Billie Streufert, Career Advising Community Member
At the NACADA Region VII conference in 2008, Jennifer Bloom (as cited in Johnson, 2015) introduced the profession to parallel planning. Designed to teach students to pursue multiple possibilities simultaneously, universities that deploy this approach advance students’ cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking, and adaptability. Advisors frame continual goal evaluation as a necessary part of life in the twenty-first century. Students construct new complex identities that prepare them to cope with uncertainty and evaluate the need to hold on or let go of their goals (Carver & Scheier, 2005; Niedenthal et al., 1992; Pizzolato, 2007).
Similar to the way universities define a process for declaring a major, some advisors create a form for naming a parallel path. Not every form or process, however, is created equal. Vocational and educational psychologists suggest that advisors apply the following practices or content.
Introduce the concept collectively and use neutral language. Advisors can introduce alternatives without undermining students’ ability (Howard et al., 2009). If advisors suggest the need for parallel planning during individual sessions, students who possess ability but lack self-efficacy may perceive that advisors share this inaccurate perception and pivot prematurely to alternatives (Lent & Brown, 2013). For example, women may report lower self-efficacy despite equal ability in mathematics (Correll, 2004). Other non-dominant groups may internalize perceived stereotypes (Barr et al., 2008). To avoid this, advisors can introduce the concept in a group setting or in universal handouts (e.g., advising syllabus, website).
Equifinality is also a cornerstone to advising alternatives. Advisors should avoid language that undermines the equality of alternatives and pervade the literature, such as “plan B,” “escape plan,” “emergency exit,” and “back-up plan” (Hallqvist & Hydén, 2012; Lent, 2013; Schlossberg & Robinson, 1996; Steele & McDonald, 2008; Workman, 2015). Instead, advisors teach students there are multiple means to achieve a goal or value.
Careful language is also necessary to acknowledge the need for both ambitious and adaptable goals. While advisors may have good intentions when they share information about the competitive nature of selective degree programs, some students have reported this left them feeling marginalized or discouraged (Hadinger, 2015). To avoid this, advisors can share criteria averages and the range of scores of admitted students. They can also publish profiles of students who experienced some academic obstacles but secured admission to dispel the perception that a single grade defines one’s application (Albanese et al., 2006; McCarty & Jones, 2017; Oyewole, 2001).
Define desired attributes. Students will be more open to alternatives if advisors discuss the specific attributes that appeal to them instead of broad educational or occupational titles (Gati et al., 1998). By identifying overlapping aspects of their options, students are less likely to perceive alternatives as inferior (Carver & Scheier, 2005; Kruglanski & Kopetz, 2009). For example, a student may conclude, “I can advance the well-being of children in a healthcare setting by being a child life specialist, healthcare social worker, or a nurse.” The continuity between their aspirations makes future transitions easier.
Through this process, students clarify their values. While these attributes serve as an anchor during alternative advising (Harrick et al., 1982), they cast a sail during parallel planning. The former permits students to survive the storm of denied goal attainment and retain firmly the attributes they value most as they reengage, while the latter cultivates a mindset of continuity and openness to new possibilities or feedback. In both instances, individuals’ distress is diminished, which may increase their ability to succeed academically and consider alternatives if needed (Carroll et al., 2011; Jostmann & Koole, 2009).
Assess risks and students’ anxiety. Other questions on the parallel planning form can help advisors assess the degree to which students actively explored alternatives when they named their current chosen endeavor. Some students may not fully understand themselves or their options, especially because school counselors have limited time to invest in this process and students find the change-of-major process of most colleges to be complex (Dann-Messier et al., 2014; Halasz & Bloom, 2019).
If alternative advising becomes necessary later, students with specific personality attributes may also be at risk for maladjustment (Martin et al., 2012; Nilforooshan & Salimi, 2016). This also includes the length of time students aspired to pursue their current majors or careers, the instances they coped with loss or failure in the past, and the ways their relationships or routines may change if they face such transitions (Anderson et al., 2012).
Advisors may also invite students to rate the anxiety they have about their ability to achieve their goals. When given standardized assessment, a subset of students who anticipate the need to adapt emerges (Gordon & Steele, 2015). To address this, advisors actively listen for subtle signals of anxiety and reflect to students the apprehension they are hearing (Freedman, 2017; Hughey, 2011; Johnson, 2015). Together, they evaluate if the anxiety is realistic and if change is necessary.
Name concrete implementation intentions and engage in mental contrasting. Once students have selected alternatives, they define specifically how and when they will pivot to the possibility (Moskowitz & Gesundheit, 2009). Known as implementation intentions, these if-then statements permit students to monitor their environment for performance feedback. Advisors could identify these intentions by asking students to name the circumstances (e.g., number of times a student repeats a class or reapplies to medical school) in which they would let go (Shaffer & Zalewski, 2011).
