Academic Advising Resources


Resources for advising undecided students

Using the Transformative: Applying Transformational and Self-Authorship Pedagogy to Advising Undecided/Exploring Students
Authored by: Kerry Kincanon

I am a music fan in the truest sense of the word being short of fanatic. This obession drives me to keep close eyes and ears on the world of independent and innovative music, looking for trends and seeking out the next creative force that will occupy space on my iPod. I'm also a fan to the degree where ideas and concepts related to music occasionally start to seep into my thinking about advising, and there is a phenomenon that has recently resonated on this frequency for me. The "mashup," mixing two or more existing songs together to create a new song, is not necessarily a new practice, but it has gained great momentum and visibility in the past few years. A major player in this genre is Girl Talk, the stage name adopted by a biomedical engineer turned music producer and laptop wizard named Gregg Gillis. Gir Talk songs and albums are entirely constructed from pre-existing recorded material, much of which is highly recognizable pop and hip-hop music. A single album may have elements of over 300 different pre-xisting songs. Some might question the artistry (or the legality) of such an endeavor, but Gillis enjoys enormous critical praise for his intricate constructions and collages. Gillis has described his songs as "transformative" (Schaefer, Regateao, Wise, and Meyer, 2008). He provides touchstones for the listener in that his work retains the recognizable elements of the origional songs yet his presentation gives the listener something that is amazingly novel-familiar, but origional. Gillis assimilates, analyzes and reflects on all those songs and his experiences with those songs and he ultimately constructs something that is new from the process. 

I see a metaphorical connection between the mashup and the major-decision making and meaning making process. Advisees come to advisors with life experiences that shape their context for interpreting and understanding their learning. For advisors, these stories inevitably contain recognizable themes or tropes, yet the familiarity of these experiences ultimately gives way to something entirely new and unique in each student. This is not to imply that advisors create or manipulate something in their students in the same way that Gillis does with his transformative songs, but we are positioned to facilitate a transformative experience for students-to help them make meaning around how the accordance or discordance of previous and current learning relates to their educational goals and aspirations. Students are ultimately the arbiters of their journey, but, to borrow a metaphor from Kegan (1994), advisors can serve as a bridge to higher order thinking in which students can frame new or pre-existing thoughts about educational choices and pathways. The learning that occurs through such a process is transformative. 


Transformation, Self-Authorship, and Adult Learning
Many advisors believe that academic advising is an educational transaction with a curriculum and learning outcomes like classroom teaching (The NACADA “Advising is Teaching” bumper sticker has a visible presence in many advising offices on my campus). Many of those same advisors have a common goal that students leave their institutions as educated adults who perpetually assimilate their learning, reflect upon it, and are in a position to join the larger societal discourse in a meaningful way. In other words, advisors want students to be capable of and actively practice sound information processing, ongoing critical reflection and contextually-based decision making. This is squarely where the core concepts of transformative learning reside, and there is much literature in the arena of adult education and cognitive-structural development that explores it. Mezirow (1995, 2000) discussed the aforementioned italicized attributes as paramount in adult education, and he noted the important role that adult educators play in engaging learners in discourse that facilitates transformational learning. Kegan (2000) made a compelling distinction between informational and transformational learning in that the former only accommodates changes to what one knows while the latter accommodates both changes to what and how one knows. Glisczinski (2007) criticized systems of learning that are purely informational as “unreliable for navigating the current dynamics of postmodern life” (p. 319), and he argued that utilizing transformational learning systems in higher education will better situate students to negotiate the complexities of the postmodern world. Based on her important longitudinal research with college students, Baxter Magolda (1992, 1999, 2001) posited a theory of intellectual development, the Epistemological Reflection Model, and a related pedagogical model, the Learning Partnership Model, that are aligned with transformational learning. The Learning Partnership Model employs methods that “validate students as knowers, situate learning within the student’s experience, and define learning as a mutually constructed activity” (2001, p. 191). Students whose learning experiences include these attributes move toward self-authorship and contextual knowing, the culminating stage of Epistemological Reflection Model.
Transformation, Self-Authorship, and Academic Advising
It not surprising that these explorations have begun to spill over directly into advising literature as well. Drawing on liberation learning theory and pedagogy elucidated by Friere (1993), Hemwall and Trachte (1999) called for advisors to consider their work as a form of praxis. The advisor and advisee engage in meaningful dialogues that lead the student to critically self-reflect on his/her experiences and the experiences of others. The student ultimately acts upon this learning experience to shape his/her goals and aspirations. Elsewhere, Hemwall and Trachte (2003) recall Kegan when they shared an advising curriculum organized around constructivist learning principles that facilitate higher order thinking. Pizzolato (2006) argued that the CAS standards for academic advising could best be realized through educational practices that promote self-authorship. She fleshed out Baxter Magolda’s Learning Partnership Model to demonstrate advising methods that provoke students away from being externally defined toward self-authorship. Baxter Magolda and King (2008) then tied the process of self-authorship directly to the transformational learning concepts articulated by Mezirow and argued that, “academic advising is a key venue through which educators can assist students through this transformation” (p.8).

