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Ellyn R. Mulcahy, Kansas State University

Ellen Mulcahy.jpgIn a theory of psychosocial development to explain contributing factors to self-identity, Chickering (1969) introduced the term “vectors of development.” Chickering and Reisser (1993, 2005) further explained these seven vectors or tasks in terms of where a student may be coming from or going to in order to help explain the direction a student may take in their development. These vectors occur theoretically in order; however, in practice, these vectors occur as dynamic and fluid entities that are not static and may overlap or occur simultaneously. Students may not move through them in order, or at similar rates, no matter their age or stage in the college process.

These vectors of development are the conduit through which students develop their identity. Each stage or task is significant, but as a group they are vital. In biology, a vector is a structure that carries genetic information, such as a plasmid, or an agent that carries disease, such as a tick or mosquito. In mathematics, a vector is an object that has a magnitude and a direction, such as a directed line segment. The use of vector to explain a structure that carries, delivers, or directs us to information (of any type) is especially suitable to advising during a time of uncertainty that requires adaptability and the ability to both anticipate and manage change. In fact, it is during such a time that we should be particularly focused on transmitting information accurately and effectively. Fink and Firestein (2020) explain clearly that advising must change as our students change; I propose so too must we change how we interpret the theory we apply in our practice.

How can advisors specifically address and utilize these vectors of development in academic and career advising? And how can we do this when academic and career paths for our students are unclear and changing?

The vector of developing competence includes intellectual competence, physical and manual skills, and interpersonal competence. This vector, as with most skills, progresses along a continuum, from a low level of competence and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities, to a high level and sense of competence (Chickering & Reisser, 2005). These three types of competence emerge and are enhanced as one feels more confident in one’s knowledge and abilities. In addition, integration of all of these enhanced skills further aids to bolster one’s confidence over time, which then serves to drive the level of competence from lower to higher. This process would increase students’ self-esteem and ability to make decisions and give them confidence before moving on to the more multifaceted vector of developing purpose.

The vector of developing purpose, which includes the tasks of education, career plans, and planning a mature lifestyle, is of interesting relevance to advising students. This vector also progresses along a continuum, from developing and setting goals, making decisions intentionally, and establishing meaningful relationships integral to life’s purpose (Evans et al., 2010). Gordon (2006) makes several practical suggestions for integrating purpose into advising. Advisors can help students develop their purpose and be more aware of the process of career planning. Advisors can assist with the process of setting goals, both short term and long term. Advisors can also help students to understand that their values and goals are important to the actual decision-making process itself (Gordon, 2006, pp. 29–30).

Integrating competence and purpose into advising in our current environment must consider where our students are developmentally. Some students, given the right support prior to college education, can develop competence and purpose earlier or independently and be self-reliant in the absence of regular feedback or validation from other people. This is not, however, where many of our students find themselves presently, particularly our undecided students. Integrating purpose into advising sessions will be helpful for somewhat undecided students including unstable and tentatively undecided students (Buyarski, 2009). Very undecided students who are developmentally and seriously undecided may not be ready for developing their purpose and would likely benefit more from their advisors integrating development of competence into advising sessions (Chickering & Reisser, 1993, 2005).

Chickering and Reisser (1993) describe the third component of purpose as establishing strong interpersonal commitments and preparing for the purpose of life and development of one’s identity. This vector is idealistic however, particularly the third component, exhibiting a level of assurance of how the educational system operates that may not be possible for most students. This mismatch between reality and theory is likely founded in many reasons. The vector of developing purpose cannot be applied wholesale in the absence of robust support (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). Support is the scaffold upon which we continually must remind ourselves to hoist up our students’ and our own competencies.

Chickering and Reisser described key influential environments and their influences on student development (Evans et al., 2010). A mechanism of support is very important for students in the development of their competence and purpose. Major influences likely will arrive in the support and encouragement from teachers, advisors, mentors, and other support structures in a student’s life. Competence and purpose can be increased through meaningful relationships with mentors who will be instrumental in this level of support. Mentors can model and share their skills directly and nurture growth of skills and competencies for students, especially for those who may not possess the knowledge or self-actualization to take these steps by themselves. Advisors can operate as a key support structure, inside and outside of the classroom, particularly in a changing educational landscape with an uncertain future for students and advisors (Mulcahy, 2019). Development of purpose during students’ years in college can help prepare for decision making about choosing a career pathway, but also for the third component of purpose which is planning for a mature lifestyle (Gordon, 2006, pp. 29–30).

So how do we as advisors bridge practice with theory? We can use theory to inform our practice to help better prepare our students. We can learn from our colleagues, through this forum and others, how to better integrate theory into our practice.  We can encourage student-faculty relationships to offer students another mechanism to identifying mentors. We can partner with structured career-informed advising that exists on many of our campuses to assist with goal setting for future career planning. We can establish effective partnerships with potential employers through on campus programs, and we can help students with career planning and set them on a path to realize their goals.

Ultimately, we can look at theory with a new lens that allows us to refocus our efforts. The process of sharing information with students in an effective way is always foremost in my practice, so renewing my understanding of vectors of development has proved both instructive and intriguing. Doing so has provided another means through which I can support my students in this time of uncertainty.

Ellyn R. Mulcahy (she/her/hers)
Graduate Student, Graduate Certificate in Academic Advising
Director, Master of Public Health Program
Associate Professor, Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology
Kansas State University


Buyarski, C. A., (2019). Career advising with undecided students. In K. F. Hughey, D. Burton Nelson, J. K. Damminger, B. McCalla-Wriggins, & Associates (Eds.), The handbook of career advising (pp. 217–239). NACADA: The Global Community of Academic Advising.

Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity (1st ed.) Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (2005). The seven vectors. In M. E. Wilson & L. E. Wolf-Wendel (Eds), ASHE reader on college student development theory (pp. 181–189). Pearson Learning Solutions.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., Quaye, S. J., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed., pp. 296–302). Jossey-Bass.

Fink, N., & Firestein, C. (2020, December). Advising generation z students during COVID19 and beyond. Academic Advising Today, 43(4). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-Generation-Z-Students-During-COVID19-and-Beyond.aspx

Gordon, V. N. (2006). Career advising: An academic advisor’s guide. NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising.

Mulcahy, E. R. (2020, September). Timing is everything: Coronavirus and the chronosystem. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Timing-is-Everything-Coronavirus-and-the-Chronosystem.aspx

Cite this article using APA style as: Mulcahy, E.R. (2021, June). Vectors of competence and purpose: Transmission of knowledge to prepare for an uncertain present and future. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2021 June 44:2


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