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Voices of the Global Community


Char Lessenger, University of Wyoming

Char Lessenger.jpgTraditional undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25 are often assumed to be adolescents. Dachner and Polin (2016), however, recognize this demographic of students as emerging adults. They consider this stage of a student’s life important to keep in mind when discussing their learning experiences in and out of the classroom (Dachner & Polin, 2016). Those learning experiences are impacted by a range of circumstances from instructional technique to how an academic advisor utilizes their philosophy of practice to support students. The changes occurring during this time period in a student’s life and during college have a great impact on their development as an adult. Shifting the mindset from treating traditional undergraduate students as adolescents to recognizing them as emerging adults could allow advisors to build genuine and meaningful relationships with their advisees. Recognizing traditional undergraduate students as emerging adults lends itself well to the theory and practice of andragogy or “the art and science of helping adults learn” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 42).

Malcolm Knowles is known as the pioneer of andragogy. Throughout his career, Knowles (1988) developed six principles for educators to utilize when interacting with adults or, in this case, emerging adults. These principles allow educators to shift the theoretical framework of teaching emerging adults from pedagogy (the art and science of teaching children or adolescents) to andragogy. Knowles’ principles encompass the learner’s self-concept, experiences, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, motivation to learn, and relevance. The following sections provide a pertinent definition of each principle as well as ideas on how to apply each principle in everyday advising practices.


As emerging adults enter college, their personal identities start to become multifaceted and their self-concept shifts from being externally dependent to becoming internally dependent (Dachner & Polin, 2016). Emerging adult students desire to translate this shift in persona into their educational experiences when they enter college. They no longer wish to act as a “passive receiver” in education but rather aspire to be an “active participant” in their college experience (Zachary, 2011). As advisors, it is important we help to facilitate their shift in self-concept.

In order to facilitate with this transition, at the start of each advising appointment, advisors could ask students “What’s on your agenda for today’s meeting?” Even though we may already have an idea why a student is there to meet with us, asking this type of question allows the student to bring forward any other concerns they might want to address which were not expressed previously. By allowing students to guide their own advising meetings, they are able to become “active participants” in the meeting instead of “passive recipients” of information, which in turn allows room for transition in self-concept.


Past experiences provide a basis for learning. While emerging adults may not have a vast array of experiences to guide their learning, advisors have an opportunity to give students a chance to talk about what they do and do not know (McCauley, Hammer, & Hinojosa, 2017). As advisors, it is important that we attempt to understand our student’s past life experiences. Doing so helps build genuine, meaningful relationships in order to connect our students to resources in a more holistic and personalized way.

For example, a first generation student most likely will not know much about the things they need to do in order to get ready to start college. Advisors should not assume the student knows anything about starting school other than what they have experienced so far. Instead, it is better to ask clarifying questions like “Do you know what your next step is after you register?” or “Do you have any concerns or worries about starting college your first semester?” These types of questions allow advisors to check-in with their advisees and get to the bottom of what students know about attending college. Furthermore, asking questions like “What intrigues you about the major you chose?” or “Do you have any classes that you’re curious about taking?” allows room for students to open up about the things they are excited about. These conversations can help advisors think about ways to holistically personalize their advisees’ college experiences and talk about resources and opportunities across campus that could positively impact their advisees’ life overall. Knowing students’ background experiences and not assuming what knowledge they have acquired thus far helps to ensure connection to as much information and resources as possible.

Readiness to Learn

Social roles play a big part in the relevance of the material advisors give their advisees. Emerging adults are more likely to receive new information when they realize it can be practically applied in their everyday lives (Dachner & Polin, 2016). Talking to students about real life situations and the soft skills they are going to learn in classes will help them make those connections. As advisors, it is important to provide information to our students in a way that can be immediately and practically applied.

For example, most higher education institutions require a history or government course as part of their general education requirements. When a student asks why they have to take a history class if they are declared as an engineering major, I let them know the knowledge they will gain in that class will allow them to become an informed citizen of their country, state/province, and community, and in turn will help them make more informed decisions when voting for a president, governor, or local official. Using language like “you just have to get through it” or “I don’t make the rules, it’s just a requirement” does not help them in the long run. It is important as an advisor to understand students occupy other social roles outside of higher education. Being able to help make connections between their social role as a student and any other social role ultimately helps students learn in the classroom more effectively and become better global citizens.

