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Bill Johnson, Davidson-Davie Community College

Bill Johnson.jpgFor over 32 years, I have straddled the line between academic advising and coaching. First, serving as an academic advisor, helping students create educational plans and assisting with scheduling, registration, and degree planning. Over the years, my role expanded to include career development as well. In 2006–2007, I learned about the field of life coaching, opening my eyes to new possibilities when interacting with students. One belief has always been central to my work in higher education: students need to be empowered to take control of their educational experience. 

My definition of advising has evolved over time, from one that was primarily focused on the student being “advised” on the courses necessary to complete their degree. My definition evolved after reading an article by Terry O’Banion on advising in the 21st century (O’Banion, 1972/2012), where he described a process of academic advising which focused on the five steps necessary in advising students, listing them in order of importance:

  • Explore life goals
  • Explore vocational goals
  • Program choice
  • Course choice
  • Scheduling courses

As you can see, the first two steps (explore life goals and explore vocational goals) focus on having more in-depth conversations; the last three choices (program choice, course choice, and scheduling courses) have a greater emphasis on specific registration and scheduling transactions. Today, based on my experiences as an advisor and as a coach, I would define academic advising as:

A systematic process based on a collaborative relationship between a student and advisor, intended to aid students in achieving their educational, career, and personal goals by unlocking their ability to optimize their performance and actualize their potential through the use of institutional and community resources. The academic advisor serves multiple roles in the learning process (as a coach, teacher, facilitator, mentor, guide, etc.), keenly aware that the student has the answers to his or her own questions, while understanding that students may need help finding those answers.

This next section makes the distinction between transactional advising and transformational advising. Advisors are typically engaged in a combination of both types of advising; however, most have primary responsibilities aligned with one or the other. As you read the descriptions and the characteristics below, take a moment to define your primary advising role on campus.

Transactional Advising

Transactional advising is motivated by the desire to get the most one possibly can while giving as little as possible. The student sees the relationship as “it’s all about me,” and “what I can get,” not about what they can give. Transactional relationships protect and minimize what advisors share with their students. Transactional conversations are defined by an exchange: “I need this; you need that” or “I need to do this; you need to do that.”


  • Passing on information from the advisor to the student
  • Advisors are trained for specific tasks to please the student
  • Focus is on the immediate needs of the student
  • Tasks can be performed relatively quickly
  • Tasks are assigned based on strengths and expertise of the advisor to increase output
  • Agenda is determined by specific functions of the advisor/unit
  • Success is determined by solving student problems
  • Easy to measure
  • Limited interaction with the student
  • Student interactions more focused on the self than on others
  • Focused on execution and completion of tasks; progress based on institutional goals
  • Typically tied to institution-based goals

Transformational Advising

Transformational advising inspires students to innovate and create in ways to help them grow and shape their future success in education. Having a higher purpose helps students make intentional actions for change. The key factor is developing trust; it determines whether the student enters a relationship with the intent to help make the change needed to improve their learning, working, and/or living environments.


  • Focuses on the message being delivered, not on the task at hand
  • The advisor takes time to form a relationship/connection with the student
  • Partnership between advisor and student is built on a foundation of trust
  • Focus is on love, care, and/or inspiration for the student
  • A commitment to goals, mission, purpose, and outcomes for the student
  • Agenda is determined by the student
  • Success is determined by student growth and development
  • Hard to measure
  • Specific conversations with the student that evolve over time
  • More focused on others than on the self
  • Focused on personal growth and development; progress based on students’ goals
  • Typically tied to student-driven goals

Institutions focused on transactional advising are geared towards solving student problems and issues. Advising conversations are focused on an understanding of policies, procedures, and processes, where things get done quickly and easily, but are less engaging. Institutions centered on transformational advising understand that while the work is sometimes difficult, less direct, less tangible, and less clear as to whether progress of any kind is actually being made, it is a necessary process for students to gain clarity and direction for their personal growth and development.

In our Advising and Personal Development Center at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, we provided both transactional and transformational advising services and support. Those involved in transactional advising help students maintain progress to complete their degrees and provide support and referrals when life gets in the way. Those involved in transformational advising assist students in the exploration of purpose and meaning as they navigate the college journey, challenging students to answer questions such as: “Who am I?,” “Why am I in college?,” and “What could I do with my life?”

Both transactional and transformational advising are essential roles within the university system. However, over time, as many of the transactional advising services become automated, students will desire and need transformational advising services. The symbiotic relationship between the advisor and the student supports learning and growing for both, as the advisor improves his or her skills and the student grows as an individual. Transformational advising creates deeper connections, more trust, and more meaning, developing both better students and better people, and ultimately creating a better world. Transactional advising provides the tools and connections for students to survive college; transformational advising provides the tools and connections for students to THRIVE in college!

Bill Johnson
Legacy-Men of Color Program
Davidson-Davie Community College


O’Banion, T. (2012). Updating the traditional academic advising model for the 21st century. Community College Journal, October/November, 42–47. https://www.3cmediasolutions.org/sites/default/files/UpdatingTheTraditionalAcademicAdvisingModelForThe21stCentury.pdf (Original work published 1972)

Cite this article using APA style as: Johnson, B. (2022, September). Transactional advising vs. transformational advising. Academic Advising Today, 45(3). [insert url here]


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