Academic Advising: Then & Now
Think you know what an academic advisor is? Think again.
Think back to your college days. What, if anything, do you remember about your advisor? What kind of support or guidance did you receive in choosing a course of study? Did anyone ask about your passions or your short- or long-term goals? What about guidance on personal matters that might impact your studies?
If you were a student in the 80s or before, you likely don’t even remember your advisor(s). Any memory at all is probably of a stodgy faculty advisor telling you what courses to take, signing a paper, and sending you on your way. If you already knew the classes you needed to take, advising appointments felt like a chore, a hoop you had to jump through in order to be cleared to register. The process was transactional and highly prescriptive. The advisor was the doctor, the authority figure; the student was the patient, the underling. Advising appointments could be awkward, impersonal, tedious, intimidating, or all of the above. This prescriptive advising experience is analogous to teaching someone to swim by throwing them into deep water: If they don’t drown, bully for them. If they sink, well, they probably weren’t cut out for swimming anyway. Unfortunately, this way of thinking privileges those who already have experience in or around the water and leaves the rest behind.
Enter developmental advising.
Developmental advising, an outgrowth of developmental psychology, views the advisor and advisee as collaborators in a journey of educational and personal discovery. The holistic, student-centered approach emphasizes process, exploration, and growth, not just academic achievement.
To set the stage, let’s return to the swimming analogy. Imagine if, instead of dumping someone in the deep end and shouting instructions from the side of the pool, the instructor got to know the swimmer first. Perhaps the instructor asked the student to reflect on their previous experiences with and around water, helped the student determine what they wanted out of the learning process, looked at potential barriers to success, and collaborated with the student to create a plan for learning to swim.
This developmental approach is what advisors in the College of Arts & Sciences use today. The A&S Advising and Student Services website defines advising as “a partnership tailored to the individual student by teaching students how to utilize resources in order to achieve academic, personal, and professional success and empowering and encouraging students to think critically when making decisions.” Instead of the old “sage on a stage” notion of advising, the A&S team prefers the “guide on the ride” model. A&S advisors want their students to know that they are on this educational journey with them and are committed to their success—through both celebrations and setbacks.
Since a working partnership is so critical to the desired growth, good developmental advising begins with relationship building. Danielle Dolan, assistant dean for Advising and Student Services in A&S, encourages her advising staff to spend the first five minutes of every student appointment “ice breaking.” After that, it’s time to dig in and explore with questions:
- “What are you passionate about?”
- "What problems do you want to solve?”
- “Who do you want to serve?”
- “Let’s explore your values. How do they align with your goals?”
As a long-time advisor herself, Dolan views the role of academic advising as “not so much about helping students choose a major, but rather about helping them choose a purpose.” How does she convey that lofty charge to her staff in concise but illustrative terms? She simply states: “I need you to be the advisor you needed when you were younger.