Self-Authorship Theory: Using Challenge and Support to Inform One’s Advising Practice

Allison Quinn, University of St. Thomas


Challenge and support: though a popular expression in the field of student affairs and especially in the functional area of academic advising, without a formal tie to student development theories these three words lack the substance to truly transform one’s academic advising practice. Therefore, this article serves as a reflective piece outlining how challenge and support can play a meaningful role in informal and formal advising settings. I explore the benefit of using self-authorship theory as a foundation for applying challenge and support to one’s practice, the value of the Learning Partnerships Model for both students and practitioners, and provide an example from my experience that demonstrates how personal narrative might inspire intrapersonal reflection on this topic.


How many times have you heard the three words “challenge and support” used in academic advising? I imagine that many advising professionals will answer this question with an affirming head nod and reply of “more than a handful.” As a second-year graduate student in the Leadership in Student Affairs program at University of St. Thomas, I have also come to know the phrase “challenge and support” well. When discussing how best to support students in advising and/or counseling contexts in my graduate classes, I find that these three words inevitably surface. Though a simple expression, I will admit that since taking a college student development theory course during my first year of graduate school, I have struggled to truly understand what Sanford’s (1962) theory of challenge and support means in practice.

As I reflect on my assistantship work and the use of “challenge and support” by colleagues and peers I rarely, if ever, hear Sanford referenced; rather, it seems that these three words have taken on a new meaning detached from formal theory. When I apply the concept of challenge and support to my graduate work I find that I experience a brief moment of optimistic light and clarity, thinking, “Of course this time-tested formula will help me solve the student concern or issue at hand.” However, that inspiration quickly fades when I realize that I do not know how to actually challenge and support students in practice. What if I challenge a student too much and drive them away? What if I am too supportive and stunt potential student growth and autonomy?

In January 2017, at the University of St. Thomas, I enrolled in a one-month academic advising course. I currently work in disability services as a graduate assistant and have found throughout my term that while I am not a formal adviser, informally I witness the same issues and concerns that students may disclose to their academic adviser such as struggling with time management, feeling homesick or disconnected from campus, or debating whether to drop or withdraw from a course. I enrolled in this advising course hoping to learn how to use advising principles and approaches to better inform my practice. While reading a chapter entitled “Academic Advising Informed by Self-Authorship Theory” (Schulenberg, 2013) in one of my course textbooks, I had a moment of realization regarding the idea of challenge and support. I read the following paragraph once, and then a few times more:

Pushing students to feeling uncomfortable runs contrary to customer service principles set forth at some universities and the helping-oriented impulses of advisors; however, to help students see and navigate the crossroads, the advisor must nudge the student into new territory by challenging extrinsic motivations and simplistic interpretations of situations. Done with appropriate support, this challenge can lead the student to develop higher levels of self-authored abilities, consistent with the learning outcomes of higher education (Schulenberg, 2013, p. 126).

This passage resonated with me. Having worked in several service-industry, customer-service focused jobs prior to graduate school, I found it refreshing that this excerpt named the fact that pushing students to feel uncomfortable runs contrary to the helping-oriented impulses of many advisers. The notion of “the customer is always right,” a popular expression in the service industry, does not translate to student development as the concept defaults to supreme support (for the customer) and no challenge (because servers want a good tip).

I still remember the first students I visited with for intake appointments in disability services. I provided them with a paper stack of support resources, told them about all the wonderful services on campus and then patted myself on the back for a job well done. Only after multiple visits with the same students to check-in on progress did I realize the errors of my ways. By sharing handouts, pamphlets and links to online resources, I gave students the information I thought they needed. However, my actions did not challenge them in any way to develop broader and deeper critical thinking skills. I internally grappled with the fact that I knew what not to do as a practitioner, but not necessarily how to proceed forward. So, I sought advice from my supervisor.

Translating Theory to Practice

I told my supervisor about how I understood Sanford’s theory from an academic perspective, but how I could not seem to wrap my brain around the theory-to-practice application. She nodded her head in understanding as I unloaded my thoughts for a few minutes and, while eating a sandwich at her computer, stated, “Yeah, we just read a blog post about this in my Ed.D. course – let me send it to you.” I nodded, walked back to my desk to check my e-mail and read the blog post titled “Can We Please Stop Misusing Challenge and Support?” by Gentry McCreary. In this post, Gentry (2016) argues:

When Sanford offered us his theory of challenge and support, he meant for his theory to be used in combination with other theories, to help us understand how students grow along a certain developmental trajectory…Sanford only works, and should only be applied, in conjunction with other theories (be they cognitive development, psycho-social development or identity development). It was never intended as a stand-alone theory to use in describing your advising style (para. 8, 10).

