Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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The effective organization and functioning of student personnel work requires that the educational administrators at all times (1) regard student personnel work as a major concern, involving the cooperative effort of all members of the teaching and administrative staff and the student body; and (2) interpret student personnel work as dealing with the individual student’s total characteristics and experiences rather than with separate and distinct aspects of his personality or performance. (NASPA, 1989, p. 42)

The 1937 original version of The Student Personnel Point of View is most closely identified with this focus on the whole student.

The Revised Student Personnel Point of View

In 1949 ACE published a revised edition of The Student Personnel Point of View (reprinted by NASPA, 1989) that reflected the changing face of American higher education, as well as noticeable anti-German sentiment. The sections of the new report were “Philosophy and Objectives,” “Student Needs and Personnel Services,” “Elements of a Student Personnel Program,” “The Administration of Student Personnel Work,” and “The Importance of the Research Emphasis” (ACE, 1949). In its philosophical statement the revised version built on the purpose of higher education as articulated in 1937, but focused on three additional goals: (a) “Education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living,” (b) “Education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation,” and (c) “Education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs” (NASPA, 1989, p. 17). The authors of the 1949 revision continued to emphasize the importance of educating the whole student as follows:

Although these added goals aim essentially at societal growth, they affect positively the education and development of each individual student. The development of students as whole persons interacting in social situations is the central concern of student personnel work and of other agencies of education. This emphasis in contemporary education is the essential part of the student personnel point of view.

The student personnel point of view encompasses the student as a whole. The concept of education is broadened to include attention to the student’s well-rounded development—physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually—as well as intellectually. The student is thought of as a responsible participant in his [sic] own development and not as a passive recipient of an imprinted economic, political, or religious doctrine, or vocational skill. As a responsible participant in the societal processes of our American democracy, his full and balanced maturity is viewed as a major end-goal of education and, as well, a necessary means to the fullest development of his fellow citizens. From the personnel point of view any lesser goals fall short of the desired objectives of democratic educational processes and is a real drain and strain upon the self-realization of other developing individuals in our society. (NASPA, 1989, p. 18)

These paragraphs have served as the theoretical framework for countless research studies in student personnel work through its evolution into student affairs and student development, as well as providing the foundation for other student development theorists, such as Arthur Chickering (1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993) and Alexander Astin (1977, 1985, 1993). In fact, in his preface to Education and Identity, Chickering (1969) wrote:

Higher education once aimed to produce men prepared to engage with the society of man. But as the changes of the last fifty years have occurred, higher education has altered its image of man. The focus has shifted from men to subjects, from persons to professionals. Consequently, men themselves have become subjects—subjects to majors, to disciplines, to professions, to industries. Higher education and society are mired in frustration and conflict. These conditions will persist until men—not materials, nor systems, nor institutions—again become the focus of human concern. (p. ix)

In Achieving Educational Excellence, Astin (1985) wrote,

During my twenty-five years of research on American higher education, I have been increasingly attracted to what I shall term the talent development model of higher education. Under this model, the major purpose of any institution of higher education is to develop the talents of its faculty and students to their maximum potential. (p. 16)

Under the section on “Student Needs and Personnel Services,” the revised report included a paragraph titled “The Student Succeeds in His Studies,” as follows:

The college or university has primary responsibility in selecting for admission students who have basic qualities of intelligence and aptitudes necessary for success in a given institution. However, many otherwise able students fail, or do not achieve up to the maximum capacity because they lack proficiency or personal motivation for the tasks set by the college, because of deficiency in reading or study skills, because they do not budget their time properly, have emotional conflicts resulting from family or other pressures, have generally immature attitudes, are not wisely counseled in relation to curricular choices, or because of a number of other factors. In order that each student may develop effective work habits and thereby achieve his optimum potential, the college or university should provide services through which the student may acquire the skills and techniques for efficient utilization of his [sic] ability. In addition to the contribution of counseling and removing blockages from his path toward good achievement, the student may also need remedial reading and speech services, training in effective study habits, remediation of physical conditions, counseling concerning his personal motivations, and similar related services. (NASPA, 1989, p. 22)

Thus, just as The Student Personnel Point of View is the cornerstone of the student development profession, it also provides a foundation for the broad definition of developmental education, as articulated by the National Association for Developmental Education (NADE; 1995).

