Chickering’s Status Update: Student Development Theory Remixed for Social Media

It is important to understand college students experiences with social media from a student development perspective.  Woven into their daily lives, technology tells a story of their development, transition and college success.  Some students have a digital footprint as early as Myspace, from their parents’ baby photo postings.  Access to social media sites is typically officially allowed around 13, but students can find their way online earlier.

By the time a students comes to college, social media has already impacted and influenced their development and identity.  With no formalized theory of student digital identity, the transitions, stages or phases of social media use for young adults are not crystal clear.

Social media aside, young adults experience a significant amount of development during their college age years.  A variety of research, including theories and frameworks, provide reference throughout the entire developmental process.  Starting with identity development, psychology lays the groundwork throughout the lifespan of what occurs during emerging adulthood in identity formation.


This post will seek to build a bridge between student development theory and current social media activity and research on college students, in the hopes to challenge paradigms, and explore new frameworks.  Only a few theories will be covered, already applied to existing publicized research.

Plug-in for this student development theory remix, the backbone of which is based on theories from Marcia, Chickering, Astin, Tinto and Kuh.  Researchers like Junco, Ellison, Heiberger and Vitak push theories even further by applying social media study findings.

Emerging Adult Identity Development

The majority of college students range from 18-25, a crucial time in adult development.  Studies on this time period in a person’s life have resulted in many comprehensive theories on student development. During this period, teens move from adolescence into adulthood development.  As a whole, identity development takes individuals through two experiences: exploration and commitment (Marcia, 1966). College is a key period of time for both of these actions.

Theorist Arnett (2000) explains that emerging adulthood will be a time when skills are developed for social independence, career exploration, and maintaining relationships.  Further, experimentation of identity will occur.  Considering the internet and the college experience, experimentation away from parental oversight provides a laboratory of identity exploration (Gray, Vitak, Easton & Ellison, 2013).

The balance between exploration and experimentation as well as identity commitment is also highlighted by psychosocial theorist Chickering who proposed seven vectors of student development.  These seven vectors include:

  1. Achieving competency
  2. Managing emotions
  3. Moving through autonomy toward interdependence
  4. Developing mature interpersonal relationships
  5. Establishing identity
  6. Developing purpose
  7. Developing integrity (Pascarella & Ternezini, 2005)

Through this process, students differentiate and integrate encounters into their own values and ideas.  Chickering took identity development for college students into other developmental needs.  From a longitudinal study of college student social media use, needs and gratifications, Wang, Tcherneve and Salloway (2012) found a number of Chickerings’ vector needs were met.  These included aiding student development, success, and identity exploration through meeting emotional, cognitive, social, and habitual needs.

Transition to College

The arrival and transition into campus life for a new student is significant.  This successfully occurs through adjustment into campus networks through social, emotional, and academic means (Gray, Vitak, Easton & Ellison, 2013).   Transitioning into college is not as simple as cutting ties with one’s previous selves or previous relationships.  Theorist Tinto’s model of student integration (1982) states students have a need to maintain interactions from high school as they adjust to college.  Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) also explained integration as a student who comes to share peer and faculty attitudes and beliefs; being part of the ‘institutional culture.’  In other words, they learn the rules of the college game.

Connecting the power of social media to this theory, Junco’s (2011) study showed that through Facebook a student can support relationships, both those at their universities and physically distant.  Other social media sites have also proved beneficial to college transition.

Social media- including social network sites (SNSs), personal blogs, and geographically bounded discussion forums – may ease students’ transition from high school to college by providing them with information and social support, as well as, a way to find and connect with other students. (Gray, Vitak, Easton & Ellison, 2013, p. 193)

The importance of this for young adults is crucial in their ongoing development into adulthood.  “Communication with friends that occurs on Facebook may help young adults resolve key development issues that may be present during emerging adulthood” (Pempek, Yermolayeva & Calvert, 2009, p. 236).  This explains why students seem invested in building and maintaining relationships online through behavior such as self-disclosure (status updates).  The vulnerability it takes to open is a key element of intimacy development, another major part of emerging adult development (Mangao, Taylor & Greenfield, 2012).

When used properly, these tools have been shown to provide a medium through which a young adult can successfully transition through important experiences around the time of college.

Social media has the ability to connect students to each other and the university.  Two studies highlighted the potency social media has in transitioning students into college and retaining them into their sophomore year (Gray, Vitak, Easton, & Ellison 2013; Heiberger & Harper, 2008).

