Human Relations of Academic Advising: It's about the Students

Kelli Wildman
Christian Brothers University

Volume: 11
Article first published online: April 8, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161499

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, human relations, students

When high school students transition to and through college, they interact with professors, peers, administrators, staff, etc., within a collegial setting. These relationships are important and even essential to a successful academic experience. One relationship that can sometimes be forgotten is the one between student and academic adviser; however, if the purpose of college is to complete an education/degree, then the academic adviser cannot be ignored. “Often the academic advisor is the only link the student has with the institution, having a profound effect on the student's academic career and the student's level of satisfaction with his college choice” (Heisserer & Parette, 2002, pg. 3). As a result, advisers should be brought to the forefront, and their role should be dissected.

Many have tried to define the role of the adviser, as researchers study the right combination of characteristics and skills that can be packaged to represent the perfect adviser. Members of professional organizations often meet to discuss what type of advising works in particular settings and what type does not. In some circumstances, advisers should be “prescriptive” in their advising. Others argue that “developmental” advising is the key. A new theory suggests that an “academic-centered approach” is the answer. I argue that there is no clear-cut, single way to conduct academic advising. Instead, just as students are different, so should the means by which we reach them. Regardless of labels assigned to advising styles or the mixture of styles used in the advising process, it takes appropriate human relations to make the relationship a success.

In its most basic definition, human relations means dealing with people. According to Lussier (2008), “The better you can work with people ... the more successful you will be in your personal and professional lives. ... It's about people” (pg. 3). It is about the Golden Rule, about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's about treating people like you would want to be treated to “create a win-win situation” (Lussier, pg. 5). In an academic setting, a win-win situation might be when the student and the university (through the adviser) get what they want. The “ideal” win-win situation in an academic setting occurs when the student completes a degree (in fewer than six years) in a major that leads to personal fulfillment, a graduate/professional school, or job. The student believes that his or her experience in that college was wonderful and may desire to give back financially to that university and positively represent the university's name. It's a win-win-win-win-win situation.

Lussier (2008) suggests that “creating a win-win situation applies to all human relations at all levels” of an organization or in a relationship (pg. 5). At the level where the student interacts with the adviser, a win-win situation unfolds as “students learn to become members of their higher education community, to think critically about their roles and responsibilities as students, and to prepare to be educated citizens of a democratic society and a global community” (National Academic Advising Association [NACADA], 2006, Preamble section). A win-win situation happens when a student is empowered to take responsibility for his or her academic career. How, though, does the student take responsibility? It would be through a combination of prescriptive, developmental, and academic-centered advising.

In 1972, Burns Crookston described the prescriptive advising approach as one “characterized by an authoritarian relationship in which the adviser makes a 'diagnosis,' prescribes a specific treatment for the student, and the student follows the prescriptive regimen. The student assumes no responsibility for decision-making and relies totally on the adviser's recommendations. Specific prescriptions typically focus on course selection, degree requirements, and registration” (as cited in Heisserer & Parette, 2002, pg. 2). At first glance, one would assume that prescriptive advising does not meet NACADA's concept of advising (NACADA, 2006, Preamble section). Where is the empowerment? At what point does the student take responsibility? Where is the win?

Prescriptive advising is completely appropriate for a first-semester student who walks onto a college campus for the very first time. He or she is unfamiliar with everything and often does not know where to begin. An adviser who takes charge of the situation by telling the student about degree requirements, course options, and registration times establishes a positive direction and takes the uncertainty away from the student. Whether the student is now on a campus of 33,000 or 1,800 other undergraduates, having an authority figure take charge is often a relief. Does that mean using prescriptive advising all of the time is the way to go? No, it does not; however, it does have its place.

In his same article, Crookston also coined the term “developmental advising.” He said “developmental counseling or advising is concerned not only with a specific personal or vocational decision but also with facilitating the student's rational processes, environmental and interpersonal interactions, behavior awareness, and problem-solving, decision-making, and evaluation skills” (Heisserer & Parette, 2002, pg. 5). “Developmental advising focuses on helping students identify life goals, acquiring skills and attitudes which promote intellectual and personal growth, and helping them become successful students in a way that is uniquely theirs” (University of Texas at Dallas, 2008, para. 3). Once students transition to campus and become more comfortable with their surroundings, developmental advising puts the power in their hands. This power can be the knowledge of resources available on campus to assist in choosing a major. This power can be the knowledge of courses to take and when to take them. This power can be the ability to maneuver through the registration system. This type of advising is about the evolution of the student and making him or her comfortable in a collegiate setting and making decisions about academic goals.

Lowenstein (1999) coined the term “academic-centered advising” with which he took the focus of advising away from the student's intrapersonal growth and placed it on academics. He argued that this type of adviser is concerned with “facilitating the student's ability to interact with and draw maximum benefit from the academic program and curriculum” (Lowenstein, chart). This academic facilitator helps the student understand the curriculum, the sequence of courses and reasons to take them in order, the way disciplines complement each other, and why prerequisites matter (Lowenstein). Often a faculty member will serve as an academic-centered adviser/facilitator. This individual knows his or her content area and can transfer that knowledge to the student seeking a degree/education.

