A Visual Model of Academic Advising

Anthony Smothers, University of Northern Iowa


Academic advising has involved teaching students about decision-making processes and career choices beginning with Crookston (1972). The years since have enriched the profession with theories of developmental advising, appreciative advising, and involvement theory to strengthen the foundation of academic advising and provide a framework to evaluate the impact on students. Consequently, the field of academic advising has increasingly focused on research and professional development. The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) standards for academic advising (NACADA, 2012), addressing core values, best practices, and recognition of advising, have been critical components of student development and maintaining high quality of advising. However, academic advising rarely uses logic models to evaluate what practitioners do. Logic models allow us to visualize the programs and processes that deliver service, instruction, and assessment opportunities.

The purpose of this qualitative analysis is to address the question “What conversations do we have with students who are deciding or changing majors?” Often we find ourselves talking about the practical things such as student issues or requirements for the degree or major. How often do advisers present a visual picture of what they do? YouTube videos of advising sessions and professional reports are emerging that reflect the advising mission, goals, and quantifiable numbers of student appointments, as well as programs offered, assessments of satisfaction, and many more aspects that justify the need for academic advisers.

According to Kowlton and Phillips (2009), logic models are visual methods of presenting an idea. “Logic models support design, planning, communication, evaluation, and learning” (Kowlton & Phillips, 2009, p. 4). The purpose of composing logic models is to see programming/process inputs and outputs. Although there are two logic models with theory of change and programming, for our purpose we reviewed programming and resources that direct advising conversations with students. Logic models may also be known as idea maps, working models, mental models, action maps, pictures of activity, or visual perceptions. The benefits of logic models highlight them as strategic means to critically review and improve thinking (Kowlton & Phillips, 2009).


Qualitative analysis traditionally has involved interviewing subjects in a natural setting concerning their life experiences and listening to their perceptions of reality. This basic qualitative study also included observations and documents. However, qualitative analysis may also use techniques of case study, critical qualitative research, narrative analysis, phenomenology, ethnography, and grounded theory (Merriam, 2009, p. 38). For this qualitative analysis, the use of documents and adviser expert knowledge provided the foundation for the logic model. Documents were used as the data source for many of the dimensions and visuals found in the model.

The method of reviewing documents and programs provided begins with those produced at the University of Northern Iowa, a comprehensive university with 13,201 students and more than 120 majors, as well as a multitude of minors and certificates. The university website is www.uni.edu. The institution’s Office of Academic Advising serves deciding majors, major-changers, intake students (first-year students in participating departments), and a variety of university-sponsored programs, including new-student and transfer orientations. The following will be used as evidence of the model:

  • UNI Office of Academic Advising sheet on services (yearly)
  • Academic advising syllabus (2011)
  • Academic Advising website resources (www.uni.edu/advising)
  • New student handbook (2011–12)
  • New student calendar
  • Peer Adviser in Residence (PAIR) newsletter
  • Academic Tidbits/Decision Maker newsletter
  • University catalog (http://www.uni.edu/catalog)
  • University of Northern Iowa Referral Resource Guide (2011–12) (http://www.uni.edu/advising/sites/default/files/referral.pdf)
  • Higher Learning Commission Accreditation—Academic Advising Report (2010)
  • Provost-commissioned NACADA Review of Academic Advising (2007)
  • University of Northern Iowa audit of academic advising report (2006)
advising model chart

Visual Model of Academic Advising

Reviewing these documents and programming in the Office of Academic Advising was the base for the model as a visual tool. A limitation of this logic model was a specific output, which is not represented. For example, an output for the model may be a declared major or increased self-efficacy for a student. This model represents the main processes and programs that share a common outcome and goal of students selecting majors and discovering career opportunities. The themes presented in the documents were reviewed and the Visual Model of Academic Advising verified by peer review by Jean Neibauer, director of Academic Advising; David Marchesani; Michele Peck; Angie Tudor; Josh Sankey; Kim Schirm; Joan Smothers; Paul Waterman; Robert Frederick, director of Career Services; and Dr. Karen Cunningham, coordinator of Individual Studies. This peer review supported the Visual Model of Academic Advising with discussions for improvement.


Results and Discussion

The top of the model represents academic advising in relationship with students’ development (Crookston, 1972; O’Banion, 1972, Habley, 1981; Gorton, 2000; Jones & Becker, 2002).  Academic advising is a relationship in which students and advisers take responsibility for their partnership as described in the CAS standards (CAS, 2010) and National Academic Advising Association core values (NACADA, 2012).

