Trevor Francis, University of Arkansas
In a recent talk about their advising experiences, a group of business students were asked about the purpose of advising. At first, the students were adamant that they were only interested in receiving official degree information from their advisors during their appointments. They clearly expressed that the primary reason for their visits to the Advising Center was simply to receive information about their degree progress. In their minds, they could see no other reason. They were happy with the information with which they had been provided and felt as though their advising appointments had been beneficial. As the discussion moved to specific questions about who their advisors were, they revealed, even if not recognized by them, another reason behind their appointments: they enjoyed talking with their advisors. They felt connected to their advisors. They trusted their advisors. They knew personal information about their advisors. They liked their advisors. Their appointments were more than information injections, more than receiving sound bites like one would receive a vaccine from a hypodermic needle. The discussion was a powerful reminder that there were two realities at work in advising appointments: the receiving of information occurs because of the creation of relationship. Learning was not just happening within the context of a community, but it was happening at a deeper level because of community. Deeper learning was facilitated by how the students felt within their connection to an advisor; advising was a function of the quality of a student’s social connection with an advisor.
Advising appointments should feel natural to our students, like an ongoing conversation in which they feel free to share their voices, explore their talents, frame their current experiences, and think through why they are walking the path that they are on. These appointments should feel organic, like a place where ideas can be openly explored, where deep reflection can take place, and where plans have the liberty to be created and recreated. Conversational advising, on campus or online, should be a place where the emotional climate is just as powerful and freeing to a student’s mind as the information being shared; it should be a place where students experience the freedom to think, collect information, reflect on their choices, and use that information to grow. The more natural the experience, the more powerful the learning. Although, as with the business students, the depth of how learning is taking place may initially go unnoticed.
The word “advising” is powerful. It implies guidance, a transfer of knowledge, and expert recommendations. But the word “conversation” provides a much-needed context for our work with students because it implies immediacy, a sense of togetherness, and a relaxed exchange of ideas. Advising appointments are often heavy on information sharing but light on true conversation. Conversation in its original sense means “to associate with” or “to keep company with,” and if used in the same way that the Greeks used it, conversation refers to identification as a citizen, or citizenship (Merriam Webster, 2012).
Conversation is the most fundamental of human interactions; we spend our formative years learning informally through conversation – asking questions of caretakers, making sense of our experiences with those around which we feel safest. The act of being in conversation is intrinsic to our existence as people. Conversation, rooted in our core identities as humans, is communication that seeks to create and understand meaning, to value and be valued, and to coordinate social action. As global citizens, conversation, the ability to transcend differences and to connect on a human level, is our primary method for promoting unity and growth.
Conversational advising is an advising pedagogy in which the advisor foregoes an authoritative position, and, by doing so, actively creates a learning space where knowledge about each student and his or her unique academic and career plan can be discovered through conversation. In this approach, advisors are not the keepers of knowledge. Instead, they become students of inquiry with each college student becoming the primary text. In this way, conversational advising is an organic approach that is focused on creating an environment that allows the unique personalities, strengths, and experiences of the advisor and the student to integrate for the sake of exploration and discovery. By taking a humble, inquiry-based approach to the conversation, the advisor is able to create a context which allows for the development of new ideas. As Hans Georg Gadamer said, “The more genuine conversation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner. Thus, a genuine conversation is never the one that we wanted to conduct…[It is] more correct to say that we fall into conversation, or even that we become involved in it…A conversation has a spirit of its own, and the language in which it is conducted bears its own truth within it—i.e., that it allows something to ‘emerge’ which hence forth exists” (Baker, Jensen, & Kolb, 2002). In this way, finding our way into conversation with students is integral to helping them transform their college experiences into learning. Experience alone does not teach; people teach each other through conversation because no one learns in isolation.
The job of an advisor is to create environments that allow students to learn, and the best way to do this is through quality conversation. Information within the context of relationship is the essence of conversational advising. At best, conversational advising is an organic, natural view of advising. In this context of thinking, the advisor and student are free to learn from each other, communicate effectively, and continually adapt to and plan for new issues and challenges. The advisor works to create a safe space where experiences can be processed while carefully balancing the relational and content aspects of the conversation. A conversational perspective on advising is essential to understanding deep learning and personal change.
Conversational advising encompasses four areas: 1. Community, 2. Conscience, 3. Collection, and 4. Creation. As conversations develop, a student should feel a sense of community, e.g., during New Student Orientation, we can remind our students that they are now citizens of the same community. The challenge is to help them feel like they are part of our college and our university community, so we should continually look for ways to send the message of community and citizenship; deeper learning happens when a student feels like a contributor to the community. Next, it is essential to invoke the reality of conscience in our conversations. We should invite students to align his or her personal strengths with a path. We should ask questions which challenge students to clarify their values and to integrate each area of their lives so that they can learn to own their decisions. Further, it is vital that we teach students how to collect information and store up knowledge so that their minds can use this data to make decisions. The more information they collect, the less they will fear decisions, and the more their unconscious mind can begin the creation process. In many ways, it is important to remind students that having multiple advisors, multiple voices and perspectives in their lives provides a safety net. As students collect information, they can also begin the process of creating and re-creating plans. Students should know that the creation process is ongoing and dynamic, and they should feel perfect freedom as they implement their trial-and-error method.
Advising conversations do not end when a student leaves the appointment. Instead, the product, the creation, of the time together is assimilated into students’ minds and eventually may find its way into their other conversations and, hopefully, if positive, into their actions. Baker et al. (2002) reminded us that conversational learning is a “process whereby learners construct meaning and transform experiences into knowledge through conversation.” A student’s self-knowledge is discovered through the ongoing process of conversation. As students actively communicate their experiences and ideas to an advisor, they make meaning of their college experiences through reflection, which is typically caused by effective advisor questioning techniques. Students then transfer this new knowledge, which was discovered because of a collaborative relationship with an advisor, into their decision-making process. Advising is conversation, and the quality of our conversations can have a dramatic impact on how our students experience life during college and after.
Director, Fulbright College Advising Center
J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences
University of Arkansas
Baker, A. C., Jensen, P. J., & Kolb, D. A. (2002). Conversational learning: An experiential approach to knowledge creation. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.