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The Theoretical Reflections series is sponsored by the NACADA Theory and Philosophy of Advising Commission with the assistance of Chair Sarah Champlin-Scharff (Harvard University) and Past-Chair Shannon Burton (Michigan State University).

Philosophically Thinking

Advisors often claim to be pragmatists, always looking for practical applications to their profession. They may believe that academic advising is common sense that can be studied and learned and perfected with experience alone. Culler (1997) argues that what we might call “common sense” is in actuality “a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don't even see it as a theory.” (p. 4) Pragmatism is based on the belief that the human capacity to theorize is necessary for intelligent practice. A pragmatist, therefore, believes that theory is abstracted from experience but then must be reapplied to further inform practice. Thus, practice and theory are cyclical and dependent upon each other.

Constructivist Philosophy

When we share the same basic understanding of the underlying theory, it is easier to collaborate on developing strategies, techniques and resources. Although we do not yet have a unified theory of advising, we propose that constructivism offers an archetypal philosophy that influences all practice and theory. It provides us with a foundation necessary to develop exemplary advising strategies and techniques that work with our student populations as well as a framework upon which any theory of advising may be hung.

Ernst Von Glasersfeld (1990) deemed Jean Piaget as “the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing.” Piaget was an educational philosopher who believed learners create knowledge for themselves by taking a new concept or idea and linking it to something they already know, understand, or believe. The simplest definition of constructivism, which Von Glasersfeld called “trivial” or “personal” constructivism, was that “Knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, not passively received from the environment.” In other words, no matter what is provided to learners in terms of instruction, students must take that input and construct their own meaning for it or it will not be understood, learned or retained.

Constructivism and Academic Advising

Constructivism lays the foundation for the current and historical theories and practices. For example, Crookston (1972) coined the term “developmental advising” and proposed that advising is related to teaching. Crookston further proposed that the advisor and student develop the relationship together by incorporating interpretation, problem-solving, decision-making, and evaluation skills. According to Crookston, students must construct their own journey, with advisor assistance, through the academic labyrinth. Perry’s Theory of Intellectual Development (1970) influenced the early thinking about developmental advising. Perry believed that the way we think about things is shaped by how we view our past experiences. His theory describes the intellectual positions, along a continuum, through which we create and process meaning. Perry’s theory is based on a constructivist philosophy whereby intellectual development is influenced by the individual’s meaning-making process.

Another example of a theory with constructivist underpinnings is hermeneutics. Champlin-Scharff (2010) introduced Heidegger’s theory of hermeneutics as ' .... a hermeneutically informed understanding involves recognition of the idea that meaning is not something contained “out there” in the world, but is ultimately dependent on how one makes sense of what is experienced. Meaning is not an objective property to be uncovered but the result of individual interpretation' (p. 34).

Bloom (2008) developed an approach to advising she termed “Appreciative Advising.” The advisor gathers information about the strengths, dreams, and goals of students, completely allowing them to share their own background and context for their meaning for experiences to date. The advisor applies a constructivist philosophy from the very beginning of the appreciative advising relationship.

Kincanon (2009) proposed that students come to the advising relationship with “life experiences that shape their context for interpreting and understanding their learning” and uses this theory to explain self-authorship. Although students from the same culture may come with similar, recognizable stories, the advisor must appreciate the individuality of all students’ experiences and help them construct personal meaning and how those experiences have shaped their current desires and goals.


These are just a few examples of the constructivist philosophy evident in advising approaches and theories considered foundational to the advising practice. We challenge the advising community to consider any and all theories and practices related to advising to determine if the basics of constructivism are there. A constructivist philosophy offers a common framework from which to hang the theories on advising and ultimately the development of exemplary strategies and techniques for the advising professional.

Terry Musser
DUS Programs Coordinator
College of Agricultural Sciences
Penn State University
[email protected]


Bloom, J. (2008). Moving on from college. In: Gordon, V.N., Habley, W.R., Grites, T.J. and Associates (Eds) Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Champlin-Scarff, S. (2010). A field guide to epistemology in academic advising research.Scholarly Inquiry in Academic Advising, Hagen, P.L., Kuhn, T. L. and Padak, G.M. (Eds). NACADA Monograph Number 20.

Crookston, B. B. (1972). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. Journal of College Student Personnel, 13, 12 - 17.

Culler, J. (1997). Literary theory: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Kincanon, K. (2009). Translating the transformative: Applying transformational and self-authorship pedagogy to advising undecided/exploring students. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Transformational-Theory-in-Academic-Advising.aspx

Perry, W. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. Holt, Rinehart & Winston: New York.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1990) An exposition of constructivism: Why some like it radical. In R.B. Davis, C.A. Maher and N. Noddings (Eds), Constructivist views on the teaching and learning of mathematics (pp 19-29). Reston, Virginia: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Cite this article using APA style as: Musser, T. (2012, September). Theoretical reflections: Constructivist foundations for academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 35(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.