A More Inclusive Approach to Academic Advising

I recently finished reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal – it is an excellent book and I recommend it for anyone facing the potentially complicated situations that can occur as we or our loved ones age.

In his book, Atul describes three types of doctors:

  • Paternalistic (i.e., “Doctor-Knows-Best”) – the doctor makes the critical choices and tells you what to do
  • Informative – the doctor tells you facts and statistics and leaves the choice up to you
  • Interpretive – the doctor helps you determine what you want

Atul provides wonderful examples of each of these types of doctors and concludes that while most doctors today are informative (thankfully, the paternalistic doctor is becoming a relic of the past), a better approach is for the doctor to be interpretive.

In describing these types of doctors, I was struck by the parallels his descriptions have to different types of academic advisors and how often those of us who serve as academic advisors fall into the first two categories – we either tell the students what they should do or we list the options and leave the choice up to the student. I have always tended to be primarily an “informative” academic advisor to my students but reading Atul’s book has made me rethink that approach and has given me some potential tools I can use to become more of an interpretive advisor.

As Atul described the conversations an interpretive doctor has with his/her/their patients, I was struck by how the questions and approach he was recommending might be a good approach to use when I talk with my academic advisees – particularly when I’m talking with a student who is struggling.

If I apply his approach to my conversations, my conversation with a student might begin something like the this:

I am worried about how you are doing in your statics class. You are not turning in your homework on time and you have failed the last two quizzes. It is possible you will fail the course. What do you need to know or hear from me to help you in this situation?

The steps for starting this conversation can be summarized as:

  • Let the student know that you are /worried
  • State the observation or facts that have led you to being worried (these should be observable facts and should not be your opinions or believes about the student’s attitude or behaviors)
  • State the potential consequence or result of the observed observation/fact that has caused you to be worried

Once you have started the conversation, the next steps are to “ask, tell, ask”:

  1. Ask the student what they want to know or need to hear (if they are unable to respond to the question at this time, let them know that they need to take some time so that they can answer this question and then you are available to continue the conversation)
  2. Respond to their request
  3. Ask them to tell you what they now understand about their situation.

And those last three steps can (and should) be repeated a number of times until the student runs out of questions.

Atul also suggests questions to ask a patient who is in an immediate crisis – and these too, might be applicable to certain advising situations to help get a clearer grasp of what the student is struggling with:

  • What is your understanding of what is happening/will happen?
  • What are your biggest fears at this point?
  • What are your most important goals?
  • What tradeoffs are you willing to make and what tradeoffs aren’t you willing to make to try and change what might happen?

As an academic advisor for students in engineering, I find it is common for many of my students to struggle at some point in their academic lives – though the type of struggle can be very different depending on the student. I firmly believe any student can be successful in their academic pursuits and improving my own approach to advising using Atul’s framework is something I think will help me better understand each student’s unique situation and be a better advisor for that student.

One thought on “A More Inclusive Approach to Academic Advising

  1. Michael Olin

    This is a terrific post and wonderfully describes some of the absolute best practices in academic advising. I would love to share this in our monthly Advising newsletter, and perhaps it could be the focus of a future training for our advisors. The approach you describe is very much in the spirit of the “Advising as Teaching” philosophy recommended by NACADA. Thank you for sharing this, Mary!

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