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Ann Lieberman Colgan, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Ann Lieberman Colgan.jpgLab is (not) optional

“How are you doing in your biology class?” I asked my first semester student. Years of academic advising inform my use of this particular course as a barometer of a student’s transition to college-level study habits. Often, students indicate a preference for biology among their science general education options, but close questioning reveals their inclination is based on students’ perception that biology is among the easier sciences. This misapprehension derives from high school experiences.

“Good,” Jayden replied.

I prefer to quantify students’ academic status, and I also want them to develop realistic measures of interim success, so I responded, “’Good,’ to me, means As and Bs,” and asking for clarification: “How did you do on your last test?”

“Well, I don’t know,” she replied, and then explained, “He gives out the test grades at lab.”

Carefully, I asked for clarification, “You didn’t go to lab? Why not?”

“Oh, lab is optional,” came the breezy answer.

“Really?” I tried to keep the astonishment out of my voice, “I’m pretty sure you have to go to lab. Let’s check the syllabus.”

Jayden logged into her university learning management platform and pulled up the syllabus. A quick search revealed that the lab counted for one-quarter of the final grade in the course. The confusion apparently resulted from the professor’s promise that students who attended all the labs would receive 30 extra points on their final grades.

Jayden apparently rationalized, without consideration of total course requirements or consequences: “30 extra points for all labs; I will not need 30 extra points; I can skip labs.” Her unconscious calculations distorted the professor's intent, so she failed to update critical academic behaviors based on new reference points exclusive to higher education and, thus, impacted the utility of information (Karlsson et al., 2009). She employed an information management strategy developed in secondary education, where frequent extra-credit opportunities can permit students to cherry-pick the intensity of their participation in more rigorously academic coursework.

Academic advisors observe such miscalculations with some frequency, so our professional task metamorphoses to reality-check education. As a recent high school graduate, Jayden applied somewhat faulty calculations regarding the effort required for college success. She may have had an additional reason for avoiding lab: perhaps she dreaded confirmation of her fears regarding test grades. Student aversion to acquiring negative performance information (Karlsson et al., 2009) may originate from a need for academic stress reduction based upon a perceived lack of coping and recovery skills (Brashers et al., 2002). Consequently, while her failure to attend lab resulted from interpretive mistakes, she may have been driven by an unconscious craving for self-protection. Since the situation had its underlying humor, I made an effort to help her see the comic aspect of her choices.

“Did you know you’re not the only student who reached the conclusion that labs were optional?” I asked in a tone of confidential revelation. Addressing the need to implement a dramatic change in performance, I reviewed Jayden’s options and walked her over to the university tutoring center. I endeavored to increase her confidence in her ability to reverse course in biology, reminding her “Nobody’s good at anything until they learn it.” Advisors must frame academic reality truthfully, so students absorb a growth mindset. Sympathizing with student failures while supporting the intellectual effort required for success (Dweck, 2016, p. 182) aids students’ development. Students are more receptive to positive evaluations of their potential when advisor comments are packaged with humor.

Everything is hard if you don’t know it

“I’m so bad at this.” “It’s too hard for me.”

During Courtney’s advising appointment, I asked her how she was doing in her classes. “OK,” she replied, “I’m getting it better.”

“Oh,” Courtney hedged, “I didn’t do so great in my math exam, but I’ve never been great at math. I am trying to do better, but I’m so bad at it.” Courtney’s “self-talk” included thoughts that “were negative and self-destructive" (McGuire, 2015, p. 98), potentially giving herself permission to do poorly. Effective advising includes pointing out these thought patterns and modeling different thought norms, which I describe below.

“Really?” I wondered, “What grade did you get in your first exam?” “Well, a 56,” my optimistic student answered.

“OK, what are you doing to understand it better?” I asked.

“I’m going over my notes more,” she happily testified.

“Are you reading the textbook?” I wanted to know.

“No, he just gives us problems,” she responded, revealing the issue. As recommended by McGuire (2015, pp. 29–40), I reference Bloom’s taxonomy to explain to students the difference between the type of learning they did in high school compared to the thinking to learn and learning to think they must accomplish in college .

“Remember,” I said, “in high school, your teachers taught you everything they wanted you to know, reviewed before the test, and exactly replicated the review with the test. College is very different, right?” Courtney laughed in agreement at my description.