If you can imagine a confetti explosion, my mind felt similar. Which developmental theories should I use to apply this concept? I looked over at my college student development theory textbook on my desk, which seemed to look bigger than usual, and the confetti fun began to settle as realization set in.  However, then I thought about the aforementioned Schulenberg (2013) passage that caught my eye and re-read the last part that stated, “done with appropriate support, this challenge can lead the student to develop higher levels of self-authored abilities, consistent with the learning outcomes of higher education” (p. 126). Of course: self-authorship theory!

I excitedly paged through my theory textbook and re-familiarized myself with Kegan’s (1982, 1994) theory of the evolution of consciousness and Baxter Magolda’s (2001) theory of self-authorship and the wheels in my head once more started to turn. According to Kegan’s theory, “parents should support their children’s fantasies while challenging them to take responsibility for themselves and their feelings as they begin to perceive the world realistically and differentiate themselves from others” (Patton, Renn, Guido & Quaye, 2016, p. 357). Notice the mention of both challenge and support. Kegan coined the term “self-authorship” in describing a shift of meaning-making capacity from outside the self to inside the self. Furthermore, Magolda and King (2008) state:

The shift to self-authorship occurs when students encounter challenges that bring their assumptions into question, have opportunities to reflect on their assumptions, and are supported in reframing their assumptions into more complex frames of reference. However, college students commonly report that adults and peers in their lives tend to attempt to solve their problems for them rather than helping them learn to do so themselves. Thus, one of the myriad reasons that this shift seldom occurs during college may be related to the way advice is given and the lack of opportunities for guided reflection. (p. 9)

Again, note the use of challenge and support in this excerpt.

Challenging My Own Impulses

At the beginning of the academic year, I met with a handful of students struggling with depression. During appointments, some students expressed that depending on the day, getting out of bed and going to class seemed impossible. In order to help support students, I knew that we as a department could offer leniency with absences as an accommodation as long as the student met with their professors to discuss how many absences would qualify as reasonable for the course. Thus, for the first few students, I decided that leniency with absences made sense. I still stand by my decisions based on the documentation and personal stories of this small group of individuals. However, when I met with a student who I knew from my supervisor consistently struggled with attending class, yet still requested leniency with absences as an accommodation, I started to question the benefit that such an accommodation would provide. While it felt counter to the supportive graduate assistant I strived to personify, I knew that I needed to challenge the student to think critically about how this accommodation would help them succeed academically when lack of showing up continued to pull their grades down.

In this vein, Schulenberg (2013) states that “enacting self-authorship principles in academic advising settings requires discipline from the academic adviser to suspend the impulse to quickly resolve students’ situations and assuage their anxieties” (p. 134). Easier said than done, especially as an eager G.A. trying hard to connect students to the resources and services they desire or need on campus, all while making a good impression. I realized, as I revisited the basics of self-authorship through the scholarship of Kegan and Baxter Magolda, that in the same way we challenge students to think outside the box in a more critical dimension, we too must challenge ourselves as advisers to do the same. Schulenberg (2013) argues, “the self-authored student will not blindly follow parental expectations or expect advisers to tell her or him the major that will be the best…rather, the self-authored student will consider both external expectations and internally defined goals and values” (p. 121). Similarly, the self-authored adviser must also consider both external expectations and internally defined goals and values in order to avoid blindly advising students.

Related to disability services, in order for accommodation plans to best serve students with disabilities, students and accommodation specialists must both provide insight while also making a commitment to questioning.  For this reason I believe that Baxter Magolda’s (2001) Learning Partnerships Model serves as a solid foundation to guide students toward self-authorship in advising. By adhering to three main principles, this partnership allows students and advisers to create meaning in a space where challenging questions and supportive action can exist together, constructed by both parties.

The Learning Partnerships Model (LPM) consists of three main principles: 1) validate students as knowers, 2) situate learning in students’ experiences, and 3) define learning as mutually constructing meaning (Pizzolato, 2006). In reflecting on my practice, I now realize that I initially failed to recognize the vital partnerships piece of this model – I walked into intake meetings with students believing that I should be the one responsible for making sense of their experiences and background. According to Magolda and King (2008), “assumptions about knowledge and self lead students to view faculty and academic advisers alike as having the formula for students’ academic and career success” (p. 8). While I shake my head in disbelief now, I played into the lopsided adviser-student relationship I thought should exist. I felt the need to prove that I have more knowledge than the student in order to establish myself as the professional in the room. In doing so, I failed to recognize the knowledge the student brought to the situation.

