By Marcy Kraus, dean of freshmen and director of the College Center for Advising Services
“My mother told me not to withdraw from this course, what do you think?” “A student on my hall told me to wait and take this course in the fall when the other professor is teaching it. “ ”I heard that I can’t go to graduate school unless I repeat this course and raise my gpa.” It is a busy time for academic advisers on campus. As students prepare to register for the spring semester, a variety of questions about courses, majors, careers, grade point averages and other academic matters are raised. Advisers are regularly asked, “what do you think?” Asking for the advice of others you know and trust can be a helpful way for students to sift through the vast information network that has become a real part of life, and most of us encourage students who aren’t sure about choosing an elective course, or uncertain about the amount of math that will be needed in a particular major, to consult with others who have relevant experience and knowledge.
Good, well-intentioned advice can be useful, but sometimes it can get in the way of good advising. What is the difference? Professional academic advisers recognize that college is a time when young adults are expected, increasingly, to take responsibility for their academic choices and decisions. We also recognize that advising time-crunched students on a busy, complex campus, can be a challenging balancing act between handing students information and sending them off to find it out on their own. For most college students, the process of developing autonomy and a true sense of self—what psychologist Dr. Marcia Baxter Magolda has referred to as becoming “self-authored,” unfolds developmentally: first-year students often need a great deal of help processing their experiences and making academic decisions that represent their own goals and aspirations (as compared to those of their parents or peers, for example). In conversations with more experienced students, advisers can help students identify their values (i.e., listen to their internal voices), so that they can become authors of their own lives.
At the heart of these various advising discussions is the belief that students are capable of and responsible for choosing their academic paths. Good advising, therefore, often requires students—and parents—to readjust their expectations of the academic adviser’s role from “my adviser tells me what to do” to “my adviser helps me understand my options and expects me to figure out what to do.” In this regard, good advising guides students in the decision -making process but good advisers don’t make decisions for students.