May 2013 Cover
Volume 81 | Issue 3
May 2013

Student Development Theory Series: Developmental Ecology

Tonisha Lane

College is one of the most transformative experiences an individual can have. Student affairs professionals and campus environments play a critical role in catalyzing this transformation for students. Ecological theories and approaches provide a foundation for shaping environments to elicit student development and behavior. In the third edition of Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession, Carney Strange posited: “If enough is known about students, environments, and behaviors … then student affairs educators might predict student behaviors and take steps to manage the setting to elicit different behaviors.” Intuitively, student union professionals know about students, environments, and behaviors, but ecological theories and approaches can better inform practice and management.

Theorists and Scholarship

Kurt Lewin with a classical formula, B=f (PE), suggested that behavior is a function of the person and the environment. The “B” could also be substituted for a “D”, such that, development is a function of the person and the environment. Thus, the environment plays an influential role in the behaviors and development of students and vice versa. StudentDevelopmentCC

Rudolf Moos, in his 1979 book Human Context: Environmental Determinants of Behavior, explained the interaction between the individual and the environment with four categories:

  • Physical setting (architecture and physical design)
  • Organizational factors (institutional elements that affect student involvement such as size or availability and variety of student activities)
  • Human aggregate (the characteristics of the individuals in the organization)
  • Social climate (the reputation of the environment)

Each of these entities influences the social environment in unique ways. As professionals move forward with union facility renovations or changes, considering how these entities will be affected is vital to the student experience.

Urie Brofenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development accounts for both outcomes and processes relative to student development. In his 2005 book, Making Human Beings Human: Biological Perspectives on Human Development, an evolved form of Person-Process-Context-Time culminated from almost 40 years of theoretical work. The concept of Person-Process-Context-Time connects the influences of individuals (person), their experiences with and reactions to their environment (process), their exchanges within immediate surroundings (context), and developmental change occurring during specific historical events (time).

The “person” component consists of one’s background, personality traits, behaviors, and attitudes. Additionally, personal attributes that “induce or inhibit” experiences within the environment are called “developmentally investigative characteristics.” Union professionals can initiate the “process” of student development by providing a wide range of activities and opportunities that may attune to instigative characteristics. For example, inviting a provocative speaker to campus can challenge students to think more critically about citizenship and democratic ideals.

The “context” contains four levels that illuminate the interactions between individuals and the environment. In the model, an individual is placed amid four concentric circles representing the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem.

Microsystems are the “activities, roles, and interpersonal relations” that the individual experiences in a face-to-face setting. In the student union, these may include friends, special events, or a job.

Mesosystems occur through interactions between two or more microsystems. Various microsystems can compete with or complement each other. For instance, one’s behavior and experiences in a leadership role may be similar or dissimilar to his or her supervision of other student employees. Individuals may perform well in one context, yet experience an inability to assert themselves in another context.

Exosystems are settings where students may not exist or actively participate, but the settings influence their development. For example, union professionals’ decisions about policy and student organizations’ bylaws and procedures may affect the environment of a college student.

Lastly, macrosystems account for the broadest level consisting of “the overarching pattern of micro, meso, and exosystems characteristic of a given culture, subculture, or other broader social context, with particular reference to the developmentally instigative belief systems, resources, hazards, lifestyles, opportunity structures, life course options, and patterns of social interchange that are embedded in each of these systems,” Bronfenbrenner wrote. “The macrosystem may be thought of as a societal blueprint for a particular culture, subculture, or other broader social context.”

The chronosystem is an important factor in the model. As Bronfenbrenner asserted, “The individual’s own developmental life course is seen as embedded in and powerfully shaped by conditions and events occurring during the historical period through which the person lives. … A major factor influencing the course and outcome of human development is the timing of the biological and social transitions as they relate to culturally defined age, role expectations, and opportunities occurring throughout the life course.”

Biological factors and social conditions shape individuals’ growth and development throughout their lifetime. For instance, the current emphasis on global warming may stimulate some students’ instigative characteristics to get involved with sustainability efforts despite their lack of interest prior to college.

In the 2001 book, Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work, Carney Strange and James Banning synthesized previous scholarship and proposed a comprehensive framework that reflected the “educational purposes and designs” of campus environments: inclusion, safety, involvement, and community building. Based on these aspects, Strange and Banning recommended using the following questions to assess environmental settings:

  • Do students, faculty, and staff have opportunities and spaces to connect with others on campus around their common interests, values, and experiences?
  • Are differences of interests, values, and experiences accommodated in caring and supportive ways?
  • Are decision-making structures and practices facilitative of participation?
  • Do symbols, traditions, and other cultural artifacts reflect and celebrate the community of the whole as well as the community of various parts?

Furthermore, student unions should represent inclusive environments that embrace the multi-faceted diversity inherent on college campuses. Visual art that is representative of different identities and cultures, physical space where people of diverse ethnic groups can congregate, and programming that embody a range of political persuasions or philosophical beliefs are ways that union professionals can ensure a welcoming atmosphere.

Utility and Application

Student affairs scholars have used ecological theories to recommend best practices for campus environments spanning individual development and group dynamics, the importance of physical space for diversity and inclusion, expressing congruent messages, policy development, and assessment. Suggestions such as having student employees and leaders create their own bioecological models may inform them about their development or “mesosystems” that pose threats to their well-being and success.

Some scholars have advised using ecological approaches to foster ethnic identity development. Some students come from communities that did not allow them to interface with people interested in exploring and ascertaining a greater awareness of their identity. Thus, students appreciate the uniqueness of the college environment in providing opportunities to engage in physical space and programming designed to recognize and embrace their multiple identities. Likewise, the various representations of diverse cultures observed in the student union—including different languages, cultural traditions, and ethnic food—can make students feel a sense of belonging.

Student union policies may cause unnecessary stress to individuals and groups. For example, professionals can be mindful of hours of operation for commuter students or adult learners, challenges to separate spaces for women and multicultural groups, scheduling restrictions on programs, and costs for catered events. These factors lie in an individual’s “exosystem,” and they may alter congruence, especially for affinity groups.

In short, recognizing that learning takes place within and outside of the classroom is an important connection that professionals can help students understand. According to Kari Taylor, in a 2008 Journal of College Student Development article, by having “an in-depth awareness of the individual and environmental variables that may influence the particular pace and path a student takes, educators can more precisely determine where, when, and how learning occurs.”


LaneTonisha B. Lane is a third-year Ph.D. student in the higher, adult, and lifelong education program at Michigan State University (MSU). She is also an engagement research and assessment assistant for the Neighborhoods at MSU. Lane has more than eight years of experience in student affairs including academic support services and residence life.
Her research focuses on underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines as well as institutional retention programs.