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Keith Gissubel, Red Bank Catholic High School
Janice C. Stapley, Monmouth University

Keith Gissuble.jpgBeing a student is a more complex job than it was in previous decades.  Since the flourishing of technology in education and the recent pushes towards national educational reform, students are expected to take a lot more responsibility for their lives and for their education.  At the same time, college advisors are still expected to create a deep connection with their students to guide them and to foster their academic experience even though most interactions occur via email.  If we don’t take a moment to remind ourselves of the developmental status of traditionally aged college students, we are at risk for dehumanizing them, not understanding their needs, and losing their trust in us at the very beginning of a long road together.

Janice Stapley.jpgDevelopmental research data can offer us a better understanding of our students' decision making processes; especially in terms of the risky behavior typically associated with late adolescence. In the high school where we are affiliated, students are well educated on the health risks involved in risky behaviors such as excessive drinking, driving while intoxicated, driving while texting, drug use, STIs, etc.  The older they get, the more they sound like well-educated adults on these topics (e.g. Lewis, 1981; Quadrel, Fischoff, and Davis, 1993).  However, there are still many Monday mornings when students' conversations about what they did over the weekend clearly indicate that they have thrown everything they’ve learned out the window for 48 hours.  Recent research on this suggests that even though adolescents become better at identifying risks and consequences (Lewis, 1981), they also become progressively more at risk for serious injury or death (NIMH, 2011).  If we just looked at these data alone, it would appear that the more we teach them about risky behavior, the more they will engage in it!  Luckily, this is not the whole story, since these statistics are correlated, but not causal.

Although adolescents and adults have nearly equal insight into the consequences of risky behavior, and will both actually overestimate the risk at times, the psychosocial demands of adolescents and adults are worlds apart, and they are more influential in the decision making process for an adolescent (Steinberg & Caufman, 1996).  According to Chick and Reyna’s work on “Fuzzy Trace Theory” (2012), part of good decision-making comes from the ability to first identify the moral value in the decision, and then be able to prevent any interference between the moral value and the behavior, such as seductive intuition, emotion, or an inappropriate representation of the task at hand.  Other ingredients, such as social norms, willingness, and intention, can also play a big role for adolescents in risky decision making (Gibbons, Gerrard, & Lane, 2003).

As the Fuzzy Trace Theory suggests, during adolescence moral thoughts are intercepted before they can become behavior.  Somewhere along the line between the ability to recognize the good decisions and the ability to perform said decisions, something goes awry.  Chick and Reyna’s research revealed that while adolescents could weigh the expected values of the risky behavior as adults do, they are more powerfully swayed by the potential rewards than the negative consequences.  Throughout adolescence and emerging adulthood, they are more sensitive to rewards than risks, and neuroimaging data supports this (Brey, 2011).  Chick and Reyna (2012) found that, when weighing decisions, there is more activity in the reward and emotion centers of the brain in adolescents than in adults.  The prefrontal cortex, which regulates the ability to control impulses, behavior, and consider consequences is not yet matured in adolescents, while the pleasure and emotion seeking/regulating centers are (Brey, 2011).  A longitudinal study (Giedd, 2008) showed that between childhood and adulthood there is a change in balance from the subcortical areas (emotion and reward centers) to the frontal lobe areas (reasoning and self-control centers).

When we are born, we rapidly develop neurons until early adolescence (Giedd, 2008).  From early adolescence into young adulthood there is an increase in 'pruning,' or the loss of neurons, that have not been used and exercised.  Thus, current data from the field of adolescent development accurately characterize this period with the popular 'use it or lose it' slogan. Although adolescents are still undergoing neurogenesis (developing new neurons), they will find it easier to learn new material that they can attach to already existing neural loops.  Thus, they may find it easier to take a higher-level course in a field with which they are familiar than a 100 level course in a field in which they have no background.  They should also plan for extra study time when taking the first course in a new discipline and seek academic support (e.g. peer tutoring) before they drop a course for fear that it is not something they are 'good at.” But will they internalize and act on the advice of their academic advisors?

Although college students may technically “know better,” this research suggests that they are much more fluent in making impulsive decisions based on what feels good.  Simply sharing information won't necessarily change their behavior.  Advisors need to get their points across in terms of goals or rewards that are salient for this age group.  Since different things act as reinforcers for different people, some of the early meetings should involve exploring this topic with their advisees while getting to know them as individuals.  Also, making it real with stories about student outcomes should make more of an emotional impact than rote advice.  For example, they will more likely be able to identify with a story about how a previously successful student had difficulty with an online course because she was not used to logging on to a course management system on a daily basis.  Since students are bombarded with information through all different types of media, it is important to repeat crucial information via as many sources as possible (in person, email, text messaging, Facebook pages, etc.), and then to personalize the information to make it salient.

Keith Gissubel
AP Psychology Teacher
Red Bank Catholic High School
Master’s in Education Leadership student at Seton Hall University
[email protected]

Janice C. Stapley
Associate Professor of Psychology
Monmouth University
[email protected]


Brey, R. L. (2011, December/January). The adolescent brain: What neurology can teach us about protecting teens. Neurology Now, 7(6), 9.

Chick, C. F., & Reyna, V. F. (2012). A fuzzy trace theory of adolescent risk taking: Beyond self-control and sensation seeking. In V. F. Reyna, S. B. Chapman, M. R. Dougherty, & J.  Confrey (Eds.), The adolescent brain: Learning, reasoning, and decision making, (pp. 379-428). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/13493-013

Gibbons, F. X., Gerrard, M., & Lane, D. J. (2003). A social reaction model of adolescent health risk. In J. Suls & K. A. Wallston (Eds.), Social psychological foundation of health and illness (pp. 107-136). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Giedd, J. (2008). The teen brain: Insights from neuroimaging. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 335-343. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2008.01.007

Lewis, C. G. (1981). How adolescents approach decisions: Changes over grades seven to twelve and policy implication. Child Development, 52, 538-554.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2011). The teen brain: Still under construction, 11-4929
Quadrel, M., Fischoff, B., & Davis, W. (1993). Adolescent (in)vulnerability. American Psychologist, 48(2), 102-116. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.48.2.102

Steinberg, L., & Cauffman, E. (1996). Maturity of judgment in adolescence: Psychosocial factors in adolescent decision making. Law and Human Behavior, 20, 249-272.


Cite this article using APA style as:

Gissubel, C., & Stapley, J.C. (2012, December). Developmental insights to enhance advisor communication with students. Academic Advising Today, 35(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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