As a final diagnostic, I asked, “How many hours a week do you estimate you work on the course outside of the classroom?” I mentally divided her “about two to three hours a week” answer in half for the more probable time she spent working on the course. Courtney’s secondary education experience may have included teachers who believed “lowering their standards will give students success experiences, boost their self-esteem, and raise their achievement,” but “lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise” (Dweck, 2016, p. 196). In fact, the majority of high school students “reported spending fewer than six hours per week doing homework in 12th grade but 96.8% . . . said they graduated from high school with an A or B average” (McGuire, 2015, p. 10). Advisors must accurately characterize students’ prior education experiences in order to illustrate necessary changes in learning behaviors. This is best accomplished with directness and humor.

“So, let me get this straight, you got a 56 on your last test, and to prepare for your next one, you’re doing more of the same kind of preparation. Is that right?” I am accustomed to the token work ethic of many first-year students, whose lack of exposure to exertion in order to learn makes them vulnerable to blithely underestimating the time and effort required to put information in their brains so they can use it.

“That means right now you have a 56 in the course. Is that good?” High schools often protect students from the consequences of failure by providing multiple opportunities for recovering a grade or by taking effort into account, but such policies have the effect of depriving the student of the opportunity “to learn from her failures” (Dweck, 2016, p. 185). I find a blunt, humorous approach holds a mirror to students, allowing for self-perception.

“How would you do if I gave you a test in Russian?” I asked her.

“What?” was her puzzled response. “Russian,” I said, “how would you do if I gave you test in Russian language?” “I don’t know Russian. I’d do terribly,” Courtney laughingly stated the obvious.

“Exactly,” I responded, “everything is hard if you don’t know it. You need to spend an amount of time with your math which allows you to understand what that math is describing. And then you need to practice various types of problems, not just the ones your professor gives you.” Dweck (2016, p. 180) recommends students be taught to “love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, seek new strategies, and keep on learning.” Part of advising new college students must include helping them evolve into genuine learners.

“Let me ask you something else . . . are you a good driver?” Again, Courtney looked puzzled, but responded, “I’m pretty good. Better than my brother.”

“Were you a good driver when you were ten years old?” I wanted to know.

“Of course not,” Courtney said.

“What changed between then and now?” I wanted to know.

Serious lightbulb moment for Courtney—her face relaxed as she said, “I learned how to drive, and I practiced.” By framing knowledge as something acquired and applied, I reminded Courtney of the effort involved in learning something new. I reinforced this by saying, “You’re paying a lot of money and spending a lot of time to become something different than what you are now, to learn new things and ways of thinking; otherwise, what’s the point?” Courtney nodded in agreement but learning to integrate a growth mindset does not happen overnight. I demonstrated the growth mindset that comprehends failure and mistakes as “steps in the learning process because they reveal what needs further attention” (McGuire, 2015, p. 63). Advisors plant seeds with humorous examples. Careful but lighthearted advising also allows us to enjoy our students wherever they are in life.

Students often cycle into self-blame, referencing fixed mindsets about their abilities, when they earn lower grades than expected. American students who excelled in high school often find college challenging enough to make them doubt their capacities for achieving their academic goals. While students “love to be praised for their intelligence and talent . . . the minute they hit a snag their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom” (Dweck, 2016, p. 178). Advisors with humorous, pragmatic approaches effectively nudge students towards the growth mindset required for successful learning.

I want a girlfriend: Meeting students where they are

“Can I get Bs? My parents really, really want me to get Bs,” Kevin wanted to know.

He did not show up in my exploratory studies advising office until he had already worked himself into academic probation. Thus, our first meeting involved a diagnostic conversation regarding his interest and time invested in each of his courses. Kevin’s relaxed, engaging demeanor indicated he did not feel burdened by anxiety about the coursework itself.  

Of course, I responded to his question, “Kevin, your parents aren’t the ones taking classes right now. What do you want?”

He brightly and immediately said, “I want a girlfriend.”

I laughed out loud, and replied, “Kevin, you don’t need to pay all this money to go to college to have a girlfriend!”