Realistically, I do not know the ins and outs of every diagnosis. While I may know more about depression than dysgraphia, at the end of the day, each student’s diagnosis differs. Thus, instead of marching into the room with a bag full of literature to hand out and a pumped-up ego, listening and questioning must come first, followed by reflection. A student diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age five likely knows a thing or two more than I about what has helped them to succeed academically and what barriers persist for them. Instead of starting each meeting by telling the student that I have read their documentation and think X, Y and Z concerning their accommodation plan, I now ask them to tell me what they know of their diagnosis and I actively listen to their story and experiences before I even pick up my pen for notes.

Being a Partner

To conclude, I want to circle back to the student with depression who requested leniency with absences. While I knew that I needed to challenge the student on how this accommodation would help, I am conscious now that my initial thoughts of challenge came from a place of judgment. I thought to myself, “Why does this student think that this accommodation will work this semester when it has not in the past? They must be looking for a way to justify skipping class.” Instead, I understand now that I needed to first lay a better foundation by validating the student as a knower so I could better understand why the student thought this would help.

The truth may be that the student did not know what other accommodation options they had access to, thus they clung to old, prescriptive ways. Perhaps the student felt the need to meet parental expectations that weren’t a good fit. Perhaps the student was thinking something else altogether. Magolda (2008) states, “for those students who are struggling to listen to and cultivate their internal voices, educators can help reduce external noise, which can take such forms as peer, family, or social pressure, and draw out students’ internal voices” (p. 283). In retrospect, I see that my self-imposed external expectations led me to believe that I needed to hold all of the wisdom in the room. Regarding internal voices, neither one of us shared.

By not asking the right questions, I failed to gather information beyond the superficial layer of what previously existed for this student, which clearly did not serve their needs. As advisers, whether formal or informal, we need to remember that challenge and support have a place in our practice, but the theory we use to inform our approach defines how we translate these three words into action. I firmly believe that self-authorship serves as a solid foundation and a path to guide students toward greater autonomy. As advisers we can use the LPM as a means to challenge and support students by adhering to the principles set forth by this holistic model. As Magolda (2008) states, “coming to trust one’s internal voice requires cultivating it, questioning it, and refining it” (p. 275). Students require guidance and support and a firm nudge once and awhile, but so do practitioners, as my story illustrates. Therefore, next time you hear “challenge and support,” I encourage you to think critically about what this truly means in regard to how you serve students, as well as how theory informs your practice.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2008). Three elements of self-authorship. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 269-284. doi:

Baxter Magolda, M. B. & King, P. M. (2008). Toward reflective conversations: An advising approach that promotes self-authorship. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 8-11.

McCreary, G. (2016). Can we please stop misusing challenge and support? Retrieved from:

Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A., Guido, F. M. & Quaye, S. J. (2016). Student development in college:Theory, research and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pizzolato, J. E. (2006). Complex partnerships: Self-authorship and provocative academic-advising practices. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 32-45.

Pizzolato, J. E. & Ozaki, C. C. (2007). Moving toward self-authorship: Investigating outcomes of learning partnerships. Journal of College Student Development, 48(2), 196-214. doi:

Schulenberg, J. K. (2013). Academic advising informed by self-authorship theory. In Drake, J.K., Jordan, P. & Miller, M.A. (Eds.), Academic Advising Approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (p. 121-136). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Author(s)

Allison Quinn - University of St. Thomas

Allison Quinn recently earned a master’s degree in Leadership in Student Affairs at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She can be reached at


  1. user gravatar
    Tim Fricker

    This is a very good article and I appreciate the reflective nature of the author and the contributions to our thinking about advising theory and practice.

    Any decision to translate theory into practice is a personal one and depends on what resonates with the individual advisor. This is a great example of how the author did just this.

    For clarity though, I’d like to offer a couple quick notes note about the interpretation of Sanford’s theory, which is more than just balancing challenge and support. There is no mention of two other foundational elements of the theory.

    First, the student’s ‘readiness’ to accept a challenge or receive advisor support. And second, the important role of the ‘environment’ as a key element that may impact individual readiness, challenge and support.

    The author also noted that Sanford’s theory was never intended to be used independently, which is true, but I would argue that no student development theory should be used independently. In other words, supporting student development and understanding student success requires the use of a variety of theories all at once to have a truly full and holistic picture. Current discourse and theoretical work around ‘intersectionality’ is a good example of this – we need to understand the multiple, overlapping and ‘intersecting’ social identities that a person may have (race, gender, age, ethnicity, family status, etc.) and how this relates to the advising, classroom and campus environment.

    Each of these theories are all useful, and probably most powerful when used together. I also think there’s more in common among them all than differences.

    Overall, a strong addition to advising literature. Thanks.


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