Dr. Baxter Magolda opened by stating her enthusiasm for being invited to join the conversation at Kent State and briefly reviewed the components of the Kent State 21st Century Philosophy Statement. Baxter Magolda’s research has focused on a 22-year longitudinal study, and while speaking largely from her own research findings, she encouraged the audience to remember that each institution is unique. Baxter Magolda has identified three levels of students in higher education, introductory, intermediate, and advanced. Student examples presented throughout focused on specific aspects of students’ experiences and perceptions while moving through a given level.
Students functioning at the introductory level tend to focus on external factors, and look outside of themselves for answers and their identity. For these students, there is only one right answer, only one way of doing something, and they “don’t have a role” in learning. Audience members shared examples of students who request the right answer or very specific details on an assignment. Baxter Magolda noted that some disciplines (e.g. accounting) support this type of learning, which may only be surface learning, neglecting to foster deeper reflection. At this level, functioning often occurs through following external formulas, and students’ actions in relationships are to acquire approval. The intermediate stage is made up of students who are “at the crossroads.” These students are beginning to recognize and accept multiple perspectives while trying to shape their own identity and may not feel comfortable sharing unpopular opinions but are beginning to realize the value of these opinions. Questioning the existence of truth may be occur for students at this level. Students at the advanced stage are comfortable sharing their opinions and are able to question and act on their own beliefs, instead of those held by authorities. In addition, students at this level recognize the need to back up opinions and ideas with research, facts and justification. Moving beyond existing structures can enable students to engage in a truly creative activity, as they realize they “have a mind and can use it.” At any level, development and forward motion may be difficult and painful, as it’s “not easy to let go of assumptions that you worked so hard to construct, especially if you don’t know what’s coming” next.
Deconstructing, analyzing, and moving forward through these levels may not be an easy or quick process, as the way students have been taught to construct the world, and the accompanying underlying assumptions are the result of prior schooling, family and community structures, as well as personality and learning styles. Baxter Magolda cautioned faculty and student affairs to think twice about how students perceive what is being said, as it is easy for communication to be misunderstood. In addition, it must be recognized that faculty and staff play a role in the system that trains students in the development of these constructs and assumptions, but then get aggravated when they come through the institution’s door with them. Just as students’ ways of thinking about learning need to be retrained, retraining is also needed for faculty and staff in order to address their assumptions toward the learning experience, as well as examining their own development process.
In sharing practical suggestions to faculty and student affairs staff who working with students on any level of development, Baxter Magolda challenged common views on authority, and asked for recognition that authority is interwoven with individual behavior. As faculty, staff and students move toward self-authorship, this authority becomes increasingly shared, and can allow for challenging structures and systems that constrain authority.