He laughed and grinned widely at my appreciation of his developmental position: he prioritized finding a relationship over his college courses. Kevin wasn’t joking, although he knew his response was impudent. My use of dialogic advising methods enabled me to appreciate his developmental needs via receptivity to information imparted on multiple levels; in other words, I encompassed “the other without feelings of otherness, (in order) to have genuine, full comprehension that feels personal” (Colgan, 2017). Kevin responded to my obvious enjoyment of his personality and path by visiting me often during the next couple of semesters while he determined what to study. Kevin’s individuation processes coincided with his academic growth, and our lighthearted relationship demonstrated my support as he moved towards responsible adulthood and college success.

Your major isn’t the most important decision you’ll make

“Oh, you can’t do anything with that major!” my student protested when I asked why she would not consider geoscience because, she had just informed me, she loved her geology course and was earning As.

“Really?” I asked, “have you spoken to your professor about professions related to the major?” No, she had not.

“Did you talk to anyone else who studied geoscience? Or do any research about the major?” No, she had not.

“OK, so help me understand this. You didn’t talk to your professor or anyone else or do any research at all about a subject you love, but you did decide that it has no professional future. So, you reached a conclusion based on zero information. Is that right?”

My restatement mirror lacked subtlety but effectively pointed out the flaws in my student’s reasoning. She laughed and asked where she should look for good data. Working with exploratory, or undeclared, students involves helping them develop accurate self-assessments of their skills and interests, and also includes providing data to ease their fears of career dissatisfaction.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen if you have a career you don’t like?” Speaking to orientation groups, I ask students, “Are you afraid to choose a major because you might get stuck in a job or career you hate?”

Getting nods and “yeah” in response, I then ask, “Well, what would you do if you had a job you hated?” I want students to envision their own worst-case scenario and reason their way out of it.

Occasionally, a student will say, “I guess I’d just keep at it,” but for the most part, I receive the rational answer, “I’d quit and get a different job.”

My response, “Duh! Of course, you would; you’re not stuck in anything.”

Students laugh, some with relief, when they absorb the simplicity and practicality of a common response to employment mismatches. New first-year students may simply not have enough experience to arrive at a common-sense solution to their embedded fears. Walking them through the reasoning process by posing a seemingly absurd question enables them to consider true preferences rather than presumed marketability in their major choices.

I also point out the origin of their mistaken belief regarding the life-shaping importance of most majors: “What’s the first thing people ask you when you tell them you’re a student at WCU?”

Students chorus, “What’s your major?”

“Right,” I explain, “so that makes you think majors must be super important. And some are, but you can get most entry level jobs with most majors.”

Brown and Strange’s 1981 observation still rings true:

For the college-bound late adolescent, one of the first major decisions relating to issues of purpose, identity, and life goals is encountered in the selection of an academic major. Responding to the question of “What’s your major?” becomes a principal means of communicating about self to family and peers, and for the student who has not yet selected an academic major, admission of confusion or doubt in that respect may be tantamount to an admission of identity diffusion. In addition to the choice of academic major, the student is also faced with the selection of a young-adult career direction, a decision that further complicates the resolution of the developmental tasks associated with late adolescence. (p. 329).

Over many years of academic advising, I have noticed an increase in anxiety centered on students’ choices of majors. Exploratory students often hesitate to choose a field of study, delaying the inevitable by insisting on taking general education classes or dabbling in yet another disciplinary option. My dialogic relationships (Colgan, 2017) with individual students enable me to share their perceptions of reality, and the resulting insights reinforce my application of narrative and humor to facilitate their maturing views regarding the flexibility of majors and degrees. The stakes are high because “the extent to which these questions are resolved has been found repeatedly to be related to a student’s decision whether or not to remain in college” (Brown & Strange, 1981, p. 329).

I now address students’ internalized concerns directly by naming their fears and using humor to reduce the gravity of their decision-making. Starting as early as orientation prior to students’ first semester, I ask groups of exploratory students if they are afraid to make a choice of major. In a group of thirty students, sometimes as many as half will raise their hands in affirmation. Addressing their anxiety involves practicality, evidence, and a funny example of truly important decision-making.

I also use whimsical examples to provide evidence of the flexibility of college degrees: I ask students which undergraduate degree would lead to the career I have—after all, they observe me in the performance of my profession. Many guess psychology, social work, or other helping professions. I explain my choice to study anthropology as the discipline which most interested me after several years of changing majors.

