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Steve Schaffling, Syracuse University

Steve Schaffling.jpgCurrent approaches to advising (e.g. developmental, teaching, appreciative, and intrusive) are well researched and practiced across a diversity of institutional types.  Additionally, the academic advising field widely accepts that the advisor-student relationship is key to the success of advising.  In King’s (2005) definition of developmental advising, she cites Winston et al. (1984) who state, “Developmental academic advising is defined as a systematic process based on a close student-advisor relationship intended to aid students” (p. 19).  NACADA (2017) lists the relational component as one of the three areas of Core Competencies of academic advising and suggests that it is foundational to the profession and core to the existence of advising.  Hughey (2011) articulated how advisors can enhance interpersonal skills in advising, which are required for the application of appreciative advising.  Hughey also enumerated how advisors can influence student retention through the relational dynamic.  In today’s state of higher education, it can be argued that persistence and retention are the reasons why the advisor-student professional relationship must be more than simply transactional.

Scholarly and theoretical underpinnings of academic advising acknowledge the importance of the relational component of advising.  Importantly, a key outcome of the relationship is student persistence, which begs consideration that the relational competency of advising practice today be based in persistence theory.  A common factors meta-model of academic advising suggests that several factors can be applied to the advisor-student interaction to increase student persistence, regardless of specific advising theory or practice.  Such a model, drawn from the field of psychotherapy, offers an opportunity to adapt advising relational practice, regardless of ascribed theory, to achieve this goal.  Mehvash Ali (2017) spoke about the common factors of psychotherapy in her keynote address at the NACADA international conference and followed up that presentation with an article (Ali, 2018) in this publication.  Dr. Ali’s presentation was seminal to the development of a common factors meta-model for academic advising.

Student Persistence and Attrition

Tinto’s (1993) theory of student departure suggests that university professional staff can affect student integration levels.  Tinto’s (2006b) updated theory is inclusive of the academic advisor as a key piece of the student’s academic integration into an institution.  Academic integration or engagement acts as a lever for increasing student persistence and retention (Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn, & Terenzini, 1982; Tinto, 1993).  According to Tinto (2006a), an advisor can increase student integration through their professional relational interactions with a student.  Therefore, these interactions between the student and the advisor make the difference in student persistence and not necessarily the theory of advising being practiced.  Tinto’s (1993) model, displayed in Figure 1, suggests that a student’s interaction with an advisor fits directly into the interactions with the staff component of academic integration. 

Schaffling Fig1.jpg

Figure 1. Tinto Model of Student Departure. From Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.), by V. Tinto, 2003. University of Chicago Press Reprinted with permission.

Common Factors

The common factors model of psychotherapy suggests similar elements of therapy in every therapist-patient relationship, regardless of the specific type of therapy that is being practiced (Goldfied, Panchankis, & Bell, 2005).  Some authors (Garfield, 1995; Wampold, 2001, 2015) have argued that these common factors lead to the outcomes and changes seen in the patient.  Specifically, the following four factors  form the basis of a common factors model of academic advisingpsychotherapy:

Alliance: The bond between the therapist and the patient.

Empathy: Assessing the reasons for another person’s state of mind and identifying with the other person by adopting their perspective.

Goal Setting: Agreement about the goals, tasks, and outcomes for the relationship and agreement that the actions taken are going to remediate the problems presented by the patient.

Therapist Allegiance: The degree to which the therapist delivering the treatment believes that the specific therapy is efficacious. 

Common Factors Translated to Academic Advising

When considering these four common factors as a required part of the relationship in psychotherapy, they are easily translated to the advisor-student relational component.

  • Alliance in the psychotherapy relationship means that both parties are in this together; they agree on what the goals of the professional relationship are, and they trust that both parties are there to achieve those goals.  In translating alliance to the advisor-student relationship, both the student and the advisor must reach a state in the professional relationship where they are both working together to achieve the same goals.  For instance, if a student comes to their advisor and wants to explore a curricular area, the student must know that the advisor is going to use their expertise to guide him/her towards attainment of that goal.  If this state is achieved, it is a step towards increasing the integration level of that student. 
  • Empathy, like alliance, is easily translatable to the advisor-student professional relationship, and indeed, advisors agree that they must be empathetic in their student relationships.  In particular, empathy constitutes a critical difference between a common factors model and appreciative advising.  While appreciative advising acknowledges that empathy can directly influence an advisor’s effectiveness in the relational dynamic, a common factors model would suggest that it is a primary requirement of the model to be brought into every interaction.  The difficult task of translating empathy to advising rests in training advisors on what empathy truly means.  Empathy should be thought of as necessary to achieve everything else within the relationship.  Empathy means taking on the student’s perspective and identifying with their feelings without judgement and, sometimes, this means not being able to offer the student a direct solution to their problem.  The common factors theory would suggest that empathy lies in simply taking the student’s perspective and identifying with their feelings.  This action alone, even in the absence of being able to offer a direct solution, is enough to aid in the formation of the professional relationship.  Brene Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, defined empathy in this three-minute video (The RSA, 2013) with extreme eloquence.
  • Goal Setting (expectations) as translated to the advisor-student professional relationship are easy to understand when considering the example of a student who is on academic probation.  Academic contracts for students on probation essentially outline what the student is going to do differently to be a better student and ultimately raise themselves back into good standing.  Broadening this concept, goal setting should be a part of every student meeting, as outlining these goal setting and tying them to outcomes, such as returning to good academic standing, are a key part of the advising relationship.  Another example would be the concept of an advising syllabus, which outlines the expectations for both the student and the advisor in the professional relationship.  In contrast, a common factors model of advising suggests that goals and expectations do not just broadly govern the relationship, but rather they should become part of the advisor-student interaction to strengthen the outcomes.
  • Finally, the concept of the therapist allegiance translates directly to advising because it suggests that the advisor’s level of commitment to a chosen theory is more important than the theory being practiced.The key is that advisors need to bring this level of commitment into the relational dynamic and use it to create goals and expectations for interactions and alliance with the student.This concept allows any advising theory to fit within a common factors model.

