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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).


Many advisors are so busy with their day to day responsibilities that thinking about something as abstract as “theory” seems a luxury they can’t afford.  They may be inclined to say, “If it doesn’t make me a better advisor I don’t have time for it.”

Can theory make you a better advisor?  Arguably yes.  But here’s a prior question:  How do we know what we mean by “a better advisor?”  If those words have meaning, it’s because we have some idea of what excellence in advising is, which in turn probably depends on a notion of what advising is all about.  And that, in turn, is the beginning of a theory.

“Theory” gets used sloppily sometimes, for example to mean an opinion that isn’t fact, but that is not an accurate definition.  Here is a working definition that will suffice as the start of explaining why advisors should care about theory:  A theory of advising is (1) a statement of the essential nature and purpose of advising, which (2) says what advising ideally should be, not necessarily what it actually is in all cases.  There is a formal name for theories that say whatought to be rather than explaining what is: “normative.”  Normative theories are different in this regard from scientific theories, which most of us are more familiar with.  They are common for example in ethics, a field that explores how we ought to behave, not how we do behave.

So a theory of advising will present for us a statement of what advising is for, and why it is important, a vision of what it ideally would be.  Why is that valuable?  First, for an individual advisor it provides a measuring stick to evaluate one’s own work – but more important, a goal to strive for even if it seems unattainable, a picture of what that “better advisor” would be.

Second, as members of the profession advisors should look to a theory to provide unity of purpose and an explanation for our institutions as to why our work is vital to their missions.  At a time when budgets are tight, accountability is in the air, and some administrators are focused more on degree completion than on learning, that could be critical.  And it will help students, everywhere, to know what to expect and what to seek from their advisors.

There are straightforward practical consequences too.  A theory of advising will imply answers to how advisors should be educated, selected, and evaluated, and guidance on choosing administrative models.  It will also help us know what to look for in advising scholarship.

Any advisor can devise for himself or herself a statement of what advising is for, and what an ideal advisor would be like.  But to fulfill the potential described here, a theory needs to be the product of vigorous debate, oral and in print, among the advising community.  The Theory and Philosophy of Advising Commission invites you to participate in that debate at our conference sessions and through our listserv.

Marc Lowenstein
Associate Provost
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Lowenstein, M. (2012, June). Theoretical reflections: Why a theory of advising? Academic Advising Today, 35(2).

Posted in: 2012 June 35:2


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