A recurrent theme in student affairs professional development is the relationship between theory and practice. Reason and Kimball (2012) believe that professional practice should be guided by theory. To that end, they explored the differences between formal and informal theories. Formal theories often originated from scholarly work or peer-reviewed studies. They are more structured and have been developed in a context and experience outside of the daily routine of the professional using them.
“Research evidence and observation suggest that generalization of developmental processes to all individual[s] […] is a narrow and probably inaccurate view” (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010, p.360).
On the other hand, informal theories often come from deep self-reflection. They are less structured, less meticulous and often considered less rigorous from an academic perspective. That being said, they are tailored to the realities of a single professional and anchored in his/her beliefs. They emanate from personal experiences. Reason and Kimball (2012) believe that a combination of both formal and informal theory are essential to guide practice and develop professionally. They also argued that, in general, student affairs professionals already valued both types of theory in comparison with other fields. Their findings go deeper than applying theory to practice. They suggest allowing opportunities for professionals to reflect on their experiences to create theory that will guide their practice (Practice to theory – to practice).
Professional Development in Student Affairs
While several fields require continuing education or professional development to maintain the right to practice a certain profession or maintain a licensure, it is currently not the case in higher education and student affairs. Dean, Woodard, and Cooper (2007) have argued that
“Many professionals in student affairs are committed to continuing their professional development after completing formal schooling, [but] there is currently no mechanism in place to ensure that professional development happens consistently among student affairs practitioners” (p. 45).
Consequently, it becomes each professional’s responsibility to take part of professional development opportunities.
Bottom line, student affairs professional development requires learning new (formal) theories. But it also means creating informal theories and developing a professional identity through reflecting on lived experiences and applying them to other contexts. As a result, as professionals, we should build that in our professional development strategy.
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