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Voices of the Global Community


Author: Tessa Smith

Communication is key when working with students. Emails, phone calls, video conferencing, texting, and even snail mail are approaches that colleges and universities take to communicate with students. Different populations of students may prefer different means of communication and have different styles, which means advisors and student affairs professionals alike have to be adaptive with their own styles. One population in particular that warrants this adapted communication style is the at-risk adult learner, as they face barriers and challenges to academic success. By adopting the Appreciative Advising Model and Social Penetration Theory, advisors can improve and maximize their communication efforts with at-risk adult learners so they can be successful.

Adult learners may fall into the bigger category of “at-risk” students. In short, at-risk students have varying characteristics, but essentially they are students who are struggling academically and are at-risk of failing and/or stopping out. Adult learners and students who are returning after a gap (stop-outs) could be considered at-risk. Walsh (2003) considered adult students “who return to higher education after an extended absence” to be at risk. Without appropriate support, adult learners can become at-risk students and potentially stop-out again, continuing the at-risk cycle. Too often, when adult learners return to complete their degree, they are faced with more challenges than expected (i.e., program change, financial aid issues, staff/faculty change, college readiness, credits expiring, past debt, etc.).

Even though there is some support for at-risk adult learners, either each institution supports these students differently, making it confusing for the learner to know who to go to, or students have to be actively seeking the support, which can be time consuming. Kuh (2008) says that “one in ten college students do not interact with an adviser in a given academic year” (as cited in Nelson, 2013). Advisors can help at-risk adult learners by proactively reaching out to them and meeting the learners where they are. The biggest question is, how can advisors and student affairs professionals effectively communicate with these at-risk adult learners to stop the cycle and to have a better relationship with them? Using the Appreciative Advising Model in communication with at-risk adult learners can be a beneficial way to connect.

Appreciative advising is an effective model to use with at-risk adult learners. Appreciative advising is “the intentional collaborative practice of asking generative, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials” (Appreciative Advising, 2018). As advisors communicate with these students, it is important to first “disarm” the student, and make a positive first impression, which leads to the “discover” and “dream” phases of appreciative advising. These phases include using open-ended questions with the student so both they and the advisors can learn the student’s strengths and goals. Doing this provides a segway for advisors to take action and to discuss solutions with the student so they can achieve their goals, because appreciative advising creates dialogue with students and helps to form an “alliance” between advisor and student (Truschel, 2015). Along with appreciative advising, Social Penetration Theory can help establish the advisor-student relationship.

Social Penetration Theory, otherwise known as “The Onion Theory,” focuses on relationship development. The theory suggests that people tend to “peel back the layers” of intimacy through conversational interactions and reciprocity (Carpenter & Greene, 2016). As individuals interact with each other over time, trust is built which allows for each person to become more intimate with each other. According to Social Penetration Theory, there is an expectation that the other person in the relationship will reciprocate the same type of disclosure as themself, but “this expectation of reciprocity can also lead to someone strategically sharing with a specific goal to encourage the other person to ‘open up’ or share back” (p. 2). This strategy can be helpful for advisors as they are working with at-risk adult learners, because it will allow students to open up about their challenges, fears, and struggles with college. Having the at-risk adult learner share information can also allow for advisors to intervene when necessary and help the student be successful. Using the Appreciative Advising Model and Social Penetration Theory, advisors should create a communication plan with the at-risk adult learners.

At-risk adult learners need a structured communication plan with their advisors to not only develop a relationship, but also know they have a go-to person to develop a plan for success. There are three elements that the advisor should keep in mind as they are developing this plan. First, finding out the student’s preferred communication method is key. Advisors are accustomed to email, but to the at-risk adult learner, email may come off as another task or thing they need to do. During advisors’ first interaction with students, advisors should ask the student their preferred communication method. Also, through exchanges with students, advisors can learn how students most like being interacted with. Giving students multiple options to communicate can let the student know that the advisor is accessible and flexible. At-risk adult learners may not always have time to have a meeting, so they may prefer texting or instant message.

