Karen Kitchener

Karen Strohm Kitchener is recognized internationally for her contributions to the fields of counseling psychology and higher education. Among counseling psychologists, she is best known for her work in ethics. In higher education, Kitchener is best known for her research on reflective judgment, the process by which people become increasingly able to draw conclusions about problems that do not have right or wrong answers (called ill-structured problems). Kitchener’s work spans more than 3 decades and includes over 60 refereed articles and book chapters, over 30 presentations, and over 35 invited lectures, workshops, and consultations.

Kitchener was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1943 and spent much of her childhood moving from place to place as her father moved up in his career. Although her father’s ambitions for her were limited to secretarial work, Kitchener earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in education from Claremont Graduate School, and both master’s and doctoral degrees in counseling psychology from the University of Minnesota. Kitchener noted that it was during her tenure as a junior high school teacher that she decided students needed counseling more than they needed a good teacher. This realization led her to pursue a master’s degree in counseling, as she intended to serve adolescents in this capacity. However, after Kitchener received her master’s degree in counseling, her husband, Richard F. Kitchener, obtained a faculty position at Colorado State University (CSU) as a professor of philosophy, and Kitchener took a position with the CSU counseling center. This position proved to be a turning point in Kitchener’s career. James C. Hurst, the director of the counseling center, encouraged her to conduct research as a part of her job. This led Kitchener to conduct studies with Hurst on how to encourage faculty to use groups more effectively in the classroom. Kitchener was also influenced by Carole Geer, a counseling center staff member, who encouraged Kitchener to earn her Ph.D.

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During her time at Minnesota, Kitchener participated in a seminar focused on college student development led by her chair, Clyde A. Parker. Participation in this group was another turning point, because it sparked her interest in the cognitive development of students and introduced her to Patricia M. King, with whom she would collaborate for over 30 years. Kitchener and King’s participation in this group led to the development of a model of reflective judgment (based on William Perry’s model of college student development). Their model focused on the intellectual development of young adults that involved changes in epistemological assumptions and how these changes affect making judgments about ill-structured problems. Kitchener and King’s reflective judgment model describes seven stages of development and provides suggestions about how to assist students’ progress through these stages.

Kitchener has continued to refine the reflective judgment model with King and has also jointly developed instruments (Reflective Judgment Interview and Reasoning About Current Issues Test) to assess the development of reflective judgment. Their model and subsequent instruments have been so successful that several universities now use them as a way to effectively enhance undergraduate curricula and to assess student development.

Clearly, Kitchener has made significant contributions to the area of intellectual development. However, she has also been one of the most influential individuals in the area of ethics in counseling psychology, which is not surprising considering that many ethical dilemmas are also ill-structured problems.

Kitchener became interested in ethics when she took her first academic position in the University of Denver’s Human Development Counseling Program. After she was hired by the dean, James Davis, he asked her what she would do to improve the program. Although Kitchener thought this was a strange question to ask an assistant professor, she informed Davis that she envisioned changing it to an American Psychological Association (APA)-accredited counseling psychology program. Davis agreed that this change would be beneficial, and in Kitchener’s third year she was appointed director of the program. During the process of preparing for APA accreditation, Kitchener realized that the department needed to offer an ethics course. However, her husband (who also worked in ethics) suggested that ethics was not a well-developed area in psychology. As she was unable to find any other psychologist who felt competent enough to teach an ethics course, she took it upon herself to develop a course based on Principles of Biomedical Ethics by Tom Beauchamp and James Childress.

Over the last 30-plus years, Kitchener has conducted research and written on a variety of topics in ethics (e.g. multiple relationships, post-therapy relationships, supervision, ethical issues when working with clients who have HIV/AIDS, student affairs). These efforts have led to numerous conference presentations and invited workshops. In addition, an entire issue of The Counseling Psychologist, for which Kitchener served as the guest editor, was devoted to the topic of ethics. This led to the eventual publication of Kitchener’s book, The Foundations of Ethical Practice, Research, and Teaching in Psychology, which is now used by many departments as the textbook for their ethics courses. Finally, Kitchener served as the ethics consultant and coauthored 12 of the chapters in Ethics in HIV-Related Psychotherapy.

