Academic Advising Resources



An Advisor’s Half Dozen: Principles for Incorporating Learning Theory into our Advising Practices
Authored by: Maura M. Reynolds

With thanks to Tom Angelo whose A Teacher's Dozen (1993) is the springboard for this piece. Two NACADA documents, the Concept of Academic Advising (2006) and the Core Values of Academic Advising (2005), have encouraged us to move beyond discussions about prescriptive and developmental advising and consider academic advising as a learning-centered activity. The next step is to move from espoused theory to theory-in-practice. In what concrete ways can advisors incorporate learning into advising?

In response to a similar shift of emphasis in undergraduate teaching, Angelo (1993) posited 14 principles aimed at increasing learning and connecting learning theory to teaching practice. Six of Angelo’s principles can help us incorporate learning principles into our everyday practices in academic advising, as well.

The goals in offering this list of principles mirror Angelo’s:

  • first, that this list will foster discussion among advisors. The more we talk with each other about our practices and their rationale, the richer and more thoughtful our practice may become.
  • second, that we will develop our own practical applications for these principles. Because we usually advise students one-on-one, we recognize (perhaps more clearly than faculty who typically teach groups of students) that we need to adjust practices to meet our advisees’ learning needs. Techniques and approaches that work well with one student may not be successful with another.
  • third, that we will each create our own list of principles and consider how well our practices and approaches embody those principles.

The Six Learning Principles

I offer these “pump-priming” principles adapted from Angelo’s list of 14, along with a few possibilities about their application to advising. 

1. Active learning is more effective than passive learning.
While activity alone will not result in learning, research tells us that our advisees will be more likely to achieve learning goals if we involve them actively in advising. We might do this by asking our advisees to respond in writing to some advising questions. For first year students, we might ask “What are your greatest academic strengths?” or “What are your goals for your first year? How do your goals fit with the mission statement of our college?” For more experienced students, we might suggest “How are you the same as when you began college? How have you changed?” or some of the ten thought-provoking questions included in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ brochure Liberal Education & America’s Promise: An introduction for students (2008), like “How have your experiences in college (academic, co-curricular, volunteer, work) prepared you for life after college?” or “What experiences can you pursue to develop the skills employers consider essential?” For those on academic probation, we might raise, “What resources will you use next term? or “What will you do differently?” Keeping such written self-assessments provides a record of growth and benchmarks--and involves advisees in learning-centered activities which extend beyond their college years.

Most of us already work to involve students actively in advising. Sending students to other offices and people (career services, advisors of pre-professional programs, faculty, or alumni, for example) to gather information and report back on what they learn is one way advisors already meet this challenge. Advisees are actively involved when we ask them to create two- or four-year plans, tentative though they may be. The result is purposeful activity which also gives students a path to degree completion and suggests whether a semester of study abroad is possible, whether summer classes will be needed, or how class sequencing will play out, among other important benefits.

2. Learning is more effective and efficient when advisees have explicit, reasonable, positive goals, and when their goals fit well with the advisor’s goals.
Whether we use a formal advising syllabus or something less formal, this principle emphasizes the importance of communicating to students the purposes and goals of advising. And, as those of us who teach in the classroom know, telling students once is not enough, nor is it sufficient simply to list the goals in a syllabus. We need to remind students often and explicitly to connect our practices to our learning goals. I suspect that most students consider that the goal of advising is class scheduling or registration. If advisors believe in a richer scope, we will communicate this--in what we say and in what we do--so we can help advisees see its importance and relevance. Again, we will adapt goals for individual students--a one-size-fits-all approach will not be appropriate for the diversity of students we work with each day. Importantly, these learning goals can also form the framework for our assessment of the effectiveness of advising. Martin’s (2007) excellent article on constructing learning objectives--especially for first year students--is the place to begin this process.

Further, as Lowenstein (2005) reminds us, an important part of our work is to explain the “logic of the curriculum.” Unless we help students understand the goals of the curriculum and its cohesion, students may well graduate believing that they have jumped through a series of disconnected hoops, as indicated by check-marks on an arbitrarily mandated list. “Perhaps the most urgent reform on most campuses in improving general education involves academic advising. To have programs and courses become coherent and significant to students requires adequate advising.” (Task Group on General Education, 1988, p. 43) Hemwall and Trachte (2005) argue powerfully that our institutions’ mission statements and the learning goals imbedded there are rich resources advisors should use to help students understand the purposes of college. Advisors may be in the best position on campus to help students understand and reflect upon the goals of the curriculum as a whole, as well as the ways individual classes contribute to those goals. Armed with an understanding of these goals, students may be more intentional about their educational choices and consider ways institutional goals can support their own learning goals.

3. High expectations encourage high achievement.
As the wag reminds us, “no one rises to meet low expectations.”  If we believe in the power of learning-centered advising, we will expect students to take full advantage of it. Again, we will tailor our expectations for each advisee, but our expectations should demand that each stretches to meet it. The mantra of “challenge and support” rings true for teaching in the classroom and in the advising office. We may find that younger students or those with weaker preparation need more support than those with stronger backgrounds or more experience in college. What we talk about with first-years and what we expect them to do will be different than what we discuss with and expect from juniors and seniors. Our expectations for a Veteran returning to complete a two-year degree while she works full-time will not mirror those for a full-time traditional age student at a residential liberal arts college.

4. Motivation is alterable; it can be positively or negatively affected by the task, the environment, the advisor, and the advisee.