Orientation to Learning

Students have a desire for immediate application of knowledge and information. They wish to solve problems with the knowledge they receive on a day-to-day basis. However, emerging adults might not understand how to ask for help to a problem in a way that elicits an appropriate and efficient solution (Dachner & Polin, 2016). As an advisor it is important to be sensitive to the ways in which students ask for help and gather information. Ultimately this will help students recognize better ways to apply the information we give to them.

For example, a student walks into the office with a hold on their account that does not allow them to register and they are unsure of how to fix it. Although I might have emailed them multiple times to tell them how to fix the hold, the information may not have been applied as intended or understood altogether. In order to prevent that from happening again, asking questions like “How do you learn best?” or “What was confusing about the information I gave to you?” may help. Sometimes students are perfectly fine with an email, and some students need a different kind of guidance. As advisors, it is important to pay attention to the signs students give and recognize when they may need a different, more directed type of help.

Motivation to Learn

Learning should lead to personal growth and fulfillment. Emerging adults understand the importance of a higher education; however, their motivation for completing a degree is more extrinsic than intrinsic (Dachner & Polin, 2016). Many students are more concerned with getting good grades than how the subject matter they are learning will prompt positive behavioral changes or help them to become a better citizen of the world. As advisors, it is important that we help facilitate the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

For example, utilizing extrinsically motivating factors like receiving an “A” in a class as an opportunity to open a discussion about how that “A” impacts them personally will help develop their intrinsic motivation. It is not just the grade that is a motivation. Being able to break down the sources of a student’s motivation and connect them to how their grades can impact their future will also help them figure out how to get through harder classes. Additionally, it may also help to look over a student’s syllabi and break down the learning outcomes or objectives for each course with them if they allow it.  It is important as advisors to help students become more intrinsically motivated and see the value in their education beyond just getting a job.


Students crave the reasons behind why they must do something, or learn something, in order to immediately apply that knowledge. Part of this is about managing expectations and mentally preparing students for the information we give them. Being able to inform students what they need to do, why they have to do it, and how to do it correctly is crucial to helping them make connections to a larger perspective (Dachner & Polin, 2016). As advisors, it is important to provide information effectively without patronizing, and be open to answering questions we may personally perceive as imprudent.

For example, many students complain about the hoops they have to jump through in order to register for classes for the first time. Helping students understand why processes are in place, what things they need to complete those processes effectively, and how to complete them will help get mandatory tasks, like preparing for registration, done. This also teaches students, in an uncondescending tone, that the world is a confusing place and they will have to be able to navigate difficult situations outside of college. Having the practice in a safe environment will help students to thrive once they get out in the real world. Simply replying “that’s just the way it is” or “just because” when a student asks why helps nobody and ultimately sends a message to the student to not ask questions.


The foremost goal of higher education is to mold upstanding citizens of the world and build positive behavioral changes (Boone, Safrit, & Jones, 2002). As advisors, it is important we attempt to shift our mindset from seeing traditional college students as adolescents to viewing them as emerging adults.  Utilizing Knowles (1988) six principles of andragogy, not as a checklist but as a mindset, will allow advisors to build meaningful, genuine, and authentic relationships. An advisor that adopts this mindset will facilitate their students’ shift from emerging adult to adult, which will ultimately have a positive impact on their overall higher education experience as well as their persistence through to graduation.

Char Lessenger
Academic Advising Professional
College of Engineering & Applied Science
University of Wyoming
[email protected]   


Boone, E. J., Safrit, E. D., & Jones, J. (2002). Developing programs in adult education: A Conceptual programming model (2nd ed.). Waveland Press, Inc.

Dachner, A. M., & Polin, B. (2016). A systematic approach to educating the emerging adult learner in undergraduate management courses. Journal of Management Education, 40(2), 121–151.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562915613589

Knowles, M. S. (1988). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Prentice Hall/Cambridge. 

McCauley, K. D., Hammer, E., & Hinojosa, A. S. (2017). An andragogical approach to teaching leadership. Management Teaching Review, 2(4), 312–324. https://doi.org/10.1177/2379298117736885

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. Jossey-Bass.  

Zachary, L. J. (2011). The mentor’s guide: Facilitating effective learning relationships (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Lessenger, C. (2019, December). Advising emerging adults: How adult education theory can inform advising practices for traditional undergraduate students. Academic Advising Today, 42(4). [insert url here] 


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