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Mehvash Ali, American University of Sharjah

Mehvash Ali.jpgAcademic advising is a vast field with many different theories of advising, each with its own unique set of principles and theory-based interventions.  There is significant empirical support for various academic advising theories and approaches such as developmental advising or proactive advising, etc.  Most major academic advising theories do stress the importance of the advising relationship.  In advising, the quality of the relationship between advisor and student is at the heart of most interventions.  Without a solid relationship, none of the specific intervention techniques or tools applied would have the intended effect.  The shared focus of various advising theories on factors that foster the advisor-student relationship is very similar to the common factors theory in psychology.

Common Factors Model

The common factors model is derived from the research carried out in the field of psychotherapy.  This model contends that the core of the success observed in treatment has to do with certain factors that are common to many different psychological treatment approaches.  Therefore, it is not necessarily the specific interventions based on a particular theory of psychology, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Psychodynamic Therapy, that forms the core of success, but rather the shared factors that are common to most interventions.  Success in treatment is the function of therapeutic actions that are typical of many different types of psychological interventions rather than the function of any specific intervention technique devoid of the associated common factors.

This idea was first proposed by Rosenzweig (1936) and has been researched in various forms since then. Goldfried, Pachankis, and Bell (2005) have provided a concise outline of the history of research undertaken on common factors and how this model took shape over the years.  The magnitude of the impact that common factors have in a therapeutic relationship can be significant.  Wampold (2001) reported that 70% of the benefits of psychotherapy were due to the common factors compared to only 8% due to unique interventions derived from a particular psychological theory (the remaining were undefined).  Not all research supports common factors so strongly.  The 2002 meta-analyses by Lambert and Barley showed that common factors account for 30% of the benefits of treatment outcomes.  While this is significantly lower than the results by Wampold (2001), it is still in support of an impressive contribution by common factors to the overall variance in treatment outcomes.

Sol Garfield in his book Psychotherapy: An Eclectic-Integrative Approach (1995) begins to identify some factors that are common to several different types of therapeutic orientations.  Garfield proposes that it is these commonalities among the therapies that are the real mechanism of changes observed as a result of therapeutic interventions.  Such common factors identified by Garfield include the strength of the therapeutic alliance, reinforcement, emotional expression, expectancy, etc.  These factors have also been supported by research presented by Norcross and Goldfried (2005).

According to Laska, Gurman, and Wampold (2013), the common factors that are necessary for change include attachment between therapist and client, a confidential setting, a theory-based and culturally appropriate explanation for emotional distress, and adaptive interventions that are aimed at helping the client grow and change.  They stress the relational aspect of therapy and contend that it is factors such as empathy, goal consensus/collaboration, therapeutic alliance, and positive regard that lead to positive gains in therapy (when combined with traditional empirically supported treatments).

It should be noted that while the common factors approach stresses the importance of the therapeutic alliance for positive treatment outcomes, it does not advocate that a therapeutic alliance by itself is adequate for positive outcomes.  The common factors approach emphasizes the process by which the unique/specific interventions are applied and the importance of a strong relationship between therapist and client in order for those unique interventions to be most effective.  Lambert (2005) stresses that common factors are “central to nearly all psychological interventions in practice” (p. 856) and that they serve as mediators of the variance observed in treatment outcomes.

Application to Academic Advising

Similar to psychotherapy, academic advising is also a relational process focused on fostering change and growth.  Both are processes designed to support the individual in attaining their goals.  Given that common factors such as alliance and partnership, empathy and genuine positive regard, and affirmation of experiences can contribute significantly to the gains made in a psychotherapeutic interaction, it would be valuable for academic advisors to pay attention to these factors in their interactions with students.  In psychotherapy, the process (how, when, where, and why) of the communication between the therapist and the client is often seen as more valuable than the specific content (what) of the interactions.  Psychologists place a great deal of emphasis on the process of their interactions with the client.  The process by which unique advising interventions are applied can be bolstered by focusing on common factors.  The common factors approach and associated emphasis on the process of interaction reinforces the importance of the relational component of a therapeutic relationship.  The relational aspect is equally important in academic advising as seen by its inclusion in the NACADA Core Competencies Model (NACADA, 2017).