These different methods of advising vary, and often the method that is utilized is reflective of the organization. If the behavior of the organization focuses on the collegiate experience in which questions are welcomed, and advisers are willing to guide a student toward self-discovery, the organization believes in the developmental model. If, however, the organizational behavior focuses on students doing as they are told, the prescriptive model is dominant. Finally, if the university's climate focuses on what is learned in the classroom and how it fits into the bigger picture, academic-centered facilitating/advising is the model of choice. Regardless of the model, the goal is the same: The student should have a positive experience, which will create a win-win situation. That situation is created through human relations.

According to Lussier (2008), “To be effective in our human relations, we should try to perceive things from the other person's frame of reference and be willing to work together for the benefit of all people to create a win-win situation” (pg. 55). To be effective in academic advising, advisers should try to perceive things from the student's frame of reference and be willing to work with that student to benefit both the student and the university. Sometimes that can be difficult, but the adviser must try.

John Smith is a first-year student transitioning to Large University (LU) from Small High School (SHS), where he was one of thirty-two students in his graduating class. The size of the LU campus is bigger than his hometown, and the enrollment is larger than his county. Although he was valedictorian at SHS and is enrolled in the honors program at LU, he is adjusting to class sizes of twenty (honors) students instead of the more familiar class size of twelve. He has yet to register and is not sure which classes he is going to take. He is going to meet with an adviser to select courses required by his concurrent majors in zoology and chemistry and discuss plans to attend veterinary school after graduation. As he walks across campus, John feels overwhelmed, and although he knows the opportunities at LU are great and he can probably get into vet school after completing his undergraduate degree programs, he thinks Regional University might have been a better choice. Then John meets with his academic adviser. His meeting is seven minutes long, during which time he is to pick out courses for the semester. Because John is overwhelmed, he needs a prescriptive adviser. He needs someone to tell him which courses to take. With concurrent majors in zoology and chemistry, he doesn't have a lot of flexibility to venture off track and still finish in four years when his scholarship ends.

Ann Jones is a sophomore at LU. She, too, went to SHS, and although she graduated a year before John, her class was not much bigger. There were thirty-four in her graduating class. She does not participate in the LU honors program. During her first year, she sat in classes with approximately 300 of her closest friends, except for her English composition course that included twenty-five students in a writing workshop. Today, she is going to meet with her adviser, who is going to show her how to self-advise. She is an English major, which offers a fairly unstructured degree program with lots of opportunities to take electives that complement her interests. She just needs to know how to read the degree audit/tracking system in place at LU. She needs a developmental adviser who will help her to evolve and mature at LU.

Douglas Stevens is a marketing major at LU. He would be a junior now; however, he is having a hard time passing Microeconomics, which is a prerequisite for his Principles of Marketing class. He does not understand why he needs this economics course, how it is going to help him with marketing, and what marketing really is. He took the Myers-Briggs personality inventory at the career center, and the results indicated that marketing might be a good match for him, whatever “marketing” is. Douglas is slated to meet with his marketing department adviser, who will teach Douglas how economics connects to marketing and why it is a prerequisite for the marketing course. His advising session will be “academically centered.”

Although organizational climate often dictates the advising style, more important influences are the students and their perceptions of the university, their academic careers, and the circumstances before them. John's interpretation of reality dictates the need for prescriptive advising. Ann needs developmental advising. Douglas needs academically centered guidance. They all need someone who will carefully consider their perceptions while trying to educate them about reality. According to Lussier (2008), “Be careful to understand reality rather than what we expect reality to be” (pg. 55). That is the role of the academic adviser—taking the frame of reference of the student and moving him or her toward the reality.

For John, the reality is a large campus that is overwhelming at first; however, once he has been given a strong start with prescriptive advising, he can move forward and develop, much like Ann did. At the appropriate time, like Douglas, they will both know the purpose of the academic paradigm and why particular courses are required by degree programs and in a certain order. At the end of four to six years, all three students will have completed their degree programs and will understand more about themselves, their program content, and the university. All of this will happen thanks to an academic adviser who remembers that human relations is about people.


Heisserer, D. L., & Parette, P. (2002). Advising at-risk students in college and university settings. College Student Journal. Retrieved October 13, 2008, from

Lowenstein, M. (1999, November 22). An alternative to the developmental theory of advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 1(1). Retrieved October 10, 2008, from

Lussier, R. N. (2008). Human relations in organizations: Applications and skill building (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

National Academic Advising Association. (2006). NACADA concept of academic advising. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from

University of Texas at Dallas. (2008). Office of Undergraduate Education: Developmental Advising. Retrieved October 1, 2008, from

About the Author(s)

Kelli E. Wildman is dean of Academic Services at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. She can be reached at