In addition to her extensive research and writing on ethical issues, Kitchener has also shaped the field through professional leadership positions she has held. As examples, Kitchener served as the chair of the Ad Hoc Task Force on Ethics for Division 17 (1984-1985), was a member of the APA Ethics Committee (1985-1988) and chaired this committee from 1987 to 1988, was a member of the Ethical Principles Revision Subcommittee for APA from 1985 to 1989, and chaired this committee from 1985 to 1986. In addition, Kitchener was a member of both the Educational and Policy Task Force on Ethics for APA and the State of Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board from 1991 to 1994. Through these appointments Kitchener was able to help shape how the fields of psychology and higher education conceptualize ethics. She helped psychologists realize they had to be able to reason through ethical dilemmas and arrive at defendable conclusions. In addition, she emphasized the importance of teaching these skills to students, noting that the field changes faster than the code can be updated and that the code cannot cover every issue that a psychologist may encounter. Kitchener’s influence not only shaped the way psychologists thought about ethics but also influenced the literature on ethics. As a result of her work, many textbooks on ethics now include sections on problem solving that instruct readers on how to reason through the ambiguity that is inherent in ethical issues.

It is clear Kitchener’s research on and service in intellectual development and ethics have influenced the fields of counseling psychology and higher education. She has been recognized for these many accomplishments. For example, in 1983 she received the Ralph Berdie Memorial Award for outstanding research on college student development from the American Association for Counseling and Development, and then in 1991 she received the University Lecturer Award from the University of Denver for her research. In addition, she was awarded both the Contribution to Knowledge Award (1992) and the Senior Scholar Award (1993-1998) from the American College Personnel Association for her work on ethics and reflective judgment. Kitchener was also recognized in 2006 by the Colorado Psychological Association primarily for her lifetime work on ethics. She was presented with the organization’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.

Although Kitchener has significantly enhanced the field of counseling psychology through her work on both reflective judgment and ethics for more than 3 decades, her contributions are far from over. Kitchener is an emeritus faculty member at the University of Denver and is currently working with her husband on a book chapter that will explore the philosophical foundations of ethical decision making in social science research. Kitchener also lectures on what it takes to become an ethical professional. In addition to Kitchener’s continual work in ethics, she also publishes in the area of reflective judgment.

Kitchener’s work has served to significantly improve the fields of counseling psychology and higher education. She has been an inspiration to many because of her groundbreaking efforts, tireless approach to research, and her passion for making a difference. When you consider these qualities, it is not surprising what she has been able to accomplish or what she will continue to accomplish as her career continues. Kitchener’s persistence and commitment to excellence has enabled her to become a true pioneer and serve as a role model for many psychologists, educators, and students.


  1. Anderson, J. R., & Barret, B. (Eds.). (2001). Ethics in HIV-related psychotherapy: Clinical decision making in complex cases. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Beauchamp, T., & Childress, J. (1979). Principles of biomedical ethics (1st ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1986). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (2002). The reflective judgment model: Twenty years of research on epistemic cognition. In B. Hofer & P. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing (pp. 37-61). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  5. Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Ethics and counseling psychology: Distinctions and directions. The Counseling Psychologist, 12, 15-18.
  6. Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Intuition, critical evaluation, and ethical principles: The foundation for ethical decision in counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 12, 43-55.
  7. Kitchener, K. S. (1999). The foundations of ethical practice, research, and teaching in psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  8. Kitchener, K. S., King, P. M., & DeLuca, S. (2006). Development of reflective judgment in adulthood. In C. Hoare (Ed.), Handbook of adult development and learning (pp. 73-98). New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Kitchener, K. S., & Vasquez, M. (Eds.). (1988). Ethics in counseling: Sexual intimacy between counselors and clients [Special issue]. Journal of Counseling and Development, 67.

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