Executive Summary
Scott C. Brown, Ph.D.

Higher education has firmly fixed its attention on the quality of student learning. Traditionally, learning and development in college have been primarily researched by examining its component parts. It is up to researchers to begin to answer the sophisticated questions that are being raised about the quality of learning by our primary stakeholders. In order to understand learning and development as a complex, multi-dimensional, holistic phenomenon, a theory which explores how the college experience facilitates the development of wisdom was developed.

The purpose of this study was to explore how college facilitates the development of wisdom, a construct that subsumes and integrates a number of desired learning outcomes associated with the college experience. Campus educators nominated participants who have demonstrated the capacity to integrate the lessons they have learned in and out-of-class, on and off campus, and make meaning from those experiences as a guide to their choices and actions. Ten students were interviewed three times using an in-depth interviewing approach, and the data were analyzed using coding techniques from the grounded theory methodology.

An emerging theory representing the wisdom development process was based on a core category and five key categories. The core category was learning from life, a process of reflection and action. Several key categories served as contextual conditions that affected how often and how deeply students went through the core process:

A) the institutional environment
B) the student's orientation to learning
C) experiences
D) and interactions with others.

Participants that engaged in both reflection and action experienced some growth in one of the six dimensions which emerged to comprise the final key category of wisdom:

  1. self-knowledge
  2. deep understanding of others
  3. sagacity
  4. life knowledge
  5. life skills
  6. and a, willingness to learn.

This emerging theory represents the development of wisdom with the fewest possible concepts, with the greatest possible scope, and as much variation as possible. Implications for research, theory and educators are discussed.

Copyright 1999

Reading the Model

This conceptual model on wisdom development represents one slice of an on-going process. Every time students go through the crucial "learning from life" process, they develop one or more of the six dimensions of wisdom. All of the conditions can affect the frequency and quality of core process. College is one context where wisdom may be facilitated, but its development spans many boundaries. The dotted lines around "orientation to learning," "experiences," and "interactions with others" indicate the permeability of the development of wisdom, and how college-related and non-college-related experiences can interact in many aspects of a person's life.


Environment "Environment" refers to the general institutional setting and its multiple sub-environments, where orientation to learning, variety of experiences, and interactions with people might interact in various combinations to produce wisdom.

Orientation to Learning

"Orientation to Learning" refers to an individual's attitude, level of engagement, and potential for gaining knowledge when one interfaces with activities and people. Orientation to learning includes an individual's general orientation to life, the whole college experience, and specific situations, in addition to the person's past as it comes to bear on any new interactions. Orientation to learning is affected by a person's expectation, preparedness, motivation, and attitude towards the situation.


"Experiences" include any situation or activity, structured, unstructured, or incidental, including student involvements/activities, living situation, leadership opportunities, internships, courses, major, and work.

Interactions with Others

"Interactions with Others" includes all general experiences with people, dealing with diversity, influencing others, and particular relationships with friends, family, campus agents, and other influential people. Interactions with others comes in a wide variety-be it duration and frequency of time, context of their interaction, and the particular type of relationship.


Learning from Life: Adjustments on the Path to WisdomThis is the core category, which every other key category is related to in some direct or indirect way. Learning from life incorporates the whole process of collecting, processing, and acting on information. It is comprised of two primary parts: reflection and action. Reflection includes actions or interactions related to the intaking and processing of information, and connecting it with previous knowledge and experiences. This integration of knowledge can happen in and out of class, as well as on and off campus. Action generally refers to any changes in a student's attitudes, values, awareness, and/or behaviors. Action can also include prioritizing importance of information, assessing strategies, deciding on an option, charting a path, and acting.


Wisdom Wisdom is comprised of six interrelated and interacting dimensions: Self-Knowledge, Understanding of Others, Sagacity, Life Knowledge, Life Skills, and Willingness to Learn.

Self-Knowledge. Deep understanding of own values, talents, limitations and interests; personal authenticity and genuineness kept constant in a variety of contexts; internal locus of success/fulfillment/satisfaction in regards to relationships and goals; and, confidence in own skills, knowledge and beliefs.

Understanding of Others. Deep understanding of a wide variety of people in varying contexts based on a genuine interest in learning about others (attentiveness, empathy); capability of engaging them (various approaches); and a willingness to help them. Advanced communication skills enable one to articulate thoughts in a way meaningful to another person.

Sagacity. The ability to obtain, process, and act on information. Acuteness of perception, discernment, or understanding. Consider the big picture and understand how actions exist within eco-system. Ability to learn from experience.

Life Knowledge. Combination of "street smarts" and "book smarts." Capacity to grasp the central issue, find the way in times of darkness, and answer questions without easy answers. Understanding realities and uncertainties of life, over life. Know when to push harder, know when to settle.

Life Skills. Expertise in balancing multiple roles and handling daily affairs. Understand processes, anticipate problems, and utilize tools and strategies for dealing with multiple contexts in life. Practical competence.

Willingness to Learn. General curiosity about life. Confidence in what knowledge a person knows, and the humility to believe that they simply cannot ever know everything

Scott C. Brown, Ph.D.

Director, Career Development Center

Adjunct Lecturer, Department of Psychology and Education

Career Development Center

Mount Holyoke College

50 College Street

South Hadley, MA 01075


(413) 538-2075

(413) 538-2081 (fax)

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