An End to Checklist Thinking: Learning-Centered Advising in Practice
Elizabeth Wilcox, Sr. Consultant for Advising, UC Berkeley
New Directions: Advising as a Locus of Learning
Much recent attention has been focused on the contributions of advising to teaching and learning. Advising is, as Marc Lowenstein (2013) suggested, not a service, but a “locus of learning” (p. 245) for helping students understand the “logic of their curricula” (p. 245). New advising approaches and methods have also helped leverage the important interpretive and meaning-making functions of advising (Hermeneutics), learning processes (learner-centered), and developmental methods of advising such as reflective, open-ended, and call and response (i.e., Strengths Based, Appreciative, Socratic) as opposed to prescriptive methods of advising (telling, showing, informing, etc.) (Musser & Yoder, 2013). Within NACADA, the advising role is now more commonly discussed, understood, and accepted as a teaching role than ever before (Lowenstein, 2005).
On my own campus, technological developments have shifted advising functions and roles as many of the classic information-giving responsibilities of advising are now automated (articulation, degree checks, pre-populated academic planners, etc.). Professional preparation and training of advisors has become formalized and more rigorous (as evidenced through the demand for and growth of advising-related advanced degree programs and the hiring of specialists with training and experience) and continuous learning is now widely recognized as necessary to maintaining the quality of campus-wide advising programs.
These changes coincide with other important shifts in teaching and learning nationally: outcomes and competency based education (Spady, 1994), a focus on active learning (value on process over product) (Angelo, 1993), student-driven and personalized learning (Jones, 2007), an increased focus on high impact learning opportunities (Kuh, 2008), culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995), and a focus on the importance of non-cognitive factors in student success (grit, growth mind-set, resilience, emotional self-regulation, etc.) (Duckworth, Peterson, Mathews, & Kelly, 2007; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014). The teaching and learning functions of advising are now more important than ever and represent exciting new directions for the field. Advising is now better aligned with the activities of faculty, and perceptions of the advising role from service provider to educator (Drake, Jordan, & Miller, 2013) continue to advance and evolve.
The New Toolbox: Approaches and Methods on a Continuum
As advisors are trained and prepared for their roles, they are introduced to a wide range of approaches, each with distinct purposes and methods. Advisors often define themselves and their practice through alignment with one or more specific approach. For example, advisors and even entire campuses may define themselves as strengths-based or appreciative, helping to distinguish the method of advising they value and use in every-day interactions. In actual practice, however, and as the advising practice matures, most interactions require the use of a wide range of approaches and methods in a single interaction, and few interactions offer opportunities for a pure method approach. As identified by Elizabeth Storer (as quoted in Wilcox, 2015), the mature, sophisticated, and highly effective advisor “understands that every advising interaction is unique.” In practice, advisors have “the ability to adapt their style, technique, and strategies to meet individual needs and situations” by applying the right method(s) at the right time and by blending and synthesizing methods as needed. Advisors must also shift skillfully between passive forms of advising (prescriptive, intrusive, and transactional [Jacobsen, 2014]), where the advisor does more talking than listening, to active forms of advising (facilitating, coaching, mentoring, and academic counseling), where the student does more talking than the advisor. For example, in advising sessions, probationary students are often informed of minimum GPA standards and the consequences of failing to meet these standards (student is passive, advisor describes and informs). In the same interactions, the advisor might incorporate open-ended questions to evaluate the student’s experiences, interests, and strengths (strengths-based approach), to increase motivation (motivational interviewing techniques), while also taking time to discuss study strategies as well as academic choices (the student is actively engaged, reflects and creates new goals).
The new advising toolbox then, is better described as a continuum, with active and passive end points, than as a box of disparate strategies. Often described as a single method of advising, learning-centered advising is actually the base and anchor of this continuum since it is essentially the heart and soul of all our advising interactions. Whether the form is passive or active and no matter what approach is used, the ultimate outcome of all academic advising is to facilitate the learning process (Campbell & Nutt, 2008) and to help propel students through important transition points and milestones: deepening learning, growth, discovery, and meaning-making, while improving performance, progress and persistence, and connectedness with people, opportunities, and the institution. The image below helps to illustrate how this new idea of toolbox as a continuum works in practice.
