Steve Quinn, Olympic College
Assessment is learning; advising is teaching. The intersection between these two is the street corner where NACADA needs to have its next institute. Vincent Tinto (1993) has broken the ground, telling us retention is a byproduct. But how do we build on that truth? Is our next question, “how do we do what is best for our students?” Is it, “how do we get them to like us better?”
I suggest a third option, different from both the tower of the benevolent dictator and the garden of earthly delights that seduces students into doing what is good for them. It is different in design and materials, in language, and yes, in the assessments it uses and the learning it supports. The space I am speaking of is not exotic or foreign, and it does not require as its first step that we take a wrecking ball to the places we already work.
I am referring, of course, to empowerment. Students will stay if they decide to stay. Our next question is not how can we influence that decision, but how can we support it? We can help them learn to make better decisions, or we can use what we know to make staying in school an opportunity worth choosing, but ultimately we need to trust them. And they need to know it.
We know something about empowerment. Every parent anxiously draws and redraws the floor plan of freedom to help their child find the limits and place the footings of personal responsibility. But adult learners are their own architects, and the foundations already are set. Higher education offers a scaffold within which learner empowerment is supported by four primary elements: information, resources, and instruction, punctuated with time.
Even in today’s information jumble, the adult learner has no difficulty discerning patterns. The clutter does not get in the way of learning; it only means learners may have more trouble than ever distinguishing the intentional message as something to place special faith in. “You are responsible for your own learning,” says the sign hanging over a reception area that looks like it was engineered to keep the herd calm while it efficiently is moved through processing. “We value each learner’s goals,” says the cover of the glossy annual report that breaks completion into pie slices and trends by color.
Learners learn. When they leave, that decision probably is based in part on something they learned from us. We must assess our information against new standards. From our publications to what we wear; from how we decorate our offices to the incentives and benchmarks we design and tolerate. If information is not intentional, if it does not empower and demonstrate trust, then the students who leave may be the ones who are learning their lessons well.
Resources are repositories of information below the surface of choosing. They can add depth or desperation, credibility or vertigo to a decision process. Compared to information, resources are an order of magnitude further beyond our control. Skill sets described as critical thinking and information literacy rise almost to the level of urgency if we are to begin to help our students equip themselves to make the choices and face the consequences before them.
But even amid the explosion of resources around us, the most critical for learners to be able to use is not digital—it is reflective. Until students see themselves and their personal histories as relevant, rich resources for decision-making, they will not be empowered but only imitators. The introduction of the variable of individuality is where the algorithmic approach to learner engagement and retention breaks down, and it is only on the far side thereof that progress in these areas becomes sustainable.
Instruction as Diagnosis
If we are to progress beyond educating by power or coercion, decision processes must become explicit topics of teaching and assessment. Our methods may include modeling, case studies, analysis, and reflection, but hindsight is a terrible teacher unless the decision one looks back upon was made deliberately. If the steps and resources used cannot be retraced, if we cannot help students see the leaps of faith, assumptions, and surrenders made along the way, any lessons learned will be bounded by reactivity, superstition, and the assignment of blame.
Tinto (2006) also cautions that staying in school is not the mirror image of leaving. To empower learner decision-making, we must help them see beyond lessons learned and address the decisions before them. We must open for our students territory that is beyond critical thinking as far as peace of mind is beyond the reach of reason, as far as measures of cognitive dissonance, bias, and intuition are beyond the scope of the headcount. Decision-making, especially in advising, is much more a process of diagnosis than of engineering. We are not helping the student design a future as much as we are diagnosing a present, and diagnosis begins not with prescription but with unfiltered observation and careful description. We must help students learn to see and assess their own decision processes and make deliberate choices while they still are works in progress.
Time to Pause
Like the breeze invited through the open window, the fourth element of empowerment is not structural but dynamic. And while informational integrity, resource literacy, and diagnostic deliberation can and should be in evidence across the range of experiences in higher education, the pause that breathes life into empowerment may be the specialty of advising.
The onslaught of information, the credibility of resources, and the momentum of a structured decision process can feel to students like an onramp. One of the critical things we can help students learn is that it is an intersection. Full stop. Empowerment requires an interruption in the flow of question and response, a space within which to expand the list of the possible. At the corner of assessment and advising we are opening a gallery, and, just as with a Rothko or a Cezanne, the point is not efficiently to check off the options and perspectives on display as “seen” but to pause, consider, and perhaps accept the invitation of each in turn to inform perception, inspire feeling, and influence trajectory.
These then are the components we must bring together to transform the assessment of advising into a space of empowerment. Three questions shape the framework of our practice: Are you aware of more options? Are the characteristics and consequences of the options before you more clear? Do you have a greater sense of personal power and responsibility now than when you came to advising? The fourth element of assessment is not a question; it is the opening created by asking the other three.
Steve Quinn, M.S.
Advising and Counseling Center
Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Tinto, V. (2006). Research and practice of student retention: What‘s next? Journal of College Student Retention, 8(1), 1-19.
Cite this article using APA style as: Quinn, S. (2015, March). At the corner of advising and assessment. Academic Advising Today, 38(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]