Advisors also invite students to compare their fantasies with reality. This mental contrasting permits students to assess the feasibility of their goals (Oettingen & Stephens, 2009). To do so, advisors first ask students to imagine the attainment of their goal in the future and then name the barriers that currently prevent them from achieving it. Advisors then ask students to identify specific actions they need to take now to overcome these obstacles. Advisors prevent students from only imagining the desired future or their current circumstances because these strategies do not permit them to prepare, assess anticipated outcomes, or examine their goal commitments (Oettingen & Stephens, 2009).
Invite students to evaluate their skills in every required area. The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2018) calls advisors to engage students in realistic self-appraisal. Parallel planning is a key opportunity for this intrapersonal development. Advisors invite students to provide item-specific assessments instead of global judgements. For example, students may globally believe they are prepared to excel in a biology program based on prior experience (e.g., I did well in and enjoyed high school biology), yet this may not necessarily relate to other specific course requirements for the program (Händel et al., 2018). Advisors can deepen students’ reflection by asking about their performance and interest in these areas (e.g., How did you do in calculus or chemistry? Did you enjoy these classes?).
Advisors also evaluate the credibility and quality of evidence that students provide as they monitor their goals. Self-reported assessments may be less valid because individuals overestimate or underestimate their abilities. Individuals may also lack an accurate normative group to compare themselves to or report the skills they aspire to hold instead of their actual capacity (Carver & Scheier, 2005; Krumboltz et al., 2013; Prediger, 1999).
For this reason, researchers suggest advisors invite students to assess their abilities by asking for concrete examples of their skills (Taber, 2012). This includes previous grades, feedback from faculty, employer evaluations, and their engagement or interest in their coursework. Grade projection calculations may also permit students to assess the progress that is necessary to achieve their goals.
As they continue to evaluate their progress, advisors embody NACADA’s (2017) core value of honesty. They acknowledge information that is known (e.g., average GPA of admitted students, average test scores) and risks that are uncertain (e.g., number and profile of applicants). Advisors do not suggest alternatives, but instead explicitly share the same information with all students (e.g., admission requirements, profile of an average accepted student, percent of employers that run background checks, licensing requirements).
Collect feedback and practice goal regulation together. Metacognition and regulation can improve with practice. To diminish overconfidence and encourage students to gravitate to alternatives on their own, advisors should advocate that professors practice metacognition in the classroom and incentivize accurate estimates of their performance (Callender et al., 2016; Miller & Geraci, 2011). For example, students can evaluate the strategies they used and the accuracy of their responses when professors return exams. Advisors design academic environments that foster self-regulation and reflection because both high and low achieving students are overconfident, especially when the task is difficult (Händel et al., 2018).
Advisors also promote goal regulation by asking students to reflect on their degree progress and academic performance. This proactive inquiry invites students to examine or evaluate the outcomes they anticipate. Advisors also listen for discrepancies between students’ aspirations and their behavior (Pizzolato, 2006). By continuing to discuss alternatives, other options become more accessible in students’ working memory, making it easier to move forward if needed (Strauss et al., 2012).
Advisors may also invite students to visualize the transition, especially when the stakes are low. This mental rehearsal decreases students’ anxiety in the future and, subsequently, increases their cognitive capacity to identify uncertainty and consider alternatives (Ebberwein et al., 2004).
When they provide feedback, they do not exclusively consider academic performance. Advisors also affirm the cultural capital of applicants and acknowledge that other factors often predict students’ success (Diaz et al., 2020; Wyatt et al., 2018). Students may also be impacted by systemic barriers, such as the type of school they attended (e.g., public or private) and access to standardized test preparation.
Systemically non-dominant students have also reported that they experienced hostile campus environments and perceived the strength of their medical school application more negatively than dominant student groups due to internalized stereotypes. These perceptions about academic achievement may discourage some qualified individuals from applying or reapplying (Beasley et al., 2012; Christophers & Gotian, 2020; Witherspoon et al., 2019; Wouters, 2020). If advisors increase the time they spend with students, they can reduce this effect and foster a sense of belonging (Lawson et al., 2017).
Arrange for students to investigate their options. It is not enough to simply name alternatives. Students must pursue and confirm newly chosen endeavors like they do other vocational and educational goals. Advisors encourage students to research majors or careers and speak with others in the field to confirm their choices (Krumboltz et al., 2013). By trying new tasks, they learn more about themselves, their options, and their ability to adjust to new environments. Advisors connect the information students have gathered to their values and abilities. Students will move toward alternatives if they believe the option is both possible and valuable (Atkinson, 1964).
In conclusion, advisors implement parallel planning universally. They teach students to assess uncertainty, clarify their values, and monitor their progress. Through this process, students engage in meaning-making and learn to regulate their goals. They also discover that ambitious planning and adaptability are not mutually exclusive (Savickas & Porfeli, 2012). Both can and need to co-exist given competitive degree programs and a rapidly changing labor market.
Assistant Vice Provost, Student Success and Engagement
Edith Mortenson Center
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Cite this article using APA style as: Streufert, B. (2020, September). Practical parts of parallel planning. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). [insert url here]