Answer to "Why is an understanding of developmental theories important?"


During the time that most students are at medical school they are in the late adolescence/ early adult lifespan developmental stage. This lifespan transition frequently challenges the personal strengths of the students as they experience the numerous situations, both planned and unplanned, whilst at medical school. Understanding developmental theories offers useful insights into why some students experience difficulty and how effective support can be provided.



  • The late adolescence/ early adult lifespan developmental stage is a time of identity formation and students may be challenged by this process. An important aspect of an individual’s sense of identity is the complex intersection of multiple social identities (including gender, sexual orientation, race and religion) and an essential process of the developmental stage is the attempt to resolve the tensions at the intersections between the multiple identities.


  • In addition to identity formation, the late adolescence/ early adult lifespan developmental stage is a time when their worldview is challenged, with the loss of the certainty of knowledge (with an appreciation that no longer is there a simple right or wrong answer) and ambivalence about inter-personal relationships (with increasing recognition that are aspects of any relationship that they prefers or dislikes).


  • Students will often experience difficulties when there is active engagement with situations, either planned as an educational event or unplanned during encounters, in which there is a perceived threat to their identity and worldview. This has implications for appropriate planning and support of teaching, whether formal or informal, since these situations are often designed to challenge students but may provoke distress and lead to students in difficulty. In addition, the intensity of provocation for an individual student may be unexpected but is a ‘normal’ reaction to a challenging situation.





Patton LD, Renn KA, Guido FM, Quaye SJ (2016)  Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. John Wiley & Sons: New York ;

Jones SR. Abes ES (2013) Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. John Wiley & Sons: New York ;

Magolda MB, King PM. Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship. Stylus Publishing: Sterling, VA; 2004.

Sandars J, Patel R, Steele H, McAreavey M (2014)  Developmental student support in undergraduate medical education: AMEE Guide No. 92. Medical Teacher. 36(12):1015-26.