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James R. Wicks, Middle Tennessee State University

The newly developed Academic Advising Core Competencies Model (NACADA, 2017) identifies three foundational elements of advising: conceptual, informational, and relational.  The Conceptual element deals with concepts, like advising history and theory, that advisors should be familiar with to better provide quality advising.  The Informational component deals with institutional knowledge, including degree programs and institutional mission and vision, as well as knowledge about technologies which can improve the effects of academic advising.  The Relational component, however, is a bit more difficult to pin down.

The Relational component deals with interpersonal skills that increase the likelihood that an advisor will be able to form a trusting and collaborative relationship with a student.  Core competencies in this area include the ability to articulate a personal philosophy of advising; promote student understanding of institutional curriculum; facilitate problem solving, effective planning, and decision-making; and engage in advising assessment and development.  Other competencies in the Relational component, like creating rapport and building advising relationships, communicating in an inclusive manner, and planning and conducting successful advising interactions, create a challenge for advising administrators and those in charge of advisor training.

Indeed, the questions that advising administrators and training developers ask about relational core competencies are not whether advisors should build rapport, communicate inclusively, or conduct successful advising interactions; rather, the questions they ask are about how advisors can do this.  (The full Core Competencies Guide along with NACADA’s supplemental core competencies webpage are fantastic resources to help answer these types of questions.)  The purpose of this essay is to present some theory-informed practical recommendations for advisors to help address the “how” of some of the more elusive relational core competencies.

Collaboration Theory

Collaboration theory lends itself particularly well to practical solutions for building student rapport, communicating inclusively, and conducting successful advising interactions.  According to the theory, individuals develop a shared conception of something in order to solve a problem or achieve a goal (Lai, 2011).  Mercer’s 1996 contributions to collaboration theory are especially helpful in that they stress the importance of “interactions producing elaborated explanations,” which “enable students to learn the principles underlying practical procedures and strategies” (Lai, 2011, p. 17).  In other words, interactions that generate more elaborative opportunities afford students better clarity and understanding and produce a greater likelihood of learning.  Likewise, they provide greater opportunities for advisors to learn about student experiences, which is key to the more dispositional elements of building a partnership (empathy, care, relatability, trust, etc.).

With this perspective in mind, one way to think about how advisors can build rapport, communicate inclusively, and have successful advising interactions is by facilitating elaborative opportunities during advising sessions.  Facilitating elaborative opportunities can include prompting students to speak about certain experiences, asking open-ended questions, and engaging with the student in role-playing activities.  Below are some specific questions and prompts for advisors to consider which promote elaborative opportunities during advising sessions.

Questions and Prompts

During an advising session, advisors should consider whether they are adequately prompting conversation.  Before doling out prescriptive information or talking about student resources, advisors should consider the following questions and statements:

  • Tell me how you are feeling about the semester.
  • How do your current grades reflect what you expected?
  • How does your college experience so far reflect what you expected?
  • What do you expect to get from this advising session?

How the student answers these prompts can create a framework for the advising session and for subsequent discussion.  Other questions to consider as the advising session continues are:

  • What are some concerns that you have about next semester?
  • Describe an ideal semester for you and how you can make (or have made) that a reality.
  • What role do you see for your advisor in an ideal semester?

More generally, advisors should practice using open-ended questions and prompts with their students. Elaborative opportunities are better facilitated when students can reflect on the prompt and give detailed answers as opposed to replying with a simple yes or no.  To help advisors develop this habit, advising administrators and trainers can organize workshops where advisors practice with one another, addressing each other in ways that promote rather than discourage conversation.  For advisors who may find it difficult to manage conversations, frequent practice may be necessary to identify communicative breakdowns and re-form better habits for future interactions.

Additionally, many students come to advising appointments less prepared than they should; i.e. they have not done their own research to learn what they must do to accomplish their own academic goals. Navigating elaborative opportunities for this student can be volatile, as their lack of preparedness opens the door to advisor reprimand.  In this case, advisors should consider role playing activities in which they invite the student to explain what they would do if put in the advisor’s position; what they would say to an ill-prepared student and what would be an effective way to promote accountability so that the student is better prepared in the future.  By doing this, the advisor can be made aware of what the student would respond to and can rule out conversational styles that might cause the student to withdraw from the session.


The benefit of elaborative opportunities can be understood after reflecting on relevant literature and research.  For example, Crenshaw’s (2016) work on the urgency of intersectionality compels advisors to consider frames, or cognitive schemas, and their effects on how they respond to student experiences. Her work suggests that unless advisors are exposed to the experiences of others, they do not have adequate frames with which to include them in advising policy and procedure (nor are advisors likely to develop them otherwise).  Being competent at inclusive communication, therefore, requires interacting with students such that advisors can be exposed to their diversity of experience.  This way, advisors can incorporate those student experiences into the necessary frames to provide quality advising.

Additionally, as advisor caseloads become increasingly diverse, the spectrum of what it takes to achieve successful advising expands.  The one-style-for-all approach becomes less and less valuable with each passing academic term.  What remains consistent, however, is the idea that students need to be learning and engaged during their advising sessions as opposed to just being passive receivers of information (Crookston, 1972; Lowenstein, 2005).  By promoting elaborative opportunities, advisors dramatically increase the chances that a student will have an engaging experience in which learning occurs.


The importance of having theory-informed practical strategies is that advising administrators and training developers can focus on procedural solutions rather than dispositional ones. In an ideal world, every advisor can competently navigate the relational aspects of advising such that a trusting partnership is formed with each student.  However, due to diversifying advisor caseloads, achieving the ideal is increasingly challenging.  It is not enough to simply demand that advisors adopt certain dispositions towards students, like practicing empathy or being more reassuring, without providing practical and transformational resources (which I have admittedly done before).  Moving forward, it is crucial that advising administrators focus on the practical tools and procedures that can promote the dispositional qualities best suited for Relational core competencies among their team members.

James R. Wicks
Academic Advisor
College of Basic and Applied Sciences
Middle Tennessee State University


Crenshaw, K. (2016, October). Kimberlé Crenshaw: The urgency of intersectionality [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality 

Crookston, B. B. (1972). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. Journal of College Student Personnel, 13(1), 12-17.

Lai, E. R. (2011). Collaboration: A literature review. Pearson: New York, NY. Retrieved from http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/collaboration-review.pdf

Lowenstein, M. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65-73. Retrieved from http://www.nacadajournal.org/doi/pdf/10.12930/0271-9517-25.2.65

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx  

Cite this article using APA style as: Wicks, J.R. (2018, June). Using collaboration theory to address the ‘how’ of relational core competencies. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 June 41:2


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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.