Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Theory Review Part II: Chickering’s 7 Vectors

By Olivia Stankey

In addition to Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and Support, Chickering and Reisser’s Theory of Developmental Vectors is one of the foundational theories you may have heard brought up in professional discussions at the NWACUHO conference.

To be totally honest, this theory is a bit of a beast, making this particular post longer than most.  However, it is also super awesome.  This theory was originally studied on white men, which determined the order of the vectors you will see below.  However, with more recent focus on applying theory to the much more diverse student demographics, this theory has been studied again, with differing results in terms of the order that students experience these vectors, depending on the identity focused on.  This current summary guide is going to focus on the original outline of the theory, but I highly encourage you to delve more into this theory and the newer research around its manifestation in regards to varying identities.

A key component of this theory is that it is not a linear progression (Evans, 2010).  Think of this as more of a spiral, where students are likely to go through in the following order (see comment about identity above), but can revisit a vector at any time and many be progressing multiple vectors at the same time.  Individuals who do not apply this theory properly often make this mistake.

The seven vectors, sub-components, and brief overview are as follows:

  1. Developing Competence
  2. Intellectual Competence
  3. Physical Manual Skills
  4. Interpersonal Competence
  5. Managing Emotions
  6. Ability to recognize and accept emotions
  7. Moving Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence
  8. Increased emotional independence
  9. Recognize and accept the importance of interdependence
  10. Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships
  11. Capacity for healthy and lasting relationships
  12. Establishing Identity
  13. Differences based on gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation
  14. Developing Purpose
  15. Developing clear vocational goals
  16. Make meaningful commitments
  17. Developing Integrity
  18. Humanizing values
  19. Personalizing values
  20. Congruence – matching values with behavior (Evans, 2010)

One of my professors from my time in graduate school remembered these vectors by saying that Chickering liked CEIRIPI (pronounced like syrup) on his pancakes.  This allowed him to remember each vector in shorthand – competence, emotions, interdependence, relationships, identity, and integrity (Foubert, 2016).

Fortunately, each of these stages is fairly intuitive, in that knowing the name of the vector gives you a really good idea of what the vector is all about.  Good naming Chickering and Reisser!

**At this point, if you feel you have a good understanding of this theory, you can stop reading.  The following is an in-depth example highlighting the different vectors. **

In order to explain this theory, let’s take an incoming freshman student and walk them through a traditional four-year undergraduate experience.

The first vector in Chickering and Reisser’s theory is called Developing Competence.  A student in this stage develops a sense of competence in three different ways: intellectual, physical, and interpersonal (Evans, 2010). For the sake of explanation, let’s name our student Claire.  Claire begins her first semester in college by signing up for and attending classes.  During this time, she would be developing competence in her courses through attending lectures, writing papers, and taking exams.  She masters content throughout the semester and begins to build skills needed to understand the material along ever increasing levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This increase in confidence and competence occurs in an intellectual way, but Developing Competence occurs physically and interpersonally as well.  In addition to being successful in course work, Claire joins an intramural tennis team and moves into a living-learning community residence hall.  Participating in this intramural sport allows Claire to build that same confidence and competence physically, the same way her classes assisted her intellectually.  And the same happens with her living-learning community.  Becoming part of a community and attending programs allows Claire to become aware of the needs of others and her community, while allowing her to feel confident in her place in the community and competence in her ability to contribute to the community.  Throughout her first semester, she moved from a low level of competence and confidence to a high level, successfully making her way through the Developing Competence vector (Chickering, 1993).

From here, Claire begins to form a romantic relationship with someone in her community.  Relationships can bring along a wide variety of emotions, and it becomes necessary to be able to manage these emotions effectively.  In the second vector, Managing Emotions, an individual moves from having little control over disruptive emotions and little awareness of their feelings to having “flexible control and appropriate expression” of emotions (Chickering, 1993).  During Claire’s relationship, she learns to become aware of her emotions, working through them as they come, and learning to process feelings before exploding.  Every time she takes the time to work through her emotions she finds her relationship becoming smoother, and continues to practice this until it becomes almost second nature.  She has effectively learned to manage her emotions.

