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Holly E. Martin, University of Notre Dame

Holly Martin.jpgIn integrative advising, “advisors appreciate that their work also includes helping students develop a much richer understanding of their curricula.  Students and advisors spend their time together discussing how the students’ learning experiences fit together across a semester and over time” (Lowenstein, 2013, p. 246).

The call for integrative liberal learning is not new, but it has recently gained greater support from a variety of sources including the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  The AAC&U “advocates for paradigms that provide challenging, supportive, and adaptable pedagogies for diverse student populations and opportunities built upon assessment strategies such as reflection, self-assessment, goals setting, and problem solving” (Robbins, 2014, p. 27).  As a companion to an integrated curriculum, integrative advising, as defined by Marc Lowenstein (Lowenstein, 2014), is a powerful means to those ends.  It is also a particularly powerful technique for helping student-athletes make meaningful connections within their academic experience and succeed.

Most students, of course, will benefit from integrative advising, but what makes the case of elite student-athletes acute is not only their advanced skill level in their future profession and the intensity with which they must develop and showcase those skills during college, but also the apparent disconnect between their academic studies and their legitimate career aspirations.  For few students is integrative advising more necessary than for those Division I student-athletes at highly selective institutions who are working toward careers as professional athletes.  Music, theatre, and dance performance majors at institutions that are gateways to performance professions will have similar concerns; however, they may pursue academic majors that support their career aspirations.  Given that student-athletes do not have this option, integrative advising is uniquely positioned to assist them in remaining engaged and motivated in their academic work.  Through this approach, advisors help student-athletes understand that they are valued beyond their athletic ability and that they are shaping and creating their own unique education that will support their needs, interests, and hopes now and in the future.

Integrative advising has been discussed in academic advising literature for more than 15 years (Lowenstein, 2014).  It emphasizes assisting students in becoming aware of the skills and ways of knowing basic to each of their courses.  Integrative advising also facilitates making connections between the courses and the ways the courses (required and elective) help create the students’ unique curriculum, one that has meaning for them and connections to their short and long term goals

what the students accomplish . . . is to construct, intentionally and reflectively, an overall understanding of how the pieces of their education fit together, so that the whole emerges as more than the sum of its parts and their educational decisions are informed by a sense of how they fit into that whole.  Each course the student takes and each way of knowing that he or she masters takes on greater importance and is better understood, as it is experienced or re-experienced in the context of other, contrasting or complementing experiences. (Lowenstein, 2014, p. 7)

There are advisors who practice only transactional advising (advising that concentrates principally on transactions and providing information about requirements) because their workloads are too large or because of a lack of knowledge concerning how their students’ curriculum may connect and build to a coherent whole.  Indeed, some transactional advising is a part of every advisor’s work.  However, integrative advising, as opposed to transactional advising, assists students in becoming engaged in creating their educational experiences and helps them to be resilient in the face of academic difficulties.

Integrative advising treats each student as a respected individual, capable of understanding and shaping their own meaningful education, and it can go a long way toward helping student-athletes be academically engaged.  Students are encouraged by their advisor to “take ownership of it [their curricular choices] by tying it to their own educational goals—and those goals, in turn, become more sophisticated over time as they are informed by new learning” (Lowenstein, 2013, p. 246).  What might have been arbitrary becomes intentional and meaningful through integrative advising.

This kind of engagement with their advisor and with what they are learning can help students feel they are a welcomed and respected part of the institution, and this belief that they “belong” at the institution is a major factor in student satisfaction and achievement (Strayhorn 2015; Walton & Cohen, 2007).  Integrative advising, and the respectful collaborative relationship with the advisor it promotes, may also help students deal with the difficulties of being a part of a special population on their campus (a first generation to college student, a student from low economic circumstances, a minority student, a student with disabilities, or the like).  Combined with advising that understands the destructiveness of stereotypes, integrative advising may also help to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995): “Encouraging individuals to think of themselves in ways that reduce the salience of a threatened identity can also attenuate stereotype threat effects” (ReducingStereotypeThreat.org, n.d., para. 4).

Unlike their fellow students, who may be good at math or wonderful writers but who are not yet remarkably skilled in their likely area of career choice, elite student-athletes enter college with an astonishing degree of skill in an area that, if they are able to practice it professionally, is both high status and (at least briefly) high paying.  As high school students, these young people are so skilled in their sport that they could have chosen to attend any number of institutions where they would have received expert training in their sport—and opportunities to showcase their skills to professional entities—with very few academic demands to hinder their focus on developing their athletic skills. 

That many student-athletes choose to attend institutions so academically demanding that attending them may detract from the students’ ability to fully focus on developing their skills in their hoped for career, suggests that many of these students enter the institution with a serious desire for an advanced academic education.  They want to develop and showcase their athletic skills to compete with other elite athletes for the few spots open in professional sports, and they also hope to gain a meaningful education and a degree. Their choice of a highly selective institution suggests that they want an education that will prepare them for their second career, the one that begins when their first career as a professional athlete ends.  Achieving this takes immense motivation and resilience, two characteristics that integrative advising, as opposed to transactional advising, helps to foster.  Their relationships with their advisors (college, major, and those who specialize in working with student-athletes) can help them remember why they chose this difficult path and why their courses are meaningful.

