What is Self-Authorship?

Self-Authorship is a term that cannot be described in one measly sentence. In fact, it will take many different diagrams to explain (and may I add, they are IN COLOR). But, let’s try it anyway. According to Baxter Magolda (2004), “Self-Authorship is the capacity to internally define a coherent belief system and identity that coordinates mutual relations with others” (emphasis added, p. 8). In this definition there are three main dimensions that I will define (hence the italics). These dimensions (see picture below) include Cognitive (belief system), Intrapersonal (identity), and Interpersonal (relationships with others). However, there are also THREE phases of development that constitute a person’s journey into Self-Authorship via the different dimensions (which will also be discussed). But, first let’s start with the three dimensions.

Self-Authorship - 1

The blending of ALL three dimensions creates Self-Authorship. Do you notice how ALL three dimensions are balanced in proportion to each other? There’s a reason for that. But, first let’s discuss EACH dimension, the development of the three phases that exist in each dimension, and what each of the three phases look like for the separate dimensions. Take a deep breath, don’t worry, there are a LOTS of pictures to help you understand this.

COGNITIVE – This is also known as “epistemology” or how we view the nature of knowledge. For example, is the nature of knowledge something that is given to to us (or the student) from the gods or authority figures (teachers essentially), or is knowledge something that we construct ourselves and is highly contextual? Just as the figure below shows, someone without Self-Authoring ways (relying on external formulas) will tend to “believe authority figures” and trust what they say is right or wrong, whereas someone with more developed Self-Authoring ways will view knowledge as contextual and weigh multiple forms of evidence before making a judgment. In most undergraduate classes, a student who is low in Self-Authoring ways will most likely be highly dependent on Scantron exams. These students KNOW they can memorize the right answer because it is given to them from the teacher (authority figure). Hence, they may get a big agitated when you ask them to write an essay. They may ask a questions regarding “the right answer.” However, a student who is at the crossroads or has developed Self-Authorship in the cognitive domain will begin to accept more than one answer may exist and thus will begin to look at other forms of evidence than just a textbook, the teacher, or wikipedia, to interpret their own understanding of the topic at hand. Take a look at the diagram below to better understand the cognitive dimension and what the different phases of Self-Authorship look like in this dimension.

Self-Authorship - Cog

NOTE: In terms of the “three phases,” we all start at the “low end” of Self-Authorship which is following “external formulas.” In order to approach the “Crossroads,” something important has to happen in our lives that makes us question the nature of our reality. Upon approaching the “Crossroads,” we begin to question our reality. Finally, upon reflection at the crossroads we develop Self-Authorship. However, each person’s journey is different and therefore it’s normal to “retreat” back to External Formulas when the crossroads becomes too demanding. 

INTERPERSONAL – The interpersonal dimension represents how important or dependent a person is on various relationships with others. Someone who has low Self-Authoring ways may be defined by any and all the relationships they are in and therefore make judgments based on whether or not they will fit in. Someone who has developed Self-Authorship in the interpersonal domain has authentic and diverse relationships but is not persuaded to take action based on what others think about them. In college the interpersonal domain showcases in group work for example. Do students just follow along with what the most outspoken and cool person in the group says or do they encourage all perspectives from all students and decide what the best solution is regardless of whose idea it is? The old saying “birds of a feather flock together” is a good way to view a student who is following external formulas.

Self-Authorship - Inter

INTRAPERSONAL – This is our own belief system and essentially our identity. How many 18 or 19 year olds do you know that has a grasp of who they are? Probably not a ton, don’t worry, there is a reason for that. I’ll explain that in just a minute. For now, let’s focus on the intrapersonal dimension. Someone who exhibits a following of external formulas really has no idea who they are and therefore relies on others to fill that gap. For example, when I was young I always wanted to be in a relationship because I thought the girl I was dating would be able to define me. However, as a I got older (much older) I realized that I had to define myself before I could date. Fortunately, I found a woman who shared similar values and now we are going to be raising a child together. How on earth are we going to project our values on him/her without hindering their identity? That’s probably a different blog. OKAY, I’m getting a head of myself. Students tend to follow external formulas for the intrapersonal dimension genuinely seek approval (as I did through dating) and are sharing their parents values or values of others they seek to gain approval from. Someone who has developed self-authorship has developed their “internal belief system” in similar ways they developed their understanding of knowledge.

Self-Authorship - Intra

So, if you’re following along (and you’re still reading) hopefully you can see how these different “circles” representing the three dimensions of Self-Authorship are related and combine to create Self-Authorship. Unfortunately, these dimensions, like muscles, can be developed disproportionately. The problem for educators is balancing the development of all three dimensions so that students can FULLY Self-Author their lives cognitively, interpersonally, and interpersonally proportionately. Otherwise, the “blending” of all three dimensions is not large enough to make a significant impact on their ability to become the author of their life and make decisions for themselves weighing all three dimensions (as the figure below shows).

Self-Authorship - 2

As a result of this challenge, balancing the development of all three dimensions in the college classroom, many studies (based on Baxter-Magolda’s work) argue most classes focus heavily on the cognitive domain. However, it shouldn’t be surprising. Let’s face it, we’re a content driven society. A degree from a major university tells future employers a student HAS KNOWLEDGE. However, what many employers are starting to recognize about recent graduates is that although they know stuff, they don’t know how to 1) evaluate information to solve problems 2) communicate who they are and 3) or work with others who are different. Baxter-Magolda found that due to the fact educators emphasize ONE DOMAIN, most people don’t self-author until their 30’s! Sadly, some people never FULLY self-author, imagine that. If you’re a fan of Pacman, you can think of it like the diagram below.

Self-Authorship - 3

One dimension (mainly cognitive) reigns supreme in the student’s life. They get stuck looking for answers, how to act, and interact with others. They never fully learn HOW to write the story of their own life.

In order to complete Self-Authorship, all three of the dimensions have to be equally taken into account when making major decisions. In other words, Self-Authorship is the ability to weigh ALL THREE dimensions in order to make informed choices that aren’t JUST based on an authority figure, other’s opinions, or what we think is socially acceptable. Therefore, the rest of this blog is dedicated to using the Learning Partnerships Model to help students develop Self-Authorship in the undergraduate classroom. OUR GOAL as educators is to help students into the crossroads so they can begin to evaluate the truth of knowledge, their own identity, and how relationships define them so they can begin to self-author BEFORE going out into the real world. Note that below all three of the phases and dimensions are together so you can better understand the dimensions and phases of Self-Authorship.

Self-Authorship - 4

NOTE: To learn more about the “learning partnerships model” please click on the “How to USE Self-Authorship in the Classroom” button.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Self-authorship as the common goal of 21st century education. In Baxter Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 1-35). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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