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David Gruber and Julia Moffitt, Brandeis University

NOTE: This article was adapted from a presentation at the 2014 NACADA Region 1 Conference (March 19, 2014)

Gruber and Moffitt.jpgThe work of advising often centers on helping students engage in self-reflection. We want them to reflect on their choices of major or classes, on their long-term goals, on their study habits, and – when things go wrong – on their mistakes. As academic advisors, we typically emphasize conversation as our primary mode of reflection, which makes sense given that most of us spend our time meeting one-on-one with students. Most of the time conversation is a reliable mode for getting students to respond to the questions we want to ask, and want them to ask, about their academic lives. But writing to reflect creates an opportunity to take such reflection further. We believe that reflective writing can be a helpful tool to enrich academic advising, one that can help our advisees to do the work of self-reflection that is essential to their development and academic success.

Why Writing?

Writing creates time to think.  Writing forces us to be alone with our thoughts, to follow our ideas from beginning to end and articulate them clearly and cogently, and to attend to the logic – or illogic – that underlies what we say about our actions and decisions.

Reflective writing can help us connect with students who might not be immediately comfortable talking openly in our offices, or with students who may not feel ready to delve deeper until just before the clock runs out in an advising meeting. It can take time for students to feel comfortable in the advising conversation, and to open up when they are grappling with a difficult question or situation. Writing can give students additional time and space to wrestle with challenging experiences. 

Even for students who do engage easily in conversational reflection, there are occasions and problems that call for a continuous and deep engagement with the reflective process that doesn’t always fit with the realities of work-flow in busy advising offices, and for which reflective writing could be appropriate. 

Writing connects ideas and goals between sessions and semesters.  Writing also has practical benefits for us as advisors – asking students to write and bring their work back to a future meeting allows us to bridge advising sessions and gives us a guide for returning the conversation to pressing topics and concerns. Moreover, it primes the student to be ready to pick up the conversation, and often in a more useful way given that they have devoted some thought to the topic between sessions.

Additionally, writing can serve as a framework for long-term goal-setting. In advising a probation student, for instance, we can refer back to their petition or other reflective document to remind ourselves what the student thought he or she should do to be more successful in the future. In our advising sessions we can explore whether the student made the changes (or why not), and how things have gone since. Preserved examples of reflective writing can also be useful as a record of student success.

Below, we briefly define and discuss the utility of two modes of reflective writing: formal and informal. Each mode provides different but important ways to use writing to deepen our advising conversations.

Formal Writing

Formal writing is the mode that, as advisors, we encounter most often; for example, students may need to write petition letters for policy exceptions or to appeal academic standing. Since students write these letters with an emphasis on product and outcome, it’s not always obvious how to encourage students to reflect through formal writing.

However, when students have opportunities to revise formal writing, and advisors ask questions that push the students to go deeper into the ideas in their texts, formal writing can allow students to reflect on themselves as learners. For this reason, we always ask our students to go through at least one, and ideally two or three drafts of a petition. When students revise, their final drafts contain richer self-reflection.

Below are a few methods to foster reflection through the revision process:

1. Encourage the student to write the first draft for him- or herself.  Students often feel vulnerable when writing about a difficult semester. If they can focus less on how the writing will sound to an audience, at least at first, they may be more inclined to write openly and honestly about the challenges they’ve faced.

2. Help students focus on the process. Students tend to focus on the outcome when writing about an experience (e.g., “I failed my class”); however, the key to reflection is to understand the process that led to the outcome (e.g., “I slept through many of my classes and was too nervous to approach my professor about the situation”). Advisors can ask questions such as “What were the different factors that contributed to failing the class?” which will help students dig deeper and think about what actually happened.

3. Ask questions to help set specific goals. Goals that are as broad as “I will pass all of my courses” can’t be broken down into manageable parts. When students revise drafts of formal writing, we try to elicit specific statements about actions that students can take, using questions like these:

“How do you plan to get to class on time?”

“What will you do if you miss a class?”

“How will you ask professors for help understanding assignments?”

“What campus resources will you use to help complete your work?”

“Can you set early deadlines to help you finish assignments on time?” 

Again, when students revise formal writing assignments such as petitions, advisors can refer back to them even after the petition process is over to help students track their goals, make clear the students’ successes, and give them direction for improvement.

Informal writing

Informal writing can offer some of the least stressful and potentially most creative ways to bring writing into advising. Informal writing differs from formal in being “low stakes;” that is, the writing is not evaluated or graded, or even necessarily read. In giving a student an informal writing prompt, it’s important to stress that, while they are expected to produce some reflective writing for the next meeting, their work won’t be read unless they choose to share it. The point is for the student to engage in the process of reflection through writing, rather than produce a product.    

Informal writing is valuable because it allows students to engage with an advisor’s questions at a time and place of their own choosing, and to sit alone with their thoughts and answers, while also meeting the responsibility of responding to our questions. Informal writing exercises can produce fascinating and revealing results and add depth and nuance to the follow-up discussions that we have with students after they share what they learned from their writing process.  

Here are a few examples of informal writing exercises we have used, covering two categories advisors commonly address:

1. To help choose classes or identify academic interests:
  • Write a letter to a parent or friend describing the things you have most enjoyed learning this term. Tell them what you hope to learn about next.
  • Describe your dream class (to discuss possible majors or to understand ideal teaching style for a student).
  • Throughout the semester, keep a journal or a list of ideas that are exciting to you, whether they are from class sessions, conversations with peers, or extracurricular events. What themes or concepts do these have in common?
  • Describe your approach to keeping up with world events. What topics do you follow with the most interest?

2. To help select majors, develop capstone projects, or connect college work to post-college goals:

  • What questions do you still want to ask in college? What do you hope to continue learning about after college?
  • Develop a list of projects you’d like to do before graduating and describe your favorite three in detail. Find faculty who teach courses that would be useful for your project(s), and talk to them about the kinds of work scholars in their fields do. After these meetings, which fields seem most exciting as potential majors?
  • Describe/list/draw what you’d like to be doing 10 years from now. Then write about it: what are the skills, knowledge, and experiences that would make fulfilling that vision possible?

As can be seen from these examples, informal reflection is, as a mode, extremely versatile. Informal writing doesn’t even necessarily have to take forms as typical as essays, journal entries, or freewrites. Some students might find it easier to reflect by making lists, drawing, diagramming, or using online formats like Twitter or Tumblr (where they could write briefly about links or images that speak to their interests or individual challenges). The informal mode, with its flexibility, lets us design prompts that will help each advisee, whatever their skills and interests, to reflect about themselves beyond the confines of the advising office.

David Gruber
Academic Advisor
Academic Services
Brandeis University
[email protected]

Julia Moffitt
Academic Advisor
Academic Services
Brandeis University
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Gruber, D. & Moffitt, J. (2014, September). Using reflective writing to enrich academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 37(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.