Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
According to the National Center for Education, in 1970 there were 1.5 million fewer women than men enrolled in higher education institutions. By 2005, there were 2.6 million more women than men enrolled (Mortenson, 2008). This dramatic decrease in the proportion of male to female students on campus has serious implications for higher education institutions. For many years there were significant programs and efforts to recruit and encourage women to be successful in higher education. The numbers above seem to demonstrate that those efforts have been successful. Now it appears that men need similar specialized initiatives to recruit and retain them on college campuses. We need to refocus our efforts and help male students before their relative numbers further plummet. When examining this issue, we may ask many questions, such as, What can be done to connect with male students? and, more importantly, How can we help male students? The purpose of this article is to explore the history of males in higher education, gain an understanding about how males think differently from females, and then propose that academic advisers use the Appreciative Advising approach to help male students succeed.
History of Men in Higher Education
Higher education was adopted in the United States from a system developed at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England. The first colleges and universities in the United States were referred to as colonial colleges. During the colonial period, Enrollment in college courses was confined to White males, mostly from established, prosperous families (Thelin, 2003, p. 7). It was not until the late 1800s that women and other minorities gained access to higher education. For many years males would represent the majority in terms of college student enrollment. In fact, it was not until the early 1990s that women became a decisive majority of student enrollments at numerous independent and public institutions (Thelin, 2003, p. 19).
Documented gender differences exist in terms of how men and women deal with conflict and stress. Men have been socialized to show no emotion; and men feel conflicted when they admit needing help, when they recognize an emotional problem, or when they need to rely on others after being socialized to be self-reliant, emotionally tough, or self-controlling (Freeman & Vianden, 2008, p. 2). Medina (2008) cites research by Larry Cahill, who discovered that our genetic makeup is partly to blame for the way males and females react to acute stressful situations. Therefore, it is important to recognize that male and female students may process their feelings differently. This has obvious implications in a collegiate setting, since college is often filled with stressful experiences. If males are less willing to talk about their feelings, we must discover creative ways to help them cope with the stress levels.
There are also gender differences regarding the manner in which males and females learn and process information. The human brain is divided into right and left hemispheres. Within both of these hemispheres lies what is called an amygdala. The brain's amygdala aids in the creation of emotions and our ability to remember them (Medina, 2008. p. 250). Cahill observed that when men are in stressful situations, their right amygdala works harder, which means that they remember the idea about what is going on rather than the details (Medina, 2008). Oppositely, when women are placed in stressful situations, their left amygdala works harder, which means that they remember more details as opposed to the big idea (Medina, 2008). Therefore, male students may have a more difficult time remembering details on important exams due to their heightened stress levels.
Since 2001, there has been a relative decrease in the number of 25- to 29-year-old males who earn bachelor's degrees compared to their female counterparts, whose representation is on the increase (Peter & Horn, 2005). This is by no means an excuse for male students to perform poorly in higher education, but it is a reason for higher education professionals to think critically about how to best serve the needs of male students. Academic advisers have the ability to form working relationships with students and set the foundation and tone for students' college careers. The question becomes how do we best achieve this goal. After all, male students do not like to show vulnerability or emotion, and they process feelings differently than women. So what can advisers do to help them?
One powerful way for advisers to reach out to male (and female) students is through intentionally incorporating Appreciative Advising (AA) techniques into academic advising. Appreciative Advising requires that individuals go against the societal norm of approaching life as a series of problems and instead look at life as a series of opportunities (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008, p. 3). Engaging students in a positive manner will help students (especially males) talk about their experiences. Recall that men are reluctant to discuss and recall when they are engaged in stressful situations. This approach should lessen males' stress levels and allow them to more fully engage in the advising process. The Appreciative Advising approach is a very genuine and caring style that male students will hold in high regard. Male students want to know that someone is there for them and that they truly care. It takes a genuine person to be an Appreciative Adviser.
Appreciative Advising is composed of six steps: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle (Bloom et al, 2008).
