Advising Adult Students: Connecting Schlossberg's Transition Theory to the Appreciative Advising Model

Ashley Bailey-Taylor
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: July 8, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161512

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, appreciative advising, schlossberg, transition theory

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of articles written by students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate seminar on academic advising at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 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.

egina was excited and anxious as she left her supervisor's office. She had been expecting a promotion but didn't realize it would happen so soon! Regina was excited about the promotion but knew that it also meant she would need to enroll in a degree program at the university across town. She became worried about balancing family life with her new work and school responsibilities but knew this was a great opportunity she could not pass up.

Adult students like Regina often experience transitions on several levels when they enroll in college classes. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) projects that the adult student population will grow by 35% by the year 2017 (Hussar & Bailey, 2008). For the purpose of this article, adult students are defined as students who are 25 years of age or older. The number of adult students on college campuses is predicted to grow due to the 54 million adults who have not earned college degrees and the increased need for college-educated workers in this global and knowledge-based economy (Pusser et al., 2007). The country's current recession is also driving more adults back to college to re-tool their skill sets. In addition, President Obama (2009), in a recent address to Congress, advocated that all Americans obtain at least one year of postsecondary education or training. Though the population of adult students is projected to steadily increase, a study funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education highlights the tremendous challenges that adult students face in pursuing their college educations:

For all of their individual and collective importance to American life, adult learners have typically been treated as an afterthought in higher education. The irony is that a substantial portion of these students are at great risk of failing to complete courses and degrees. They typically struggle to balance work and family commitments. They often lack resources and generally must adapt to a system designed to serve younger, full-time students. (Pusser et al., 2007, p. 3)

Given the unique needs of adult students, it is important for higher education institutions to develop programs and services focused on meeting these needs. To that end, academic advisers play an important role in helping adult students transition into college. “To find the right path, adult learners need a guide. Few factors influence adult learners' success more than student/institutional planning and counseling. Mapping the student's path to postsecondary success is crucial“ (Pusser et al., 2007, p. 4). Advisers are ideally positioned to be these guides for adult students. The purpose of this article is to advocate for the integration of Schlossberg's Transition Theory (Schlossberg, Waters, & Goodman, 1995) with an innovative new advising methodology, Appreciative Advising (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008), to help advisers ease the transition issues that adult students face.

An Overview of the Pertinent Theories

A brief overview of Schlossberg's Transition Theory as well as the Appreciative Advising model is necessary before proposing how to integrate the two theories.

Schlossberg's Transition Theory

Schlossberg's Transition Theory is an adult development theory (Evans, Forney, & Guido-Dibrito, 1998) focused on the transitions that adults experience throughout life and the means by which they cope and adjust (Schlossberg et al., 1995). Schlossberg et al. define a transition as “any event or non-event that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles” (p. 27). When a transition occurs, a process takes place as an individual integrates changes into his or her daily life. There are four aspects of a transition that affect how well individuals deal with change. These aspects (named the 4 S System) are situation, self, support, and strategies (Schlossberg et al.). Situation examines the features of a transition and how they may influence its significance to the individual. The self variable is composed of a person's outlook on life, as influenced by personal characteristics (including demographics, such as socioeconomic status) and psychological resources. Support refers to the resources available to people. Finally, strategies are defined as actions that individuals take in response to transitions. By purposefully integrating these four aspects into the Appreciative Advising model, advisers can effectively empower adult students to be successful in college.

Appreciative Advising

Appreciative Advising represents a positive approach to working with students and seeks to help students optimize their educational opportunities (Bloom et al., 2008). The six phases of Appreciative Advising are Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle, described as follows:

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 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 and become even better (Don't Settle). (Bloom et al., 2008, p.11)

Integrating Schlossberg's 4 S System into Appreciative Advising

This article proposes integrating Schlossberg's Transition Theory aspects into the Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle phases of the Appreciative Advising model to maximize adult student success. However, all of the phases of the Appreciative Advising model are important and should be used.

The Discover Phase, the Situation, and Self Variables

Bloom et al. (2008) state that the Discover phase focuses on listening to students' stories to learn more about them and uncovering their strengths and passions by asking positive, open-ended questions, such as, “What has brought you to make the decision to enroll/re-enroll in college?”

The questions asked during this phase offer advisers an opportunity to use Schlossberg's situation variable to better ascertain the nature of the circumstances and transitions that adult students undergo. Schlossberg et al. (1995) found that if students feel good about the transition and believe it is happening at an appropriate time, it will be easier for them to make the transition. However, if students feel transitions are being forced upon them, and they are unhappy about having to attend school, their transition will be more difficult. Armed with this knowledge, advisers can learn about students' circumstances and then help them reframe their particular situations as positive ones, if necessary. Students having difficulty dealing with their situations may need to be referred to counseling as appropriate.

Schlossberg's self variable can be easily incorporated into the Discover phase also. The self variable is composed of “personal and demographic characteristics and psychological resources” (Evans et al., 1998, p. 113). Sample Discover questions or discussion points that can help to learn about these characteristics include:

As advisers utilize these questions to learn more about students' views of themselves, they should be able to identify positive characteristics that can be used to encourage students throughout the advising relationship.

