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Theory Application Paper: College Student Development

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    Cognitive/Epistemological and Spiritual Development

    Cognitive structural theories describe the process of epistemological and intellectual development during the college years (Patton, et al., 2016). Rooted in the work of Piaget, these theories focus on how people think, reason, and make meaning of their experience (Patton, et al., 2016). Spiritual development is theoretically understood as object relations maturity and contemplative spiritual awareness (Hall, 2004, 2007). Social science literature includes studies of cognitive/moral development as measured by the Commons Model of Hierarchical Complexity and of spiritual/religious development as measured by the Spiritual Assessment Inventory (Hall & Edwards, 1996, 2002), but not of the association between them. Epistemology is an area of philosophy concerned with the nature and justification of human knowledge.

    A growing area of interest for psychologists and educators is that of personal epistemological development and epistemological beliefs: how individuals come to know, the theories and beliefs they hold about knowing, and the manner in which such epistemological premises a part are of and an influence on the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning. Perry (1970) was the first to suggest that how college students made meaning of their educational experiences was not a reflection of personality but an evolving developmental process. He provided an interactionist model for interpreting students’ epistemological responses to the college environment. A central contribution of the scheme has been the articulation of the dualistic, multiplicity, and relativistic points of view that characterize the epistemological outlook of many college students. Faith is differentiated from cognitive development theories because it is the activity of seeking and composing meaning from human experience. That is, faith is trying to make sense of the “big picture,” trying to find an overall sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Parks (2000) described spirituality to be a personal search for meaning, transcendence, wholeness and/or purpose. Therefore from this perspective, spirituality is at the core of religion.

    Moral Development

    College Administrators have expressed concerns about the moral developments of college students since the beginning of higher education, when college presidents were responsible for the moral character of the young men in their care (Thelin, 2011). Though colonial educators attached religious beliefs to morality, contemporary educators and researchers understand that morality and religion are separate constructs. Moral development in college students describes the processes through which individuals develop more complex principles and ways of reasoning about what is right, just and caring (Patton, et al., 2016). As we grow, we pass through distinct stages of moral development in which our ethical thinking is based on different principles.

    The second stage in learning ethics is becoming aware of rules that either punish or reward us for doing something. For example, younger children are most motivated by a fear of being punished for bad behavior, but become more concerned with the rewards of good behavior as they get older. By the time youth enter the teen years, punishment and reward are less important because of social norms/identity and a desire to fit in and to be liked. This is observed most obviously in things like a teen’s taste in clothes or music, but it has a tremendous influence on how they behave as well. However, towards the end of adolescence, many people develop a personal morality that is independent from the laws and values of their society. They may share many ideas about what’s right and wrong with others, but they may also believe and act based on principles that they consider to be right, even if society believes they are wrong. An example of this would be people who were apart of the Civil Rights era that committed acts which were both illegal and considered morally wrong by their society in order to bring about social change, justice and equality. The later stages don’t replace the earlier ones; they add another way of thinking about right and wrong, but even as adults we will often act out of a desire to abide by social norms, to get a reward or to avoid punishment. The most basic element of ethics is empathy, which is the ability to imagine and understand how other people are feeling. We usually begin to learn empathy as toddlers, but whether we continue to learn it and practice it depends largely on what we’re taught. What we are taught plays a part in our moral beliefs and values, being raised by parents or guardians teaching us what’s right or wrong.

    How do we really know what is right or wrong? Parents and family provide the initial grounds for the determination between right and wrong, teaching things that you should or shouldn’t do as a child. Educators teach the principle of honesty by expecting students to perform their own work without copying the work of others, punctuality through an expectation that a student must arrive to school or class on time, and responsibility through class assignments. Religious leaders teach the principle of respecting others through bible verses and stories, like don’t do anything to anyone else that you wouldn’t want someone else to do unto you. We tend to follow policies and rules based on consequences, resulting in breaking the rules. Essentially, that is how we know what’s right and wrong. How do we make ethical decisions? Research has found that when we do something for ethical reasons we follow a four-step process. For example, the first step is simply identifying the situation as a moral issue. If we see something as an ethical question, we’re more likely to think carefully about it before taking action. The second step is to understand the issue emotionally by applying empathy to the situation.

    The third step is being willing to set aside personal motivation in order to make a moral decision that may not be in our best interest. Finally, to make a moral decision we may need to be able to act against public opposition if our personal morals conflict with social codes or attitudes (n.d.). Then the next question arises, are we to be rational or do we follow our intuition or senses? Which is more reliable? Defining the difference between ethics and morals, beliefs or values can be difficult. Our values are those things we consider important, beliefs are those things that we understand to be true without perfect evidence to support that truth, and morals are standards by which we decide what is right or wrong. With these definitions in mind, we may decide that morals and ethics are the same, with beliefs and values determining our ethics and morals, depending on our definition of ethics. This would be true based on my definition of ethics however, everyone has their own beliefs as to what is right or wrong and their own morals.

    Student Views on Knowledge

    Knowledge generally refers to the facts, concepts, theories, and principles that are taught and learned in specific academic courses, rather than skills, such as reading, writing or researching, in which student learn in school. Knowledge can also be gained from life experiences and information being gained from when learning something, even if being taught by someone or something. In interviewing an undergrad first- year student (student 1) versus a graduate student (student 2), I noticed their definitions were slightly different when asked what it meant to them. Student 1 explained knowledge is the gaining and understanding of everything that comes across to you. In a sense, he was attributing you gain knowledge when you are faced with things because it can be a learning experience.

