Academic Advising Resources


Authored by: George Steele

The importance of decision-making in the advising process is well document. Gordon (2007) noted that when working with all students, but particularly with undecided students, it is a critical conceptual component along with self-assessment, educational information and career. Many definitions and institutional mission statements for academic advising highlight decision-making’s centrality to conducting advising. In this regard, attention to both cognitive and affective decision-making skills and issues have been addressed. The relationship of decision-making to students’ interests and efforts has not been received as much attention. This article will offer a brief explanation on why the relationship of interest and effort to reflective thinking is important for advisors to recognize by drawing on the works of John Dewey.

The Importance of Decision-Making and Academic Advising
Helping students make good decision is central to the practice of academic advising. In defining the advising exchange, Gordon (1992) noted that “The advising process is a complex set of interactions that identifies a problem, provides and evaluates information, produces a tangible solution, and implements the solution by taking action” (pp.50-51). Gordon (1992) also identifies decision making as a critical component advisors need to emphasize in helping students make career decisions (p. 75). Also, as noted, Gordon (2007) listed “decision making” as a critical category that advisors need to become proficient at in developing the skill of asking probing-questions, along with the areas of “self-assessment/learning” and “academic major/occupational information” (164-166). Some of the probing questions Gordon (2007) proposes include:

  • Do you ever have trouble making decisions? Little one? Important ones?
  • How do you generally go about making a decision? Describe the process.
  • What specific strategies do you use?
  • Do you use the same method for all types of decisions?
  • How long do you think it will take you to make a decision? How long do you want it to take? (164-166)

Gordon’s conceptual model of the advising exchange can therefore serve as the basis of one-to-one advising sessions to being the conceptual basis for curricular categories for workshops or courses.

The Goal is not to Just Make a Decision, but to Learn How to Make Decisions and be Aware of How One Makes Them
Some of the questions Gordon suggested show that the intent is not just to help students reach a decision, but also become aware of how they make decisions. This later focus is to help students develop an awareness of their own learning or thinking process. This is the definition of metacognition. Lang (2012) stated:

“Cognitive psychologists use the term metacognition to describe our ability to assess our own skills, knowledge, or learning. That ability affects how well and how long students study—which, of course, affects how much and how deeply they learn. Students with poor metacognition skills will often shorten their study time prematurely, thinking that they have mastered course material that they barely know” (para. 5).

Helping students develop their metacognitive perspectives and skills is a significant contribution that advisors play enhancing students’ decision-making ability and critical thinking skills.

The Reflective Thinking as the Basis for Advising
Helping students make good decisions also is central to Gordon’ s definition of the advising interview/session. Gordon (1992) proposed five phases: 1) opening the interview, 2) identifying the problem, 3) Identifying possible solutions, taking action on the solutions, and 5) summarizing the transaction (p. 53). These steps are not limited to face-to-face encounters, for they can serve as a guide for creating group advising or teaching/learning experiences.  Of course many writers in the field of academic advising have stressed the importance reflective thinking in much greater detail. Williams, King, and Reynolds trace this long-standing history and the impact individuals have had on shaping this conversation. 

It is perhaps not surprising, that Gordon’s steps for the advising session roughly parallel the definition of “reflective thinking” defined by John Dewey, the great American philosopher and educator from the early 20th century. Dewey (1933) defined reflective thinking as: “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends… (p. 9)” Providing a more distinctive description, Dewey (1933) proclaimed:

“(R)eflective thinking, in distinction from other operations to which we apply the name of thought, involves (1) a state of doubt, hesitation, perplexity, mental difficulty, in which thinking originates, and (2) and act of searching , hunting, inquiring to find the material, that will resolve the doubt, settle the disposition of the complexity (p. 12)."

For advisors, there are other considerations that Dewey described that merit attention because of their value. The first is the importance of the “problem” being owned by the student. This is critical because the problem defines the process. As Dewey (1933) stated:  “Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steading and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection (p. 14).” When the “problem” is not owned or internalized by the student, reflective thinking rarely takes place. Students might go through the cognitive motions, but the interest and effort needed to implement the decision and take action may well be missing.