The second element while developing a communication plan is that the advisors’ communication has to be clear and personal. Many institutions have adopted automated programs that make communication efforts easy; however, this takes out the personal touch from the institution. Also, students are less likely to read and respond to the automated efforts. Especially with at-risk adult learners, they need to know that advisors are there for them, so using communication that is easy to follow and does not take too long to read will help the learner not only feel supported but also informed. Advisors should take into consideration how the student will feel when receiving the communication. The student may assume if it is coming from someone associated with the institution, they may assume it is bad news. And, if the advisors need to give students bad news, it should be framed in a problem-solving way while avoiding labels.

Third, advisors have to be consistent with their communication, and when it comes to at-risk adult learners, the communication may be more frequent. Snyder & Zona (2018) state that when communicating with adult learners, it is important to have frequent connections. Due to this high frequency of communication, Snyder & Zona (2018) also emphasize that “advisors should carry a realistic load in order to provide more attention.” Because at-risk adult learners may need more attention, advisors need to be able to have time dedicated to serve those students. Advisors need to find the balance between reaching out to students too often versus too little. Creating reminders and a schedule to reach out to specific students can help advisors be effective in communicating with at-risk adult learners.

Communication plans may vary with individual at-risk adult learners, but advisors must set the expectation that regular check-ins are necessary for success, whether it is in person or through an email. Redefining what a meeting is with students and offering quick, simple email/text/phone check-ins may be beneficial for the at-risk adult learner. If the at-risk adult learner does not respond right away, advisors should follow up with the student to make sure everything is okay.

Along with advising meetings multiple times (2–3) during the semester, ideas for creating a communication plan may include:

  • Catchy subject/text lines to capture students’ attention (e.g., “Are you okay?”)
  • Monthly email/text to check in, offering a meeting
  • Using language that is understandable (avoiding jargon)
  • Affirming the achievements students may think are small (e.g., “Great job on that exam!”)
  • Ensuring the student there are alternative options if something does not work out (e.g., a bad grade)
  • Letting the student know you are there to listen
  • When appropriate, relating to their experience
  • Extra supportive emails when the student has an upcoming assignment (e.g., “You got this!”)
  • Making conversation with the student when in hallways, on the bus, walking through campus, etc.

Advisors should adapt the plan as necessary to be sure it is effective for both the student and the advisor, especially when the advisor is not able to reach the student. Advisors have to be both patient and persistent when reaching out to unresponsive students. With at-risk adult learners, it is especially helpful for advisors to be updated so they can best help the student. With these holistic strategies to really understand the at-risk adult learner, advisors can use a variety of ways to reach those learners.

To conclude, at-risk adult learners need support as they return and continue on their college path. They are faced with many challenges that put them at risk. Combining the Social Penetration Theory lens with the Appreciative Advising Model can be helpful to form relationships with students while also focusing on their goals and achievements. Working with the at-risk adult learners to create an effective communication plan can allow for consistency of information, as well as having advisors support the students in multiple ways. Once the at-risk adult learners know that advisors are there to help them, and not harm them, they will appreciate the support.

Tessa Smith

Coordinator of the Student Success Center

University of Maine System

[email protected]


Appreciative Advising. (2018). https://www.appreciativeadvising.net/

Carpenter, A., & Greene, K. (2016). Social penetration theory. In The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication (1st ed., pp. 1–5). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Nelson, M. J. (2013). The unreachable student: Techniques and strategies to increase the influence of academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. https://journals.psu.edu/mentor/article/view/61290/60923

Snyder, E., & Zona, L. (2018, March). The returning adult learner: Advising strategies to support their degree completion efforts. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/The-Returning-Adult-Learner-Advising-Strategies-to-Support-Their-Degree-Completion-Efforts.aspx

Truschel, J. (2015). Does the use of appreciative advising work? Learning Assistance Review (TLAR), 20(2), 61–76.

Walsh, P. (2003). Advising at-risk students. NACADA Clearinghouse. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/At-Risk-Students.aspx

Posted in: 2023 March 46:1


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