National Study of Living Learning Programs


Understanding Change in Students: Theory

In this section, we briefly review theories that help describe how students change during the college years, tailoring our observations for those who work in STEM settings. First, we focus on theories that help explain how students develop their career plans. Then, we turn to theories that may be particularly relevant to women, whether or not they intend to major or work in a STEM field.

Career Development Vocational Personalities

In his Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments, John Holland argued that a person’s success and happiness at work depends on how well she fits with the workplace environment that is made up of the “vocational personalities” of coworkers Chartrand & Walsh, 1999; Holland, 1985, 1997; Savickas & Gottfredson, 1999.

The six vocational personalities that Holland 1985, 1997 identified are listed below. Holland also arranged the types along the vertices of hexagon, indicating types he thought were more closely related to one another.

Network designed by Stijn Janmaat &
Trophy designed by Matthew R. Miller from The Noun Project

It is important to remember that Holland’s 1985, 1997 notion of person-environment fit works in both directions. Although misfit can suppress performance (and therefore satisfaction), alignment between personality and environment may enhance it: vocational and academic environments encourage the expression of domain-appropriate behaviors and values by providing a venue in which behaviors and values can be learned and rewarded Feldman, Smart, & Ethington, 1999.

Career Development Social Cognitive Career Theory

In Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT), scholars Lent, Brown, and Hackett 1994 argued that, like all forms of learning, choosing a particular vocation is a social process. They believe that a person absorbs social messages about certain jobs (e.g., “basic research does not improve the human condition”), observes others’ vocational choices and evaluate the consequences (e.g., “most women I see who have chosen to go on the tenure-track are not raising a family”), and develops self-judgments, realistic or otherwise, about his or her own capacity to achieve vocational successes (e.g., “I guess my high school calculus teacher was right, I’m just not meant to do something that involves math”). These various forms of learning factors have a powerful ability to influence beliefs about personal capacity for success (self-efficacy) and to shape expectations for the future if a various career path is chosen (outcome expectations), which help drive personal interest in the activities related to a specific field and, ultimately, an individual’s unique occupational trajectory, including their goals and the steps taken to achieve them.

Lent and his colleagues were quick to note that, although vocational development happens “within” a person, external factors are also influential. Sometimes, these outside forces are helpful, such as positive messages about an individual’s ability, the importance of earning a degree, or opportunities to explore different disciplines and the workplace. Other forces may be limiting, including social messages that demarcate the professions on the basis of demography, economic conditions that alter individuals’ work-related utility judgments, and culture. Not surprisingly, these factors are often particularly salient when a choice-point looms, such as when a student is choosing a major Lent et al..

Cognitive Development Perry’s Theory

Starting in 1954, William Perry and his colleagues began longitudinal work at Harvard and Radcliffe, documenting changes in undergraduates’ ways of thinking. Students were interviewed at the end of each school year, ultimately yielding descriptions of students’ change over time Evans, Forney, & Guido-DeBrito, 1998.

What emerged was a description of this change as being marked by nine “positions,” points of stability in an otherwise forward-evolving process. The first of these six positions described different ways of making meaning, while the final three focused on the interplay between cognitive complexity and ethical development.

Perry’s 1970, 1991 first position is referred to as basic dualism. In this position, the individual views knowledge as absolute, with right and wrong answers existing to all questions. Importantly, knowledge resides in acknowledged authorities. The learner’s role is to acquire that knowledge, primarily through memorization. Because they cannot be authorities, peers have no role in the learning process.

Perry’s 1970, 1991 second position is called multiplicity pre-legitimate. This stage is typified by the learner’s growing awareness that authorities appear to disagree about the nature of some knowledge. Because the learner still has not developed agency for his or her own ability to validate knowledge claims, the goal of learning is to not simply memorize a single right answer, but to determine the appropriate right answer for the present authority.

Perry's1970, 1991 third position is referred to as early multiplicity. At this stage of development, the learner is increasingly aware of uncertainty in certain domains of knowledge, even among authorities. A belief that absolute knowledge is possible, however, still remains. As a result, uncertainty is viewed as a problem to be solved. In this stage, the goal of learning is the acquisition of techniques that will help the student discover right answers.