*If you would like an accessible version of the images within this article, please contact the NACADA Executive office at email@example.com
From Checklist to Meaning-Making
The ultimate benefit of conceptualizing the advising toolbox as a blended and synthesized approach is that advising becomes less prescriptive and more tailored to individual student needs, circumstances, and objectives. This method also enhances the advisor’s ability to help personalize the learning process and experience. Advisors have historically offered descriptions and tracking of degree progress through the use of checklists that provide an overview of requirements. Though good for progress tracking, the limitation of checklist thinking is that the student’s experience of the courses on that checklist will differ depending on the student’s experience in the classroom and their personal goals and objectives.
This student experience of the curriculum is consistent with the critical personalizing and meaning-making processes that hermeneutic theory describes in wonderful detail. For example, requirement A, B, and, C might appear on an advising checklist with requirement B identified as a core course (all appear on the list of equal importance). The student, however, might experience course A to be a minor course in their educational experience (based on a wide range of factors including life experience, personal interests and goals, organization of the material, quality of assignments and teaching, etc.), requirement B to be a bit more meaningful and relevant, and requirement C (which isn’t the core course) as the pivotal course that created the “aha” moment in their educational journey. In addition, a high-impact learning opportunity (Kuh, 2008), such as a public service/research project or internship, which was not on the checklist at all, might help the student create cohesion in the experience of all three courses. This is the way pivotal parts of the curriculum (i.e., general education, major requirements, etc.) come to make sense to students.
It is only through open-ended dialog, reflection, and discussion that the educational experience is personalized and integrated and as a result, becomes more meaningful and transformative. Checklist-based interactions rarely lead to these important “aha” moments.
Learning-centered Advising at Key Transition Points
The use of blended and synthesized forms of advising and the important balanced use of both passive and active forms of advising are particularly important at key transition points (places where student progress may stall). Their effectiveness becomes exponential when they are delivered as part of the first-year experience, during transition from lower to upper division course work (and at the point of transfer from two-year to four-year institutions), and at the end point when students are transitioning from undergraduate study to career and post-baccalaureate study.
Though it is not as linear, another important transition point is threaded throughout the entire undergraduate experience. This point involves students’ connection with high impact learning activities (e.g., common intellectual experience, service learning, global learning, internships, and capstone experiences) as delineated by Kuh (2008) as they are available and appropriate throughout the students’ undergraduate careers. Individualized attention at these key transition points helps students more effectively move forward in a meaningful way and reduces the potential for degree delaying stalls. When this happens, decision-making and goal setting are enhanced, direction becomes clearer, and the student moves more effectively and purposefully through their academic careers.
In addition, the desired outcomes of advising at these key transition points become much more apparent when viewed through learning-centered objectives.
- In the first year, learning objectives include enhancing awareness, discovery, and self-assessment.
- At the point of transition from lower to upper division coursework, learning objectives include enhancing the student’s ability to explore, plan, and compare options.
- As students settle into upper division study, learning objectives include enhancing involvement in the intellectual life of the department, applying what has been learned to make choices, and improving decision-making capacities about goals and priorities.
- At the end point, learning objectives include enhancing the students’ ability to showcase their commitment to and integration of their learning and how they have applied this to the creation of individual projects.
All of these important transitional outcomes can be targeted through a learning-centered and integrated approach to practice.
In Practice—Developing Learning-Centered Knowledge, Skills, Dispositions, and Roles
So how do advisors ready themselves to use the continuum version of the toolbox and deliver this important learning-centered form of advising? The following knowledge, skills, dispositions, and roles are offered to help create the platform for a learning-centered practice.
Knowledge. Knowledge of the following learning theory, advising approaches, and institution specific information is particularly helpful to leveraging learning. For example, with an understanding of theories of motivation, an advisor is better able to help students set and reach meaningful intellectual goals. Similarly, advisors can balance their use of advising time to maximize learning if they pay attention to periods of active exchange in interactions when the student is talking and reflecting as compared to passive exchanges when the student is receiving information. In short, the more time students spend talking and reflecting, the more they are likely to be integrating and personalizing new knowledge. Also, advanced knowledge of the structure and purpose of the curriculum and areas of faculty expertise help advisors connect the student’s deeper intellectual goals and experiences with meaningful educational opportunities.