A Common Factors Model of Academic Advising

Formulating a visual model can aid in the understanding of how the common factors of psychotherapy can be translated to the professional advising relationship (Figure 2).  The common factors exist within advisor-student interactions and it is within these interactions that Tinto (1993) would argue student persistence could be influenced.  This is done by increasing student integration with the university through the formulation of a positive professional advisor-student relationship.  Additionally, the common factors model separates what happens within the student interaction from what triggers the interaction.

Schaffling Fig2.jpg

Figure 2. A Common Factors Meta Model of Advising

To accomplish this, advisors must bring the common factors of empathy and their ascribed advising theory into the interaction with the student.  Bringing empathy and advising theory into student interactions allows the advisor to create the common factors of an alliance with the student and set goals and expectations for the relationship.  These four common factors will lead to goal achievement for both the student and the advisor.  For the student, the purpose of these interactions is to achieve their personal goals or to overcome a hurdle that they have encountered, whereas for the advisor, increasing the student integration level with the university through development of a trusting professional relationship is the goal.  This outcome can be measured by the creation of a new meeting trigger where the student has questions that do not surround only an immediate transactional need.  These types of interactions mean the student is moving beyond their informational need and into the consultation realm (Creamer, 2000) and the advisor is considered a trusted university guide for these questions.


A common factors meta-model for academic advising offers simple, tangible factors that can be implemented in parallel with any ascribed advising theory or institutional advising model.  One of the largest possible strengths of a common factors meta-model is that its tenets can be implemented in high caseload situations or for advising offices that are non-caseload based with no assigned advisors.  Implementation of this meta-model will improve the relational component of academic advising and lead to increased student integration.  Of equal importance, this model suggests that it will also increase the effectiveness of assisting students in achieving their educational goals.  A common factors meta-model of academic advising asks that an advisor bring empathy and their personal theory of advising as a baseline into every advising interaction.  Using these, advisors should work to create an alliance with the student concerning goals and expectations for their interactions and larger relationship.  This will allow the advisor and student to achieve their respective goals for the professional relationship, which can be measured by the movement of future meeting triggers from transactional to consultation-based.

Steve Schaffling, Ed. D.
Assistant Dean of Student Success
Syracuse University
[email protected]

In Collaboration with:
Mehvash Ali, Ph. D.
Director, Academic Support Center
American University of Sharjah


Ali, M. (2017). NACADA 2017 International Conference keynote address. Presentation at the NACADA International Conference, Sheffield England.

Ali, M. (2018, June). Common factors: Cultivating the relational component of advising. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Common-Factors-Cultivating-the-Relational-Component-of-Advising.aspx

Creamer, D. G. (2000). Use of theory in academic advising. In V. N. Gordon & W. R. Habley (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Garfield, S. L. (1995). Psychotherapy: An eclectic-integrative approach (2nd ed.). Oxford, England: Wiley.

Goldfied, M. R., Panchankis, J. E., & Bell, A. C. (2005). A history of psychotherapy integration. In J. Norcross & M. Goldfried (Eds.), Handbook of psychotherapy integration (2nd ed., pp. 24–60). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hughey, J. K. (2011). Strategies to enhance interpersonal relations in academic advising. NACADA Journal, 31(2), 22–32. doi:10.12930/0271-9517-31.2.22. Retrieved from http://nacadajournal.org/doi/pdf/10.12930/0271-9517-31.2.22

King, M. C. (2005). Developmental academic advising. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/tabid/3318/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/264/article.aspx

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

Pascarella, E. T., Edison, M., Nora, A., Hagedorn, L. S., & Terenzini, P. T. (1982). Influences on students' openness to diversity and challenge in the first year of college. The Journal of Higher Education, 67(2), 174–195.

The RSA. (2013, December 10). Brené Brown on empathy [video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/1Evwgu369Jw

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (2006a). Enhancing student persistence: Lessons learned in the United States. Analise Psicologica, 1, 7–13.

Tinto, V. (2006b). Research and practice of student retention: What’s next? The Journal of College Student Retention, 8(1), 1–20.

Wampold, B. E. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wampold, B. E. (2015). How important are the common factors in psychotherapy? An update. World Psychiatry, 14(3), 270–277. doi: 10.1002/wps.20238

Winston, R., Miller, T., Ender, S., Grites, T. & Assoc. (1984). Developmental academic advising. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Cite this article using APA style as: Schaffling, S. (2018, September). Common factors: A meta-model of academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.