In a previous article, I spoke about the problem with questions in academic advising. Here is a summary of the potential downsides to overusing them in our conversations with students:
- Builds the student’s hope that you will eventually offer a solution
- Teaches students to passively respond to questions instead of actively participate in a co-constructed dialogue
- May foster defensiveness (especially with lots of “why” questions)
You might wonder what this looks like in a conversation. Mitchell (2009) described it as a conversation you might have with a doctor or a mechanic. If you have a car problem, you take your car to a mechanic. The mechanic starts to ask questions about the problem and with every question, you assume that he/she is homing in on a solution.
Academic advising, however, is not the same thing as getting your car fixed. When you pay someone to get your car fixed, the mechanic is responsible for doing the work! When advisors help students resolve academic issues, students are ultimately responsible for doing the work, not the advisor. Advisors support students, they don’t “fix” their problems. To be very clear, I am not saying that all questions are bad and lead to the problems listed above. What I am saying is this: Students may think that advisors’ questions will ultimately lead to direct instruction or advice and we need to be mindful of that.
Following Reynolds (2008), I believe that academic advising is a helping profession. Helpers are people who “assist others in understanding, coping, and responding to problems” (p. xxi). From this perspective, it makes sense that advisors should learn helping skills in order to effectively support their students. So…here are some alternatives to questions. To give a clear picture of what these skills look like, let’s look at how they might be used when responding to this student statement:
“I have been working 50 hours a week and trying my hardest. I lose points for everything though…I mean, I’m not in an English class. Nothing I do is good enough. My instructor is just a hard grader.” – Sally Student
1. Minimal Encourager – This not-so-obvious listening skill is a brief verbalization that encourages people to talk (e.g. Uh-huh, I’m listening, I see). Repeating a key phrase is a common way of doing this (Ivey, Ivey, & Zalaquett, 2010). Consider how the student might respond to the following minimal enouragers:
(a) “Hard grader?”
(b) “50 hours a week!”
(c) “I’m listening”
Depending on the minimal encourager, the student may elaborate on a number of different things.
2. Reflections – Advisors can reflect content (paraphrase), feeling, or meaning. Each type of reflection (in order) is listed below:
(a) “Sally, you’ve been working 50 hrs/week and trying really hard but keep losing points because your instructor is a hard grader.”
(b) “Sally, I get the sense that you are feeling really discouraged.”
(c) “Sally, you’ve tried so hard to the point that you’re feeling a bit helpless right now, but it’s obvious that your education means a lot to you.”
Imagine how the student might respond to each reflection and all the different conversational possibilities.
3. Curious Command – This is a directive that is stated in a curious tone so that it has the feel of a question but grammatically-speaking it is a command (Mitchell, 2009). Here are some examples:
(a) “Help me understand what you mean by ‘hard grader.'”
(b) “Describe your busy schedule a bit more and how that’s affecting you.”
(c) “Explain the statement about not being in an English class.”
4. Speculative Statements – These are statements that convey a personal thought, inference, or reflection and invite students to elaborate. The following statements are examples:
(a) “I wonder what would happen if you had a good conversation with your instructor about all of this.”
(b) “I sense that a part of you is hesitant to discuss your concerns with your instructor.”
(c) “I am puzzled about what is preventing you from working with your instructor to resolve these issues.”
For some people, these helping skills are already a natural part of their communication style. For others, it may be beneficial to intentionally practice them in order to break up the pattern of using one question after another (what I call “interrogator speak”). These techniques break up the monotony of that question-and-response pattern that develops when advisors rely too heavily on questions.