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Voices of the Global Community


Maurice Kinsella, John Wyatt, Niamh Nestor, Jason Last, and Sue Rackard, University College Dublin

Maurice Kinsella.jpgHigher education is a journey full of opportunities and challenges. While it offers students numerous avenues for personal and professional growth, this also means confronting demanding situations, tasks, and interactions. These challenges are more than a test of students’ abilities; they are a test of character. For example, students face environmental hurdles such as “independent learning, living and navigating new social environments” (Thompson et al, 2021). Similarly, there are challenges with building skills and qualities for self-regulated learning and multiple modes of engagement, e.g., cognitive, behavioural, and social. To overcome potential obstacles and progress through higher education, students must develop a sense of personal responsibility and self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2017). This means asking questions of themselves about their education ambitions, what they hope to accomplish personally and professionally, how they plan on achieving their goals, and being motivated to pursue them (Kinsella et al, 2022).

John Wyatt.jpgIn this context, autonomy helps students meet the demands of higher education and fosters psychological well-being and a sense of meaning (Deci & Ryan, 1987; Miller & Rollnick, 2012; Rollnick et al, 2008). Rather than viewing autonomy as synonymous with complete independence, i.e., separation from others, it is more appropriate and productive to think of it as relational. In this context, autonomy is a capacity navigated among and nurtured within relationships. Academic advisors can best appreciate the role of autonomy in students’ lives and their responsibility in fostering it when they recognise how personal connections can provide students with the psychosocial resources they need to become autonomous learners. Here, actively encouraging the co-directional nature of the support relationship is vital, where the student and advisor are active participants in building pathways toward success.

Relational Autonomy and Academic Advising

Niamh Nestor.jpgAs “self-law” (auto-nomos), autonomy is the “self-endorsement of one’s behaviour and the accompanying sense of volition or willingness” (Ryan & Deci, 2008). It encompasses decisional and volitional components, the ability to choose what one thinks and does consistent with personal values and interests (Sheldon & Kasser, 1995). Within higher education, it’s about more than the ability to perform specific actions such as completing assignments or attending classes. It also conveys students’ capacity to assume ownership over their holistic growth, determining who they are and how they want to live (Rössler, 2002).

Jason Last.jpgAs mentioned, the paradox of autonomy is that it is inherently relational. Interactions aren’t just external events; they shape one’s qualities and abilities (Christman, 2014; Deranty & Renault, 2007; Taylor, 1992). Personal agency and interpersonal engagement, thus, go hand in hand, with autonomy necessitating healthy engagement fuelled by feelings of acceptance and relatedness (Guay, 2022; Guay et al, 2008). Students' capacity to navigate and manage the demands of higher education varies based on their academic and personal circumstances.  Here, the role of academic advisors isn’t to impart autonomy but to create an environment in which students can recognise and affirm their capabilities, to help them discover and develop their, sometimes dormant,  powers of self-determination.

Autonomous Pillars: Self-Governance and Self-Direction

Sue Rackard.jpgThrough autonomy, students can navigate their higher education journey with greater self-determination, practically in figuring out what their goals are and how to achieve them, and existentially in understanding why they are journeying on this path. Students must use various skills to achieve a sense of self-directedness, which manifests in planning, initiating, and evaluating learning activities (Duong & Seepho, 2014; Gamble et al., 2018; Merriam & Baumgartner, 2020; Wilcox, 1996; Zakime, 2020). We discuss two related capabilities that can underpin autonomy: self-governance and self-direction. Fostering these capabilities means tackling internal and external obstacles that can obstruct autonomy and identifying and applying resources that can enhance it.

Self-governance is the capacity for critical self-appraisal, turning one's gaze inwards and examining one’s strengths and weaknesses, values and goals, needs and wants. From this process comes self-acquaintance, which helps students to understand how their programme relates to their broader life and sense of self. To practice self-governance, students have to be aware of their internal problems and conflicts, to be able to deal with them and remain connected to the value and application of education. This sense of self lays the foundation for students to orientate their role and responsibilities as a student, and do the work of acquiring, comprehending, and applying the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

Self-direction is the capacity to engage with and respond to one’s external environment. This ability is exercised when students exhibit freedom not necessarily from external conditions and forces but in fashioning a personal response to these. Students can exercise self-direction through engagement with their institution, negotiating and responding with the necessary independence of mind informed by their unique perspectives. It can be expressed by seeking out and using the various resources at one’s disposal to optimise growth and collaborating with peers and staff to make the education experience more rewarding.

Ultimately, it’s about developing a sense of personal clarity and coherence, and owning one’s actions. In applying these capacities, students can enrich and personalise their educational experience to meet their individual needs and wants.

