principles: cognitive structures, developmental sequences and environmental interactions. Cognitive structures form in students to enable them to make sense of experience. These structures provide the frames of reference needed to interpret the meaning of events, for choosing behavior, and solving problems. Developmental sequences are manifested in relation to the increasing sophistication of the cognitive structures that have evolved. Accordingly, one level of thinking opens the way for the next, which is more useful than the prior one. This process fosters a transitional shift to the next, more complex stage, and once attained, expands and integrates gradually within the stage. Interaction of students with the environment presents challenges or new information which leads to intellectual disequilibrium and emergence of new accommodations or alterations of the cognitive structures.

By and large, faculty in higher education can make effective use of Piaget’s cognitive development principles by adopting an perspective toward instruction that gives consideration to student cognitive structures, developmental sequences, and interaction with the environment. This entails taking into account variant student life experience, or lack thereof, in relation to subject matter content and skill areas.

Facilitating the formation of cognitive structures that systematically advance in complexity (developmental sequence); and applicability and generalizability (interaction with the environment) can be achieved through instructional practices that are guided by Piaget’s theory.

Perry (1970) and his associates distinguish how intellectual and ethical development continues during young adulthood. Their model provides a useful means for conceptualizing intellectual development from a perspective of changing frames of reference for interpreting reality. Nine positions comprising this model characterize shifts from dualistic thinking to developing tolerance and mature interpersonal relationships. For example, acceptance of others’ interpretations and values represent a liberalizing or humanizing transformation which enables students to critically examine values and beliefs in light of evidence and experience. New levels of integration occur when students make active choices concerning how they will live out their values while continuing to search for meaning and congruence.

Chickering’s (1993) model of development, referred to as the Seven Vectors, takes into account the variant ages of today’s higher education students and complex processes. The seven vectors can be helpful in determining current and projected student developmental status including intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and ethical development. Movement along any single vector can occur at different rates. Each step brings more awareness, skill confidence, complexity, stability, and integration. The vectors describe the routes to individuation which include: 1.) Developing Competence; 2.) Managing Emotions; 3.) Moving Through Autonomy Toward Independence; 4.) Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships; 5.) Establishing Identity; 6.) Developing Purpose; and 7.) Developing Integrity.

Particularly important vectors pertaining to the student in higher education are those associated with Developing Purpose and Developing Integrity. “Developing purpose can be characterized as an increasing ability to be intentional, to assess interests and options, to clarify goals, to make plans, and to persist despite obstacles.” (Chickering, 1993, p. 209) “Developing integrity involves reviewing personal values in an inquiring environment that emphasizes diversity, critical thinking, the use of evidence, and experimentation. It may involve an affirmation of values that have ongoing relevance, a search for new ways to interpret complex realities and reconcile discordant perspectives, or a substantive shift away from old values.” (Chickering, 1993, p. 235)


The work and influence of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky on education theory, research and practice holds vast potential for improving our understanding of the learning processes for all learners, including those in higher education, as well as a basis for selecting or devising instructional approaches. Vygotsky’s principal body of scholarly work is concerned with the cultural historical theory of psychological development or development of the personality (Davydov, 1995).

In Vygotsky’s view personality development takes place during a child’s early     upbringing and teaching. Its historical character, content, and form are particularly     essential features of this process which occurs during changes in the social situations of a person’s life, or during changes in the types and kinds of personal activity under-            taken. In effect, the basic form for carrying out an activity is in joint-collective enact-       ment by a group of people through their social interaction. The manner in which an    individual carries out activity is the result of internalizing its basic form. This process            is characterized by the use of systems of signs and symbols (language/communication),        devised through the history of human culture. Thus, an individual’s assimilation of             historical values of material and spiritual culture takes place through carrying                   out activity in collaboration with other people. In effect, it is Vygotsky’s contention that            individual consciousness is determined by the activity of the collective subject. (P. 15)

Students in higher education are likely to continue to acquire new historical values of material and spiritual culture as well as expand and refine those they have assimilated during their preceding informal and formal learning activities. In order to nourish this process, students must be afforded a multitude and variety of opportunities to interact with one another throughout their formal and informal learning experiences in higher education.


Higher education students can and do benefit from carefully designed instruction employing strategies that include reinforcement and rewards. Drawing from the rudimentary principles underlying functional or applied behavior analysis will be invaluable to the higher education instructor. This empirically supported model provides clear demonstration that environmental conditions, i.e. the context within which instruction takes place exerts significant influence on student learning. More specifically, student learning can be enhanced through the thoughtful organizaton of instruction including employment of positive and negative reinforcers (Alberto and Troutman, 1982).

Suffice it to say, the effective higher education instructor will approach the teaching-learning situation with understanding concerning the characteristic developmental and learning stages of higher education students including thinking, learning, feeling, and behavioral attributes and processes. Throughout this volume strategies and corresponding instructional considerations will be derived from or linked to theories and models of student development and learning.