Theory to Practice or “Becoming a Scholar-Practitioner”

While sitting in my introductory course to student affairs,  my professor, Dr. Robert Reason, repeatedly tossed around the term scholar-practitioner reminding his students that this is the pinnacle to which we should aspire in our work.   Thus, early in my journey as a graduate student I was tasked with the reflection, “Exactly what is a scholar-practitioner?”  It was easy to ascertain that scholarly-practitioners followed the philosophy and values of the student affairs profession as they completed good work in the field. But, what did they actually do?

McClintock (2003) includes three key points in his definition of this ideal.  Scholarly practice is grounded in theory and research, also includes experimental knowledge, and is driven by personal values, commitment, and ethical conduct. Scholar practitioners reflect on and assess the impact of their work.   Benham (1996) adds a problem-solving approach to scholarly practice.  He sees the work of a scholar practitioner as learning about or recognizing problems, examining them closely, and searching for productive solutions.  These explanations inform my role as a student affairs professional for I do, indeed, strive to be a scholar-practitioner.

FTCAP Internship

This awareness was awakened during my internship at the First-Year Testing, Consulting, and Advising Program (FTCAP) at the Pennsylvania State University during the summer of 2010.  My supervisory staff began my training with a deep introduction to the history and philosophy of advising and the unit in which I was working, the Division Undergraduate Studies (DUS).  I absorbed how the development and growth of the field of advising was contextually influenced.  Current issues and debates that today’s advisers face were introduced and discussed.  The scholarly emphasis of my training helped me to see the importance of the integration of scholarship into one’s practice.  My colleagues at DUS were models for evoking a true appreciation of scholar-practitioners . The emphasis among the staff for scholarly inquiry and debate drives the work within the unit.  Staff members are encouraged to learn and share their learning through publications and conference presentations.  I was fortunate to be indoctrinated into a culture of scholarly-practice early in my graduate education.

My new found appreciation for scholarly practice influenced my choice of an internship project.  Through daily conversations about their choice of major with students in my role as a consultant, a personal inquiry began to form.  This inquiry was driven by my past experiences as a K-12 educator and behaviors I was seeing in first-year college students’ decision-making.  I knew that most students begin formal schooling at the same chronological age, but due to significant differences in physical and cognitive development, display varying degrees of readiness behaviors.  I hypothesized that varying degrees of certainty in students’ decisions about their major were related to differences in cognitive development and other possible influences.  A rich review of literature on student development theory appeared to support this hypothesis and also raised the issue of the role that transition plays in both entry to formal K-12 schooling and the first year of college and first-year student decision-making.  A formal presentation of my learning and its application to FTCAP and DUS was well-received by my FTCAP colleagues and the DUS advising staff.  On this day I realized I was on my way to becoming a scholar-practitioner.  My presentation can by viewed at  FTCAP Internship Project Presentation.

A personal characteristic that has been an important part of my work as an educator is that I am a problem-solver.  This characteristic drove my decision to leave the classroom as a K-12 educator and take on the role of an instructional support facilitator.  In this role, I worked with parents, teachers, and students to develop effective intervention plans to help individual students meet collaboratively designed learning goals.  I likened myself to a learning detective.  As per Benham (1996), I find my role as a scholar-practitioner involves problem-solving, or in other words, improving practice.   This aspect of scholarly practice influenced my putting theory that I learned in my campus environments course  into practice in my graduate assistantship as an adviser in DUS in the fall of 2011.

CSA 506 Student Development in Campus Environment

Through my reading of Educating by Design (Strange & Banning, 2001) and class discourse on student development in campus environments I was introduced to the powerful role that campus environments play in student learning and development. Strange and Banning (2001) believe, “Students deserve nothing less that an educational environment that is affirming, energizing, challenging and productive.” Professionals in higher education have within their roles the opportunity and responsibility to intentionally design campus spaces to promote student learning and development.  Early in the history of our nation’s educational system, Dewey (1933) recognized the powerful role environments play in student learning.  He stated, ” We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment.  Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environment for a purpose makes a great difference.” Campus environments should also be designed to convey a respect and value for diversity and inclusion of all students of the community.  A class assignment, the audit of a campus space, taught me the power of the non-verbal messages communicated through a campus location.  I learned the importance of using the space to convey the mission and values of the office or division in which the space is located and of creating a space that will be perceived positively by all students.

My learning led to reflection as I continually observed the student waiting area of my space on campus, DUS.  Students  slouched in chairs, headphones plugged into ears, eyes staring vacantly ahead as they waited to see their advisers. The static bulletin board housed the same posters from the previous summer.  There were no artifacts to convey the culture of a unit for a diverse group of exploratory students.  It was unclear from this environment who or what mattered to the staff at DUS.  I could not ignore the loss of educational potential occurring in this space as it currently existed.  Was this space reflecting our values and our mission?  I thought not, and I requested permission to audit and improve the space. A major outcome of the audit was developed with the input of student participants.  Students from the DUS leadership council helped to create a checklist that welcomes students to DUS and assists them in preparing for their advising appointments.  This is in keeping with the DUS philosophy that students should take ownership of their educational decisions and make well informed intentional plans.  The checklist supports them in this endeavor and is a reminder of their responsibility to be prepared for appointments.