- An understanding of learning theory and how people learn including what enhances, facilitates, and impedes the learning process
- An understanding of motivation theory (autonomy, locus of control, self-efficacy, etc.)
- An awareness of the purposes of higher education (see CAS Learning and Developmental Outcomes for additional information)
- An understanding of the non-cognitive factors that affect performance and an understanding of “mindset interventions” (Dweck, Walton, Cohen, 2014, p. 15) that help students remain engaged and tenacious
- An understanding of active learning primers and practices (encouraging responsibility for and involvement in learning) (Angelo, 1993)
- An understanding of high impact educational practices (Kuh, 2008) and their significance in enhancing learning
- An understanding of multiple active (dialog based) learning-centered approaches to advising and the ability to incorporate these into daily practice
- The ability to shift meaningfully between active and passive forms of advising in a single interaction
- Familiarity with the structure and purpose of degree requirements and faculty articulated desired learning outcomes
- Understanding of areas of faculty expertise
- Familiarity with campus resources and programs that improve learning (e.g., student learning center, tutoring, and placement testing) and expanded learning opportunities (e.g., study aboard, research, scholarship and honors programs, community and service learning, and internships)
The following statement by Ramirez (as quoted in Wilcox, 2015) helps illustrate how knowledge and use of multiple approaches to advising supports learning: “Great advising facilitates the learning process. Through self-reflection and synthesis the advisor is connecting the student’s thoughts and words to broader ideas, possibilities and options.”
Skills. In the concept of blended method advising, which has learning at its core, the focus is less on a particular approach to advising and instead on the deep skills that support all active, open-dialog approaches. These deeper skills are similar to the soft skills teachers use to enhance critical thinking. For advisors, these skills include the following abilities.
Encourage critical reflection through open-ended dialog: question, explore, reflect, apply, plan, and revise
- Identify strengths, skills, and interests: appreciate, envision, engage, and innovate (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987)
- Encourage discovery: encourage exploration, involvement, and learning by doing and problem solving (Bruner, 1961)
- Encourage engagement inside and outside of the classroom: encourage individual, academic, and social engagement and integration and removal of barriers to integration (for example, by accommodating needed flexibility, using inclusive teaching and advising practices, etc.) (Tinto, 1975)
- Enhance motivation: encourage intrinsic motivation through values clarification, goal setting (SMART criteria), etc. (Maslow, 1943)
- Support tenacity and practice mindset interventions: help develop non-cognitive factors that impact performance, such as belonging, emotional regulation, etc., and praise students for effort as opposed to achievement (Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014).
- Blend challenge with support: emphasize high standards with assurances about capability for meeting them (Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999)
- Enhance connections and build rapport: engage in intentional outreach and connect with appropriate people and resources
- Connect the student with opportunities: evaluate, describe, recommend, refer, etc.
- Build student learning skills: time management, study strategies, wellness, self-regulation, etc.
- Observe and inquire: encourage examination of habits, interests, and conditions for best performance and impact of decisions on performance
- Provide realistic assessment: offer praise, validate, encourage, and help redirect if necessary
The following quote from Jane Paris (as quoted in Wilcox, 2015) helps illustrate the use of these important skills: “I try to balance the need to talk with the need to listen and resist the urge to fill up silences and help with answers to challenging questions. This practice helps students realize their own personal power and capacity for decision making.”
Dispositions. New attention has been focused on learning dispositions or the habits and attitudes that support learning. Several authors have identified key learning dispositions, Learning-Power (Claxton & Carr, 2004), Habits of Mind (Costa & Kallick, 2000), and Habitudes (Maiers, 2012), and also identified a range of intellectual virtues (Schwartz, 2015). The following dispositions are important to cultivate simultaneously in the advisor for the delivery of advising and in the student. A focus on these important attitudes, behaviors, and virtues enhances responsibility for learning and creates mutually beneficial partnerships between the advisor and student.
