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Sarah Forbes.jpgSarah A. Forbes and Michael S. DeVasher, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

In their seminal work on student success, McNair, Albertine, Cooper, McDonald, and Major (2016) aptly noted:

There has never been a time when all students enrolled in college were academically prepared, when no students required additional supports to promote their college success, or when the transition from high school to college was seamless for all students. (p. 13) 

Michael DeVasher.jpgAs a result, institutions of higher education invest in a diverse set of resources to aid student transition and success.  While not exhaustive, some of the common resources are libraries, learning centers, writing centers, testing centers, counseling services, health centers, student success offices, student accessibility services, diversity centers, recreation centers, academic advisors, and resident assistants.  It is not surprising that students who utilize these resources are (directly or indirectly) more likely to be successful in their college pursuits (Brown & Malenfant, 2016; DeStefano, Mellott, & Petersen, 2001; Swecker, Fifolt, & Searby, 2013).  This is the reason why advisors tell students over and over, “Go visit [name of resource].”  Yet, few students heed that advice.  Instead, here is the typical conversation: 

Student:  I am having trouble keeping up with the material.
Advisor:  Have you been to the learning center to arrange tutoring?
Student:  No.
Advisor:  Why not?
Student:  I don’t know.  I should probably do that.

Follow-up meetings highlight the fact that students did not take advantage of the suggested resources, but merely responded in a socially desirable way to please the advisor.  To further exacerbate the problem, many colleges and universities tell prospective students and parents that support services are free.  Oftentimes no additional costs are incurred, but promoting the services as free is misleading.  Students, and their families, have invested money, via tuition and fees, to pay for these resources.  Not only is it misleading, but students might not perceive the full value of these resources when they are labeled as free.

Bandura (1986) posited that learning and performing were two separate events, noting that “people do not enact everything they learn” (p. 68).  Most orientation programs and first-year seminars will lay the foundation for what resources exist on campus, where they are located, and when to use them.  Thus, the issue appears to be one of motivation to seek out help (i.e., performing).  How, then, can advisors convince students to take advantage of campus resources?  One solution to this challenge is to leverage a co-created narrative called “eat the dessert.”  This illustration allows advisors to personalize the conversation by connecting the idea of utilizing resources with something the student already enjoys. 

Here is the conversation using the narrative:

Student:  I am having trouble keeping up with the material.
Advisor:  Have you been to the learning center to arrange tutoring?
Student:  No.
Advisor:  Ok.  Let’s say that you and I went to dinner at a nice restaurant.  At the table next to us, there is a couple, clearly on a date.  At the end of their meal, they order dessert.  What’s your favorite dessert?
Student:  A brownie with ice cream.
Advisor:   Great.  So this couple orders a brownie with ice cream.  The waiter sets it on the table, and it looks delicious.  It’s a perfect mound of brownie covered with a perfectly spherical dollop of ice cream.  Do you like almonds?
Student:  Sure.
Advisor:  Ok, it’s also got shaved almonds and whipped cream with hot fudge drizzled over the top and around the plate.  It is a work of art.  Immediately after the dessert arrives, the couple leaves the restaurant.  The dessert is left untouched.  What would you think if you saw that?
Student:  How long do we have to wait until we eat that dessert?!
Advisor:  Yes, but we would look at the untouched dessert and think, “Wow, that’s weird.  Why would anyone pay for dessert and then leave without eating it?”  Right?
Student:   Yeah.
Advisor:   So let me ask you this, how much does it cost to go to the Learning Center or the Counseling Center?
Student:  Nothing.
Advisor:   How much does it cost to go talk to a faculty member?
Student:   Nothing.
Advisor:  It costs nothing now, but it’s not free.  You hear people talk about all of our free resources, but the truth is the resources are not free.  You have paid good money to attend our institution, and thereby have paid for the resources.  Since you’ve paid for them, why wouldn’t you use them?  Eat the dessert!
Student:  Oh, you’re right!  I hadn’t thought about it like that.

There are three distinct differences between these two conversations.  First, the co-created narrative engages the student in a dialogue.  The narrative does not require the student to reflect on any failures to get started or continue the conversation.  All that it requires is for the student to have a favorite dessert and be willing to name it.  Personalizing the discussion in this manner can also help develop a rapport with the student.  Second, the typical conversation puts the burden on the student, essentially demanding that the student offer an excuse on the spot.  While the student must take responsibility for his/her actions, or lack thereof, the narrative accomplishes the same goal without the pressure, the need to make excuses, or the desire to respond in a socially desirable way.  Finally, the emphasis is shifted from free to pre-paid.  By illustrating the fact that the student has made an investment, motivation has been created.  No one wants to waste money, especially in light of the rising cost of higher education.  Further, if a student is going to feel a sense of entitlement, it might as well be leveraged for a positive outcome.

Advisors have a responsibility to their students to ensure that they have accurate and timely information about the services offered; however, the scope of their duties does not extend to following the students around to ensure compliance with the given advice.  By engaging in this co-created narrative, a paradigm shift is created.  The original beliefs students held are called into question, and they have a more difficult time finding an excuse to avoid the offered resources.  The co-created narrative sparks student attention, which is the first step toward action.

Sarah A. Forbes, Ph.D.
Director of Student Academic Success
Academic Affairs
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
[email protected] 

Michael S. DeVasher, Ph.D.
Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management
Enrollment Management
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
[email protected]


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brown, K., & Malenfant, K. J. (2016). Documented library contributions to student learning and success: Building evidence with team-based assessment in action campus projects. Association of College and Research Libraries. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/issues/value/contributions_y2.pdf

DeStefano, T. J., Mellott, R. N., & Petersen, J. D. (2001). A preliminary assessment of the impact of counseling on student adjustment to college. Journal of College Counseling, 4(2), 113-121.

McNair, T., Albertine, S., Cooper, M. A., McDonald, N., & Major, T., Jr. (2016). Becoming a student-ready college: A new culture of leadership for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Swecker, H. K., Fifolt, M., & Searby, L. (2013). Academic advising and first-generation college students: A quantitative study on student retention. NACADA Journal, 33(1), 46-53.

Cite this article using APA style as: Forbes, S.A., & DeVasher, M.S. (2018, September). Eat the dessert: A narrative to encourage campus resource utilization. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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