Implications for Developmental Education

One of the goals of developmental education is “to develop in each learner the skills and attitudes necessary for the attainment of academic, career, and life goals” (NADE, 1995). Although many developmental educators are unfamiliar with The Student Personnel Point of View, its impact can be felt throughout the profession.

The original group of higher education professionals who promulgated this theoretical perspective in 1937 made the following statement regarding “Coordination between Instruction and Student Personnel Work”:

Instruction is most effective when the instructor regards his [sic] classes both as separate individuals and as members of a group. Such instruction aims to achieve in every student a maximum performance in terms of that student’s potentialities and the conditions under which he works. Ideally each instructor should possess all the information necessary for such individualization. Actually such ideal conditions do not exist. Therefore, a program of coordination becomes necessary which provides for the instructor appropriate information whenever such information relates to effective instruction.

An instructor may perform functions in the realms both of instruction and student personnel work. Furthermore, instruction itself involves far more than the giving of information on the part of the teacher and its acceptance by the student. Instructors should be encouraged to contribute regularly to student personnel records such anecdotal information concerning students as is significant from the personnel point of view. Instructors should be encouraged to call to the attention of personnel workers any students in their courses who could profit by personnel services. (NASPA, 1989, p. 43)

Developmental education programs have a long history of encouraging communication among faculty, counselors, advisors, and students. The small class size inherent to most developmental education settings enables individualization and enhanced contact between students and faculty. Starks (1994) notes that these practices encourage the retention of developmental students “because they support academic and affective needs” (p. 25). Similarly, Neuberger (1999) states, “Programs which are comprehensive in nature—those that combine services and do not offer developmental courses in isolation—tend to be more effective” (p. 5). Boylan and Saxon (1998) provide a historical context for the link between developmental education and the focus on the whole student:

There are those who believe that the term “developmental education” originated during the 1970s as a politically correct label coined to avoid offending minorities by referring to them as “remedial,” “nontraditional,” or “disadvantaged.” This is a gross misconception. The term “developmental education” reflects a dramatic expansion in our knowledge of human growth and development in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result we began to understand that poor academic performance involved far more complex factors than a student’s being unable to solve for x in an algebraic equation or write a complete sentence using proper grammar. If such deficiencies were the only problems for students having difficulty in college, simple remediation would be an appropriate solution for everyone. A variety of noncognitive or “developmental” factors, however, were also discovered to be of critical importance to student success. These additional factors include such things as locus of control, attitudes toward learning, self-concept, autonomy, ability to seek help, and a host of other influences having nothing to do with students’ intellect or academic skill.

By the late 1970s, educators who worked with underprepared students developed an entirely new paradigm to guide their efforts. Instead of assuming that students were simply deficient in academic skills and needed to have these deficiencies remediated, they began to assume that personal and academic growth were linked—that the improvement of academic performance was tied to improvement in students’ attitudes, values, and beliefs about themselves, others, and the educational environment. This created a new model for working with those who had previously been unsuccessful in academic tasks.

The new model involved the teaching of basic skills combined with assessment, advising, counseling, tutoring, and individualized learning experiences designed not just to reteach basic content, but also to promote student development. The resulting model became known as “developmental education,” and those who participated in it were described as “developmental students.” (pp. 7-8)

Boylan and Saxon, like others writing in the field (e.g., Neuberger, 1999; Stahl, Simpson, & Hayes, 1992), further assert:

Successful developmental education…involves more than just the teaching of basic skills. Understanding that there is a link between personal and academic growth is the key difference between “developmental” and “remedial” education. For developmental intervention to be successful, student development must be promoted through services such as advising, counseling, and tutoring. For these treatments to be effective, developmental educators must attend to noncognitive variables. (1998, p. 12)

A review of the developmental education literature reveals numerous models for addressing the noncognitive needs of students (e.g., Farmer & Barham, 1996; Gallagher, Golin, & Kelleher, 1992; Hammond, 1990; Higbee & Dwinell, 1998; Nelson, 1998; Roberts, 1990; Roueche & Baker, 1994; Upcraft & Gardner, 1989) and research studies that support the effectiveness of these models (e.g., Boylan, Bliss, & Bonham, 1997; Clark, 1987; Higbee & Dwinell, 1990, 1992; Kulik, Kulik, & Schwalb, 1983; Starke, 1994; Weinstein, Dierking, Husman, Roska, & Powdrill, 1998). Both research and practice in developmental education reflect the importance of addressing the needs of the whole student. Some programs, like the University of Minnesota’s General College (Wambach & delMas, 1998) provide a full range of student support services, from orientation to scholarships, advising, an early warning system, freshman seminars, an academic resource center, career planning, a program for non-native speakers of English (Murie & Thomson, in press), and special services for students who are parents.

