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Lisa Jasinski and Thomas E. Jenkins, Trinity University

Thomas Jenkins, jpgLisa Jasinski.jpgAt least in the initial stages of their college careers, students need support in developing self-knowledge: they benefit from guidance in taking what they know about themselves and their values and applying that self-knowledge to academic decision-making (Astin, 1977; Brooks, 2009; Clydesdale, 2015; Felten, Gardner, Schroeder, Lambert, & Barefoot, 2016).  One way that this need expresses itself is the recurring need for undergraduates to be more thoughtful about how they select their courses and plan for their academic futures.  Self-knowledge and reflection are powerful tools to enable students to make informed decisions.  Cuba, Jennings, Lovett, and Swingle (2016) contended, “becoming liberally educated . . . is a complex and messy process involving decisions and learning from them” (p. 2).  Faculty and staff advisors can play a valuable role guiding students through the messy process and directing them to answer reflective questions.

Undergraduate Thinking Around Course Selection

Without the intervention of faculty mentors or academic advisors, undergraduate students often acquire unwise habits regarding course selection.  Faced with the scary task of creating a course schedule, students who do not know where to start often turn to their friends and ask for recommended “easy courses.”  Consistent with this desire to protect (or enhance) their GPAs, students may be fearful to stray beyond their comfort zones, sticking to familiar topics and disciplines rather than branching out. Other students fall prey to the allure of the four-day weekend or the possibility of sleeping past noon and only opt to select classes that are scheduled during these narrow windows of time.  Even the most conscientious student can become consumed with satisfying General Education requirements—these box-checking blinders have prevented many students from taking courses that align with their broader curiosities and interests.  Last, even after painstakingly devising the “perfect” schedule, many students fail to develop a back-up plan and are left shattered if/when things do not go according to plan during registration (e.g., a course is closed or canceled).

While the magnetic draw of “easy courses” may persist, faculty mentors and advisors can help undergraduates develop a mindset to strategically select courses and plan for their academic futures. Based on our experiences as advisors at Trinity University, we’ve noted that students who exhibit the following four habits and attitudes will be more likely to make informed choices about their schedules.

  1. Students balance their academic course load to suit their abilities, preferences, and other commitments.  Students do not take too many of the “same kind” of class, be it a science lab or a writing-intensive seminar.
  2. Students are savvy about the order in which they take courses to accomplish larger goals, sequencing courses in efficient and logical ways.
  3. Students recognize that college is a time to challenge oneself and think in new ways, thus achieving the larger goals of higher education.
  4. Students develop a personal system for academic planning that is thoughtful, proactive, flexible, organized, and concrete.  That is to say, successful students develop and employ a system—such as a chart or a list—to plot out the courses they need to graduate on time.

In order to help students develop these perspectives, the authors developed an exercise to guide students’ thinking and reflection about their academic goals, personal commitments, and learning style.

The Advising Puppy

“The Advising Puppy” enables academic leaders, advisors, and faculty mentors to prepare students to acquire these outcomes.  Undergraduates appreciate the playful approach of the puppy because it adds a dash of levity in what might otherwise be a tense or dull conversation.  The exercise below takes between 20–25 minutes for groups of students to complete.  The initial questions are concrete and gradually become more abstract.

Advising Puppy.jpgInstructions for facilitators.  Begin by providing each student with a hardcopy of the puppy outline (right) and a pen or pencil.  First, read the ground rules:

The goal of this exercise is to help identify personal goals, values, and academic needs.  It works best when students answer honestly and not say what think their parents, professors, or advisors want to hear (there are no right or wrong answers, here, anyway).  Complete the first part of the exercise on your own and later, you will share your thinking with another student; ultimately, however, each student gets to decide which responses to share and which to keep private.

Next, the facilitator will read each prompt listed below.  Facilitators should ask the questions and follow-up questions one set at time and instruct students to write their responses (in words or drawings) on the corresponding part of the puppy.  Allow students about one minute each before moving on to the next question.