  1. A student’s ability to socially integrate is a key reason for that student being retained.  Further, social media fostered this integration, where Heiberger and Harper (2008) stated, “Students who regularly use social networks would be predicted by these theories to have higher retention rate than their counterparts who do not use social networks as frequently” (p. 29).
  2. Gray, Vitak, Easton, and Ellison (2013) examined social adjustment to college and what factors influenced successful persistence in light of students social media use.  The authors saw students who connected with classmates through social media; a by-product was a positive connection back to the college.  In this study, persistence likelihood increased (2013).

The ability to keep a student enrolled is only the beginning of the student success story; just because a student is engaged with the campus, doesn’t necessarily make them feel included (Wolf-Wendel, Ward & Kinzie, 2009).  This comes from developing a sense of community and belonging, so students feel fully connected and involved in the university community.

Campus Involvement

Alexander Astin (1984) explored college student involvement and defined it as “the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (p. 297).  Astin believes that a student involved on campus will be more successful.  The I-E-O model (Input-Environment-Output) developed by Astin places higher education at the core of a student’s talent development  (Wolf-Wendel, Ward, Kinzie, 2009).  As a whole, his model has five postulates as a theory for involvement:

(1) involvement requires the investment of psychological and physical energy in “objects” of one sort or another (such as tasks, people, or activities), whether specific or general

(2) involvement is a continuous concept; different students will invest varying amounts of energy in different objects

(3) involvement has both quantitative and qualitative features

(4) the amount of learning or development is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of involvement

(5) educational effectiveness of any policy or practice is related to its capacity to induce student involvement (Astin, 1985, p. 135-136)

This theory allows scholars to look at how students spend their time and energy through social media.  Researchers have taken this theory and applied it to Facebook activity.

  • With Astin’s engagement model in mind, it has been shown that the highest users of Facebook felt the most connected to their university (Ellison, 2007).  The impact of student use of social media and how involved they become was positively correlated (Junco, 2011; Junco et al., 2011; Mangao, Taylor & Greenfield, 2012).
  • Junco (2011) explained that when students were active participants, through posting events, pictures, and comments they were more likely to show that same activity level on-campus.  As this research has revealed, activity online may not lead students into leadership positions on campus, however it does explain the type of behavior a potential or current student leader engages in.  It also gives students more options for how they can engage with the campus.

16357049_sStudent Engagement

Building on Astin’s work, George Kuh gives insight into engagement of college students, “Engagement is conceptualized as the time and effort students invest in educational activities that are empirically linked to desired college outcomes such as interaction with faculty, co-curricular activities, interaction with peers” (2009, p. 698).

Kuh calls for higher education to play a serious role in creating initiatives to develop and foster student engagement.  This includes both in and out of the classroom.  Student engagement involves two factors, “What the student does and what the institutions does” (Wolf-Wendel, Ward & Kinzie, 2009, p. 413).

A number of factors position universities to respond to student engagement research and meet students where they are providing educational activities, both physically and virtually through social media.  For example, college students are documented as spending a great deal of time and energy on Facebook (Junco 2011), perhaps even more so than their university portal or e-mail accounts (Heiberger & Harper, 2007).

By paying attention to college student social media use, the creation of learning outcomes rooted in social networking sites and digital education can be developed.

More research connects student engagement with social media:

  • Heiberger and Harper (2008) and Junco (2011) examined Facebook and engagement of students, finding positive correlations.
  • Junco, Heighberger and Loken (2011) applied Chickering and Gamson (1987) seven principles for good practice in higher education.  These have been connected to student engagement, which include student/faculty communication, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, focus on time on task, communicating high expectations, and respecting diversity (1987).
  • In Junco, Heiberger and Loken study, Twitter was seen as a tool to engage students, which was imperative to their academic psychosocial development (2011) though integrating it in a course.  This was because of communication access with faculty as well as other students, student interaction with a variety of ideas, continual feedback, course goals communication, a vibrant learning environment and collaboration with peers that aligned with Chickering and Gamson’s principles.

I have provided you with social media research that aligns social media impact with student development theory.  At this point in the process, as higher education leaders we must connect the dots.  Minimal application and publications can be found that lay claim to a college student digital identity development theory or framework.