As noted in the NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies Guide, advisors must understand the history, theory, strategies, and outcomes for academic advising in addition to the institution-specific mission, policies, graduation requirements, population needs, and available resources in order to serve as effective advisors (Farr & Cunningham, 2017).  These form the first two areas of understanding, knowledge, and skills that are required of academic advisors.  The third core component of advisor competencies is the relational aspect.  NACADA core competencies have given equal weight to the importance of the Relational component of academic advising and the Conceptual and Informational components.  It is this Relational component of academic advising that can benefit from the common factors research in the field of psychology.

The field of academic advising can greatly benefit from reviewing the research already done in the field of psychology on ways to enhance empathy, the value of collaborating with the student to agree on goals for advising, maximizing the therapeutic alliance, and maintaining positive regard in an advising relationship.  Advisors may benefit from learning how to use body language, speech pattern (tone, tempo, and volume), mirroring, and matching techniques in advising sessions to build rapport even with the most challenging of students.  Advisors can draw from consumer psychology to learn the best way of utilizing office space and personal appearance to bolster the therapeutic alliance and impact student behaviors.  Learning how seating and chair positioning can be used to create or reduce the power differential can be valuable in advising.  Self-disclosure can also be very powerful in building rapport with students, but it can be misused.  Whenever advisors use self-disclosure (whether that is with pictures in the office, personal attire, or verbal disclosure), it should be very intentionally used for the benefit of the student.  Inopportune self-disclosure can come across as preachy or minimize the student’s experience. There is a wealth of information in the field of psychology that advisors may find useful in enhancing the relational aspect of their work with students.

Concluding remarks

While academic advising is very different from psychotherapy and advisors should not be diagnosing or treating any mental health conditions, there are shared aspects between the fields, such as supporting the individual through their transformative experience and facilitating the attainment of personal goals.  It is in these shared aspects that the field of advising may benefit from the research done in the field of psychology.  One such area of research in psychology is the common factors model.  Common factors make significant contributions to the variance in psychotherapy outcomes and potentially also in advising relationships.  This is not to say that the specific interventions advisors do with students do not have much of an impact.  Advisors certainly need expertise in the Conceptual and Informational components of academic advising.  It simply means that the process of applying those unique or specific strategies advisors employ with their students has to incorporate these common factors.  The process of the application of the content of specific interventions is highly important.  Most of the common factors are related to the Relational component of the advising core competencies such as building rapport and inclusive communication.  It would be valuable for academic advisors to further explore the implications of common factors research and their applicability to the field of academic advising.

Mehvash Ali, Ph.D.
Academic Support Center
American University of Sharjah
[email protected]


Farr, T., & Cunningham, L. (Eds.). (2017). Academic advising core competencies guide. Manhattan, KS: NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising.

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

Goldfried, M. R., Pachankis, 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.

Lambert, M. J. (2005). Early response in psychotherapy: Further evidence for the importance of common factors rather than ‘placebo effect’. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(7), 855-869.

Lambert, M. J., & Barley, D. E. (2002). Research summary on the therapeutic relationship and psychotherapy outcome. In J. C. Norcross (Ed.), Psychotherapy Relationships That Work: Therapist Contributions and Responsiveness to Patients (pp. 17–32). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Laska, K. M., Gurman, A. S., & Wampold, B. E. (2014). Expanding the lens of evidence-based practice in psychotherapy: A common factors perspective. Psychotherapy, 51(4), 467–481.

Norcross, J., & Goldfried, M. (2005). Handbook of psychotherapy integration (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies Model. Retrieved from

Rosenzweig, S. (1936). Some implicit common factors in diverse methods in psychotherapy. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 6, 412-415.

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

Cite this article using APA style as: Ali, M. (2018, June). Common factors: Cultivating the relational component of advising. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


Posted in: 2018 June 41:2


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