I also describe my first job after graduation as one which was ultimately boring, but which allowed me to figure out what I wanted to do next. Then, to shake things up, I ask them to guess the majors of my colleagues in academic advising: they cannot, due to the sheer variety and seeming irrelevance of those degrees (criminal justice, philosophy, political science, early childhood, business administration, and music). I use this interaction as evidence of the possible long-term insignificance of the specific field of a person’s undergraduate major.

My point is not that majors are inconsequential, but rather that the consequences are not what first-year students often believe since most non-certification, entry-level jobs require only a college degree, not a specific one. In fact, teaching students the value of “transferable skills positively affected high school students’ perceptions of college and career readiness” (Kristin, 2021). I remind them of the evidence from their own lives by asking how many of their parents changed careers, and then follow up by asking if their parents needed additional preparation to make those changes. In other words, students know that majors and careers lead to flexible futures, but they do not yet believe the evidence of their own eyes and lives since the prevailing ethos is that one goes to college to become something.

My use of personal anecdotes and connection with students’ own experiences initiates a reflective process among first-year students which enables them to think more freely about their major choices.

As a summation to new thinking about majors, I remind students that choosing a discipline to study is not the most important decision they will make, even if they choose a profession which requires certification. In fact, in the long term, this choice may have less meaning than obtaining the degree itself.

“Your major just may not be that important,” I assert, “but you know what is important?”

I let the silence hang for a beat, “Who you marry; that’s important!” Students think this is hilarious and laugh out loud, but ironically, I am serious. Ah, well, they will learn in their own time.

Carry a light heart and a soft touch into academic advising

“I got Ds my first semester in college because I treated it like high school, and I had no self-awareness that the crappy grades I was earning were the crappy grades I was going to receive. I had a lot of fun, though!”

I use self-deprecating humor to let students know I shared their experiences: getting poor grades before learning to become a better student. I reflect aloud about my complete lack of self-awareness and of procedural awareness as a first-year student, and my droll depiction of my failures and readjustment connects with them.

Students observe the enjoyment I experience in our interactions and take my candid wit in the positive, growth-oriented manner I intend. When I apologize for being so very blunt, they always respond, “No, it’s good, I need someone to be up front with me.” I want to preserve my relationship with students, so I apply light-hearted affection and a soft touch for their experiences and emotions in our advising sessions. I take pleasure in the interactions and in their successes; academic advising is a fabulous career.

Using humor in academic advising applies meltwater to the ice of generational and positional differences. Students see my mid-fifties, gray-haired self and anticipate being on the receiving end of top-down instructive communication. Perhaps they reframe our relationship as parental and, as with their parents, lay the internal groundwork for my words to go in one ear and out the other. Humor disarms their expectations, alleviates their anxiety, permits a thaw in the bulwark of their defenses. If I can make students laugh at me or at themselves, then I can help them to listen to me and to themselves.

Author Note: All names have been changed to protect student privacy.

Ann Lieberman Colgan, EdD
Director, Interdisciplinary Studies
Advisor, Exploratory Studies
West Chester University of Pennsylvania


Brashers, D. E., Goldsmith, D. J., & Hsieh, E. (2002, April). Information seeking and avoiding in health contexts. Human Communication Research, 28(2), 258–271. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2002.tb00807.x

Brown, G. S., & Strange, C. (1981). The relationship of academic major and career choice status to anxiety among college freshmen. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 19(3), 328–334. https://doi.org/10.1016/0001-8791(81)90067-1

Colgan, A. L. (2017, January). Think about it: Philosophy and dialogic advising. NACADA Journal, 1(37), 66–73. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-15-045

Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.

Karlsson, N., Loewenstein, G., & Seppi, D. (2009). The ostrich effect: Selective attention to information. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 38(1), 95–115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11166-009-9060-6

Kristin, J. B. (2021). I’ll never have to do this after high school: Exploring students’ perceptions of college and career readiness and the effects of ePortfolios with reflection on transferable skills [Doctoral Dissertation, University of South Carolina]. ProQuest Information & Learning. University of South Carolina: University Libraries. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/5868/

McGuire, S. A. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Cite this article using APA style as: Colgan, A. L. (2021, December). Channeling advisor amusement to support student success. Academic Advising Today, 44(4). [insert url here] 


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