However, perhaps even more important than this emphasis on the whole student are the goals set forth in the 1949 revision that focus on “a fuller realization of democracy,” “international understanding,” and “ the solution of social problems” (NASPA, 1989, p. 17). Developmental education is committed to the democratic ideal of access to higher education. Hardin (1998) explains,

Some argue the philosophical issue of developmental education, suggesting that higher education should be “higher” and, therefore, limited to the financially able and academically gifted. Others argue that the American education system is based on the Jeffersonian concept that all American citizens are entitled to achieve their fullest academic potential. (p. 15)

Hardin further notes,

Perhaps higher education has been “higher” because colleges and universities were able to stay above the problems of society; however, this is no longer possible. The problems of poverty, violence, drugs, mental illness, and homelessness are being brought to institutions of higher education…. (p. 22)

Developmental educators can take the lead in providing access to all levels of higher education, including the research university, through both content-based core curriculum courses (Brothen & Wambach, 1999, 2000; Ghere, 2000; James & Haselbeck, 1998; Jensen & Rush, 2000) and skill development elective courses (Higbee, Dwinell, & Thomas, in press) for graduation credit that enhance retention as well. They can also play a prominent role in promoting the celebration of diversity both within and outside the classroom, and facilitating understanding of and creating solutions for social problems. Recent trends in developmental education that support the accomplishment of these goals, in addition to content-based developmental courses in such areas as history and the social sciences (Ghere, 2000, in press; Pedelty & Jacobs, in press), include community-linked programs such as workplace literacy projects (Griffith, 1999; Longman, Atkinson, Miholic, & Simpson, 1999), service learning (SL; Borland, Orazem, & Donelly, 1999; Gordon, 1999; McKenna, 1999; Robinson, 1999; Rockwell, 1999; Schnaubelt & Watson, 1999; Slimmer, 1999; Troppe, 1999), community partnerships (Tompkins, 1999; Wiseman, 1999), and other innovations that link higher education in general and college students in particular to the world outside the doors of the institution. In an interview (Mack & Nguyen, 2000) for a recent edition of Community Connection: A Newsletter for Service Learning and Community Involvement, Barajas-Howarth states, “Historically, the University has drawn on the community for research purposes. But we need to also be mindful that our teaching and research, in turn, benefit those communities” (p. 8). She further explains,

SL is about much more than humanitarianism. This work is about learning, about making education come alive through application. As people privileged to enjoy the benefits of higher education, we have the obligation to learn from as well as to give to our community (p. 8).

It is imperative that the developmental education profession continues to provide leadership in the areas of pluralism (Higbee, 1991; Kezar, 2000; Walters, 2000) and public service (Coles, 1993). Smith (2000) reports that senior recipients of leadership awards at Longwood College had significantly higher cumulative grade point averages (GPAs), and that students with high GPAs but no leadership awards “showed far fewer social and personal gains” (p. 27), as measured by the College Student Experiences Questionnaire. Promoting intellectual competence (Chickering, 1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993) is only a small part of the mission of higher education. Developmental education programs can continue to lead the way in enhancing the growth of the student as a whole person.

The Student Personnel Point of View may be more than 50 years old, but it still has much to teach the developmental educator. By familiarizing themselves with the basic tenets of this theoretical perspective, developmental educators can guide students to achieve to their fullest potential, while also setting an example for other higher educators who have lost sight of the fundamental purpose of higher education.


American Council on Education (1937). The student personnel point of view. Washington, DC: Author.

American Council on Education (1949). The student personnel point of view (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Astin, A. W. (1977). Four critical years: Effects of college on beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Astin, A. W. (1985). Achieving educational excellence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Borland, K. W., Orazem, V., & Donnelly, D. (1999). Freshman seminar service-learning: For academic and intellectual community integration. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 3 (4), 42-53.

Boylan, H. R., & Saxon, D. P. (1998). The origin, scope, and outcomes of developmental education in the 20th century. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Developmental education: Preparing successful college students (pp. 5-13). Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.

