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Steve Quinn, Olympic College

Steve Quinn.jpgIf one of the primary goals of academic advising is to get beyond learner engagement and into the realm of empowerment, then that also must be a focus of our assessment.  To this end, the survey question “are you empowered?” may not be enough.  I have suggested previously that empowerment is supported by four elements of the advising process: information, resources, instruction, and the pause within which alternatives become possibilities (Quinn, 2015).  Analysis, however, also does not by itself lead to a mode of assessment that will inform professional practice.  What is needed is a set of criteria, or at least categories from which criteria can be developed, which support deliberation and refinement without losing integrity.  What do the landmarks of empowerment look like?  Can we navigate through them without wandering into manipulation?  I wish I had a good map. 

The map as a metaphor for academic planning and advising may seem clichéd, but it offers not only concrete familiarity, but also iconic status as a tool of empowerment.  A map is not a prescription—it cannot tell us where we want to go—and its quiet affirmation of “you are here” personalizes the landscape and acts as a starting place for navigational decision-making.  What makes one map more empowering than another?  Within the structure of the four elements of empowerment, I suggest ten features to help us frame an answer. 


The first several of these apply to the most concrete of the elements of empowerment.

  • Information should be clear and free of jargon and acronyms.  Map reading is not an innate skill, and no map should pretend to be clear enough to make the person at the information booth obsolete, but the map should not make me look for the booth so I can ask someone how to interpret it.  To find advising information, I should not need a glossary of local terms for available services and resources. 
  • Information should be accessible for just-in-time use.  Prerequisites and assumptions should be kept at a minimum.  Standing in the middle of the mall, the map that makes me go back to the entrance and start over is not much help.  The second year student does not want to be told to wait and take a class for answers to her advising questions. 
  • Information should be purposeful, favoring internal consistency and relational over literal accuracy.  All information is biased; empowering information makes its biases explicit.  The store directory does not include information on ventilation system ductwork, and a syllabus for academic advising is not the college catalog or the centerpiece of a marketing campaign.
  • Information should be relevant, never sacrificing its alignment with the big-picture for clarity.  The schematic of Washington DC’s Metro lines would be far less empowering if it did not include a ghost overlay of the Potomac and the location of the National Mall.  The reward for efficiently navigating the system is not arrival at the terminal marked “degree completion,” it is the access the degree offers. 
  • Information should be credible, striking a balance between formality and currency.  An official-looking publication has more credibility than a hand-drawn napkin map labelled “u r here,” but a map that is literally carved in stone—or a community college advisor in a three-piece suit—may be seen as out of touch. 


Without access to relevant resources, standing in front of the map I can understand it completely and still be unable to make a decision.  Resources are off the map.  Some are referred to: the bus schedule, the restaurant menu, the store catalog.  Other resources are implied, requiring reflection rather than research to access them: the amount of money in my pocket, what I am hungry for, and, ultimately, where I want to go.  The makers of the map cannot be responsible for every menu or inventory of desires, but to the extent to which advising resources can be, if not edited, at least selected, one guideline may be helpful. 

  • Resources should be balanced between reference and reflection.  Too much reliance on external resources can lead to blame, regret, and diffusion rather than acceptance of responsibility.  On the other hand, advising is not just about navel-gazing.  In the advising conversation, “…you have to take this math class,” is balanced when it is preceded by, “If this is where you want your education to take you…”


Advisors may not control their resources, but they can engineer what they teach.  Still, if they are to serve empowerment, a balance must be maintained.  Instruction that over-emphasizes achievement and achievable outcomes can become self-serving and artificial: the algorithm for levelling up in the video game of higher education.  But for instruction to imply that to be empowered is to act as if all things are possible may set students up for patterns of failure.  To steer between the extremes of artifice and anything goes, two themes serve as landmarks for instruction. 

  • Explicit instruction in self-assessment can keep instruction real.  Like a map of a mountain path that encourages climbers to evaluate their own capabilities and footwear, these classes can support self-confidence in planning and decision-making as measureable outcomes, especially when self-assessment is presented as developmental and criterion-referenced (Loacker, 2000). 
  • Instruction in meta-cognitive skills helps students recognize their own patterns of habit, bias, and momentum as parts of the decision-making landscape as real as the geography of the system itself.  Metacognition enables reflection in practice and intentionality in learning, and adds an element of forgiveness as students learn to navigate around their own traps.  


The element that remains to be assessed is the pause that we build into the advising pathway, the moment of reframing, without which empowered decision-making is an unreachable ideal on the far side of resignation.  This is the light bulb coming on over the learner’s head during instruction, the “payoff” that cannot be engineered or extorted.  Can it be measured?

  • An indirect measure is that space is provided within which this pause becomes possible.  The dynamics and ambience of advising must be uncluttered, personal, and genuine.  It is not conducted against the backdrop of rhetorical questions or fenced in by automated response scenarios, but within the unbounded context of the truly open-ended. 
  • Perhaps the best measure of success in learner empowerment is one that also could be used to describe its failure: students do not come back.  Surveys should not look for indebtedness to bolster our self-importance.  Advising must support confidence, not dependence, and the successful journey does not lead first and foremost to a celebration of cartography. 

When all is said and done and the elements of advising have been assessed for characteristics that support empowerment—these ten or others developed as this conversation continues—then it may be time to ask the direct question.  Not because it ever is enough, but because one final element of empowerment is to claim it, getting students to say it out loud is part of making it a reality: Are you empowered?  If we do our jobs, they will say yes, but it will not be our success but theirs that we will have helped them assess. 

Steve Quinn
Advising Faculty
Advising and Counseling Center
Olympic College
[email protected]


Quinn, S.  (2015, March).  At the corner of advising and assessment.  Academic Advising Today38(1).  Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/At-the-Corner-of-Advising-and-Assessment.aspx

Loacker, G. editor (2000). Self Assessment at Alverno College, by the Alverno College Faculty.

Cite this article using APA style as: Quinn, S. (2016, March). The good map: Advising for empowerment. Academic Advising Today, 39(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2016 March 39:1


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