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

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It is important to understand the college student experience 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, while others have to contend 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 student 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 years.  A variety of research, including theories and frameworks, provide reference throughout the entire developmental process.  Starting with identity development, psychology lays the groundwork for what occurs in identity formation during emerging adulthood.

A Theory Remix

This post seeks to build a bridge between student development theory and current social media activity and research on college students. I want to challenge paradigms and explore new frameworks.  Only a few theories will be covered, applied to existing publicized research.
Plug-in for this student development theory remix! Its backbone of is based on theories from Marcia, Chickering, Astin, Tinto, and Kuh.  Researchers like Junco, Ellison, Heiberger, and Vitak. This remix will push those theories even further by applying social media study findings.

Emerging Adult Identity Development14645058_s

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 is 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. 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).   Unfortunately, transitioning into college is not as simple as cutting ties with one’s previous self 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, becoming 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 those that are 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 are so invested in building and maintaining relationships online through behavior such as self-disclosure (status updates).  The vulnerability it takes to open up 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, it doesn’t necessarily mean they feel included (Wolf-Wendel, Ward & Kinzie, 2009).  Inclusion 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 efforts 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.

What’s Next?

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.
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.
To stay up to date with this research, as well as all my digital leadership educator efforts, subscribe to my monthly newsletter here!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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