Perry’s 1970, 1991 fourth position is called late multiplicity. Confronted with an overwhelming number of cases in which certainty is impossible, the learner comes to see all truth as unknowable. This new perspective is typically operationalized in one of two ways: (a) an inclusive stance that argues that because all knowledge is potentially equally valid, no one can be shown to be absolutely wrong or (b) an oppositional stance arguing that because no truth can ever be found, no one else’s views can be shown to be more right than one’s own. Not surprisingly, students who adopt more oppositional stances have less use for authorities or peers in their learning, while those who adopt more inclusive stances are more likely to value others’ views in the learning process.

In Perry’s 1970, 1991 fifth position of relativism, the learner acknowledges that, although uncertainty exists, not all knowledge claims are of equal value. The relative “rightness” of knowledge can vary between individuals and, within one individual, between contexts. As a result, the goal of learning is not to unquestioningly adopt the perspective of others, but instead to learn how to discern between competing knowledge claims. In this stage, faculty and peers are important components of the learning process, as both serve as potential sources of knowledge claims to consider and as partners with which to test those claims.

Perry’s 1970, 1991 sixth position, commitment foreseen, serves as the bridge between those developmental positions that Perry viewed as cognitively-focused and those he viewed as being ethical in nature. No specific changes to knowledge structures are hypothesized to occur in this stage. Instead, students begin to recognize that, as they reach personal determinations about what knowledge is “right for them,” they also implicitly have identified a personal ethic that should guide future behaviors and actions.

As Perry’s theory became more well-known and used more frequently, other authors began to critique his work Evans, Forney, & Guido-DeBrito, 1998. In positions seven through nine, known collectively as commitment, learners make choices, have those choices challenged, and continue to refine their own personal perspectives and beliefs.

In particular, some wondered about its applicability to women: although both men and women participated in Perry’s initial data collection, only information from the Harvard men was used in the theory’s description. Not surprisingly, work to better understand the cognitive development of women began.

Cognitive Development Women’s Ways of Knowing

Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule 1986 offered a response to Perry’s model in their book Women’s Ways of Knowing. To understand the cognitive development of women, they argued, it is necessary to begin from the standpoint that women’s learning is grounded not in a particular place (e.g., the classroom), but in a particular context: the interpersonal relationship.

To develop their theory, Belenky et al. 1986 interviewed a diverse group of women, ranging from students enrolled at Ivy League institutions to women using rural health care clinics. Each interview began with a simple question: “Looking back, what stands out for you over the past few years?” Using recent events to explore what meaning women had made from their experiences, the authors developed a model of women’s development that included five “perspectives.”

The first perspective identified by Belenky et al. 1986 was that of the silent knower. The rarest form of knower, women who operated from the silent perspective expressed a profound vulnerability. They felt as if they had no voice, and that all knowledge came from outside authorities. These women reported little hope of understanding what authorities presented, and believed that what was presented to them as truth had to be obeyed.

Belenky et al.’s 1986 second perspective was that of the received knower. Women operating from this perspective were conscious of their own voice, but did not believe they could create knowledge themselves. Received knowers saw themselves as being fundamentally empty of knowledge—even self-knowledge—and described knowledge acquisition as listening to others to receive truth.

Belenky et al.’s 1986 third perspective of subjective knowers is distinguished by the centrality of women’s own experience to making and evaluating knowledge claims. While this represents a significant shift in a woman’s ability to see herself as capable of making meaning on her own, subjective knowing has at least one negative consequence: Because only knowledge claims that are consistent with a woman’s own experience are viewed as valid, others’ discrepant views are discounted.

Women who employ Belenky et al.’s 1986 fourth perspective, procedural knowing, stand in stark contrast to their peers who are subjective knowers. While subjective knowers rely almost entirely upon intuition, procedural knowers are reasoned and analytical. This perspective is entitled “procedural” knowing because its focus is on the actual mechanism by which women gather knowledge. Two subtypes were identified. The first, the separate knower, operates from a position of objectivity, keeping the thing to be known at a distance until it can be mastered. The second, the connected knower, operates from a position of “fusion,” becoming acquainted with what is to be known until it can be understood.

