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Alexander Kunkle, Western Oregon University

Editor’s Note: Readers who will attend the upcoming NACADA Annual Conference in Las Vegas can hear more from Alex by attending his conference session, Disorienting Dilemma: How Dispreferred Statements can Change Student Behavior.

Alex Kunkle.jpgThe student who does not complete their homework and then provides an outrageous excuse to their instructor is one of the most common tropes in popular culture.  An excuse is provided, the student shrugs their shoulders, the instructor gives a sideways grimace, and then the audience laughs.  Advisors know that, in academics, excuses are a regular occurrence and not as funny as television makes excuses seem.  Our culture’s social norm dictates that excuses are often a required element of conversation.  Since excuses are expected, society often ignores the underlying reasons behind why excuses are being provided.  During advising appointments, if advisors highlight how students use excuses and how those excuses can harm a student’s academic performance, advisors can trigger a process of self-reflection within the student, focusing on how excuses are a reflection of their own choices.  Advisors can prompt this reflection in an effort to change future student behavior.

Advisors, when working with suspended students at Western Oregon University, have begun following a process which highlights excuses, in an effort to change the student’s academic behavior.  This process merges a communication analysis concept titled dispreferred response, detailed by Sidnell (2011), with the transformative learning process, coined by Mezirow (1991).  Analyzing excuses made during advising sessions has been done in an effort to trigger Mezirow’s disorienting dilemma (1991), which is the first step in the transformative learning process and changes student behavior through an understanding of their language patterns.

Dispreferred Responses: Being Willing Versus Able

Sidnell (2011) concluded, “One of the most obvious things about conversation is that it involves people taking turns at speaking” (p. 36).  Advisors in their primary role are conversationalists.  When a student is struggling academically, one of the most identifiable components of their conversations, which an advisor can identify, is what Sidnell describes as a dispreferred response (p. 78).

During conversations with their advisee, advisors will structure the conversation in an effort to prompt responses.  Often, the questions have a preference (p. 77) order in which the advisor wishes the student to provide a particular response to their question.  An example to this is asking the student “Did you complete your homework for the class?” or “Did you attend all of your classes?”  With both of these questions, the advisor’s preferred response is “yes.”

If the preferred response it not given, as is the case with many struggling students, the student provides what is called the dispreferred response.  When the dispreferred “no” is given, conversational social norms dictate that the student must either prepare the advisor for the dispreferred response, justify their response, or both.  The most common of these characteristics that advisors face from students are called accounts (Sidnell, 2011,p. 79), also known as excuses.  Accounts will contain justification for giving the dispreferred response: “I didn’t do the homework, because I was stuck in traffic.”

When the student attempts to justify their academic struggles with excuses, these excuses often contain components which create a rank of preference between accomplishing or accepting the preferred response and an object which prevented that from happening.  Examining the excuse which the student provided above, the student was prevented from completing their homework because of traffic.  Through this excuse the student is able to accomplish two goals; first, they are showing the requestor that they wanted to complete the request, but due to circumstances beyond their control, they were unable to.  Second, they have removed the feeling of guilt off of their conscience, as it was beyond their control.

An advisor then has the opportunity to explain the distinction between being able to accomplish something and being willing.  While there are situations which are beyond an individual’s control, most excuses form because the individual made a choice which prevents them from providing the preferred response.  This distinction, if explained to the student, can trigger the disorienting dilemma.  The student chose to leave their home, for whatever reason, without first completing their homework.  Thus, getting stuck in traffic was a by-product of their prioritization of travel over the completion of their homework.  This implies that they were unwilling to re-prioritize their homework above their travel, not, as the excuse indicated, that they were unable.

By beginning this conversation around the context of how excuses are used within our culture, the student gains an understanding of how language is used and begins to question their prior understanding of excuses.  A new perspective, one which explores how excuses mask our choices and shields an individual from their own truth, has begun to form through a process of self-reflection.

Mezirow’s Transformative Learning

Mezirow (1990) explained, “To make meaning means to make sense of an experience; we make an interpretation of it.  When we subsequently use this interpretation to guide decision making or action, then making meaning becomes learning” (p. 1).  Once an individual is presented with a decision, they recall similar situations in an effort to determine a course of action.  Students use excuses because they have learned through past experiences that excuses are expected within language.  Excuses are designed, on a basic level, to ask for forgiveness for providing the dispreferred response.

When students are presented with the explanation that their excuses are actually a reflection of their choices and priorities, students must then question their learned interpretation of excuses.  Mezirow (1994) explained that this reflection, “involves a critique of assumptions to determine whether the belief, often acquired through cultural assimilation in childhood, remains functional for us as adults” (p. 223).  When students question what they have experienced in the past, through the presentation of the dispreferred response information, Mezirow’s (1991) transformative learning process is prompted.

The transformative learning process (Mezirow, 1991) begins with the disorienting dilemma, and then transitions through a process of reflection on the student’s beliefs, values, actions, and behaviors, which leads towards behavioral change.  Mezirow (1991) detailed his ten phase process, which students go through during moments of reflection.  This process can be modified to fit the need(s) of the student, but follows the general process:

  1. A disorienting dilemma;
  2. Self-examination (with feelings of shame or guilt);
  3. A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions;
  4. Recognition of a connection between one’s discontent and the process of transformation;
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions;
  6. Planning a course of action;
  7. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan;
  8. Provisional trying of new roles;
  9. Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships;
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective (p. 168).

Unless students are made aware that their behavior and language patterns are trained mechanisms which no longer will function in adulthood, change is unlikely.  Students must genuinely examine their struggles and subsequent beliefs in order to make a positive change.  If advisors can break the students of their habitual learned patterns, the disorienting dilemma will be triggered, which sparks the development of a new perspective.

Behavior Change: Moving the Student Forward

Now the advisor has sparked a dilemma within their advisee.  Excuses are holding back academic performance.  What then?  While the entirety of Mezirow’s (1991) transformative learning process is not necessary for behavioral changes, the student must recognize that their view of excuses has caused harm, build a new process for using excuses, and integrate this new process into their lives.  This does not necessarily mean that the student will stop providing excuses, mainly because it is an expected social practice.  What this does mean is that the student will understand that excuses are used to protect their own ego, and reflect upon their own priorities within a given situation.  By understanding the implications of excuses on their own performance, students can then make different choices in an effort to avoid excuses going forward. 

Alexander Kunkle, M.S.Ed
Academic Advisor
Western Oregon University
[email protected]


Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning (1-20). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1994). Understanding transformation theory. Adult Education Euarterly44(4), 222-44.

Sidnell, J. (2011). Conversation analysis: An introduction (Vol. 45). Malden, MA. Wiley-Blackwell.

Cite this article using APA style as: Kunkle, A. (2015, September). How advisors can focus on student excuses to prompt behavior change. Academic Advising Today, 38(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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