Applying the Theory to Undecided/Exploring Students: An Advising Mashup
The advisor toolbox has a space for transformation and self-authorship theories, and they are particularly useful in working with undecided/exploratory students. For many students, the process of deciding on a field of study can amount to a significant transformation in that it provides definition and clarity to their undergraduate pathway and beyond. Effective major decision-making is an active process of gathering information and making meaning of that information relative to the self – i.e. “how do the attributes of this area of study correspond to my like and dislikes and my skills and talents”. Effective major decisions often move students from a place where they are externally defined to where they are internally defined – i.e. ‘I’m pursuing this major because it is the right fit for me, not because the market demands it or my parents or friends or mentors told me to do it”. Advisors are greatly indebted to Gordon (1987) for her developmental model for working with undecided/exploring students. Congruence exists between this model and transformation theory. A compelling relationship can be made between it and Mezirow’s (2000) description of the phases inherent in transformational learning and the process of “meaning becoming clarified” (p. 22) (see Table 1):

Table 1.

Virginia Gordon’s Model for Advising Exploring Students (1987)

Jack Mezirow’s Phases of Meaning Becoming Clarified toward Transformation (2000)

  1. Help students analyze their situation
  2. Help students organize a plan for exploring (information gathering)
  3. Help students integrate the information they have collected
  4. Support students while they make decisions
  5. Help students initiate an action plan
  6. Encourage future contact


  1. A disorienting dilemma
  2. Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  3. A critical assessment of assumptions
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and process of transformation are shared
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  6. Planning a course of action
  7. Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  8. Provisional trying on of new roles
  9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective


Mezirow (1995) suggested that, "The central function of adult educators is to facilitate and percipiate critical reflection by the individual learner." (p. 59). Gordon's model integrates the advisor as facilitator into the transformative experience. In the spirit of Gregg Gillis and Girl Talk, here is my mashup-a synthesis of these lists that exemplifies transformational learning concepts and their relevance to developmental advising:

  1. Advisors can help students negotiate the disorienting dilemma of being undecided about a major. 
  2. Advisors can help students examine what their undecidedness means in terms of their identity and experiences, inside and outside of the classroom, and assess assumptions, predispositions, or anxieties they might have which may enhance or inhibit change.
  3. Advisors can help students explore available and pertinent information that they may influence their decision and position them to take on a new role and/or identity.
  4. Advisors can help students explore available and pertinent information that my influence their decision and position them to take on a new role and/or identity.
  5. Advisors can help students reflect on their learning and synthesize information into a concrete decision about major. 
  6. Advisors can help students to transition into their new role and can continue to serve as a resource for students as they encounter other possible transformations.

Transformative and Self-Authorship Advising Strategies

These concepts can ultimately manifest as tangible advising activities. The advising appointment itself is a natural space where meaningful dialogues and critical reflection can occur. And while it is unrealistic to think that advisors can neglect the prescriptive elements of advising, time must also be allocated for topics relating to the students’ learning. Strategic questioning can determine progress in decision-making, can illuminate misinformation or misunderstanding, and can point out direction for future inquiry. Engaging students in active learning exercises like simulated conversations (mock interviews/role playing) or writing pro-con lists or “minute” papers can also achieve these ends. In her research, Pizzolato (2006) has pointed to two common advising experiences among students who have achieved self-authorship and internal definition: goal reflection and volitional planning. Her elaboration on the Learning Partnership Model included several excellent questions and conversation tracks that advisors can employ in helping students toward transformation (p. 43). Likewise, Baxter Magolda and King (2008) offered a useful list of questions that advisors can use to prompt students to reflect and make meaning of their experiences (pp. 9-10).

The face-to-face appointment is only a part of transformative advising. Strategically prompting undecided/exploring students to analyze their situation prior to and after the advising appointment is important as it can enhance immediate and/or future interactions the advisor might have with them. Advisors can help exploring students prepare for an imminent appointment by providing an advance e-mail or intake form with questions that the student can respond to prior to the appointment. This allows the student to reflect and anticipate questions the advisor will ask during the appointment. Examples of pre-appointment questions might include:

  • What are some new things you've experienced this term? Have you had any significant experiences inside or outside the classroom, which have influenced your thoughts on major?
  • Think about the types of classes, subjects, and learning environments you've encountered thus far and respond to these prompts.
    • I'v found that I enjoy...
    • I seem to be good at...
  • Discuss two specific actions you have taken since the start of the year to make progress in deciding on a  major? What did you learn from your experience?

Questions like these can serve as a platform for a more robust discussion about goals and aspirations during the appointment. That conversation should culminate in a to-do list that synthesizes key points from the conversation with action items and/or lines of inquiry that the student can pursue after the appointment.
Employing these strategies with exploring students will situate them to continue their journey towards transformation and self-authorship. It also situates advisors to witness a process akin to a Girl Talk mashup. Advisors get to see how students can take the recognizable themes associated with the decision-making process and mash them up to create a compelling story – familiar, yet amazingly original.