- Curiosity (Maiers, 2012)
- Risk taking (Costa & Kallick, 2000)
- Flexibility (Costa & Kallick, 2000)
- Empathy (Schwartz, 2015)
- Growth mindset and perseverance (Maiers, 2012; Schwartz, 2015)
- Collaboration (Claxton & Carr, 2004)
- Interconnectedness (Claxton & Carr, 2004)
- Inclusivity (Claxton & Carr, 2004)
- Creativity (Costa & Kallick, 2000)
- Humor (Costa & Kallick, 2000)
- Openness (Costa & Kallick, 2000)
- Awareness of self and others (Maiers, 2012)
- Critical and reflective thinking (Claxton & Carr, 2004)
- Adaptability (Maiers, 2012)
Carolyn Swalina (as quoted in Wilcox, 2015) summarizes the impacts that advising can have on learning dispositions: “Great advising can disrupt negative narratives about ability and identity and reframe these by helping students identify and acknowledge previously unrecognized strengths. Students come away with a new sense of agency, confidence and ability to self-advocate.”
Roles. When the advisor acts as educator, the role becomes much more focused and complex, and additional shifts in role stance and blending also become necessary. See below a list of educator roles developed by Richard Freishtat delivered as part of a workshop in learning-centered advising at UC Berkeley (Freishtat & Wilcox, 2016).
- Resource: provide content knowledge and expertise
- Coach: help students implement new ideas and navigate through failure
- Facilitator: create situations where students can learn through discovery by themselves or with one another
- Mentor: serve as a role model or exemplar navigator and provide advice/direction
- Catalyst: encourage students not to accept the status quo and to find a better way
- Learner: model continual improvement and desire for learning
Christopher Hunn (as quoted in Wilcox, 2015), shares how the roles of an advisor can positively influence what happens in the advising session: “Great advisors have the capacity to employ ‘compassionate candor.’ I define that as being honest, authentic, and transparent in your care for the student, while still asking the tough questions or challenging the student’s perceptions. When the advisor and student connect as unique individuals, great, constructive things can happen.”
Getting Started—Questions and Conversation Prompts. The following sample open-ended questions and conversation prompts are provided below to help you develop a more learning focused practice. They use appreciative and strengths-based approaches, but focus directly on learning based advising using the sample strengths-based questions identified by Laurie Schreiner (n.d.).
- “When was the last time you lost track of time while you were studying? What were you studying?” (Bloom, Hutson, & He, p. 45, 2008)
- How and when do you study? How is this working for you? What are your ideal conditions for effective study?
- Tell me about your favorite assignment or class activity. What was it like?
- Tell me about a project you completed of which you are most proud.
- Tell me about your favorite instructor or faculty member. What made them your favorite? What did you learn in their class? What did you learn about yourself?
- Why is going to college important to you? What made you decide to attend this college? (Clifton & Anderson, 2002)
- If you could graduate with one skill or ability, what would it be? What are you doing currently to build this ability? (Clifton & Anderson, 2002)
Explore Motivators and Purpose
- What is your favorite class and why? How is your experience in this class influencing your choice of major and other academic options?
- If you didn’t need to worry about grades, what would you study or do? (Schreiner, n.d.)
- Who are your intellectual heroes? Why? How do they inspire your own educational choices?
- What would you like to contribute to the student life or intellectual life of this campus?
Connect with People and Opportunities
- What are you involved with outside of the classroom? Do you think there are connections between these activities and your choice of study?
- Do you study with other people? What does this look like? What campus resources do you use to help you study and learn more effectively?
- If you could participate in one activity on campus, what would it be? Why? If you work in addition to going to school, are you able to apply what you are learning to your work or other outside activities or projects?
- Tell me about a time you made a connection with something you learned in the classroom and your life outside of school?
- If you could engage in an independent study or research project, what would it look like?
Support and Encourage Progress
- You would not have been admitted to this institution if we did not believe in your ability. We have high expectations and are here to help you meet them.
- Risk and failure are important and even necessary to learning.
Learning-centered advising promises to improve and deepen the advising relationship in profound ways. Not only is the student engaged as an emerging scholar with the opportunity for valuable reflection and personalized learning, the advisor becomes a much more critical agent in the processes of intellectual and personal discovery. Advising is essentially liberated from the limitations of a procedural check-list task master to a much more influential partner and catalyst in the educational process.
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