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  • Pathways Toward Self-Authorship:Student Responses to the Demands of Developmentally Effective Experiences
  • James P. Barber (bio) and Patricia M. King (bio)

Theories of college student and adult intellectual development have shown that learning to interpret, evaluate, and construct knowledge evolves in a developmentally predictable fashion, and have offered explanations for the difficulties some students face when asked to make their own decisions (Baxter Magolda, 1992; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Fischer, 1980; Fischer & Rose, 2001; King & Kitchener, 1994; Perry, 1970). Unfortunately, research on what students experience is much more prevalent in the literature on student outcomes (e.g., Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005) than is research on student interpretations of their experiences. Neglecting to examine interpretation in such studies results in a limited understanding of the lessons students glean from their experiences (e.g., viewing the scientific method as a formula for getting correct answers compared to seeing it as a tool that allows for replication and hypothesis testing). There are substantial gaps in our understanding of developmental mechanisms that enable students to develop more adaptive ways of viewing the world, their roles as learners and citizens, and how they engage in healthy relationships with others.

This study was designed to contribute to the small but growing body of research that attempts to ascertain why given experiences have a developmental impact on student learning (e.g., Baxter Magolda, 1999; Baxter Magolda & King, 2004; King, Baxter Magolda, Barber, Kendall Brown, & Lindsay, 2009; Meszaros, 2007; Mezirow, 2000). Gaining more detailed information about the aspects of programs and services that positively affect student learning and development will allow collegiate educators to be more intentional in their programmatic, instructional, and pedagogical choices.


This study is grounded in the constructive-developmental tradition, which holds that people actively construct their individual points of view by interpreting their experiences (i.e., constructivism), and that these constructions form ways of understanding or meaning making that develop through time (i.e., developmentalism). Robert Kegan’s (1994) work falls within this tradition: he describes development as “the evolution of consciousness, the personal unfolding of ways of organizing experience that are not simply replaced as we grow, but subsumed into more complex systems of mind” (p. 9). His work details several orders of consciousness leading to more mature and effective meaning-making systems, including self-authorship, which is the internal capacity to generate one’s own views on the world, oneself, and relationships with others (Baxter Magolda, 2001; Kegan, 1994).

Baxter Magolda (2001, 2009) describes the [End Page 433] developmental process toward self-authorship as a journey in which people progress along a continuum from external to internal forms of meaning making. The continuum is comprised of three meaning-making structures that reflect successively complex perspectives. (For a detailed description of these structures across 10 positions, see Baxter Magolda & King, 2012.) In the first, individuals rely on external authorities (authority figures or societal expectations) to determine what to believe, how to see themselves, and how to construct social relations; they accept these external perspectives uncritically. Baxter Magolda used the term following formulas to capture this external approach to meaning making. As individuals begin to question these authorities, acknowledge the drawbacks of this approach, and reason more complexly, they enter the crossroads, the second meaning-making structure. As individuals work through the crossroads, they experience a tension between external influences and their emerging internal voice, and ultimately learn to use this internal voice to coordinate external influences. These new capacities lead to the third meaning-making structure, self-authorship. At this stage the source of beliefs, values, identity and nature of social relations are grounded in an individual’s internal psychological world rather than being dictated by those around him or her. Understanding and owning one’s views and decisions in this way are also commonly associated with the desired college outcomes, which Baxter Magolda argues “[stand] at the core of the contemporary college learning outcomes identified in national reform reports” (2004, p. 29).

Although most students make developmental gains during college (Baxter Magolda, King, Taylor, & Wakefield, 2012; Baxter Magolda & King, 2012), many are not self-authoring by the time they graduate (Baxter Magolda, 2001, 2004) and continue to...


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