One way to encourage students during this phase is through a technique called strength-based story reconstruction, about which Bloom et al. (2008, p. 49) state, “Based on the stories, the advisor facilitates the discovery of positive assets and strengths, and then the advisor develops the student's appreciation of his/her own stories.” Schlossberg's situation and self variables both should be used in this process. For example, in Regina's case, it is evident that she has mixed feelings about her situation. She is excited but also worried about balancing school, work, and her family life. It is important to acknowledge these feelings while also encouraging the student by emphasizing her personal positive characteristics. For instance, the adviser could say, “Regina, congratulations on your new promotion at work! This is a great opportunity! You obviously have been a valued worker at your job. You talked about how your ability to motivate others and generate new ideas for your organization has contributed to where you are today. I know that you are also worried about learning to balance all of your new responsibilities, but through the characteristics I've observed in you, it sounds like you can use your creativity to be successful at work, school, and home. Let's make sure to talk more about this when we start constructing your plan.” Identifying the positive aspects of students' situations and strengths will help adult students make successful transitions as they build confidence and prepare for the journey ahead.

The Dream Phase and the Self Variable

The Dream phase emphasizes the importance of understanding students' hopes and dreams about their futures. Encouraging students to communicate their dreams helps them to positively envision the future and get excited about the plan they are about to make. This will help advisers perceive how students view themselves in the future. Sample questions include:

By emphasizing the life that is to come, advisers can help their advisees build a positive outlook and help increase students' self-confidence and self-efficacy. This is in accordance with Schlossberg's self variable, as it seeks to observe these characteristics in individuals, enhance their views of their lives, and build self-confidence. Dreaming about the future will help adult students keep this vision in their minds as they ultimately transition and encourage them to continue on their journey.

The Design Phase and the Support Variable

The Design phase is the phase in which the student and the adviser design a plan to accomplish goals identified in the Dream phase. Bloom et al. (2008) stress the importance of constructing with the student a Personal Presidential Cabinet during this phase. The personal cabinet is composed of various people whom students can call for aid in making informed decisions and lean on for help with other aspects of their lives, including babysitting, running errands, etc. This concept directly correlates with Schlossberg's support variable. Schlossberg et al. (1995) state, “The importance of social support is often said to be the key to handling stress” (p. 67). Evans et al. (1998) describe the types of support that adults need as “affect, affirmation, aid, and honest feedback” (p. 114). This support can come from a variety of sources, including “intimate relationships, family units, networks of friends, and institutions and communities” (Evans et al., 1998, p. 114). These are important characteristics for advisers to keep in mind as they help students construct their cabinets. The Personal Presidential Cabinet exercise helps students realize they have a support network to call on when they need help.

Bloom et al. (2008) also stress the importance of making effective referrals when creating a plan with a student. Advisers will likely not have the expertise or training to help students deal with all of their questions and/or issues. It is important for advisers to remember Schlossberg's situation and self variables when making appropriate referrals to campus and off-campus resources. For instance, depending on how students feel about their situations and personal characteristics, referrals may need to be made to the counseling center, career center, and/or other campus offices to aid students in making their transitions. A helpful way of providing adult students with information about resources is through an “adult road atlas” that includes information about resources available in offices throughout the campus and community (Stafford, 2007). This can save valuable time for busy adult students struggling to juggle multiple responsibilities. The adviser should also help students identify questions to ask when they visit the appropriate offices (Bloom et al.).

The Deliver Phase and the Strategies Variable

In the Deliver phase, students carry out the plan they made in the Design phase (Bloom et al., 2008). Schlossberg's strategies variable can easily merge with this phase to educate students to effectively handle challenges they may experience as they go through this process. As described by Schlossberg et al. (1995),

Whether individuals want to change their situation or reduce their distress, they can choose from among four coping modes: information seeking, direct action, inhibition of action, and intrapsychic behavior. The first three seem self-explanatory; the last one (intrapsychic) refers to the mind sets individuals employ to resolve problems that arise. These mind sets, which include denial, wishful thinking, and distortion, enable people to carry on. (p. 74)

Emphasizing the need to use these strategies during the Deliver phase will help adult students move through transitions and continue moving forward with their plans. The adviser should also stress that there is more than one right strategy to use to reach the end goal and should encourage the student to return to the adviser to devise a new strategy/game plan if needed (Bloom et al., 2008).

The Don't Settle Phase and the 4 S System

In the Don't Settle phase, the adviser gives students necessary support and challenge to encourage them to be the best they can (Bloom et al., 2008). Schlossberg's 4 S System (Schlossberg et al., 1995) is a great tool to use in this phase. For example, situation, support, and strategies can all be used as adult students encounter new challenges and as advisers and students raise expectations. Advisers can encourage students to raise their expectations of themselves and to build on past successes to achieve even greater levels of success in the future. The adviser can also use positive characteristics identified in previous phases to challenge the student. For example, in Regina's case, the adviser could say, “Regina, there is a leadership certificate that you can earn within your program. Your ability to motivate others shows that you can be a true leader, and I think this would be a great opportunity for you! As you are going into your new position in work, you will likely need to continue your motivation skills, and these classes will help you build your confidence, as well as give you some management techniques you can use. You have already accomplished so much in your program, and the leadership certificate takes just a few more classes.” By highlighting the students' strengths, advisers can help them raise the bar.


By intentionally incorporating the 4 S System from Schlossberg's (1995) Transition Theory into the Appreciative Advising model (Bloom et al., 2008), advisers can exert a significant and positive impact on adult students. As the adult student population continues to grow, this proposed hybrid of theories provides a unique approach to helping students successfully navigate the transitions they face. As the Lumina Foundation report reminds us, “We must seek to develop the untapped potential of the 54 million working adults who have not completed a four year degree. Their success is essential to themselves, their families, and communities, and to the health and security of the nation” (Pusser et al, 2007, p. 6). Advisers will be critical in helping the nation and adult students achieve this goal.


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Stafford, A. J. (2007, March 28). The adult road atlas: A plan for adult learners. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 9(1). Retrieved from

About the Author(s)

Ashley Bailey-Taylor is a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She is also a graduate assistant in the university's Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships. She can be reached at