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Voices of the Global Community


Craig M. McGill, Florida International University

Craig McGill.jpgAs the field of academic advising embarks upon professionalization and as universities begin investing in more professional academic advisors, it is important to better understand advisors’ workplace education and career development.  Of continuing professional education, Jeris (2010) notes, “There is a shared belief that public recognition of their occupational group as a profession is very desirable and requires vigilance to maintain and develop” (p. 275).

To explore this underdeveloped part of the field’s literature, I conducted interviews with four professional academic advisors to come to a better understanding of how they viewed their professional development and identity.  In this article, I highlight select themes that emerged from the data in three broad categories: (a) ways of learning, (b) sources of learning, and (c) the importance of workplace learning.

The Participants

The sample included four advisors, summarized in the following chart in terms of work area, years of advising experience, and highest degree.


Advising Unit

Years in Advising

Highest Degree


Advising Center

6 years



Advising Unit

1.5 years



Advising Unit

1.5 years



Advising Unit

4 months



Three of the advisors came to the field through learning experiences.  Participant 1 came to advising after working with student records in the Office of the Registrar; curiosity about what was prohibiting their graduations motivated this transition to advising.   Participant 2 came by way of dropping out of college, working in shelters, and re-entering to do social work due to that experience (which ultimately led to advising). Participant 3 worked in admissions for one year after finishing her graduate degree in higher education. She transitioned to advising because she wanted more direct involvement with individual students. Participant 4 came through experiences of formal higher education that created a desire to work in a university setting.

These advisors are quite different,especially with respect to their background prior to advising and how they entered the field.  Their responses revealed different ways of thinking about their roles, how they learned on the job, to what lengths their power boundaries extended, etc.  This demonstrates that “two practitioners in the same field, and perhaps even at the same stage of development, are likely to construct quite different knowledge and skills from formal and informal learning opportunities.  Recognizing and valuing different learning and development trajectories have the potential for improving practice” (Jeris, 2010, p. 277).

Theme I: Ways of Learning

The participants were asked to describe what learning is and how they learn.

Participant 3 described learning as “the comprehension and intake of anything—material, information” but qualified this response by saying that in order to learn, a person must “actually grasp the concept that is being introduced.” There are many different levels of learning, the highest of which requires that “you really have to understand, thoroughly, the subject matter, to say you’ve actually understood and comprehended at the highest level.”

According to Participant 1, “It’s not enough for me to learn just one component. I need to see the big picture . . . and then once I see the big picture, I start asking ‘how does this fit into this?’ . . . I think they used cones in some classes. . . . ‘Do you learn general to specific or from specific to general?’ and I was like ‘oh yeah, [gestures] general to specific!”

The role of patience and motivation came up in the interviews.  For one participant, a lack of patience with oneself inhibited learning: “I feel like I learn a long way, the hard way, in order to get through. . . . I don’t have the patience with myself sometimes to go through the process of learning.  I want to learn fast because, to me, it seems as though everyone learns fast, and I don’t feel that I learn fast, so I get annoyed at myself” (Participant 1).  The implication is that if one is motivated to learn something, open about the information intake, and has patience with oneself, the learning will occur more organically.  This relates to self-efficacy (Bandura, 1976): “our own estimate of how competent we feel we are likely to be in a particular environment” (Merriam et. al, 2007, p. 289).

The three advisors who had worked less than two years felt positively about the university-wide training they received on the core curriculum aspects of advising.  However, two of the three participants also mentioned following training with practice of their own, because “you don’t retain everything, so there were a lot of things where I had to go back and find a tutorial, or figure out how to do something. . . . I found it helpful when it was on the website and certain things there, when I went back to relearn something, I learned how to do things for the first time” (Participant 4).  Another participant expressed a similar idea: in some ways, long trainings were futile without a more applied, hands-on approach to learning. “I don’t want to sit in a two-hour lecture because I’m not going to retain it.  I can go for a training . . . and I take the material back and I sit at my computer and I do it, and that’s experiential, and that’s helpful to me” (Participant 2).  This is one of three references the interviewee made to experiential learning.  Dewey (1938) argued that “all genuine education comes about through experience” but not “all experiences are genuinely or equally educative” (p. 13).  The training was long, intense, and full of dense new information.  In some cases, “the real learning started when I got my computer together and could go along, looking at these screens” (Participant 4). 

Although these advisors felt their training on the university core was helpful, once they were unleashed in their departments, they felt unprepared with little guidance:

The [university-wide training] is structured in their training, but when I came to the college, there was no structure for training me at all.  It was kinda like “here ya go” (Participant 2).

I didn’t have a lot of guidance in my department.  We have faculty advisors . . . and I had to seek them out to get this information, and even when I did seek them out, they were like 30 minute meetings. . . . Basically, “blah blah blah here’s some information, go” (Participant 3).