Another aspect of scholarly practice outlined by McClintock (2003) is that scholar practitioners are continually pushing forward, collaborating with others, and teaching the field to others.  They actively exchange ideas within communities of practice and scholarship.  When my assistantship provider encouraged me to submit a conference presentation proposal, we agreed that asking advisers to consider environmental theory in designing their student spaces was a timely topic.  At the NACADA Region 2 Conference in March, 2012, I presented a review of the elements of environmental theory, an outline of my lobby audit and improvements, and a template for advisers to use in considering their own redesign. My presentation was entitled: Environments Speak:  What is Yours Saying?  I am also on the schedule to present this topic at the ACPA National Convention in March 2013. This link provides the presentation delivered to advisers at the NACADA Region 2 convention:  Environments Speak Powerpoint.

Campus environments offered another opportunity to use not only theory, but research to inform practice. Taking a somewhat pragmatic approach, the project involved the use of self-collected qualitative data and a review of current research to design an environmental  intervention to improve an office or program on campus.  By interviewing students and a program or office staff member and by combining recent research with theory, information derived could be used to improve the practice of the unit.

During my summer internship at FTCAP, I became cognizant of the ever increasing number of international students on our campus.  I was also aware that students who were beginning in the fall semester often arrived just a week or less before classes started.  There was woefully little time to help them acclimate to a new culture both socially and educationally.  Through my research, I learned of the propensity for international students to depend on and get advise from their fellow co-national students often banding with them in lieu of joining campus clubs and organizations.  The international students with whom I spoke confirmed this information and also spoke of their difficulty in adjusting to the difference in American academic culture.  They voiced frustration with both social and academic assimilation and felt there was little time to adjust before classes started. The theoretical importance of engagement and involvement coupled with the information from the students and research led to an intervention that focused on an orientation for these students that was intermittent and ongoing.  My intervention proposed for international students to be clustered into small groups led by an American peer mentor.  The mentor’s role would be to physically lead students through experiences with academic resources, as well as campus events and activities, periodically throughout the first semester.  My intervention project was another example of improving practice with scholarly observation/inquiry coupled with information from theory and research. My environmental intervention paper contains a detailed description of my qualitative student and staff interviews and my subsequent intervention plan:  Environmental Interventions for Asian International Students

HI ED 556 Higher Education Students and Clientele

My class devoted to the study of student clientele in higher education afforded another opportunity for theory and experiences to ferment in the reflective dish of my mind.  This course was structured on Astin’s (1993) Inputs, Environments, and Outcomes model.   Changes in access to higher education for students and the historical-sociological contexts that influenced these changes were introduced.  Increased access remolded and diversified the student bodies on campuses.  Sub-groups of non-traditional students began to emerge along with increasing attendance of student from underrepresented groups.  Retention and persistence became a hot topic of study and led to the creation of models framed in various disciplines that attempted to explain the variables behind college persistence and retention.  A salient assignment from this class was to examine an important outcome of higher education and create our own model to explain the input variables and environmental influences that affect the outcome.  My prior experiences in education and especially, instructional support, led me to select academic achievement.  Extensive reading of studies that described the variables that may influence achievement along with a myriad of environmental programs designed to enhance it resulted in a network of intersecting lines depicted the complicated nature of academic integration.  Click on the link to see My Research and Model of First-Year Student Academic Achievement at Four-Year Universities.

Reflection on this activity caused me to examine my own experiences with student academic achievement in my advising practice.  It was uncanny how for every student I could think of; there were equally as many variables that influenced progress or lack of it.  Some students had difficulty with  social adjustment, some lacked self-efficacy, some became overly involved, while others had personal issues from home to confront. One first generation student who got off to a rough start displayed amazing resiliency by using all the resources at his disposal to make a stellar recovery.  Applying what I learned in the creation of  my model to my students reinforced that persistence and retention are multifaceted entities that cannot be explained by one singular theory.  Tinto (1993) suggests that the most useful information in his study of why students do not complete college is knowledge of the character, roots, understandings, and experiences of each individual who departs.   His statement reinforces why students and their individuality are the cornerstone of how I practice.


Looking back at the work that was assigned during my graduate study, I recognize that it was intentionally designed to develop scholarly practitioners. Assignments reflect McClintock (2003) and Benham’s (1996) characteristics of scholarly practice.  All were grounded in theory and/or research. Each student  was encouraged to select topics that were meaningful to his or her own personal interests and reflected his or her values. The overarching outcomes were to solve problems to inform better practice, and within every context students participated in a community of scholars and shared their learning with each other. This is an enactment of the pragmatic approached espoused by John Dewey who believed that education should take place in the context of real world experiences and problems that are of interest to the student.  Another feature of his educative philosophy was that learning occurs best through problem solving.  My education has been grounded in applying problem solving to real work experiences as well as classroom assignments.  I have become a scholar-practitioner. I believe John Dewey would agree.


Astin, A.W. What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Benham, MKP. (1996). The practitioner-scholars’ view of school changes: A case-based approach to teaching and learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 12 (2), pp. 119-135.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think:a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. New York:  D.C. Heath & Company.

McClintock, C. (2003). Scholar practitioner model. Encyclopedia of Distributed Learning. Retrieved February 10, 2013 from

Strange, C. C., & Banning, J. H. (2001). Educating by design: Creating campus learning environments that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.   

Tinto, V. (1993).  Leaving College.  Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press.


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One Response to Theory to Practice or “Becoming a Scholar-Practitioner”

  1. Philip J Burlingame says:

    I found this to be a very interesting and thoughtful post — thanks for sharing your ideas on the notion of becoming a ‘scholar-practitioner’. Like you, I found Educating by Design to be a very useful work. I often think of leaders in student affairs as, at best, being the architects of the cocurricular learning environment. In my own experience, I have seen powerful examples of how the physical structure of living environments, academic environments, and even faculty office configurations can have important impacts (negatively or positively) on students learning.

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