Friday, September 17, 2010

Chickering's Theory of Seven Vectors by Andrea Cox

Theory Overview
Chickering’s Theory of Seven Vectors (1969) delves into the idea that college students experience seven vectors of development throughout their college experience. These vectors of development must reach resolution for the student to achieve identity. Though Chickering, and later as revised by Reisser (1993), did not necessarily state that a student’s movement through these seven vectors were sequential, the theory indicates that student’s must resolve through a specific group of vectors as a springboard or foundation towards progressing through later vectors (Foubert, 2005).
As to the revision of the vectors as instigated by Reisser, the definition of development meant students were proceeding along the seven vectors of developing competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward inter-dependence,  developing mature interpersonal relationship, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity (Foubert,  2005) during their college experience.  Chickering and Reisser go on to postulate that students can experience several vectors at once rather than having to resolve one before moving on to the other.  The vectors build upon each other leading to greater “complexity, stability, and integration” (Evans, 2010). Chickering and Reisser also acknowledged that the educational environment plays an enormous role in a student’s ability to progress and resolve each vector. They suggested seven educational environmental influences that impact a student’s development are as follows: institutional objectives, institutional size, student-faculty relationship, curriculum, teaching, friendships and student communities, and student development programs (Evans, 2010).  These influences not only affect a student’s ability to progress through all seven vectors, but also, affect the rate in which they do so.
However, what Chickering and Reisser fail to fully address is the application of the seven vectors to a diverse group of student’s, i.e., students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, gender, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual students.
Use in Higher Education
An example of how Chickering’s theory and seven vectors are used in higher education is most apparent in the inherent differences between incoming freshman and a graduating senior.  It is clear in most cases that a graduating senior will have resolved many of Chickering’s vectors by the time they are ready to enter the “real world.” Freshmen, on the other hand, are in a transition period where they are starting to build a “foundation” of basic college student developmental needs before attempting to address such vectors as “developing purpose” or “establishing identity”, which most seniors may have already experienced. Student affairs individuals or academic counselors have different expectations when a freshman enters their office versus when a senior enters. In such a scenario, an advisor can use Chickering’s vectors to assess where the student is on their developmental journey simply by knowing what class they are in.  Again, it would be prudent to utilize Chickering’s theory and vectors as a guideline to addressing student needs rather than trying to assess sequentially where the student is and where the student “should be going” as their next stage of development. As indicated in the below article, “A longitudinal Study of Chickering and Reisser’s Vectors: Exploring Gender Differences and Implications for Refining the Theory” by John D. Foubert, Monica L. Nixcon, V. Shamim Sisson, and Amy Barnes, it is important to understand that applying Chickering’s vectors sequentially to a very diverse population of students, in this case males vs. females, may not be as useful since students develop differently at different rates and many times, these differing rates of development could be connected to factors like gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Annotated Bibliography
Foubert, J., Nixon, M.L, & Sisson, V.S. (2005). A longitudinal study of Chickering and Reisser’s vectors: Exploring gender differences and implications for refining the theory.  Journal of College Student Development, 46, 461-471. doi: 10.1353/csd.2005.0047
This article examines Chickering’s and Reisser’s theory and seven vectors as they apply to students depending on gender.  The author’s partially support the theory that student’s develop along these vectors during their college experience. However, they go on to question the validity of the theory being sequential and attempt to establish the theory that student’s develop through these vectors at different rates, in different “orders”, based on factors such as race, ethnicity, and particular to this study, gender. They found that women tend to develop through the vector of mature, interpersonal relationships before they experience the vector dealing with autonomy and interdependence. In fact, their findings suggest that women actually enter college more “developed” than their male counterparts and because much of their development is in developing inter-personal relationships, women are more tolerant of others differences and more accepting of diverse populations than men generally speaking. The authors suggest that this finding indicates that student affairs personnel consider programs that focus on facilitating men’s development in areas of stereotyping, language, and the value of diversity. They conclude that this study confirms that examining the diversity of the college student population in relation to Chickering’s and Reisser’s vectors is essential to its proper application.
Evans, N.J., Forney, D.S., Guido-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (1st ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Foubert, J., Nixon, M.L, & Sisson, V.S. (2005). A longitudinal study of Chickering and Reisser’s vectors: Exploring gender differences and implications for refining the theory.  Journal of College Student Development, 46, 461-471. doi: 10.1353/csd.2005.0047
Additional Readings
Chickering, A.W. (1969).  Education and identity.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.
Chickering, A.W. & Reisser, L. (1993).  Education and identity (2nd ed.).  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.