Part I: The advising puppy.  After students have completed all sections of the puppy, go onto the group discussion to debrief.

  1. (head) When and how do you do your best work? At what time of day are you at your best? Do you like your courses to be spread apart or clustered together? What type of tasks do you prefer—papers, labs, tests, learning languages, etc.?
  2. (heart) What are your non-academic goals? Where do you want to focus your efforts and time outside of the classroom? What do these commitments look like? What kinds of activities, jobs, and hobbies take up the most time in your typical week?
  3. (front legs) What classes will help you define or work toward your major? If you already selected a major, how can you make progress on it? What does the introductory sequence of courses look like? What classes will help you determine whether or not you want to major in this discipline?
  4. (back legs) How will you deal with disappointment if you do not get the classes you want? What is your back-up strategy? How can you advocate for yourself? How would you pick an alternative?
  5. (tail) What will bring you satisfaction and happiness next/this semester?  How will you know if things are going well? What should you think about now to make sure this happens?
  6. (Doggie doo-doo—this is one that they will have to draw in themselves toward the puppy’s tail) What is a negative distraction or bad habit you want to avoid next/this semester?  What is something that has taken you off-track in the past? How can you avoid repeating these mistakes?

Part II: Reflecting, learning, and acting.  These final questions will help students reflect more deeply on their priorities.  Instruct students to jot down their thoughts around the margins of the page or the other side of the paper.  Again, facilitators should ask each question one at a time and allow about a minute for students to jot down notes before asking them to share verbally.

  • As you look at your puppy, which one of these things most important to you right now?
  • How might you resolve conflicts between your values? (i.e., The course that looks interesting, but not at the time of day when you do your best work? Should you add a class for your major if it means sacrificing a lunch break?)
  • What questions do you have? Is there something you need to learn more about—such as the requirements for your major or your work schedule—to make an informed choice about your schedule?
  • Based on the learning you did about yourself from this exercise, what are two or three things that your advisor needs to know about you that will help him/her in working with you?
  • After looking at the course catalogue, can you identify one or two courses that are offered this semester that meet your needs?

With the remaining time, the facilitator should invite students to turn to a neighbor and share one insight from the advising puppy that has helped him/her plan for your next semester in college.  

Possible modifications.  At Trinity University, a private liberal arts college, the authors found success using this exercise with both small and large groups of students.  For example, it engaged 15 person first-year seminars preparing to register for their sophomore year and 300+ first-year students during New Student Orientation.  While the exercise is designed for groups, it can be modified for individuals, especially students who come to their advising meeting unprepared, confused, or overwhelmed.  In that case, advisors should just go through the first set of questions and informally probe using the second set of questions (and eliminate the pair/share aspect).  Colleagues at other universities have said that they used the college mascot instead of a puppy.


Research and personal experience verifies that students benefit from structured exercises that promote reflection and decision-making around academic planning and course selection.  Faculty mentors and academic advisors can use the playful framework of “The Advising Puppy” to initiate deeper conversations about what students value.  This exercise is a powerful tool to reinforce the habits, skills, and behaviors that lead to student success.

Lisa Jasinski
Special Projects Coordinator, Academic Affairs & Director of the Reflections Program
Trinity University

Thomas E. Jenkins
Professor of Classical Studies & Interim Director for The Collaborative for Learning and Teaching
Trinity University


Astin, A. W. (1977). Four critical years: Effects of college on beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brooks, K. (2009). You majored in what?: Mapping your path from chaos to career. New York, NY: Viking.

Clydesdale, T. (2015). The purposeful graduate: Why colleges must talk to students about vocation. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Cuba, L., Jennings, N., Lovett, S., & Swingle, J. (2016). Practice for life: Making decisions in college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., & Barefoot, B. O. (2016). The undergraduate experience: Focusing institutions on what matters most. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Jasinski, L., & Jenkins, T.E. (2017, June). The advising puppy takes the bite out of academic planning. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 June 40:2


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