What are the primary themes and elements within these documents that address student development, programs, and functions that advisers use when working with students? Reviewing the documents reveals that the main themes are teaching the purpose and rationale of the liberal arts core (general education requirements); educating students on majors, minors, and certificates; student involvement; self-assessment; career opportunities; academic skills; academic policies and procedures; and campus referrals. For example, the orientation program, new student handbook, advising website, advising syllabus, and appointment notes inform students of the (1) purpose and rationale of the Liberal Arts Core, and foundation of their education (http://www.uni.edu/vpaa/lac/, 2010). Additionally, each core area—Core Competencies; Civilizations and Cultures; Fine Arts, Literature, Philosophy & Religion; Natural Science and Technology; Social Science; Capstone Experience—presents its own purpose statement. Therefore, they are determined to be important enough to list separately in the model.

Advisers facilitate information about (2) majors, minor, and certificates using several resources. University departments provide plan of studies (www.uni.edu/pos). Advisers also refer students to faculty and department websites for more detailed information on the major.  Major worksheets are provided to academic departments and to career services. Peer Advisers in Residence (PAIRS) are trained undergraduate students living in residence halls and working with advisers to provide programming on majors, minors, and certificate resources, referrals, and decision-making processes. The PAIRS provide a student-to-student interaction that may be more comfortable for some students. The Career Decision Making course, 170:050, offered by the College of Education and taught by academic advising professional staff, provides academic information on exploring majors, minors, and certificates. Additionally, the office of academic advising provides events like meet-and-greets with advisers, major meetings, Career Cruising (www.careercruising.com) workshops, and “Majors in Minutes” in which students learn about different majors by meeting with senior students in a speed dating format.

Academic advisers as advocates of student development theory understand the importance of students finding their “niches” on campus and learning more about themselves as described in Astin’s (3) Involvement Theory (Astin, 1984). Academic advisers promote involvement as a way to assist students in defining their interests and skills. Advisers at the University of Northern Iowa talk with students about the numerous opportunities available to them through the Student Involvement and Activities Center, which maintains contact with more than 300 student organizations. The Leadership Center provides programs to teach students about leadership styles, skills, and opportunities. Additionally, the Leadership Center coordinates with the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley to publicize opportunities for students to volunteer.

Undergraduate research with faculty encourages students to explore areas of inquiry that may not be available in a major academic curriculum. The Study Abroad office provides students with experiences overseas that nurture a broader understanding of global cultures and economy. The National Student Exchange program allows students to experience another university or college within the United States and Canada. Student involvement not only creates an environment for students to discover their connections with the campus but also provides a positive impact on the university’s retention rates, matriculation, and citizenship.

Academic advisers use a variety of (4) self-assessment tools with students depending on where a student is in the decision-making process. The university uses Career Cruising (www.careercruising.com), an interactive self-assessment tool with 116 statements that rank career characteristics of thousands of professions. Career Cruising allows students to align areas of interest preferences with occupations, working conditions, education and training, college programs available, career path, advice from professionals in the field, and resources for questions. Another tool in use at the University of Northern Iowa is a simple paper worksheet on which a student writes down his or her interests, hobbies, talents, and abilities. This exercise often presents themes to consider and prompts conversations about student experiences or tips about gaining information to explore those areas of interest.

The Strong Interest Inventory (www.cpp.com) assessment tool is based on the work of John Holland’s Codes (Holland, 1985, 1992) that describe realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional themes. Holland’s work continued the personality research of Linton (1945) and Lewin (1935) and additionally took into account work environments and social settings. Advisers often use the Strong Interest Inventory when Career Cruising clusters or areas of interest are not clear. The benefits of using the Strong Interest Inventory include its cost effectiveness and its personalized fourteen-page profile of scales: General Occupational Themes (GOTs), Basic Interest Scales (BISs), Personal Style Scales (PSSs), and Occupational Scales (OSS).

The Myers Briggs Type Inventory (www.myersbriggs.org) organizes personality types into categories (Myers, 1980). The work of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers (Myers & Briggs Foundation, n.d.) was continued based on the personality types introduced by Carl Jung (1971) and which people identified with to reflect the way they process information in their environment (Myers & Briggs Foundation, n.d.). Jung’s belief was that people’s behavior has order and they develop personality types based on environmental factors: extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuitive, thinking/feeling, and judging/perception (Myers & Briggs Foundation, n.d.). Advisers work with students to complete and interpret self-assessments to determine major options, careers, hobbies, interests, or even personalities.

The university’s academic advising office recently began to implement the Appreciative Advising Inventory as part of our self-assessment tool box (http://www.appreciativeadvising.net/AAI.pdf). The goal is to help students work through the stages of discover, dream, design, and destiny (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008).

In Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook, Kristen Kennedy and Jennifer Crissman Ishler (2008) describe the importance of students’ values, beliefs, culture, and experiences and the role family contributes to students’ decision making. Advisers must be aware of those contributing factors when assisting students in finding majors. For example, often students will comment that their parents (perceived or communicated) believe they should major in business. After working with the student on Career Cruising, which indicates art as an area interest, and asking open-ended questions about the number of art classes taken in high school, the type of art they enjoy, and what concerns they would have as an art major, our conversation turns toward career opportunities in a field they would love. The importance of combining self-assessments with working questions allows the conversation to drill down to the issues the student is contemplating.

(5) Career opportunities are important factors in assisting students to define their interests, education, and ability to market their skills with the major they choose. Advisers working with career services programs assist students with job shadowing, part-time employment, internship/cooperative education, and connecting students with alumni. Career center handouts (www.uni.edu/careerservices) and career connections through Career Cruising are resources students and advisers may use to talk about careers associated with different majors, minors, and certificates.

Advisers often are the first people students will confide in about (6) academic preparedness or struggles with study skills, time management, writing, note taking, and test taking. Faculty members are important resources, too, as they can offer encouragement and advice about being successful in their courses. Additionally, the UNI Academic Learning Center provides tutoring, a math and science lab, and a writing center to help students gain the skills they need to learn effectively. Advisers may also relate personal stories (autoenthnography) to advisees about a difficult skill or course they completed and how they overcame those challenges.

Academic advisers assist students in learning (7) academic policies and procedures, including department admission requirements; degree requirements; and major, minor, and certificate requirements. Participation in presentations at orientation and advising sessions provide opportunities to talk with students about these requirements and share expectations pertaining to their chosen areas of study or exploration. Students depend on reliable information to make informed decisions about their educational choices. Advisers should also address important topics of academic standing, early warning (faculty d/f slips which are mid-term grades for new students), adding and dropping deadlines, and procedures regarding academic warning, probation, and suspension. For example, new students who receive deficient grades of “d” or “f” for a course at midterm receive letters from advisers with steps and resources for assistance. Advisers assist students with action plans, student requests for submission to the provost office, financial and academic appeals, and education decision making regarding future plans that may or may not include enrollment at UNI.

The last main theme focuses on (8) campus referrals that academic advisers make. The offices to which advisers refer students are not considered with any particular order of importance or ranking in mind. We refer students to academic departments where experts in a particular academic field can share major, minor, and certificate requirements; undergraduate research experience, information about clubs and activities sponsored by a particular department, and career opportunities. Various departments identify certain faculty members as referral resources in their respective areas of expertise.  Advisers introduce the university’s Student Involvement and Activities Center to students as a way to join organizations and make connections and also help students become aware of the Office of Career Services and its CareerCat resource. Students with health documentation holds are referred to UNI’s University Health Services, which includes our health clinic, pharmacy, counseling, and disabilities services.

Academic advisers at UNI work with the admissions office on transfer credits, visit-day presentations, and student transition efforts in support of the Admission Partnership Program  involving our fifteen Iowa Community Colleges. Students often ask advisers questions about financial aid or their university bill, and they are referred to the Office of Financial Aid and Business Operations, both housed in our student services center for “one stop shopping”. The Registrar’s Office is a key referral for students who need to ask their record analysts questions about graduation, adding/dropping courses after advising deadlines, and course availability. Our rising international population has led to increased referrals to International Services where advisees’ questions range from credits to visa status. The various student-exchange participants, degree-seeking students, and Culturally Intensive English Program (C.I.E.P.) students add other dimensions to our advising responsibilities.

Future Analysis

The process of creating a Visual Model of Academic Advising led to staff discussions about programs and processes used when guiding deciding majors, major-changers, and intake students. One conclusion from these discussions is that many relationships across campus arise from assisting students in finding their majors and career opportunities within academic departments, student service departments, and the community. A visual model may clarify which programs and processes to assess for effectiveness and efficiencies. The importance of visualizing the inputs to a logic model is just as important as assessing the outputs. Although many of the program and process representatives in the UNI Office of Academic Advising constructed learning outcomes and developed assessments to measure those outcomes, the purpose of this particular analysis was to visualize and start conversations with students.

The next step will be to conceptualize a complete logic model, including visual outputs (assessments), and display a flow of activities. This may be a difficult task, as students are unique individuals with varying needs. As developmental advisers, we form a partnership with students and are responsible for responding to their questions, which leads to identifying the categories discussed above.


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About the Author(s)

Anthony Smothers, University of Northern Iowa

Anthony Smothers is an academic adviser at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He can be reached at anthony.smothers@uni.edu. The author thanks Kim Schirm, graduate assistant for academic advising at the University of Northern Iowa, for providing editorial assistance.

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