Editor's Note: This article was selected as the winning entry in the Mentor's second annual Academic Advising Writing Competition. Peggy Jordan, the author of the entry, will receive a $500 cash award.

What would a unified theory of academic advising require?

Not unlike the students we see who “just want a degree,” advisers are anxious to get to the end result—a unified theory of academic advising. We can reach that point only after a lot of hard work, and we have barely begun. First, institutions of higher education must value (and fund) research efforts in building a knowledge and theory base to guide decisions concerning advising programs. Advisers must be given time for professional development to help stimulate ideas, not just about programs and events but also about theoretical development of advising as a whole. Supporting and funding attendance to National Academic Advising Association conferences is a tremendous benefit in keeping abreast of new information and in planting seeds for creative, innovative ideas.

The first requirement of a unified theory of academic advising is to operationally define the terms. Institutions refer to different functions when they refer to academic advising. In some colleges and small universities, academic advising includes admission, financial aid, assessment, and enrollment in classes. Other institutions of higher learning refer to academic advisement as information about degree requirements, course eligibility, and course sequencing. Academic advising is viewed more holistically in other colleges and universities to include discussion of anything affecting a student's learning. Any attempt to provide a unified theory of academic advising must first address the question “What are the minimum standards of academic advising?” What are the minimal educational requirements of a professional adviser? Currently academic advisers may have no degree or graduate degrees. Answering questions concerning minimum standards requires that we examine the similarities and differences in advisement among numerous colleges and universities. It also requires us to look at characteristics and qualities of groups of academic advisers. Do professional academic advisers who have been advising for five years possess different qualities, techniques, or career satisfaction than academic advisers who have been working professionally for ten years or twenty years? Are there differences we could glean through a good qualitative study?

Secondly, we must explore outcomes of effective advising behaviors and utilize existing theories from social sciences as they apply to advising behavior. Our focus has to begin with specific behaviors before we can globalize to more universal standards. For example, cognitive dissonance theories (Festinger, 1962) have been applied to advisement, as have numerous theories of development (Crookston, 1972) and learning theories. Common attributional biases can also be applied to advisement. The self-serving bias (Whitley & Frieze, 1985) suggests that we tend to take credit for our successes by attributing them to personal causes but distance ourselves from our failures by attributing the causes to other people or situations. Neither students nor advisers can make changes in behavior if there is a lack of awareness of personal responsibility.

We must use experimental methods to quantify effectiveness of advising behaviors and open the door for validating effective intervention with students. This process invariably starts with questions. The following are important questions that may be a beginning to a more unified theory of advising:

  1. What are the relevant issues in advising?
  2. What advisement experiences actually help students?
  3. How effective is self-advisement?
  4. Is there a difference between a student's subjective experience of advisement and how beneficial advisement actually was for the student?
  5. How does advising impact institutional goals such as retention, persistence, completion, etc., and how does advising impact students' personal growth?

To understand academic advising, we must look at existing characteristics of advising and the connections between advisement and student behaviors of all types. Only after closely examining these factors, quantifying behaviors we can research, and carrying out such experimentation, will we be in a position to pull together common factors to create a unified theory of academic advising. We have to ask ourselves why professional advisers play such a small role in building advising theories. Is it because advising is such a field of applied practice that we have difficulty identifying ourselves as “researchers”? As professional advisers we must determine that advising is important enough to expend time and finances in research activities. We must also be advocates for such support to the leaders of our educational institutions and professional organizations.