Belenky et al.’s 1986 fifth perspective, constructed knowing, represents a middle-ground between subjective and procedural knowledge. Described by the authors as “an effort to reclaim the self by attempting to integrate knowledge that they felt was personally important with knowledge they had learned from others,” page 34, women operating from this perspective view knowledge as something that is self-constructed, and what is known is intimately joined to one’s sense of self. The authors noted that women operating from the perspective of constructed knowing were typically highly reflective, and guided by an ethic that called them to assist others.

Belenky et al. 1986 offered the reader a number of caveats to consider as they weigh the use of the theory presented in Women’s Ways of Knowing. Importantly, they did not view the perspectives as being stage-based: one need not begin in silence, for example, before adopting the perspective of a received knower. Second, they noted that because they interviewed no men as part of their work, they cannot evaluate its applicability to men. Finally, they acknowledged that their five perspectives are unlikely to capture the experience of all women.

Moral Development An Important Factor for Women in STEM

Although moral development may seem an unlikely topic to discuss in the context of promoting women’s success within the STEM disciplines, our interviews with women suggest that it is relevant: We have been impressed by the number of participants who have told us that they gravitated toward fields and specialties where their work results in direct, observable benefits to others. Understanding processes of moral development as a mechanism for understanding how students, staff, and faculty—male and female alike—engage in the classroom, the laboratory, and the workplace is, in our view, important as we consider how best to engage those parties in meaningful change.

Moral Development Kohlberg’s Theory

Because Kohlberg 1989 viewed the underpinnings of moral reasoning as depending heavily upon an individual’s cognitive structures, his theory—like that of Perry—characterized development as stage-wise, invariant, and hierarchical. It describes three levels of moral reasoning, each with two stages.

In Kohlberg’s first level, referred to as pre-conventional morality, the individual’s moral perspective is concrete (e.g., tangible) and highly focused on the self. That level’s first stage, heteronomous morality, is characterized by adherence to rules out of fear of sanction. Importantly, the consequence of a moral judgment on others is largely irrelevant. In the second stage, instrumental morality, moral reasoning is still self-focused, but rather than ignoring others, moral action is designed to maximize individual gain while minimizing harm to others.

Kohlberg’s second level, conventional morality, is characterized by moral reasoning that evidences a realization that one has responsibilities as a member of a social group. His third stage, interpersonally normative morality, is akin to the Golden Rule. Moral reasoning and actions are designed to be consistent with the rules and expectations of important reference groups, ensuring that one is seen as a member in good standing. Kohlberg’s fourth stage, social system morality, represents a shift away from receiving approval from important others or key groups, and toward an awareness that one has a responsibility to meet the obligations of the larger society (or social system) in which one lives.

Kohlberg’s third level of moral reasoning, post-conventional morality, is marked by a perspective that moral reasoning is driven by a set of superordinate values that are “prior to society.” Referring to his fifth stage, human rights and social welfare morality, Kohlberg posited that individuals reason on the basis of an awareness of a larger social contract which demands the protection of human rights not simply because those rights are enshrined in law, but because doing so is critical to the maintenance of a just society. In the sixth and final stage, universal ethical principle morality, Kohlberg argued that individuals reason according to some number of universal principles that are greater than any artifact of culture, including law, tradition, or custom. (It should be noted that this sixth level has never been documented empirically, although frequently cited exemplars include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi.)

Moral Development Gilligan’s Theory

Like Perry’s theory of cognitive development before it, Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning was eventually exposed to critique that it was not inclusive of women’s development. Carol Gilligan, one of Kohlberg’s graduate assistants, became concerned when research began to reveal that, in tests of moral reasoning using identical dilemmas, women consistently scored lower than men. Wondering whether the theory was in some way flawed, she began her own research focused on women’s moral reasoning.

In Gilligan’s 1982 work, two fundamentally different portraits of men and women emerged as they negotiated interpersonal relationships. Specifically, Gilligan noted that “male and female voices typically speak of the importance of different truths, the former of the role of separation as it defines and empowers the self, the latter of ongoing processes of attachment that creates and sustains the human community” (p. 156). If a man’s moral reasoning is predicated upon rights and justice, Gilligan contended, a woman’s is based in care.

