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Robert F. Pettay, Kanas State University

RobPettay.jpgThere is a metaphor about the individual who walks down a street, falls in a hole in the sidewalk, gets up, and then does it again, and again. Initially, the individual feels no responsibility for the outcome. Then enlightenment comes and the individual simply chooses to walk down another street to get to the same destination. This metaphor reminds me of students who visit with advisors yet continue to engage in behaviors detrimental to academic success. Even after advisors recommend different directions, the students continue to miss classes, utilize poor study habits, and employ poor self-management skills. Then they are surprised to find themselves on continued academic probation or returning from prior academic dismissal to experience the same outcome. Is there some way advisors can help these students overcome their ambivalence to change and initiate a new type of behavior?

Prescriptive advising is based on authority, with the primary responsibility for the dispensing of information and the prescribing of remedies for problems falling to advisors (Winston & Sandor, 1984). But advice and information are only effective if the individuals receiving them actually internalize and engage in the behaviors being prescribed. Compare this approach to developmental advising, which involves the facilitation of rational processes, environmental and interpersonal interactions, behavioral awareness, problem-solving, decision making, and evaluation skills (Crookston, 1972). The developmental approach encourages the use of a variety of communication and motivational skills, including motivational interviewing.

Motivational interviewing (MI) as defined by Miller and Rollnick (1991) is a directive, client-centered counseling technique for eliciting behavior change by helping clients explore and resolve ambivalence. This method has the advisor leading the session in a way that is subtle, gentle, responsive, and imaginative, as opposed to prescribing a solution to solve a problem. The implicit theory behind motivational interviewing is that MI will lead to an increase in client (in our case, student) change talk and diminish student resistance. The extent to which a student defends the status quo will be inversely related to behavior change, and the extent to which a student verbally argues for change will be directly related to behavior change. For an advisee to initiate productive behaviors, the advisee must be ready, able, and willing to make a change.

Motivational interviewing is based on four general principles: expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, rolling with resistance, and supporting self-efficacy. Empathy has been defined as experiencing an accurate understanding of the student's awareness of his or her own experience, to sense the student's private world as if it were our own, but without ever losing the 'as if' quality (Rogers, 1957). Developing discrepancy involves helping the student recognize the difference between the current behavior and the desired behavior. Rolling with resistance requires the advisor to avoid arguing with the student, but continue to use open-ended questions to draw the student back to the discrepancy in the current behavior. Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives (Bandura, 1994). Even when an advisee recognizes the need to change a current behavior, actual change will require both a belief in the capability to engage in the new behavior and belief in the likelihood that this change will lead to a desired outcome.

One challenge to using Motivational Interviewing in the advising environment is maintaining the 'spirit' of MI in the typical constraints of the environment. The three characteristics that represent the spirit of MI include collaboration, evocation, and autonomy (Miller & Rollnick, 2002). Collaboration involves setting a nonjudgmental, supportive environment conducive for self-exploration, and evocation involves facilitation of the issues related to behavior change, both pro and con. Autonomy involves respect for the student's decision-making process as the student is the ultimate agent of change. The advisor must establish principles for the use of MI that maintain the integrity of the concept, but work within the time constraints and number of sessions available for working with the advisee on behavior change.

Strategies for using MI in the advising setting vary. One approach that has been used in the community-based intervention field is to negotiate the student's agenda. Rollnick asserts that starting with the student's agenda for the session is an effective way to establish rapport and focus on student priorities (Rollnick, Mason, & Butler, 1999). The advisor may state that the purpose of the meeting is to look at the reasons for academic dismissal, but allow the student to talk about the main concerns he or she holds right now, rather than try to choose an issue for the student. Another approach might include the use of a decisional balance scale worksheet to examine the pros and cons of the targeted behavior (Hecht, Borrelli, Breger, DeFrancesco, Ernst, & Resnicow, 2005) with the student. A final strategy may involve providing personal feedback to the advisee based on testing and monitoring results. This approach would assist in helping the advisee develop awareness of the behavior and examine the discrepancy between the current behavior he or she is engaging in, and the desired behavior and outcome.

Motivational Interviewing was developed to treat addictive behaviors, but has also been found to be effective in changing health behaviors such as physical activity (Hecht et al., 2005), dietary behaviors (Burke, Arkowitz, & Menchola, 2003), and obesity (Carels et al., 2007). Advisors may recognize a number of advisee behaviors that may benefit from the use of MI. Poor study skills, low engagement, low academic self-efficacy, and poor time-management skills all can negatively impact the academic success of students. Instead of handing materials to the student or giving advice in a prescriptive manner, MI would allow the student and advisor to work in collaboration, with the student choosing initial behavioral changes to improve the current situation. These small first steps can lead to additional behaviors beneficial to the academic success of the student, and this facilitative, empathic approach can enhance the advisor-advisee relationship in future interactions

Robert F. Pettay
Department of Kinesiology
Kansas State University
[email protected]


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Rollnick, S., Mason, P., & Butler, C. (1999). Health behavior change: A guide for practitioners. London: Churchill Livingstone.

Winston, R.B., & Sandor, J.A. (1984). Developmental academic advising: What do students want? NACADA Journal, 4 (1), 5-13.

Cite this article using APA style as: Pettay, R.F. (2009, June). Motivational interviewing in advising: Working with students to change. Academic Advising Today, 32(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2009 June 32:2


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