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James R. Wicks, Middle Tennessee State University

James Wicks.jpgRecently in fall semesters, I have been hosting student workshops for first-generation STEM majors wherein we discuss the value of taking notes, among other things. As a demonstration, I read an excerpt about a topic that I am fairly certain the students know nothing about, and they are instructed not to take notes. (I simply tell them to listen as intently as possible.) The passage is usually about 500–700 words and is highly technical, the most recent of which detailed the process of making optical glass. After I finish reading, students are handed an index card and instructed to label one through six. Then they are asked six questions about what they just heard, pop-quiz style. Invariably, no one gets all six questions right: the most anyone has gotten correct was five, and that was one out of more than thirty students. Their correct answers average somewhere between two and three; i.e., most of them fail. Next, I read the same passage again, only the second time I encourage them to take notes. They are then quizzed again on a new set of questions, and as one might expect, they do much better.

This exercise mimics a student’s experience in the classroom where they hear a lecture and are expected to retain the information that will be on quizzes and exams. The less information they retain, the less likely they are to perform well on those assessments. This is particularly true if the student has never been exposed to the material or simply has no interest in the subject. Instructors encourage note-taking in their classes because notes augment students’ understanding of course material (Kiewra, 1989; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Students who do not take notes are just more likely to fail.

Notes are instrumental for student success and instructors understand that, but do academic advisors? Given developments in the delivery of academic advising over the last few decades (Grites, Miller, & Voller, 2016), asking a student to take notes during an advising session may seem counterintuitive and make the advising experience seem more prescriptive and transactional. Today’s advisors are encouraged to take a developmental approach to their meetings with students, which means being collaborative and relational and exploring students’ overall experiences on campus; the whole approach in practice is very conversational. Less common now, at least in theory, are sessions in which advisors merely discuss or write down a student’s schedule and send them on their way.

This distinction reflects Crookston’s (1972) paradigm of advising as teaching, moving advisors away from prescriptive advising, which emphasizes telling students what to do and expecting them to do it, to a more holistic approach in which students learn by building relationships with campus personnel who subsequently guide them towards academic self-efficacy. One of the hallmarks of developmental advising is setting the stage so that the student can share their experiences; open up in a way that might guide an advising session. This allows the student to be an active participant in their advising so that they can assume more ownership in their academic decisions. When students guide their sessions by inquiring about institutional policy, like registration times, financial aid requirements, waitlist requirements, payment and confirmation deadlines, or add and drop dates, advisors respond with what they know to be helpful. On this content, depending on their role at their institution, advisors are the experts, just as an instructor is the expert of his or her content area. In these situations, advisors should be encouraging students to take notes, just as an instructor would in their classroom.

With this in mind, to respond to student questions about institutional policy expecting them to retain the information without notes is naïve given what advisors and professors expect from students in the classroom. Similar to classroom content, institutional policy is nuanced. Take waitlists, for example. At Middle Tennessee State University, students can get onto a waitlist for a closed class and potentially get a seat if another student drops the course. Once a seat opens up, the first student on the waitlist receives an email informing them that they have a twelve-hour window during which they can register for the course. This means that if an enrolled student drops a course at 8 p.m., a waitlisted student has a registration window that expires at 8 a.m. the next morning. I often explain this scenario to my students and encourage them, if they wish to get onto a waitlist, to set up email notifications or alarms on their phone and frequently check to see that their registration window has not escaped them. This is but one topic among many similarly nuanced topics that come up during a single advising session. Like the exercise I mentioned in the beginning, I would bet that if I quizzed my students after our meetings on policy nuances discussed therein and they had not taken notes, they would fail that quiz. And this is how students are being sent out to deal with the policies and expectations of their institution.

Some advisors reading this may feel that the outlines they provide students following their sessions are sufficient summaries of what was discussed. Indeed, it is good for advisors to give students an outline of the content addressed in their sessions. However, consider by analogy instructors providing their power point presentations to students as study materials. Most of the time, these presentations lack the depth and nuance that only reinforce the importance of in-depth comprehensive notes. And often, class presentations are like this by design. Instructor presentations are to assist instructors in covering the topics that they think are important. They typically are not designed to be handed to students as comprehensive study material. So too are advisor summaries of what is discussed with students during advising sessions.

Furthermore, an advisor giving summaries of the content in their advising sessions to students, while not a bad practice, denies the student the opportunity to take responsibility for the information exchanged in a session. If advisors take seriously the mission of helping their students become self-efficacious, they should take every opportunity for students to take responsibility for their academic decisions, which includes navigating nuanced institutional policy.

Notes are encouraged by professors to supplement course material and augment student understanding of important course content. Students who do not take notes often struggle on quizzes and exams, and ultimately fail to perform at their highest level. Academic advisors often compare their role to that of teachers, helping students develop and learn and take responsibility for their academic success. However, advisors typically rely on conversational and relational modes of information exchange without encouraging students to take their own notes during advising sessions. This practice hinders students’ ability to retain important information, particularly related to institutional policy. Just as professors encourage note-taking in their classes, advisors should be encouraging note-taking during their advising sessions. While this is not a cure-all for student lapses regarding institutional policy and procedure, it helps put them one step closer to owning their academic success.

James R. Wicks
Academic Advisor
College of Basic and Applied Sciences
Middle Tennessee State University
[email protected]


Crookston, B. B. (1972). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. Journal of College Student Personnel, 13(1), 12–17.

Grites, T. J., Miller, M. A., & Voller, J. G. (2016). Beyond foundations: Developing as a master academic advisor. John Wiley & Sons.

Kiewra, K. (1989). A review of note-taking: The encoding-storage paradigm and beyond. Educational Psychology Review, 1(2), 147–172.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581

Cite this article using APA style as: Wicks, J.R. (2020, March). Are they taking notes? Promoting student responsibility in academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 43(1). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2020 March 43:1


# Anne
Monday, March 2, 2020 2:18 PM
Great article James! I think sometimes we get into a system of processes in our offices that we think help with efficiencies. If we don't allow students the opportunity to interpret information and code info in the way they learn best, then retention of that information may not happen. I used to write everything down for students (plans and notes) and then I would email it to them as a recap. After a friend of mine suggested that I give most of the responsibility to the student, my advising meetings with students flowed better and I think students retained more information and felt more ownership over the planning process. This is a great topic that should be explored and discussed during trainings.

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