 Learning-centered advising is a paradigm shift and, as such, involves changes for advisors and advisees. One response could well be, “My advisees would never do this work.” I include this principle because learning theorists tell us that students are more motivated to learn if they understand the value of what they are learning. Our job is to communicate that value, and to communicate it often, in words and in actions. The more we can connect advising with the real world, the more advisees may realize its value. Every day, we work with students to enhance skills of reflection, self-assessment, goal-setting, and decision-making--skills they will use throughout their lives. While this may seem obvious to us, experience suggests that it is less so for students.

5. To learn well, advisees need feedback, early and often. To become independent, they need to learn how to give themselves feedback.
If we keep on file or in an electronic archive written responses to reflection and self-assessment advising questions (see principle #1), we will find opportunities to follow up and offer feedback. Sometimes that feedback may mean a pat on the back for a student and the encouragement to keep on--and sometimes it may mean quite the opposite. When we ask our advisees at the end of the year to look at the goals they set at its beginning, we have created an opportunity for a powerful exercise in self-reflection. When we ask them to assess how their success at reaching their past goals will affect their goals for the upcoming year, we encourage them to reflect on the past as well as plan for the future. Learning-centered advising requires reflection and self-assessment, skills which demand work and which can be painful, especially if a hoped-for future is not possible. Learning-centered advising done well encourages independent, life-long learning. Again, the scaffolding we use with younger advisees will probably not be appropriate for more experienced learners. A colleague likes to tell his advisees that his role as an advisor is to make himself obsolete. A bit extreme (and I know this faculty member does not approach advising with such a mind set), but a good reminder that our goal in advising is to encourage independent self-assessment, reflection, and action.

6. Interaction between advisees and advisors is one of the most powerful factors in promoting learning; interaction among advisees is another.

 Reporting on the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement, Kuh (2007) reiterated the impact of advising: students who met with their advisor at least twice in the academic year tended to take part in the five benchmark activities found to be important for student success and engagement. Further, students who met more often with their advisors reported gains in development, competence, general education, and significant learning.  “It is hard to imagine any academic support function that is more important to student success and institutional productivity than advising” (Kuh, 1997, p. 11).Our interactions with students do matter.

Sometimes, we may feel overwhelmed by our responsibilities. More and more is expected, but resources and staffing are limited. Because so many of our interactions with students are one-on-one, however, we have a luxury faculty who teach large classes do not. As this principle states, our interactions can be powerful indeed, so we will want to make the most of each.

The second part of this principle reminds us that peers can play an important role in fostering learning. Inviting panels of students to talk with other students about major selection, study abroad, internships, job search, or service learning opportunities will enrich the learning environment for our advisees. Group advising, typically used as a supplement rather than as a replacement for individual advising, holds similar promise. A group meeting involving particular majors, for example, can help newer students understand what lies ahead and help them learn from more experienced students.  King (2008) includes strategies for group advising in her essay.

Higher Learning
While these principles focus on increasing learning in academic advising, the skills they foster involve higher learning. I use Angelo’s words to describe what higher learning involves:

I define higher learning as an active, interactive process that results in meaningful, long-lasting changes in knowledge, understanding, behavior, dispositions, appreciation, belief, and the like. The key terms in this definition are meaningful, long-lasting, and changes. Higher learning is meaningful if the learner understands and appreciates what is learned… By long-lasting, I mean learning that will endure in accessible memory at least beyond the end of the term. And changes here means not simply the addition of knowledge, but also the transformation of ways of understanding and organizing the knowledge learned.

Not just learning, but higher learning is surely a lofty goal for academic advising. This is a goal, however, which academic advising, when it fulfills its promise, can achieve.

Final reflections
These general principles will not increase higher learning in our advising until we adapt them for our own campuses and for the students we work with every day. Advisors are smart, hard-working people, people who care about students and their learning. Let’s ask ourselves, “What would I do differently if I focused on learning first?” And then, let’s roll up our sleeves, get busy, and do it.

Maura M. Reynolds
Director of Academic Advising
Hope College


Angelo, T. (1993). A ‘Teacher’s Dozen’: Fourteen general, research-based principlesfor improving higher learning in our classrooms. The AAHE Bulletin , 45 (8), 3-7 & 13.  Retrieved December 9, 2009, from


Association of American Colleges and Universities (2008).  Liberal education & America’s promise: Excellence for everyone as a nation goes to college, an introduction for students [Brochure].  Washington, DC: AAC&U.


Hemwall, M., & Trachte, K. (2005). Academic advising as learning: Ten organizing principles. NACADA Journal, 25 (2), 74-83.


King, N. (2008). Advising delivery: Group strategies.  In Gordon, V, et al. (Eds.) Academic Advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 279-291). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Kuh, G. (1997) The student learning agenda:  Implications for academic advisors. NACADA Journal, 17 (2), 7-12.


Kuh, G. (2008). Advising for student success.  In Gordon, V, et al. (Eds.) Academic Advising: A comprehensive hand book (pp. 68-84). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Lowenstein, M. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 25 (2), 84-91.


Martin, H. (2007). Constructing learning objectives for academic advising. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:


National Academic Advising Association. (2005). NACADA statement of core values of academic advising. Retrieved December 9, 2009, fromNACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising ResourcesWeb site:


National Academic Advising Association. (2006). NACADA concept of academic advising. Retrieved December 9, 2009, fromNACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site


Task Group on General Education (1988). A new vitality in general education:  Planning, teaching, and supporting effective liberal learning.  Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges.

Cite this using APA style as:

Reynolds, M.M. (2010). An advisor's half dozen: Principles for incorporating learning theory into our advising practices.  Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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