Yeah, like my knowledge of [the content area] is supposed to have been long completed before the [university-wide] people train me (Participant 4).

Participants 2 and 4 had the benefit of at least having a background in the discipline for which they advised.  Participant 3 was not so lucky: “I was placed in a major that I knew nothing about [vocal emphasis]. . . . I never even took college level [courses in the subject area], so there was a lot to learn about the curriculum, the sequencing of courses, the semesters in which they’re offered, . . . and I also learned that a lot of our students weren’t familiar with that information” (Participant 3).

Theme II: Sources of Learning

In order to perform in these departments, advisors had to find different sources of information and learning.  First, although the advisors mentioned learning directly from the students, they all felt the need to adjust their practice to certain students: “If I’m working with a student and something I’m trying to do isn’t working, I need to take that as feedback for me.  Instead of getting confrontational, it’s more like ‘okay, why is this student being resistant, and what do I need to do differently?’” (Participant 2).  Participant 3 recalled, “The first time I told someone their grades were not good enough for medical school or even for our program, she cried.  And that was the first time I had told anyone.  So, after that meeting, I felt horrible.  I didn’t think that I was rude, but I am quite blunt.  So I realized I needed to attack this in a different way.  So I [started] practicing different approaches and seeing what works and what doesn’t” (Participant 3).

The most prominent source of information was reliance on fellow advising colleagues.  For some participants, it was not only the collegial relationships themselves, but actively partnering on projects where learning took place:  “there was a lot going on with revising the major [checksheets]. . . . I worked on those collaboratively, so that helped me to know what the trajectory would be. Like ‘this is the order that the classes would go,’ especially in a program like dietetics, when some classes are literally once a year and if they miss that class, that’s a pre-req, now a student’s behind a whole year” (Participant 2).

Advisors also learned the curriculum by utilizing the course catalogue and constructing self-guides to learn the information: “I spent a lot of time studying our catalogue.  I made an excel spreadsheet with the information from the catalogue and I studied [vocal emphasis] it. . . . Building a tool that outlined it for me certainly helped.  The faculty advisors did give me a brief outline, but most of it was digging through the catalogue and studying on my own” (Participant 3).  In a different part of the interview, Participant 3 quipped, “the catalogue is the bible, as far as I’m concerned.  You can find almost every answer you need in there!” The catalogue was mentioned by each participant as an essential resource for advisors to do their work properly.

Theme III: Importance of Workplace Learning

The third major area the participants spoke about was the importance of continued workplace learning.  Each participant mentioned and reacted to a new professional development program for academic advisors that allowed them to create goals, work with a director to develop those goals, identity opportunities for growth, and reflect on the learning that will occur.  One participant said, “As someone who doesn’t feel they are done with their education, and as an advisor, there are a million things about continuing learning I have on the back burner right now. . . . Certainly being a better advisor, a more efficient advisor. . . . Finding a specialty would be attractive to me” (Participant 4). 

Building new learning from transferable skills was also mentioned by participants: “I’ve been working for a while, and I’ve been in positions where I’ve had to quickly learn and integrate lots of new skills and technical information to be able to do my job. . . . My view probably impacts my learning, . . . but I think that would be the case no matter which department I was in” (Participant 2).  The response exemplifies ‘meaningful learning’ (Ausubel, 1967) built on previous knowledge: “Learning is meaningful only when it can be related to concepts that already exist in a person’s cognitive structure” (Merriam et. al, 2007, p. 286).

Academic advising has yet to fully investigate and understand the learning habits and aspirations of its practitioners.  Are advisors more inclined to learn because they work in academia? How do they view their professional identity both as educators of adult learners and as learners themselves? More fundamentally, “What does it mean to be a professional?” (Jeris, 2010, p. 277).  Participant 4 said: “If I worked at a job that was less interested in me learning, that would be terrible. . . . Learning is pretty much what life’s about.”  There is much yet to glean about advisors’ workplace learning.   The Adult Education and Human Resource Development literature is an excellent foundation from which to build.

Craig M. McGill, M.M., M.S.
Senior Academic Advisor
Department of English
Florida International University
[email protected]


Ausubel, D. P. (1967). A cognitive structure theory of school learning. In L. Siegel (Ed.), Instruction: Some contemporary viewpoints (pp. 207-260). San Francisco: Chandler.

Bandura, A. (1976). Modeling theory. In W.S. Sahakian (Ed.), Learning: Systems, models, and theories, 2nd ed. (pp. 391-409). Skokie, IL: Rand McNally.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

Jeris, L. H. (2012). Continuing professional education. In C. E. Kasworm, A. D. Rose & J. M. Ross-Gordon (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 275-284). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: McGill, C. (2015, March). Workplace learning experiences of four professional academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 38(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2015 March 38:1


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