Asking questions is overrated. Chances are, however, that if you’re an academic advisor then you’ve probably been told otherwise. You may believe that questions are one of the most powerful tools in your advisor tool box. Maybe you even have some favorites; the ones that really make your students think or lead to profound insights. Don’t get me wrong, an effective question can help students critically evaluate their issues and lead to resolution but just for once, let’s talk about the potential downside to questions.
A student-advisor relationship is created through dialogue; we converse with students in such a way that builds trust and facilitates the development of a strong working relationship. Students come to us for advice when they are confident in our ability to help them. Most advisors (I hope) have had some sort of training that focuses on basic listening and attending skills: eye contact, open and relaxed posture, reflective statements, etc. Questions are usually thought of as the conversation starter because this is how advisors spark interaction and gather information. Perhaps you even learned about the basic types of questions: open-ended and close-ended. When advisors ask effective questions, they help students process their own concerns, which may leave one wondering what the potential downsides could possibly be.
I think it is important to recognize that by asking questions, advisors may sometimes place themselves in a one-up position from the student, which has its downsides. Here is what I mean. For example, when a patient visits a doctor, the doctor asks questions to find out more information about the presenting concern and to assess the situation. As the doctor continues to ask questions, the patient begins to develop an expectation or hope that the doctor will eventually offer a diagnosis and prescribe a solution. Once this occurs, the patient is no longer in the driver’s seat because responsibility for the issue has been placed into the doctor’s hands. In academic advising, this process can work the same way.
After asking a few questions to gather information and assess the situation, advisors may start to ask questions that begin with “have you…” or “did you…” which means the advisor has probably transitioned from the information-gathering stage to the “I’m going to fix your problem for you” stage. The advisor has begun to offer advice. If you follow a prescriptive advising approach, then you may find nothing wrong with this method. If, however, you are an adherent of the developmental advising approach, this is the last thing you want to do.
When advisors ask questions, they can sometimes sound like an interrogator. This can put students on the defensive and create resistance, especially if advisors start to ask “why” questions, which tend to make students feel as if they need to defend themselves.
Another problem with questions can occur when advisors speak to students who don’t say much. Relying on what was taught in some training course, maybe the advisor starts asking the “all-powerful” open-ended questions to encourage the student to talk more. Perhaps the student only responds with short answers followed by long, awkward moments of silence that must be filled with…you guessed it, more questions! The advisor might start to feel anxiety about what to say next or perhaps the advisor feels pressure to resolve the student’s issue since the student doesn’t seem to be invested in resolving it himself. This is especially common in distance advising when students are not face-to-face; the silence seems extra painfully awkward because of the lack of visual cues and body language.
Questions, therefore, can be a way of maintaining power in the student-advisor relationship. The more we ask questions, the more we place ourselves in the “doctor” role and give students the impression that we are going to assess their issues only to later prescribe a solution. You are probably thinking “But if we can’t ask questions, then what do we do?” You will have to wait for another article in which I will discuss alternative techniques to asking questions. Ultimately, I think there should be a heavier emphasis on listening and understanding so that we have more intention and purpose behind the dialogue we create with students.