Micro-affirmations in Academic Advising: Small Acts, Big Impact

Candice Powell, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cynthia Demetriou, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Annice Fisher, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Abstract

Rowe (2008) defined micro-affirmations as small acts in the workplace fostering inclusion, listening, comfort, and support for people who may feel unwelcome or invisible in an environment. Within the context of higher education, micro-affirmations can communicate to students that they are welcome, visible, and capable of performing well in the college environment. Micro-affirmations have the potential to fuel optimal student development and thriving in college. Academic advising offers an opportunity to apply micro-affirmations to the college context and to student, faculty, and staff dynamics. This article expands upon Rowe’s ideas to suggest that micro-affirmations can become frequent, intentional practice within academic advising to positively impact student engagement and, ultimately, enhance retention and graduation outcomes. This article will also suggest ways to communicate and apply micro-affirmations in academic advising.

Introduction

At a recent presentation given at the National Symposium on College Student Retention, keynote speaker Dr. George Kuh remarked, “Student success is the product of thousands of small gestures extended on a daily basis by caring, supportive educators sprinkled throughout the institution who enact a talent development philosophy” (Kuh, 2012). This article suggests that these “small gestures extended on a daily basis” should be conceptualized as micro-affirmations. While the term micro-affirmation may be unfamiliar to many, most people are familiar with the term micro-aggression. Micro-aggressions are the foil of micro-affirmations and include subtle verbal and nonverbal environmental cues that communicate to an individual or group—usually of color or of a lower socio-economic status—that they are unwelcome, invisible, or incapable of performing well (Franklin, 2004; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Sue, 2004). Examples of micro-aggressions include implying that a person of color must have achieved success through a special program for underrepresented or low-income persons and not by the merit of their talent or skills, or trivializing the negative experiences of students who have experienced intentional or unintentional bias on campus. Other examples of micro-aggressions include ignoring or invalidating a person’s culture or heritage, such as forcing a Jewish person to participate in a class Christmas party at which the majority of people are Christian, or when an English-speaking person from the United States deliberately creates a nickname or shorter version of an immigrant’s name to make it sound more American.

The potent power of micro-aggressions to do harm is evident. Micro-aggressions have deleterious effects on one’s ability to thrive in an environment (Ross, 2011; Rowe, 2008; Scully & Rowe, 2009). Micro-aggressions in the academy are most often described as directed toward underrepresented students and students from under-resourced backgrounds (Sue et al., 2007). Micro-aggressions have been associated with student attrition in higher education (Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2009). This article suggests that just as micro-aggressions exist, micro-affirmations exist, and conceivably, they carry equal potency to do good rather than harm.

Rowe (2008) defined micro-affirmations as small acts in the workplace fostering inclusion, listening, comfort, and support for people who may feel unwelcome or invisible in an environment. Within the context of higher education, micro-affirmations can communicate to students that they are welcome, visible, and capable of performing well in the college environment. They have the potential to fuel optimal student development and thriving in college. When individuals thrive they are adept at understanding and acting on their environment (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Hamilton, Hamilton, & Pittman, 2004). Increasing students’ ability to thrive on an individual level is likely to positively influence student persistence, retention rates, graduation rates, and student satisfaction (Demetriou & Schmitz-Sciborski, 2011; Schreiner, 2010).

Micro-affirmations as an Intentional Advising Practice

To our knowledge, the concept of micro-affirmations has not been applied to educational contexts. The concept of micro-affirmations has been explored in literature on management and organizational effectiveness. Rowe (2008) described micro-affirmations as “often unintentional acts” within occupational settings among professional persons (p.  46). Academic advising offers an opportunity to apply micro-affirmations to the college context and to student, faculty, and staff dynamics. We expand upon Rowe’s ideas to suggest that micro-affirmations can become frequent, intentional practice. Furthermore, micro-affirmations have the potential to become well-defined components of effective academic advising programs.

Academic advisers often serve in the most consistent support role on a student’s path to graduation, placing them in a prime position to affirm students’ potential for success and encourage their persistence (Hunter & White, 2004). Academic advisers participate in critical interactions that can directly influence a student’s academic behavior, perspectives, and choices for engagement at an institution (Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon, & Hawthorne, 2013). Students who experience high-quality interactions within the academic environment are more likely to persist and thrive than students who have low-quality interactions (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Witt, 2005). Students from various backgrounds, and particularly those from under-resourced and underrepresented communities, perceive high-quality interactions as those in which their experiences are valued and their potential for academic success is encouraged at an individual and group level (Lundberg & Schreiner, 2004). High-quality advising interactions also move beyond course selection toward helping students develop academic motivation and self-confidence to persist to graduation (Appleby, 2001; McClellan, 2007; Shockley-Zalabak, 2012).

Applying micro-affirmations in everyday advising practice could promote students’ development of a sense of belonging, self-efficacy, and resiliency. These qualities can help students persist in the face of challenge. Micro-affirmations may also help students become self-regulated learners. To be a self-regulated learner, students must be provided with feedback on their academic performance. This feedback helps students recognize and adjust their habits and perspectives toward goal attainment (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2004). Micro-affirmations can serve as constructive feedback and validate students’ experiences while helping them prepare for future activity.