Boylan, H. R., Bliss, L. B., & Bonham, B. S. (1997). Program components and their relationship to student performance. Journal of Developmental Education, 20 (3), 2-8.

Brothen, T., & Wambach, C. (1999). An analysis of non-performers in a computer-assisted mastery learning course for developmental students. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 16 (1), 41-47.

Brothen, T., & Wambach, C. (2000). A research based approach to developing a computer-assisted course for developmental students. In J.L. Higbee & P.L. Dwinell (Eds.), The many faces of developmental education (pp. 59-72). Warrensburg, MO: National Association for Developmental Education.

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.

Clark, C. S. (1987). An evaluation of two types of developmental education programs as they affect students’ cognitive and affective domains. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

Coles, R. (1993). The call of service: A witness to idealism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Farmer, V. L., & Barham, W. A. (1996). Selected models of developmental education programs in postsecondary institutions. NADE Selected Conference Papers, 2, 10-11.

Gallagher, R. P., Golin, A., & Kelleher, K. (1992). The personal, career, and learning skills needs of college students. Journal of College Student Development, 33, 301-309.

Ghere, D. L. (2000). Teaching American history in a developmental education context. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.). The many faces of developmental education (pp. 39-46). Warrensburg, MO: National Association for Developmental Education.

Ghere, D. L. (in press). Constructivist perspective and classroom simulations in developmental education. In D. B. Lundell & J. L. Higbee (Eds.) Theoretical perspectives for developmental education. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota.

Gordon, R. (1999). Problem-based service learning: Making a difference in higher education. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 3 (4), 16-27.

Griffith, J. C. (1999). The effect of study skills on United States Air Force allied health students. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.). The expanding role of developmental education (pp. 21-30). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Hammond, C. J. (1990). Effective counseling. In R.M. Hashway (Ed.), Handbook of developmental education (pp. 279-304). New York: Praeger.

Hardin, C. J. (1998). Who belongs in college: A second look. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Developmental education: Preparing successful college students (pp. 15-24). Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.

Higbee, J. L. (1991). The role of developmental education in promoting pluralism. In H. E. Cheatham (Ed.), Cultural pluralism on campus (pp. 73-87). Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association.

Higbee, J. L., & Dwinell, P. L. (1990). Factors related to the academic success of high risk freshmen: Three case studies. College Student Journal, 24, 380-386.

Higbee, J. L., & Dwinell, P. L. (1992). The development of underprepared freshmen enrolled in a self-awareness course. Journal of College Student Development, 33, 26-33.

Higbee, J. L., & Dwinell, P. L. (1998). Transitions in developmental education at the University of Georgia. In J.L. Higbee & P.L. Dwinell (Eds.), Developmental education: Preparing successful college students (pp. 55-61). Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.

Higbee, J. L., Dwinell, P. L., & Thomas, P. V. (in press). Beyond University 101: Elective courses to enhance retention. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice.

James, P., & Haselbeck, B. (1998). The arts as a bridge to understanding identity and diversity. In P. L. Dwinell & J. L. Higbee (Eds.), Developmental education: Meeting diverse student needs (pp. 3-19). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Jensen, M., & Rush, B. (2000). Teaching a human anatomy and physiology course within the context of developmental education. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), The many faces of developmental education (pp. 47-57). Warrensburg, MO: National Association for Developmental Education.

Kezar, A. (2000). Pluralistic leadership—Bringing diverse voices to the table. About Campus, 5 (1), 6-11.

Kulik, J., Kulik, C. L., & Schwalb, B. (1983). College programs for high risk and disadvantaged students: A meta-analysis of findings. Review of Educational Research, 53, 397-414.

Longman, D., Atkinson, R., Miholic, V., & Simpson, P. (1999). The ABC Reading Apprenticeship and task analysis. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), The expanding role of developmental education (pp. 31-41). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Mack, K., & Nguyen, P. (2000, Spring). Turning tables: Two teachers’ perspectives on SL. Community Connection: A Newsletter for Service Learning and Community Involvement, 8.

McKenna, M. J. (1999). Academic service learning and collaborative action research: Two roads to educational reform. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 3 (4), 112-114.

Murie, R., & Thomson, R. (in press). When ESL is developmental: A model program for the freshman year. In J.L. Higbee (Ed.), 2001: A developmental odyssey. Warrensburg, MO: National Association for Developmental Education.

National Association for Developmental Education. (1995). Definition and goals statement. Carol Stream, IL: Author.

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