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Voices of the Global Community


Elizabeth M. Higgins, University of Southern Maine

Beth Higgins.jpgThe advising relationship plays a critical role within a college student’s experience (Crookston, 1972; Ender, 1994; Harrison, 2009).  Academic advising continues to be an activity that supports the student experience as well as student retention because of the work of advisors who keep enhancing advising practices.  The NACADA (2006) Concept of Academic Advising places academic advising squarely within the teaching and learning mission of higher education.  NACADA (2017) has identified the relational element of academic advising as one of the core competencies of the profession along with the conceptual and informational elements.  Distinct from the others, the relational element highlights the dynamics within the advising practice.  That said, saying the relationship is important is one thing, designing and supporting advising practices that help facilitate and sustain the relationship is another.  Exploring the advisor-advisee relationship begs a number of questions: Who is responsible for developing the advising relationship? How do advisors develop meaningful advising relationships with students? What are the critical components of the advising relationship? How do institutions help advisors develop the knowledge and skills to enhance and sustain their advising relationships?

Student learning is at the center of what advisors do, with the development of an effective advising relationship as the gateway to that learning experience.  According to Campbell and Nutt (2008), academic advising is a “powerful educational strategy to engage and support student learning.”  Through the educational process of advising, an advisor can guide students through meaning-making, skill identification and development, critical thinking, scaffolding of knowledge, and acquisition of transferrable skills (Lowenstein, 2009).  Academic advisors can be the transformational leaders in the learning process by focusing on the individuality of the student, assisting them in thinking independently, motivating them through inspiration, and acting as role models (Barbuto, Story, Fritz, & Schinstock, 2011).  Although the advisor may be the leader, there are two individuals within the advising relationship: both need to be engaged in order to effect a partnership. 

Relational Theory in Advising

Assessment of advising has assisted many advising programs in identifying outcomes associated with both student learning as well as advisor and advising program delivery.  Learning and programmatic outcomes identify what should be learned through the process and delivery of academic advising.  They also give the advising programs the ability to identify who is responsible for what.  However, the challenge is identifying how to build an advising relationship that is centered on teaching and learning and that works for both the student and advisor.  A dip into interpersonal relations theory provides guidance.

The interpersonal relations theory of Hildegard Peplau (1991/1952) provides clarification on the building blocks and progression of a relationship within a helping profession.  This theory highlights the importance of getting to know relational partners and their roles, creating a sense of belonging and ownership for the process, developing and achieving goals, and creating readiness for independence.   According to Peplau, there are four relational phases of the interpersonal process inherent in a professional practice: orientation, identification, exploration, resolution.  The relationship is viewed as developing over time through interactions that engage both partners, sharing knowledge, and working towards identified goals (Peplau, 1977).  A key component in promoting an engaged partnership is active dialog between the relational partners (Johnson & Morgan, 2005; Lowenstein, 2009).  There are particular relational elements that contribute to and promote an engaged advising partnership: trust, communication, and connectedness.

Trust has been found to create a bond between individuals as they work cooperatively and explore experiences (Bordin, 1979, 1983).  This concept is also highlighted in the NACADA (2006) concept statement: “the relationship between advisors and students is fundamental and is characterized by mutual respect, trust, and ethical behavior” (para. 1).  Each interaction the advising pair has is an opportunity to build the foundational element of trust. 

Institutions often promote academic advisors as individuals upon whom students can depend for accurate information, help with goal setting and attainment, educational direction, and assistance with their future aspirations.  This presumes a level of trust at the onset of the relationship that is known to take time to build (Beck, 1999).  Assisting students and advisors with early engagement can help in creating opportunities for ongoing contact that supports the development of trust between the relational pair.  The early engagement connects the two individuals together on a professional level in order for the advising pair to converse, question, listen, and share.  Listening and appropriate questioning was found to build rapport and develop trust within the advising relationship (Thornhill & Yoder, 2010).

Ongoing communication can also support student and advisor connection in order to share information, learning opportunities, and engage in dialog about the student’s goals, strengths, and interests (Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon, Hawthorne, 2013).  Broad communications sent electronically or in hardcopy to individual students or to student groups are helpful in sharing information, but not as the way to develop an interpersonal relationship; for relationship development, a more direct approach to communication is necessary.  Results of a research study exploring the experiences of 611 students showcased that conversations between the student and advisor that focus on academic life helped identify areas of support needed for student success (Young-Jones et al., 2013).  Advising conversations can also support the development of an environment where a student feels comfortable and supported to share information, ask questions, and experience self-reflection (Hughey, 2011). 

Campbell and Nutt (2008) suggest that academic advising facilitates the connection students have with the institutional community.  If academic advising acts as a connector, what creates the connection between the student and the advisor? This question is critical in understanding the interpersonal relationship found in the practice of academic advising.  Creating the connection between the student and the advisor begins with understanding the definition of relational connection. 

Brown (2010) states that “connection is when an individual feels seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement.”  Advisors are the individuals who can facilitate interactions where students can be acknowledged, listened to, and valued for who they are in the present moment without preconceived judgements.  As with any developing relationship, there is an amount of authentic sharing from both partners that must occur in order to develop a trust-filled relationship.  Sharing also creates a level of vulnerability within the partnership that can be offset by trust and communication.  The sharing and actions of both relational partners highlight the need for advising to be a relationship where individuals share responsibilities (Allen & Smith, 2008; Crockett, 1985; Frost, 1991).  These shared responsibilities and ongoing conversations promote an environment for relational growth.

How Can Institutions and Advising Programs Assist?

Beres (2010) states that the relational skills are the most challenging area in which to provide professional development.  Identifying this challenge, along with the knowledge of the critical nature of a good academic advising relationship, highlights the importance for institutions to take on this professional development responsibility.  Understanding more about the advising relationship allows advising practitioners to identify areas to strengthen the practice of advising and provide an effective and satisfying academic advising experience for students.  These opportunities must be contextual in that they are designed to match the identified needs of students and advisors at a particular institution.  Influenced by Beres (2010), the following relational topics offer advisors and advising programs a starting point to begin to design offerings that can be complemented with specific institutional needs. 

  • Creating your physical advising space
  • Making appropriate referrals
  • Using creativity during the advising session
  • How to have difficult conversations with students that are productive
  • Gaining student information through active listening and observing
  • Student goal setting
  • How to create boundaries within the advising relationship
  • Guiding students through the decision-making process
  • Understanding non-verbal cues
  • Tips on being the authentic advisor
  • What does an advising conversation look like
  • Good advising doesn’t have to be warm and fuzzy
  • Advising specific student populations
    • Students with mental health issues
    • Adult students
    • Veteran students
    • At-risk students
    • High achieving students
    • Students as parents
    • Students with disabilities
    • Online students
    • Undecided students
    • Transfer student
    • Graduate students

Grappling with how best to provide professional development opportunities that support an engaged and meaningful advisor-advisee relationship is a challenge critical to continuing to improve a practice essential to student success in college.  The goal should be to support the development of an advisor–advisee relationship that is authentic, grounded in teaching and learning, and built over time through trust, communication, and connectedness.  To be effective within the relational realm, it is highly recommended that advisors and advising programs understand and embrace these relational components as primary pillars of the academic advising relationship.  

Elizabeth M. Higgins, Ed.D.
Director of Academic Advising
University of Southern Maine
[email protected]


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Cite this article using APA style as: Higgins, E.M. (2017, June). The advising relationship is at the core of academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 June 40:2


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