Students on athletic scholarships at highly selective institutions pay for their education by committing themselves to participating in their sport as well as their academics.  To begin, they must meet their teams’ work requirements.  For example, they cannot choose to skip practices or weight lifting sessions without putting their commitment to the team (and possibly their scholarship) in jeopardy.  They must also fully commit to developing and showcasing their athletic skills by playing in competition, and not merely practicing with the team, in order to have any hope of entering their intended profession. 

Their academic demands are formidable as well.  At highly selective institutions, they are competing in the classroom with some of the finest students in the country. The physical and emotional strain is significant.  They must successfully negotiate the demands of both of their highly challenging worlds—academic and athletic—including “negotiating socialization through periods of isolation caused by athletic participation; dealing with athletic success or lack thereof; coping with injuries; balancing the demands from various relationships, including those of teammates, coaches, friends, and family; and coping with the end of one’s athletic career” (Newell, 2015, p. 38).  

In addition, student-athletes must deal with the very active stereotypes that surround their identity as student-athletes (and sometimes as members of other special populations).  Again, integrative advising can be of tremendous service in these situations through its emphasis on relationships with advisors who support the students’ goals and help them see the value of what they are learning and the education they are creating for themselves.

A sincere desire for a good education may not be enough to keep many young people academically motivated if their courses appear to be a random set of requirements and electives chosen to fit around the restrictions of their sport’s demands.  Given the extreme pressure to fully invest in their sport, if the elite student-athlete’s academic path (his or her curriculum) appears to be a series of arbitrary hurdles, simply giving up on the academic enterprise and only doing the minimum necessary to stay eligible to participate in the sport (and possibly graduate) may seem to be a sensible choice.  However, if student-athletes understand the “logic of their curriculum” (Lowenstein, 2000, para. 10), if they understand what they are gaining in terms of knowledge and that they can shape that curriculum to be meaningful to them, then there is reason for them to remain committed to the academic endeavor in a serious way in spite of its costs: “Tremendously motivating for students, advising converts all of those boxes on the degree audit into a meaningful pattern; in effect it is what makes an education of various seemingly unconnected classes” (Lowenstein, 2013, p. 248).

In Why Choose the Liberal Arts, Mark Roche points out that “Faculty need both to ennoble students with high aspirations and remind them that what they are now is not yet what they might become” (Roche, 2010, p. 79).  In the same fashion, advisors can assist the sometimes exhausted or discouraged student-athletes to keep their academic goals high by helping them see what they are actually learning in their courses, both in terms of skills as well as in constructing an area of specialty that fits their personal interests (and not just their practice schedules).

In student-athletes’ first few semesters, this may take the form of helping students understand the skills they are learning, such as the way their required history course is building their ability to recognize and evaluate assumptions and arguments or how their art history course is increasing their understanding of how viewpoints and worldviews change over time.  The advisor can encourage the students to be highly intentional in the courses they choose in order to begin to build their own unique set of skills.  If students think they may be interested in a (second) career that involves communication skills once they have concluded their athletic career, then they may, initially, need assistance in seeing how courses in sociology, literature, and film all help build those skills, but with a little assistance, they will.  As the students continue their education, the conversations change.  They can better see the connections among courses, skills, and goals, but the role of the advisor continues:

[The] student’s academic task in college involves constructing an overall, uniquely personal understanding of how the world works, the ways by which knowledge is gained and critiqued, the meaning of these understandings in terms of the students’ own lives, and the fit of students’ values into a worldview.  No one can create understandings of these aspects of learning for the students. However, advisors can help students recognize the learning tasks ahead and repeatedly coach them through various stages of accepting the challenge and monitoring the many twists and turns of the students’ changing ideas over time. (Lowenstein, 2013, p 248.).

Elite student-athletes at highly selective institutions are only an extreme case of the kinds of challenges many of our students face.  The ways in which integrative advising benefits them are the same ways it can benefit all of our students. It helps them understand, engage in, plan, and create their unique education. The advisor begins his or her work by supporting the students’ career goals, in this case to play their sport professionally.  With that goal established, the advisor can work with the students to help him or her plan and build an education that will support their other goals, ones they may or may not have thought very much about yet but are nonetheless important. Carving out sufficient time to develop a trusting relationship and to do integrative advising is essential and tremendously rewarding for both the student and the advisor.

Holly E. Martin, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, First Year of Studies
University of Notre Dame


Lowenstein, M. (2000, April 14). Academic advising and the “logic” of the curriculum. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/old/articles/000414ml.htm 

Lowenstein, M. (2013). Envisioning the future. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 243-258). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lowenstein, M. (2014, August 12). Toward a theory of advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/2014/08/toward-a-theory-of-advising/

Newell, E. (2015, Fall). International student-athlete adjustment issues: Advising recommendations for effective transitions. NACADA Journal, 35(2), 36-47

ReducingStereotypeThreat.org. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.reducingstereoypethreat.org/reduce.html

Robbins, R. (2014, Fall). AAC&U's integrative liberal learning and the CAS standards: Advising for a 21st century liberal education. NACADA Journal, 34(2), 26-31.

Roche, M. W. (2010). Why Choose the Liberal Arts? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2015, Spring). Reframing academic advising for student success: From advisor to cultural navigator. NACADA Journal, 35(1), 56-63.

Steele, C. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Walton, G. M. & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96.

Cite this article using APA style as: Martin, H.E. (2017, March). Integrative advising and student-athletes at highly selective institutions. Academic Advising Today, 40(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 March 40:1


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