Karl R. Wirth and Adrienne Christiansen, Macalester College
Of all the factors leading to student academic success, academic advising constitutes an increasingly important one. Accumulating evidence demonstrates that effective academic advising and high-quality interactions with faculty are related to improved student satisfaction and engagement (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2010), retention and persistence (Drake, 2011), and learning outcomes (Mu & Fosnacht, 2016; Pascarella & Blaich, 2013; Smith & Allen, 2014; Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon, & Hawthorne, 2013). Philosophies of academic advising that are more developmental or learner-centered (e.g., Crookston, 1972; Lowenstein, 2005) are well-aligned with these findings but have not been universally implemented.
Calls for improved advising have become even more urgent as the demographics and educational needs of today’s students change. However, such appeals come during an era of increasingly limited resources (Thompson, 2016), expanding faculty workloads, and the professionalization of academic advising. The benefits of excellent advising for students warrant new and creative approaches.
As faculty members at Macalester College, a private, liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, we developed a new advising model to enhance student learning while contending with the challenges posed by workloads, time, and resource scarcity. Designed with the student life-cycle and reflective practices in mind, our blueprint for learner-centered advising utilizes pre-advising reflective writing to improve student learning and success. The model grew out of Macalester’s multi-year effort to improve academic advising. It has been adopted by advisors across campus, but required no institution-wide buy-in or funding for development or implementation. Owing to its versatility, the model can be easily adapted to different institutional contexts.
Development of an Advising Co-Curriculum
Historically, advising at Macalester College has been rooted in a first-year seminar program that was facilitated by faculty. Efforts to improve advising had to respect existing curricular structures, faculty roles, and faculty workloads. As an institution, Macalester aimed to shift academic advising toward a more developmental and learner-centered approach, and thus the authors drew inspiration from the literature on self-authorship (e.g., Magolda & King, 2008) and a first-year initiative model of advising at Beloit College (Gummer, 2012). The model (Wirth, 2016) also shares similarities with “flipped advising” advocated by Steele (2016).
The authors used a reverse design process for developing the advising co-curriculum and reflective prompts. First, we considered broad learning goals and important choices that students make along the arc of their undergraduate experience. These include, for example, learning to learn, understanding the liberal arts, developing intellectual and practical skills through general education courses, identifying an academic major, engaging in capstone research, and preparing for post-graduate study or work (Figure 1).
Next, we arranged the learning goals into a sequence that broadly aligned with student experiences and developmental stages. For example, because students must declare an academic major before the end of their fourth semester at Macalester College, we made the goal of advising during the fourth semester about electing an academic major. Although many students declare an academic major well before their fourth semester, advising during the fourth semester provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of joining an intellectual community (the advising theme for that semester).
Once we identified advising themes and learning goals for each semester, we developed reflective prompts to foster student thinking and learning about each of the advising goals. Some learning goals (e.g., learning to learn) are so central to, or recur throughout, the undergraduate experience that we included them each semester to encourage students to periodically reflect on their knowledge, skills, and the learning processes. Other reflective prompts that relate to a particular theme (e.g., considering study away opportunities) can be included in the most appropriate semester. Still other reflective prompts can be used to scaffold student development and learning around a theme that is the focus of a later semester.
Finally, a few reflection prompts encouraged students to consider life’s big questions that are at the core of liberal learning (e.g., “what is the good life?” and “what is your mission in life?”). Inspiration for these questions came from Harvard’s “Reflecting on Your Life” program and Stanford University’s 2025 “Purpose Learning” initiative. Although these big questions do not require immediate answers or fit into specific advising goals or themes, student answers relate to academic advising goals and they inform decisions that students must make.
Fortunately, our reflective writing and advising co-curriculum model can be easily implemented, even in environments with few resources. In its simplest form, the reflection prompts can be handed to students on paper or sent electronically using email. Alternatively, an advisor can distribute the prompts using tools that are common in most learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle). Finally, free services such as Google Suite (Forms, Sheets, and Docs) can be used to effectively implement the pre-advising reflective writing co-curriculum, an approach used at Macalester College in implementing the model.