Gilligan’s 1982 theory describes three stages, as well as the transitions from one stage to the next. In the first stage, referred to as Orientation to Individual Survival, the woman operates from an egocentric position, focused solely on her own needs and desires. As she transitions to the second stage, however, the woman becomes increasingly aware of her attachments to important others, as well as society’s expectation for her to demonstrate care to them if she is to receive society’s approbation. This is referred to as the transition “From Selfishness to Responsibility.”

In the second stage, Goodness as Self-Sacrifice, the pendulum swings from interest in caring only for one’s self to an overwhelming interest in care-taking for others Gilligan, 1982. Maintaining strong interpersonal relationships is key in this stage, and women often give so much of themselves to others that there is little energy to attend to one’s own needs or desires. Transition from this stage, referred to as From Goodness to Truth, signals a shift to a way of being that cares both for self and others. In this transition stage, the self—previously subordinated to others—is legitimized, as is women’s capacity to freely choose how those interpersonal relationships are negotiated.

In the final stage of Gilligan’s Gilligan, 1982 theory, The Morality of Non-Violence, women come to adopt non-violence as their ultimate moral principle. Holding self and others in equal esteem, at this stage women operate in such a way so as to avoid causing harm.

Brabeck 1983 has contrasted the moralities of care and justice, which, respectively, underlie Gilligan’s and Kohlberg’s theories. Whereas the morality of care is concerned with relationships, harmony, and justice, the morality of justice focuses upon the rights of self and others, fundamental fairness, and legalities. Personal moral agency, Brabeck noted, is typified by connection and attachment when care organizes one’s moral actions, while separation and individuation are implicated within justice-driven approaches to morality.

Women’s Sense of Self Josselson’s Theory

While the theories reviewed above focus on an individual’s development in discrete domains, such as vocational identity, cognition, and moral reasoning, Ruthellen Josselson 1987 sought to identify, more generally, how women come to craft a sense of self. Her work was based upon that of James Marcia 1980, who argued that identity was forged through self-exploration and commitment to an identity. The interaction of those processes resulted in four identity states: (a) achievement, typified by a process of self-exploration and ultimate commitment, (b) foreclosure, defined as commitment without substantive exploration, (c) moratorium, described as a time in which the individual is presently searching but has yet to make a commitment, and (d) diffusion, which reflected both a lack of exploration and commitment.

Josselson 1987 argued that, for women, those processes were constrained by gender role expectations. Specifically, she noted: “Society, in making certain ways of being possible and others impossible or very difficult, is a powerful agent in shaping identity” p. 193. To understand how society influenced women’s identity development, Josselson interviewed 60 women who were seniors in college in 1974, and then conducted follow-up interviews in 1984 and 1996. What emerged were four gender-specific portraits of Marcia’s ego states.

Pathmakers, Josselson’s 1996 term for Marcia’s 1980 identity achievers, were described as pragmatic and reasonable, confident in the choices they had made in their personal and professional lives. Pathmakers reported identities that, while connected to earlier definitions of self, were the freely chosen products of past developmental choice-points and represented healthy individuation from family and peers.

In stark contrast, Josselson’s 1996 Guardians—those women Marcia 1980 would have characterized as being in a state of foreclosure—reported identities that were the product of their relationships with others. The absence of a personal search for self meant that these women had internalized traditional gender role expectations, which for women centered on a responsibility to family. Because of their wholesale, uncritical acceptance of an external value system, Josselson argued that Guardians tended toward self-assurance, and were often rigid and perfectionistic.

Women who were still actively constructing their identity were referred to as Searchers in Josselson’s 1996 theory. Like those in Marcia’s 1980 moratorium, Searchers had not committed to an identity because they had not yet identified their “right” self. Josselson noted that these women were imaginative, often with grand dreams for how their life would unfold, and highly idealistic. Some Searchers, Josselson noted, became entwined in the process, exhibiting little forward progress in crafting a sense of self.

Finally, Josselson 1996 described Drifters, women who neither actively confronted the task of searching for self nor the responsibility for committing to a way of being, akin to Marcia’s 1980 diffuse identity state. She noted that some Drifters exhibited characteristics of their Searcher or Guardian peers, exhibiting genuine confusion over how to craft their identity or the belief that something (or someone) would act in their life to chart its path, respectively.

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