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Academic Advising in Higher Education

Developmental Advising, Differences between Developmental and Prescriptive Approaches, A Brief History of Academic Advising

The role of the academic adviser shifts as student populations and administrative conditions in universities change over time. Faculty members are increasingly committed to teaching undergraduates, and academic advising is an innovative form of teaching that helps students become involved in their own choices. Instilling students with a sense of commitment to their future plans and responsibility for their decisions is the cornerstone of the academic adviser's work.

Developmental Advising

Traditionally, faculty advisers simply helped students choose courses in a prescriptive approach to advising. Since the 1970s, however, scholars and faculty members have redefined the academic adviser's task to include guidance as well as imparting information. Developmental academic advising evolved out of this process; faculty advising took on importance as an experience that contributes to a student's personal growth. In two seminal works on academic advising, both published in 1972, Burns B. Crookston and Terry O'Banion targeted three goals, or vectors, for developmental academic advising: developing competence, developing autonomy, and developing purpose in the undergraduate student. Using this approach, advisers ask students to become involved in their own college experiences, explore with students the factors that lead to success, and show interest in both the students' academic progress and extracurricular achievement. As they urge students to take responsibility for their own learning, developmental advisers avoid simply providing answers and instead ask open-ended questions. Developmental advising provides advantages not only for the student, but for the university as well: the school's academic community benefits from an advising process that bridges institutional divisions between academics and student affairs.

Differences between Developmental and Prescriptive Approaches

Perhaps the most important part of any successful adviser/student relationship is a sense of shared responsibility: Students learn by taking control of their own choices and finding ways to handle the consequences of those decisions. Traditional or prescriptive advising situations, however, tend to emphasize the authority of advisers and the limitations of students. Prescriptive advisers supply answers to specific questions but rarely address broad-based academic concerns. An adviser using the prescriptive approach supplies information to the student, giving out information about campus resources. The developmental approach, on the other hand, urges students to take responsibility for their own college experience and career goals. In a developmental advising relationship, students and faculty share responsibility. This form of advising contributes to students' rational processes, environmental and interpersonal interactions, and behavioral awareness, as well as problem-solving, decision-making and evaluation skills. The relationship between adviser and student is vital, and both long-term and immediate goals are important. Successful advising functions first as a means of exploring careers and majors, and second as a method for selecting courses and arranging schedules. Most academic advising programs clarify their approach with a mission statement, which helps both advisers and students to understand their roles and responsibilities.

A Brief History of Academic Advising

The historical aims of undergraduate education–involving students with learning and involving students with teachers–pertain to academic advising. The role of the academic adviser has shifted with cultural and historical changes. Before academic advising became a defined part of the university experience, formal divisions often kept students and faculty apart and limited interaction between the two groups. In the late 1930s many colleges and universities developed formalized but unexamined advising systems, which focused solely on the academic aspects of student life. By the 1950s federal funding for education resulted in an emphasis on accommodating new student populations, and universities began implementing freshman orientation programs.

Changes in the advising process result primarily from shifts in the undergraduate student population. In the twentieth century, new populations gained access to colleges and universities, demanding innovative responses from faculty and administrators. After the passage of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly known as the G.I. Bill), higher education became a possibility for students from a variety of backgrounds and age groups. As women, multicultural students, students with disabilities, and transition students began to matriculate, institutes of higher learning responded with changes in their approaches to student support structures such as academic advising. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, technological communication has signaled another major shift in the adviser/student relationship. Academic advisers are able to contact students through e-mail, and students are also able to seek out academic advisers through electronic communication. As online education has affected university classes and research, academic advising has also had to adjust, and advisers have had to meet the challenges of using online communication to strengthen, not diminish, their interactions with students.

Professional Advisers Peer Advisers and Faculty Advisers

The adviser population is diverse; faculty from all disciplines advise students, and many schools, both colleges and universities, hire professional advisers and implement peer-adviser programs as well. Because faculty members often know the culture and requirements of both their own disciplines and the university as a whole, their expertise strengthens their relationships with the students they advise. Often, institutional recognition for faculty advising is limited on college and university campuses, and adviser/student relationships can suffer from a faculty member's busy schedule. Developing useful methods for evaluating academic advising helps faculty advisers receive credit for this important aspect of their work as teachers.

Many schools hire outside professional advisers to handle freshman orientation and other academic advising needs. Professional advisers tend to bring useful counseling experience to the advising process. These advisers, however, need training to understand the university's program and the role of academic advising in the institution. The primary role of the academic adviser is to offer support, encouragement, and information to improve a student's academic life and create a sense of responsibility in an undergraduate. Students should discuss personal, emotional, and mental health problems, however, with a trained counselor.

Many colleges and universities have implemented peer-adviser programs. Peer advisers tend to understand a fellow student's position and the undergraduate culture at their institution better than either faculty or professional advisers. Because peer advisers often know less than the faculty about college requirements and academic issues, however, training is an important part of any peer-advising program. Colleges and universities that offer peer advising usually require the student advisers to take part in extensive training programs, such as retreats, workshops, and meetings.

These three types of academic advisers work with either individual advisees or groups of students. With successful group facilitation, advising groups can provide students with an academic adviser as well as a sympathetic peer group. Discussion among members of an advising group is important, and students in the group need to learn effective ways of exchanging ideas and interacting with others.

Student Populations and the Adviser/Student Relationship

Academic advising has evolved with academic trends and, most important, with student populations. Research shows that interaction between students and faculty increases student involvement on campus and makes students more likely to remain in school. These advantages of the academic adviser system are particularly valuable for the increasingly diverse student populations attending U.S. universities. Interested and informed advisers work with all students, not only to help them stay in school but also to help them become contributing members of the college or university community. Students with particular advising needs include academically underprepared students, students with disabilities, student athletes, students in transition, and international students. Some student populations benefit from intrusive advising; academic advisers of academically underprepared students, for example, often initially assume responsibility for sustaining the advising relationship by contacting students frequently and encouraging them to succeed. Started out of concern for freshmen and sophomores who were unsuccessful in college, intrusive advising employs some prescriptive advising tools. The field of academic advising continues to react to changes in student populations. In meeting the needs of students, academic advisers must tailor their approaches in the increasingly diverse undergraduate student population.


As college graduates face new expectations from the workplace, academic advisers can help them learn to take responsibility for their decisions. Academic advising, in developing these valuable relationships between teachers and students, becomes an important form of teaching. Academic advisers help undergraduates understand their choices as students and the effect of those decisions on their future plans. Through open-ended questions and discussions, academic advisers develop a valuable relationship with undergraduate students, helping them to become more responsible members of college or university communities and to develop a lasting sense of personal responsibility.


CROOKSTON, BURNS B. 1972. "A Developmental View of Academic Advising as Teaching." Journal of College Student Personnel 13:12–17.

FROST, SUSAN H. 1991. Academic Advising for Student Success: A System of Shared Responsibility. Washington, DC: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

FROST, SUSAN H. 1994. "Advising Alliances: Sharing Responsibility for Student Success." NACADA Journal: The Journal of the National Academic Advising Association 14 (2):54–58.

FROST, SUSAN H. 2000. "Historical and Philosophical Foundations for Academic Advising." In Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook, ed. Virginia Gordon and Wesley R. Habley. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

GORDON, VIRGINIA, and HABLEY, WESLEY R., eds. 2000. Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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