Embracing the Appreciative mindset, advisers intentionally use positive, active, and attentive listening and questioning strategies to build trust and rapport with students (Disarm); uncover students' strengths and skills based on their past successes (Discover); encourage and be [sic] inspired by students' stories and dreams (Dream); co-construct action plans with students to make their goals a reality (Design); support students as they carry out their plans (Deliver); and challenge both themselves and their students to do and become even better (Don't Settle). (Bloom et al., p.11)
The Disarm phase is particularly important when working with male students. Students are very quick to judge, especially when it comes to faculty and staff. The adviser needs to establish right from the second students walk in the door that the adviser is happy to see them and cares about them (Bloom et al., 2008). The adviser can accomplish this by standing up and warmly greeting students. The physical layout of the advising office is also important. For example, the adviser should intentionally remove barriers (i.e., a desk) between the adviser and the student. Also, advisers should engage in small talk to help break the ice before engaging in discussions about academic and future career issues. This is building vital trust and rapport with the student. This step allows male students to make a connection with the adviser that will be crucial when discussing their academics. The student will see the adviser as a mentor or coach instead of a figurehead of the institution.
The next phase is titled Discover. The adviser will use open-ended questions to learn more about the student's past successes. A sample Discover question is, What is the most fascinating thing you have done or accomplished in your life? The adviser focuses on student successes and points out the strengths and the skills the student embodied in the stories he shares (Bloom et al., 2008). This will help to assure the students that they are successful and that the adviser is there to help. It is vital for the adviser to appreciate the student's successes and understand the student's perspective. In a later phase the adviser will need to recall this information in order to create a big picture.
The Dream phase is when the adviser asks questions to find out about the dreams and aspirations of the student (Bloom et al., 2008). A sample Dream question would be, In an ideal world, what are your wildest dreams for your future? This phase gets the student excited about succeeding and moving into that part of life. The student is now on a mental high and ready to take charge of his future. Male students may be reluctant to share this information for fear of potential embarrassment. Remember that males are not as willing to share vulnerabilities or emotions, but if the adviser has effectively built rapport, the student will be more willing to share his dreams.
Once the adviser understands the student's dreams and goals, the adviser segues into the Design phase. This is when the adviser and student pair up to create a plan of concrete goals and measures for them to follow. It is very important that the student actively participates in creating the plan and that the adviser serves as a consultant so that the student feels ownership in the plan (Bloom et al., 2008). In this phase the adviser may need to recall the student's past successes and help the student to build confidence so that he can accomplish the plan.
The student ultimately carries out the fifth phase, Deliver, but there are some things that the adviser can do to effect the success of the plan. Before the student leaves, the adviser should inspire and energize the student (Bloom et al., 2008). It is also a good idea to point out to the student any potential difficulties and roadblocks. Advisers should encourage students to return to the office if they run into problems and/or if they have a great success story to share. Should the male student run into any roadblocks or struggles, he will be more comfortable coming back for a return appointment if the adviser pointed out these obstacles in the first meeting. Again, male students do not like sharing emotions, especially when they view themselves as failures.
The last phase of Appreciative Advising is Don't Settle, and it typically occurs once students return for follow-up appointments. This phase calls for the adviser to help the student establish a mindset of continual improvement (Bloom et al., 2008). Advisers can teach students how to regularly set new goals. In this phase advisers can consider how men were socialized growing up. Men at an early age were taught to be competitive and to achieve high status and toughness (Levant & Pollack, 2003). Advisers should continue to challenge the student to achieve goals and set new ones.
The relative decrease in male students on college campuses has severe implications for higher education. Academic advisers serve a key role in the success of male students and, as such, advisers need to understand the male mind and what initiatives can be pursued to ensure success. Appreciative Advising serves as an influential method to reach out to male students and encourage a healthy mindset that sets the stage for success. Men were socialized to hide vulnerabilities and emotional feelings if they wanted to be successful in life. By using the Appreciative Advising phases, however, advisers can utilize questions to better understand male students, their strengths, and their dreams for their futures. Male students need the support and care of academic advisers or may risk becoming an endangered species on college campuses.