The Importance of Interest and Effort
The importance of the relationship between interest, effort and reflective thinking was highlight by Dewey early in his career. Dewey’s (1913) position on interest and effort was interdependent with his conception of reflective thinking (p. 53) Roughly speaking, interest spurs activity. Eventually, however, activity initiated by interest can no longer be maintained, because we inevitably encounter situations in which “doubt, hesitation, and perplexity, mental difficulties,” or problematic situations occur. Due to the association of self with the object or idea, which drove activity, the desire for resolution of the ambiguity, conflict, or problem is stronger if interest is engaged.

Dewey (1913) believed that, through a combination of interest and effort, the “act of searching, hunting, inquiring, to find material that resolve the doubt…” persists, leading to three possible desirable outcomes. The first is the resolution of the problem and the resumption of interest initiated activity. The second possible outcome is the development of interest through “efficiency and discipline,” because interests have been made conscious due to engagement in reflective thought. The third possible outcome is the development of indirect interests, because they have been drawn upon in order to resolve problematic situations and are now consciously associated with the direct interest also being developed themselves in “efficiency and discipline.”   In short, the combination of interest and effort encourages the possibility of reflective thought to occur when obstacles are encountered in the course of activities, and reflective thinking may in turn, lead to the development of both direct and indirect interests.  

The Process of Reflective Thinking
Dewey outline in general terms what the process of reflection thinking was. Dewey (1933) identified five phases of reflective thinking (pp. 107-115.)

  • Suggestion – in which the mind leaps forward to a possible; solution
  • Intellectualization – of the difficulty or perplexity that has been felt (directly experienced) into a problem to be solved; a question for which a answer is sought
  • The use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis, to initiate and guide observation and other operations to collect factual data
  • The mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition (reasoning).
  • Testing the hypothesis by overt imaginative action for experimental corroboration, or verification of the conjectural idea

Of course Dewey was clear that such approaches do not always bring about positive results for as he stated: “Nothing shows the trained thinker better than the use he makes of is errors and mistakes (p. 114)” He also warned against attempts to make the process a fixed external process. As Dewey (1933) declared, the phases or steps are not fixed (p. 115).

Importance to Academic Advising
Because helping students develop and learn the reflective thinking process is so central to the decision-making and advising process, it should be central to the areas of the advising session, advisor training, and program assessment. Beyond these areas, advisors can see the insights of Dewey’s statements in terms of everyday practice. Some examples are as follows:

  • reconfirms the importance of students choosing a field of study or career path with which they are interested in pursuing as a starting point of their post-secondary journey;
  • helps advisors working with students identify general education or elective courses or minors they might consider base on indirect interests to their chosen program;
  • underscores the importance of using related theories on interests such as the Holland code or learning and personality styles in practice;
  • reinforces the importance of first addressing student issues in the advising encounter, not advisor or institutional centric ones. The art of advising is often helping students recognize the importance and internalization of the latter;
  • suggests limits and difficulty of trying to structure the decision-making process for students as a formal external activity since the reflective process is not a linear progression; and
  • provides a strong theoretical basis for the importance of advising as teaching with the focus on helping students develop their academic and career plans.

Helping students identify and solve their own problems is one of the rewarding aspects of the profession. By assisting students solve problems through reflection and by watching them take action; one can see their personal growth, as new skills are developed and old one enhanced. And certainly observing students grasp why a topic, course, or activity that was not interesting now becoming so through indirect interests being associated with current interests is one of the critical reasons why advising and teaching are intricately linked. Associated to this point in this process is the importance of centering on the student the link between effort and persistence. This is particularly true when issues of retention arise and an over reliance on external to the student solutions such as constant monitoring or a reliance on technology are sought to “solve” the issue. But equally clear is the critical role advisors can play by helping students match, clarify, consider, and evaluate their interests, thorough reflection, to focus their efforts in pursuit of their goals.      


Dewey, J. (1973). Interest and effort. Carbondale Southern Illinois University Press, (Originally, published in 1913).

Dewey, J. (1960). How we think. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, (Originally, published 1933).

Gordon, V.N. (1992). Handbook of Academic Advising, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

Gordon, V.N. (2007). The Undecided College Student: An Academic and Career Advising Challenge, Charles C. Thomas Publishers, Springfield, IL

King, C. Developmental academic advising. Retrieved from:

Lang, J.M. (January 17, 2012). Metacognition and student learning. In The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Reynolds, M. A. Learning theory in academic advising. Retrieved from:

Williams, S. Applying theory to practice. Retrieved from:

Cite this using APA style:  Steele, G. E. (2013). Decision-making: Interest and effort. Retrieved from

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