  1. I really liked how your article delved into the differences gender makes on accomplishing each vector. As you described the differences in classes I found myself nodding my head a lot, agreeing with the article's conclusions. I would find it interesting to see a study done in even more depth starting with gender but then also looking at race, SES and sexual orientation within each gender.

  2. I like Reisser's revision, that students do not need to go through these stages sequentially, which also allows for a student to be in more than one vector at once. I feel like I am still developing my purpose, even though I am a grad student. Although I have a direct goal for a vocation, I am still learning what areas I like best in student affairs, and what works for me and what doesn't. It is also good that this theory includes environment factors, because I believe these affect people in more ways than they realize.

  3. I would like to talk to Chickering and ask him what his assumptions were when he determined why individuals need to develop in these certain areas. I may sound naive but why would one say that a person inherently has to control their emotions or develop a purpose in life or be integral to that. I can see in the context of our society that it is good to be able to hold in tears so people don't feel uncomfortable around you at work and it's good to have a sense of purpose so you don't get board in life or feel substandard in a world which values direction. It also seems valid to me when people say things to the extent that they will take them where God leads them or go with the flow. I guess in essence this is also a committed direction in life, to go with the flow. Let's look at the emotional aspect. There are people who value wearing their heart on their sleeves and have benefits because of it. One may succeed in the business world by holding in emotions but likely develop more genuine relationships by letting emotions show when they feel them. They may even see it as a kind of method by which important and unimportant people are identified by their acceptance of true emotion. One may say that this may impede later stages like the development of life direction or one may say that this guides the direction one wants to go in depending on their preferred company.

    That said i do see how this applies so long as one is socialized with he same value assumptions as Chickering.

  4. It is interesting to study this theory and I was surprised by how many people who are familiar with the theory, not just in our class but others I've spoken to about. Which means, that others in general have experience a lot and maybe aware of emotional development in relative to some of the seven vectors but do not know it systemically. I do however, wonder how much "spirituality" plays into this different level of identity development,let alone culture's impact?

  5. I had an interesting experience last week where I used Chickering's vector of managing emotions to reflect upon interactions I had with two different students. I believe in student affairs we can relate to "blame-game" where students are in a difficult situation and can be either reflective to see what choices they have made to land them where they are and figure out what they can do to make things better, or try to point at everyone else as an excuse to not accept responsibility - making it others duty to fix things. The two interactions where very different - one student fully accepted the choices he/she made and came to our office having learned from their expereinces and wanted to know what he/she could do to make the situation better. This student did just what our textbook says, "act[ed] on feelings in a responsible manner" (Evans, et. al., p. 67). This student is also developing mature relationships with our office. The second student waited until the last minute to obtain some important info from an instructor to complete an assignment that the student knew about since the start of the semester, but waited until the middle of November to obtain. The instructor was sick and the student was upset that our office could not help him/her since only the instructor had the info they needed. Even though managing emotions is just one vector, I can see it has an important component effecting all the other vectors.

  6. Although, I question linear nature of the Seven Vectors and the idea of assigning these steps to every student that walks through my door, this is a great starting point in understanding student development. For example, managing emotions as a student can be a real challenge and Chickering helps student affairs professionals identify this stage and help students make the transition into a more stable approach to handling emotions.

  7. I find it interesting that not only is Chickering's theory well known across disciplines as Anita pointed out, but also that the 1993 Education and Identity text is used as an assigned reading in many college development theory courses today. Even though it may be supplemented with other texts, the fact that 17 years later the theory still has the applicability it does is impressive. The fact that Chickering did re-evaluate his theory 24 years after his original work is an example of how important revision and reassessment are and the updated work seemed to embrace the recommendation published in Evans of viewing development as holistic and not necessarily a linear process.