But it is coming.  If not from me, then from you, or us curating together.  What is crucial is not to toss earlier theories aside just because ‘times have changed.’  Finding connections and building from theorists like Chickering, Kuh and Astin will only strengthen the college student digital identity development conversation.  This post is only the beginning of this theory remixing conversation.  I will continue exploring this topic, digging further into digital identity development, digital competencies and digital leadership in the coming months.

What other theorists would you like to see applied to social media research?  Where have you seen theory place out in practice with students’ digital behavior?  What high impact practices are you implementing to explore college student digital identity?  I’d love to hear from you, please comment below to join in the conversation.

For references cited here, and many other social media and student development theory research, head to this post which includes over 100 resources.

14 Responses to Chickering’s Status Update: Student Development Theory Remixed for Social Media

  1. Jennifer Joslin January 9, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    Great post, great graphics! Are those yours?

    • josieahlquist January 9, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

      Hi Jennifer thanks for reading! When I do include images I use stock photos. These are from which provide free download and credit options.

  2. Krista Vogt January 9, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    Great post Josie, I just wrote my chapter 1 (justification of research) and used a somewhat similar line of thinking. My research focus is learning management systems, but, like you, I think we need to consider ways to integrate student’s digital realities/environments into the tried and true student engagement and development theories. An additional unexplored angle is the relationship between a student’s social and academic worlds (both IRL and digital). An excellent discussion of this can be found in Annala, J., Mákinen, M., Svárd, P., Silius, K., & Miilumáki, T. (2012). Online community environment promoting engagement in higher education. Studies for the Learning Society, 2(2-3), 75-n/a. doi:, Keep up the great writing and thanks for sharing, it is very helpful to see what others are thinking about HE and the student’s new digital reality. I don’t blog (yet), but I do try to tweet now and then @vogtkris

  3. @chrisconzen January 10, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

    Josie, I’m excited to see the application of student development theory to digital identity. While I agree that we shouldn’t “toss theory aside”, we do need to proceed with caution when relying on some of our older theories, as they were developed mainly among four-year college students. One of the defining characteristics of social media use is its availability to anyone with a device that connects to the internet. In contrast, most of our four-year institutions are selective in some way, and so their populations are not necessarily an accurate representation of everyone who falls under the label of “college student”.

    • Josie Ahlquist February 15, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

      Very true, appreciate the challenge. Much of the research is limiting on non-4 year/un traditional students. Taking what we have making it work only goes so far. Thanks for reading!

  4. Dustin R. January 16, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    Reblogged this on Higher Ed Geek and commented:
    More great stuff from Josie!

  5. Tiffany January 23, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    I appreciate this post. The focus here seems to be mainly on social engagement and relationship building which is valuable. I believe though that positive social media correlation to student involvement and positive associations with a university can be interpreted as a result of social media as a tool for these things or can be a result of the types of people which use social media. Such as saying when ice cream is sold, more assaults occur. It isn’t about the ice cream. It’s about the warm weather. So I would like to see further findings on these correlations. However, I am more interested in identity development and how social media plays a part in students’ lives both before and while attending college. Do students find more support online while they may not find it where they are geographically located or are they fueled by what they view as negative postings to do more activism or possibly those posts give them anxiety? Are students askew when it comes to Erikson’s Epigenetic principle because of social media; learning things (positive or negative) they would not normally be exposed to until much later in their lives? How is social media affecting students in the classroom because they can now look up any answer they need to online by either a search engine or a friend? I want to know how students are being affected developmentally by social media and how we as Student Affairs professionals can aid students in an environment that we can not attempt to mediate for them. I think this is a good jumping point into that research/conversation.

    • Josie Ahlquist February 15, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      Tiffany, thank you so much for reading and commenting! I appreciate the dialogue and the types of questions you are raising. So much research is needed to even begin to explore all of these.

  6. Paul Eaton February 1, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    I’m sending this to our master’s students. We just talked about Chickering, and naturally the connections with Astin and others is also very important.

    Also, I love the idea of theory remix. Great! This is exactly what we need to be doing in the field. This is brilliant!

    • Josie Ahlquist February 15, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      That is great to hear Paul, thanks for supporting.

  7. Jennifer Keegin June 30, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Reblogged this on jennifer keegin dot com and commented:
    Thought this was a really thorough article and wanted to share it with everyone.

  8. Don Lubach (@donlubach) August 23, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    This is fantastic work. Great mashup.


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