Combining Developmental Advising with Academic Coaching
We have long recognized the value of academic advising, and how it can help college students stay on target and earn their degrees. Research has shown that advisors who focus on a warm, caring alliances with their students promote retention. This holistic, relationship-focused approach is known as Developmental Advising (read more), which has existed as an idea for about 50 years now.
However, many college advisors still need further support from administration to practice a solid, developmental approach. This means that advising teams, administrators and even students need to be on the same page with what are the core skills of a Developmental approach.
Students need advisors who are ready to help them not only know what they ought to do, but how they can build the personal motivation to accomplish their goals. While many expect Advisors to simply advise, the most effective advising teams combine traditional advising with the skills found in the world of Academic Life Coaching.
Coaching Foundations for Developmental Advising
The following academic life coaching skills are critical for college advisors and academic advising teams who are interested in developing a stronger developmental approach.
Active Listening Versus Problem Solving
One of the most important skills of a life coach is not based on what the coach is saying, but how well the coach is listening to their client or student. Most student experience with adults is based on a simple transaction: Here is the problem. Here is the solution. This approach is related to a heavy reliance on prescriptive advising – where students go into an advisor’s office in a similar way as patients who approach their doctor expecting straightforward solutions, treatment and medication.
Coaching truly focuses on the development of the student, and not on transactional problem solving. When a student and a coach meet together, the coach listens to the situation the student is in, and allows the student to constructively “unpack” the challenge with their coach.
This patient, empathetic approach to listening also allows a student to recognize that their coach or advisor genuinely cares about them. Ultimately, this is one of the core desires of a student: to be treated as if they and their situation matters. This creates a more enjoyable memory of the experience for the student, which in turn promotes return visits to their coach or advisor.
From this point, the conversation is moved forward by the coach reflecting on the student’s own words they have used. This attention to listening makes it clear that the coach or advisor wants to hear things from the student’s perspective. The coach recognizes that the student’s take on the situation is a huge part of identifying custom-made, student-focused solutions.
Powerful Questions Versus Telling
The conversation between a college coach or developmental college advisor is also facilitated through powerful questions. Instead of taking in all the relevant information in order to make a diagnosis of the situation and a logical prescription, the coach helps the client or student recognize deeper issues through asking questions. These are not just form-questions that are provided through training, but custom-made questions that use the very words that the student has been using.
A coach recognizes that their client will often know things they ought to be doing. Instead of simply reminding them of those things, the coach’s focus on asking powerful questions allows the student to think about their decisions more effectively.
What we know about decision-making, is that the process is not logical. Instead, decision making is often performed through a filter of biases, perspectives and readily available, emotionally-charged thoughts. This filter allows people to make very fast decisions based less on logic, and more on intuition and the person’s present emotional state. When coaches use powerful questions, they are opening the door for their students to take more time to make logical and more meaningful decisions.
Using Agenda Setting to Create Effective Action
Active listening and powerful questions are important parts of the coach-student conversation. Agenda setting allows that conversation to become a productive journey for the student.
Some misunderstand life coaching as a conversational approach that simply follows the client wherever they would like to go in the moment. However, when a student walks into an advisor’s office, they have specific needs that must be addressed. The coaching skill of Agenda Setting allows a coach or advisor to orientate the conversation towards what is most important for the student.
Making agenda setting a habit as an advisor has two benefits. For one, it allows an advisor to know if the conversation needs to stay in a prescriptive mode to best answer questions a student may have about logistical issues common to the college process. The other benefit is that the advisor is able to identify underlying challenges that are hiding under what is on top of the student’s mind. It is this second benefit that leads to more effective developmental sessions.
For instance, if a student says that she wants to talk about her issue with procrastination, the coach or advisor will better serve that student by asking questions such as “What makes procrastination the most important thing to talk about today?” or “Where do you find yourself challenged with procrastination most?” This allows a student to clarify why the topic is important for today’s 20-30 minute conversation. It also enables an advisor to ask more powerful questions that are tailored to the student’s specific situation.
Balancing Roles with Direct Communication
While the field of academic advising is full of misunderstanding – many students and even administrators may expect advisors to primarily offer advice – the fact is that misunderstand can be supported or alleviated by the advisor him or herself.
There are times an advisor is expected to lead a student through an intake form, a degree mapping process or a remedial study skills tool. During these times, it is helpful for the advisor who would like to have a developmental approach to make it clear that the more prescriptive tasks are only a part of what he or she offers as an advisor. In contrast, when there is an opportunity to dig into the root causes of a challenge and to develop a stronger trust and alliance with a student, it is helpful for an advisor to let the student know that this is a different approach that they are using.
If an advisor feels as if he or she is wearing multiple hats in their work, then it is best to let the student know which hat they are wearing and what to expect from the conversation. The International Coach Federation calls this moment of clearly addressing the change in the conversations “Direct Communication.” It is a helpful approach, because it allows the student and advisor to recognize new boundaries for the conversation and relationship. As the advisor let’s a student know that they are stepping into a developmental or coaching approach, the student can recognize why things have changed, and they are less likely to feel disoriented when an advisor starts asking more open-ended powerful questions while practicing active listening.
How to Practice Coaching Skills as an Advisor
Many advisors desire to have a more developmental approach. However, due to organizational limitations or time constraints, they find it very difficult to apply the foundational skills of an Academic Life Coach to their work.