Authored by:
Kerry Kincanon, Head Advisor
University Exploratory Studies Program
Oregon State University



Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students' intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1999). Creating contexts for learning and self-authorship: Constructive-developmental pedagogy. Nashville : Vanderbilt University Press.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling , Va: Stylus.

Baxter Magolda, M.B. and King, P.M. (2008) Toward reflective conversations: Anadvising approach that promotes self-authorship. Peer Review, 10(1);


Friere, P (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed: Newly revised 20 th Anniversary edition. New York: Continuum


Glisczinski, D. (2007). Transformative higher education: A meaningful degree ofunderstanding. Journal of Transformative Education. 5 (4), 317-328.


Gordon, V. N. (1995). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising Challenge (2nd ed.).Springfield,IL: C.C. Thomas.


Hemwall, M. K., & Trachte, K. C. (1999). Learning at the core: Toward a newunderstanding of academic advising. NACADA Journal. 19 (1), 5-11.


Hemwall, M. K., & Trachte, K. C. (2003). Academic advising and a learning paradigm.In M.K. Hemwall & K.C. Trachte (Eds.), Advising and learning: Academic advising from the perspective of small colleges and universities (Monograph No. 8 [National Academic Advising Association]; pp. 13-19).


Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life.Cambridge,MA:HarvardUniversityPress.


Kegan, R. (2000). What “form” transforms?: A constructive-developmental approach totransformative learning. In J. Mezirow & associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 35-69).San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Mezirow, J. (2000) Learning to think like an adult: core concepts of transformationtheory.In J. Mezirow & associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-33). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Mezirow, J. (1995) Transformation theory of adult learning. In M.R. Welton (Ed.), In defense of the lifeworld: Critical perspectives on adult learning (pp. 39-70). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press


Pizzolato, J. E. (2006). Complex partnerships: Self-authorship and provocative academic-advising practices. NACADA Journal. 26 (1), 32-45


Schaefer, J., Regateao, G., Wise, B., & Meyer, J. 2008, Oct. 10. The sample life, WNYC Soundcheck. Podcast retrieved from http://www.wnyc. org/shows/soundcheck/2008/oct/10/

Additional Resources on Transformation Theory, Pedagogy, and/or Exploratory Students


Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New

   York: Routledge.


  • In this powerful book, bell hooks explores ideas around transformative pedagogy. She examines how educators can employ strategies in traditional and non-traditional classroom settings to help learners shape their voice.

Cranton, P. (2000). Individual differences and transformative learning. In J. Mezirow. & associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 181-203). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


  • This is another outstanding chapter from the Jack Mezirow text I cite multiple times. Cranton discusses the relationship between Jung’s theory of psychological type and transformational learning. Advisors utilizing assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that have their foundation in this theory would find this essay very useful.

Darling, R., & Woodside, M. (2007). The academic advisor as teacher: First-yeartransitions. In M.S. Hunter, B. McCalla-Wriggins, & E.R. White (Eds.), Academic advising: New insights for teaching and learning in the first year (Monograph No. 46 [National Resource Center]; Monograph No. 14 [National Academic Advising Association]; pp. 5-17). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.


  • In the opening chapter of this recent monograph, Darling and Woodside examine the “advisor as teacher” metaphor. They provide two compelling models for advising first-year students, both of which are student-centered, developmental, and share attributes with transformational theory.

Gordon, V.N. (2007). Undecided students: A special population. In L. Huff & P. Jordan(Eds.), Advising Special Student Populations (Monograph No. 8 [NationalAcademic Advising Association]; pp. 187-222).


  • In this monograph chapter, Gordon provides a wonderful overview of undecided/exploratory students as a distinctive population. Included is a discussion of several different theoretical insights that may help advisors. Among these theories are Cognitive Information Processing theory and Constructivist theory, both of which intersect with transformational theories. She also highlights exemplary programs engaged in intentional and meaningful advising with undecided/exploratory students.

 Ignelzi, M. (2000). Meaning-making in the learning and teaching process. In M.B. Baxter Magolda (Ed.). Teaching to promote intellectual and personal maturity: Incorporating students' worldviews and identities into the learning process . New directions for teaching and learning, no. 82. (pp. 5-14). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


  • Ignelzi unpacks the complex theory of meaning-making developed by Robert Kegan and discusses how educators in collegiate environments can utilize his ideas to help facilitate transformation and self-authorship in students.

McDonald, M., & Steele, G.E. (2007), Adapting learning theory to advising first-yearundecided students. In M.S. Hunter, B. McCalla-Wriggins, & E.R. White (Eds.), Academic advising: New insights for teaching and learning in the first year (Monograph No. 46 [National Resource Center]; Monograph No. 14 [National Academic Advising Association]; pp. 185-201). Columbia, SC : University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.


  • McDonald and Steele use this monograph to explore how attributes associated with learning theory can aid advisors. Specifically they focus on how advisors can use these theories to help undecided students better process the varied and complex information they encounter in their first year and lead them to an informed major decision.

Cite this using APA style as:

Kincanon, K. (2009).Translating the Transformative: Applying Transformational and Self-Authorship Pedagogy to Advising Undecided/Exploring Students. Retrieved -insert today's date- from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site


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