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Developmental Complexity: A Foundation for Character­

April 29, 2020 Marcia B. Baxter Magolda

The following is an excerpt of “Developmental Complexity: A Foundation for Character­,” published in the Special 20th Anniversary Issue of the Journal of College and Character.


Developmental complexity, in particular developing an internal voice, is one of the foundations of character development. Here the author describes developmental complexity, its evolution over adolescence and young adulthood, how it links to character development and the five strategies to promote it, and how learning partnerships are one form of practice that could incorporate developmental complexity and character development across the college experience. 

Outcomes associated with developing character in college have been elusive despite substantial efforts to cultivate character in college. Of the multiple factors that mediate the gap between desired and achieved outcomes, I highlight one here—developmental complexity—that could explain why college students struggle to achieve the values and behaviors that comprise character. Developmental complexity refers to the sets of assumptions one has about the nature and certainty of knowledge, one’s identity, and one’s social relations (Kegan, 1994; Kitchener, 1983). These sets of assumptions are initially acquired without question from authorities, typically in childhood and adolescence. For many, the college experience is the first time these sets of assumptions are called into question; multiple perspectives about knowledge, identity, and relationships become more prevalent; and individuals are called upon to sort out their own beliefs, values, identities, and social relations. And while much is known about the process of shifting toward increasingly complex sets of assumptions, higher education institutions have been slow to incorporate this knowledge into academic or student affairs practice (Baxter Magolda, 1999; Baxter Magolda & King, 2012). Explicit attention to developmental complexity is necessary to achieve the character development most educators and students desire. 

In this article, I describe developmental complexity, its evolution over adolescence and young adulthood, how it links to character development and the five strategies to promote it, and how learning partnerships are one form of practice that could incorporate developmental complexity and character development across the college experience. 

The Nature of Developmental Complexity 

Figuring out beliefs, values, identity, and social relations is a major task most college students and adults face. It is a developmental challenge because it involves questioning existing beliefs and perspectives that have been uncritically accepted from external authority, weighing new information, and choosing for oneself what to believe (Baxter Magolda, 2001, 2009). Choosing for oneself stems from developing an internal voice to self-author one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations (Baxter Magolda, 2001; Baxter Magolda & King, 2012; Kegan, 1994). The assumptions we hold about knowledge and how it is acquired reflect the cognitive dimension of our development. Our assumptions about how we view ourselves and our identities reflect the intrapersonal dimension. Our assumptions about our relationships with others reflect the interpersonal dimension. These three dimensions are tightly integrated because what we believe influences how we see ourselves, and our identities influence the nature of our relationships with others (King & Baxter Magolda, 1996). These assumptions reflect how we make sense of our worlds and exist underneath what we believe. 

The Evolution of Developmental Complexity 

An extensive literature exists describing college student and adult development (for compendia of this literature see Arnett, 2016; Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010; Hoare, 2011). The overarching pattern in this research is a shift from uncritical reliance on authority to developing an internal voice to guide one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations (Baxter Magolda, 2001, 2009). Three extensive long- itudinal studies portray this pattern. These include my 32-year longitudinal study of young adult devel- opment from age 18 to 50 (Baxter Magolda, 1992, 2001, 2009); the Wabash National Study, a four-year longitudinal study of a diverse group of college students (Baxter Magolda & King, 2012); and Torres’s four-year longitudinal study of Latino/a students (Torres & Hernández, 2007). Collectively these studies suggest that many (although not all) traditional age college students enter college uncritically following external formulas for what to believe and how to shape their identities and relationships. They typically encounter experiences and other people who call their perspectives into question. Depending on the nature of their experiences and support systems available to process experiences, they begin to reconsider their existing perspectives. I labeled this period of questioning authority and figuring out how to choose one’s own perspectives the crossroads to reflect the juncture between external and internal authority being in the foreground of one’s development. In all three studies noted here, college students entered the crossroads during college but very few exited it to exhibit the internal voice that stands at the foundation of self-authorship. Students who encountered meaningful challenges to their perspectives and had support systems to work through those challenges were more likely to develop an internal voice prior to leaving college. For example, Torres’s Latino/a students were faced with very meaningful challenges to reconcile perspectives they encountered at college with their cultural and family perspectives. Establishing an informed Latino/a identity and renegotiating relationships based on that identity led some to develop an internal voice (Torres & Hernández, 2007). Similarly, participants in Abes’s (2003; Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007) study of lesbian students and Pizzolato’s (2003) study of students whose college attendance conflicted with family values encountered challenges that prompted them to develop internal voices in order to navigate their environments. Collectively, the research on college student development suggests that more attention is needed to help students navigate the crossroads to develop their internal voices during college. 

The adult development literature suggests that many move into adult life without an internal voice. Kegan (1994) estimated that half to two-thirds of the adult population in the United States had yet to reach self-authorship. Drago-Severson’s (2010) work with adult teachers revealed that many made meaning through the lenses of external formulas or socialized meaning making in which the perspectives of others took precedence over one’s own internal perspectives. Berger’s (2012; Berger & Johnston, 2015) work with adults in work organizations provided multiple examples of external and socializing meaning making. Although following external authority can be useful and appropriate in some contexts, the adult development research demonstrates that most adult contexts require the more complex developmental capacity of self-authorship. Berger and Johnston noted that today’s world is characterized by “complexity, ambiguity, volatility, and uncertainty” (2015, p. 1). This characterization aptly captures not only adult life but life on a college campus. 

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