Fostering Autonomy: Strategies and Approaches

Drawing on the Developmental Approach (Crookston, 1994; Lema & Agrusa, 2019), the student experience is a holistic endeavour, both cultivated and hindered within relationships. Recognising this reality requires a support system that enables self-determination through both internal growth, e.g., critical and decisional capacities, and interpersonal growth, e.g., collaboration (Crookston, 1994; Hessenauer & Guthrie, 2018; Molina & Abelman, 2000). Here, academic advisors can foster students’ autonomy in several ways. We outline three approaches to student support, grounded in students’ capacities for self-governance and self-direction: nurturing a collaborative relationship, developing change strategies, and utilising environmental resources. These approaches enable academic advising to move beyond solely providing information and solutions, towards empowering students to deal with issues and concerns for themselves, i.e., from a problem-centric to a person-centric model.

Nurturing a Collaborative Relationship

Healthy social interaction can help foster the abilities and characteristics that underpin both psychosocial development and autonomous growth (Christman, 2014). Student supports are thus inherently relational; Vianden (2016) notes that positively-perceived advisor-student interactions positively influence student satisfaction and their attitude to their institution. While academic advisors’ knowledge, skills, and experience can contribute substantially to the student support process, their effectiveness is often mediated by the strength of the dynamic they inhabit with the student. Due to their wide range of academic, administrative, and pastoral responsibilities, academic advisors are well-positioned to offer students opportunities to control the content and tone of the support relationship (Reeve & Jang, 2006). They can attend to the relational underpinnings of autonomy by building a co-directive, collaborative alliance, helping students apply their psychosocial and environmental resources in defining and delivering goals. For this to happen, students need to understand their role in the alliance and be motivated to take part in it—empowering them to take ownership of and responsibility for their academic success.

Developing Change Strategies

In addition to the supportive relationship, students can rely on their decision-making and volitional abilities. This self-reliance steers the alliance away from prescriptivism and towards dialogue and reciprocal decision-making—from the student being a passive recipient to an active participant. Different strategies and exercises can be employed here. For example, in cases of disengagement, fostering change-orientation enables students to self-appraise and self-direct their education journey through activities like decisional balance sheets and goal setting. Decisional balance sheets encourage students to reflect upon behaviour(s) that may negatively impact their programme engagement and consider the process and benefits of implementing changes. Goal identification strategies can assist students in recognising and realising specific objectives by helping them establish both broader developmental aims and particular goals. For example, based on students’ understanding of a need to change their integration with their programme, they can identify objectives such as making new personal connections and participating in class more frequently. They can then examine how relevant, realistic, and sustainable their goals are and work with their academic advisor to formulate a plan to achieve them. Here academic advisors ensure that such changes are consistent with students' needs and aligned with curriculum standards and academic expectations.

Identifying Environmental Resources

To meet students' needs, academic advisors are equipped with a range of resources and responsibilities. For students to avail of appropriate resources, advisors need to understand institutional policies and procedures, such as curriculum content and academic regulations, as well as student issues centred on psychosocial development (Grites & Gordon, 2000). When advisors combine these two spheres, they empower and enable students to find, use, and seek out the resources to which they have access. In this context, the advisor’s role is to help students develop meaningful relationships with peers, faculty, and resources that support their programme progress (Fergy et al, 2011). Accomplishing these tasks can entail advisors being embedded within or networked across institutional resources, e.g., counselling, health services, disability supports, career guidance, and academic assistance—ensuring autonomy enhancement is available across numerous domains and stages of the student journey.


Academic advisors' understanding and expression of relational autonomy can help students decipher a sense of healthy self-determination. This process entails students collaborating with advisory services to think and act for themselves and take responsibility for their journey through higher education. In this context, academic advisors' role is to help students to understand and meet their individual needs and goals, providing opportunities for them to exercise autonomy to enrich their personal and professional development. It is all part of a complex, ongoing, and inherently relational process in which a student becomes more fully themselves, expressing this sense of self in how they choose to engage with their programme. This relational perspective on autonomy can offer a rationale for building a collaborative student-adviser alliance and a framework for developing and delivering autonomy-centred supports.

Maurice Kinsella
Research Assistant
University College Dublin
[email protected]

John Wyatt
Project Manager
University College Dublin

Niamh Nestor
Academic Advisor
UCD School of Veterinary Medicine 
University College Dublin

Jason Last
Dean of Students
University College Dublin

Sue Rackard
Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning
UCD School of Veterinary Medicine 
University College Dublin


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Cite this article using APA style as: Kinsella, M., Wyatt, J., & Nestor, N. (2022, December). Fostering students’ autonomy: A relational approach. Academic Advising Today, 45(4). [insert url here] 


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