    “Life is a learning experience so knowledge is gained every day,” as he quotes. Student 2’s explanation of knowledge was slightly different but relatable. His definition stated knowledge is when you learn a lot of things in school and you are able to apply it to your everyday experiences. One ongoing debate related to content knowledge is the distinction between knowledge and skills and whether it is more important for schools to focus on the teaching of knowledge or the teaching of skills. Some educators argue that it’s not possible to teach academic and intellectual skills like reading, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, and researching separate from knowledge and conceptual understanding, being that students cannot learn to write well if they don’t have ideas, facts, principles and philosophies on what to write about. Others may argue that the “knowledge vs. skill” debate is not only a distraction since students need to be taught both knowledge and skills but that it’s a false dichotomy because it is impossible to learn skills without content or learn content without skills. Students assess worth and credibility of knowledge and new information by evaluating their sources and using credible sources. It also relates to being epistemological and relating to validity and the distinction between justified belief and opinion. What makes justifications valid? Student 1 stated justifications are valid when points, facts and how you believe is correct, when the other person’s way isn’t. Having faith in yourself and what you express makes a justification valid. Student 2 had the same views. He stated facts make everything valid.

    How do you know if it’s biased? When asking my interviewees this question, they related it to validity. Student one explained if he has to second guess the answer then it’s biased but student 2 claimed everyone is biased! He stated, “everyone will have their own beliefs and opinions/ feelings towards something they believe is true. We are all human.” So that’s why he related being rational is more reliable than anything because rationality focusses on facts rather than opinions and beliefs. He believes in the truth over anything. Student 1 believes in relying on intuition over being rational or relying on senses. He feels validity and credibility lies from your inner “gut feeling”.

    Influences on Values

    What influences behavior or values? Values can be influenced by culture, tradition, also known as racial identity, along with a combination of internal and external factors, such as social identity. Values determine what individuals find important in their daily life and help to shape their behavior in each situation they encounter. Values often strongly influence both attitude and behavior. Values are also thought to develop in various stages during a person’s upbringing, and they remain relatively consistent as children mature into adults. This ties into moral development. When interviewing my students, a lot of their answers reflected on their values and beliefs. It related to them learning and instilling values and important lessons from not alone life, but parents and teachers.

    Those values help to give them the guidance they need in making life decisions, morally and ethically. They know the difference between right and wrong from being taught and disciplined at an early age. It helps them to be the person they are today and make the types of decisions they make, knowing the possible outcomes. Values are an important element that affects individuals and how they behave towards others. Culture is also largely relevant to how values shape behavior, as a given organizational culture can create camaraderie and social interdependence. When relating to culture and religion, a lot of values can be instilled by principles you follow. For example, both student 1 and 2 are Christians. Therefore, they follow the values based on how God wants them to live on earth and what principles are stated in the bible. This is where their epistemological beliefs and moral development derive from. It’s the difference between deciding to steal or pay for an item. It’s the difference between lying and telling the truth. They justify and defend their values based on this.

    Learning Style

    The term “learning styles” speaks to the understanding that every student learns differently. Technically, an individual’s learning style refers to the preferential way in which the student absorbs, processes, comprehends and retains information. When asking student 1 his learning style, he stated he is a hands-on learner. This simply means he has to learn being taught while performing the task or duty. “My attention span is short and I lose focus if I cannot perform while learning and understanding how it’s done. Interaction is key for me”, he stated. Student 2 is opposite. He is a visual learner and must see it first hand and have it explained to him before performing or trying to do it on his own. “It’s important for me to visualize it”, he stated. Learning styles are what make people different in succeeding at different ventures. Dissenting views were not a concern for student 1 or 2. Student 1 stated, “he can care less what anybody thinks and doesn’t fold or confirm to peer pressure.” Student 2 stated he values dissenting views since everyone has their own opinions and is open to it, but must be approached in the right manner. He likes to take in other people’s thoughts for efficiency rather than take it personal. It helps to see things from other points of views, in which he probably wouldn’t have even thought of.


    In conclusion, as stated earlier, cognitive, epistemological, moral, and spiritual development are very much intertwined. My interviewees’ ability to succeed in college derives from their moral developments and racial/ social identities. The variables influencing the development of moral reasoning in college include educational level, and age (King and Mayhew, 2005) in this case. There were apparent differences found in responses given when interviewed because of this. When asked about Social issues, views were opposite. For example, Student 1 agreed with higher education cost being too high, while student 2 disagreed and stated the cost are moderate but shouldn’t be increased. Morally, epistemology and spiritual development are linked together in many students who make cognitive decisions. Faith plays a major role in making moral and ethical decisions and will be the difference in students portraying ethical behavior.


    1. Ethical Development | MediaSmarts. (n.d.). Retrieved from
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    3. Hall, T. W., & Edwards, K. J. (2002). The Spiritual Assessment Inventory: A theistic model and measure for assessing spiritual development. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, 341-357.
    4. Hall, T. W. (2004). Christian spirituality and mental health: A relational spirituality paradigm for empirical research. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 23, 66- 81.
    5. Hall, T. W. (2007). Psychoanalysis, attachment, and spirituality Part II: The spiritual stories we live by. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35, 28-42.
    6. King, P.M., & Mayhew, M.J. (2005). Theory and research on the development of moral reasoning among college students. In J.C. Smart (Ed), Higher education: handbook of theory and research, vol. XIX (pp. 375-440) Netherlands Springer.
    7. Parks, S. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    8. Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A., Guido, F. M., Quaye, S. J. (2016). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.
    9. Perry, W. G. (l 970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
    10. Thelin, J.R., (2011). A history of American higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Pess.

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