Reflective Writing Prior to the Advising Conversation
Our model requires written responses to a set of reflective prompts that are keyed to students’ stage of education and development (materials can be found in the Additional Resources section below). The students receive the prompts several weeks before the advising conversation and must submit written responses to their academic advisor. A student’s compliance with this process can be encouraged by using the receipt of the written responses as an entrance pass for the face-to-face advising conversation. After reading the student’s responses, the advisor identifies interesting or significant observations, reactions, and questions in the student’s writing, and these become logical starting points for the conversations that ultimately lead to decisions about registering for courses, development of major plans, strategies for improved learning, planning for vocation, and life after graduation.
Value of Pre-Advising Reflections for Students
Students, advisors, and institutions all stand to realize meaningful benefits from academic advising that uses a reflective writing co-curriculum.
For example, this approach to advising:
- Guides students toward more integrative learning and will develop a greater capacity for self-authorship (Hodge, Magolda, & Haynes, 2009; Magolda, 2002).
- Makes more explicit to students that metacognitive reflection is both a skill and disposition utilized by expert learners and that it involves self-direction (Ertmer & Newby, 1996).
- Increases the likelihood that students will make informed decisions as they progress through the different stages of the undergraduate experience.
- Makes the hidden curriculum of the university more evident, especially to students from traditionally underrepresented and underserved populations (Smith, 2013).
- Puts students’ education into practice by reflecting on their experiences, integrating these with their course and co-curricular learning, and applying all of these to making decisions and addressing challenges they face in college and in their lives (Kuh, 2015).
- Helps students realize greater benefits from their college experience.
Value of Pre-Advising Reflections for Academic Advisors
Reflective writing offers a familiar pedagogy to help advisors shift their perspectives in important ways:
- Pre-advising reflections provide the advisor with a greater understanding of student challenges, successes, and aspirations. Advisors, thus, are better equipped to help students.
- Makes it more likely that advisors will address the development of the whole student (e.g., Schoem, Modey, & John, 2017).
- For faculty, advising no longer can be dismissed as merely a professional service or chore that distracts from teaching or research. Reflection-infused advising unmistakably becomes a form of teaching.
- College faculty who are not trained as academic advisors can more easily understand the kinds of intentional conversations needed by students in order to develop their agency as learners.
- Advisors gain a greater understanding of self-authorship and metacognition, while also becoming more comfortable with learner-centered advising. In so doing, they can better contribute to the conversation with the addition of their own reflective prompts.
Value of Pre-Advising Reflections for Academic Institutions
Academic institutions stand to benefit in multiple ways from deeper student-faculty interactions and student engagement with educational goals and planning, including:
- Improved retention and success for all students.
- Advisors developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of institutional mission and goals.
- Ongoing faculty and staff development through efforts to fine-tune reflective writing prompts during conversations about educational goals and student development.
- More integrative learning occurs that connects valuable concepts, skills, and experiences across both the curricular and co-curricular dimensions of college.
Impact and Conclusion
Our experiences with using pre-advising reflective writing have been very positive. Although Macalester College faculty have incorporated the reflective writing model in a variety of ways and at different times in the advising process, they generally report that their advising conversations with students are more meaningful than they had been previously. Representative responses from a survey of faculty include “I know better what questions to ask/where to focus limited time with students,” and that the approach has been a good way to “remind both me and the student to move beyond ‘transaction-based advising.’”
Students, too, reported overall satisfaction with the process of self-reflection and conversation. Some first-year students felt that the process was "tedious" and "time consuming” but the majority of students used words like "wonderful" and "helpful" in describing their experience. One student sums up these positive attitudes: "I think it was a great way for advisees to reflect on what they want to achieve while at Macalester. I found it extremely valuable because it let me self-evaluate where I was in relation to my goals."
We believe that the model of pre-advising reflective writing described here brings together the most significant developments in academic advising, philosophy, and current practices. It promises to provide benefits to students and advisor alike and to better meet our institutions’ core mission of teaching and learning.
Karl R. Wirth
Associate Professor, Political Science
Director, Jan Serie Center for Scholarship & Teaching
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Cite this article using APA style as: Wirth, K.R., & Christiansen, A. (2018, December). Supporting student development and success with pre-advising reflective writing. Academic Advising Today, 41(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]