Now it is time to visit home for the holidays, register for classes, and all around get ready for spring semester.  As Claire visits home, she realizes how much she has learned to do by herself, and while she loves her family, she starts to realize she no longer needs them as much as she did in high school.  She has learned to stand on her own two feet, or in other words, has begun the third vector, Moving Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence.  This vector encompasses emotional independence, instrumental independence, and interdependence (Evans, 2010).  Through realizing she is more independent and less in need of parental support, she is mastering emotional independence.  Claire also learns that she is able to successfully register for classes and feels ready for the next semester.  She is able to solve problems for herself; working through instrumental independence, and as a result of her independence begins to enjoy being a part of her family for sake of the community, not the necessity, mastering the concept of interdependence.

Back at school, Claire really hones in on developing her interpersonal relationships.  She has begun to notice and value differences in those who come from different places and background than her.  She starts attending cultural nights on campus and forming friendships with those with interesting and difference experiences.  She begins to consider options such as study abroad.  All of these thoughts, actions, and considerations encompass the next vector: Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships.  This vector addresses the development of “tolerance and appreciation for differences” and forming intimate relationships that are “enduring and nurturing” (Chickering, 1993).  However, developing this vector has caused Claire to look at herself more thoughtfully.

Claire now starts to notice these differences in relation to her, possibly bringing up discomfort with her appearance, her gender, her heritage and culture, and more.  She begins to wonder, “Who am I?”.  This wondering and these observations mark the beginning of the Establishing Identity vector.  This vector builds on the ones before it, allowing the individual to utilize past experiences, abilities, and more to work through this large question (Evans, 2010).  Claire, in struggling with her identity, may begin to see a university counselor to work through these identity issues in order to become more comfortable with who she is and develop a sense of self-acceptable and self-esteem.

From here, Claire may enter the Developing Purpose vector.  Let’s imagine she has been successful in her first few years of college and is now entering her spring semester of her junior year.  She is beginning to make commitments as to her career path, look for opportunities to enhance her resume, has been dating someone with the potential for marriage down the line, and has moved off campus and chosen to own and take care of a dog.  These different decisions represent the different aspects of developing purpose: vocational, interpersonal/family, and personal (Evans, 2010). She is making vocational plans by looking for opportunities, shadowing or interning with others. She is formulating plans within her interpersonal and family life with her significant other, such as potential marriage in the future.  And lastly, she is formulating plans for personal interest, such as moving off campus so she has the ability to own a dog, a personal interest of hers.

From here, Claire is finishing her last classes for graduation and prepares for her job after graduation.  She is entering the last vector: Developing Integrity.  In this vector, Claire is tasked with three stages: humanizing values, personalizing values, and developing congruence (Evans, 2010).  As she prepares to enter the work force, she prepares for the reality of balancing her interests with those of others, developing humanizing values.  She also realizes that she may be put in situations where she needs to use her own values to make decisions, and works to solidify the personal values she has developed along the way.  And lastly, she is ready to learn to how to consciously make her values match her actions, where she is able to balance her humanizing values and personal values into becoming a well-prepared individual ready for anything.

As Claire moved through the different vectors of Chickering and Reisser’s Theory of Developmental Vectors, she utilized many different aspects of student affairs, from Residence Life to Counseling to Career Services.  It is rare that one student affairs professional would see the same student all four or more years and be able to assist them or see them go through all seven vectors of identity development.  More likely, one professional may assist a student through a few different vectors. For example, Residential Life assisted Claire in her progress through developing interpersonal competence as a part of the Developing Competence vector with her participation in a living learning community, may have assisted in the Managing Emotions vector if she went to her Resident Assistant with any relationship issues, and so on.  But as she moved off campus, some of the later vectors would not have been developed with the assistance of Residential Life, such as the Developing Purpose vector.

Overall, this theory is complex, but can provide a framework and language around the common experiences and developments our students go through while they are with us.



* Chickering, A. W. & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and Identity (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

* Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Olivia works as a Program Coordinator for Residential Leadership at University of Oregon. She may be reached at stankey@uoregon.edu

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