Before adopting potential action steps and advising practices, it is important for advisers to appreciate the difference between micro-affirmations and acts of kindness or empathy. Micro-affirmations explicitly recognize and validate individuals in ways that empower them to thrive in an environment where they may feel marginalized, hopeless, or lost (Rowe, 2008). General kindness or empathy does not necessarily appreciate the social context, relationships, and individual characteristics such as social capital, ethnicity, accessibility, and sense of belonging that influence individual perspectives, behaviors, and choices in an environment. Micro-affirmations recognize these influences and provide appropriately affirming supports. Micro-affirmations are more than kind or nice gestures; they can be used as part of an intentional advising strategy in which advisers appreciate the unique elements influencing an individuals’ ability to thrive in a particular environment and provide supportive affirmation.

Suggestions for Applying Micro-Affirmations to Everyday Advising Practices

To apply micro-affirmations to your current advising practice, first consider the following question: What are the subtle verbal and nonverbal environmental cues academic advisers can employ to convey to students that they are welcome, visible, and capable of performing well? The answer to this question is likely to be different on various campuses across the country. Nonetheless, it is likely that some cues will be similar across different schools and cultures, including how students are acknowledged and greeted when they walk into your office and how many forms and papers they must fill out. In these ways and others, students are constantly receiving verbal and nonverbal cues from the environment that can tell them they are welcome, visible, and capable of succeeding.

We encourage you to reflect on your current academic advising environment and determine if there are opportunities to provide positive environmental cues to each student with whom you engage. Applying micro-affirmations to everyday advising practice does not necessitate large quantities of extra time from advisers with already-busy schedules and large caseloads. Providing micro-affirmations requires more thoughtfulness about the quality, tone, and context of communication than it requires extra time. Rowe (2008) suggested micro-affirmations are likely to occur through:

  • appreciative inquiry
  • recognizing and validating experiences (even seemingly small experiences)
  • affirming feelings
  • reinforcing and rewarding positive behaviors

It is possible for academic advisers to communicate micro-affirmations through these behaviors within a limited advising appointment. For example, advisers should consider using Bloom and Martin’s (2002) approach of appreciative advising—based on principles of appreciative inquiry—to help students effectively process experiences in the academy by asking positive and generative questions such as, “What do you think you did well in this situation?” or “How have you grown from this experience?” Advisers can affirm students’ feelings and validate experiences by showing their empathy for the difficulties involved in experiencing academic challenges and obstacles during college. Advisers can reinforce and reward positive behavior by identifying and celebrating student actions (e.g., utilizing resources, participating in study groups, taking responsibility for academic choices) that lead to positive academic outcomes.

There are myriad ways academic advisers can offer micro-affirmations to students, including subtle behaviors that offer encouragement, recognition, and validation of their individual experiences. These subtle behaviors may include offering an empathetic facial expression and saying a student’s name, as well as offering options and referrals for next steps that focus on individual student’s strengths and interests. These actions demonstrate the adviser’s intentional recognition of individual advisees, investment in helping students to effectively process their experiences, and suggest strategies to attain more productive and positive outcomes. These small, subtle acts contribute to a student’s sense of trust and support within the academic environment in a way that nurtures self-efficacy and persistence. Advisers who implement these practices may have an especially positive impact on students who feel intimidated by the advising process or marginalized within the university environment (Kuh, 2012; Museus & Ravello, 2010).

We offer the following suggestions for incorporating micro-affirmations as a regular component of advising practice with individual students:

1. Practice active listening

Lean forward when talking with a student. Focus on the student. Repeat what the student says to make sure you understand. Follow up with questions that show your interest and that can help the student draw their own conclusions. Introduce options for the student to participate in educational opportunities that fit their unique strengths and interests.

2. Recognize and validate every student experience

This does not mean agreeing with the student’s interpretation of the experience or the student’s reaction to the experience. This means making clear to the student that you understand the challenge of the experience, and that you are here to help them consider productive ways of dealing with it. Offer appropriate verbal, written, and body language cues that demonstrate you are interested and care about what the student is sharing.

3. Affirm student feelings

Validate students’ feeling through statements such as, “I appreciate that this is frustrating,” “I see that you are excited by this opportunity,” or “I understand that you are disappointed.” Validate feelings while steering students toward developing productive perspectives on the experiences. Identify resources and options available to all students and, in particular, to students feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, or disappointed. Acknowledge that the challenge presents an opportunity for growth, healing, and empowerment. This can help to validate a student’s feelings while offering her or him productive means to work through feelings and challenges.

4. Help students optimally process academic experiences

Ask students questions that will help them reflect on their academic experiences and explore their thinking, decisions, feelings, reactions, and options. Asking questions such as, “What led to that decision?” “Tell me why you think this happened?” and “What will you do differently next time?” These questions can help students process their academic experiences in a way that will help them plan productively for the future and grow as students.

5. Reinforce, reward, and suggest healthy student perspectives and behaviors that lead to positive academic outcomes

Recognize and celebrate a student’s use of campus resources. Express that continual utilization of resources and positive academic behaviors are the norm for successful students. Personally invite students to explore additional opportunities for further academic engagement and skill building tailored to their unique needs and interests.

Within these broad behaviors, verbal communication that conveys inclusion, appreciation and recognition for individual students and their experiences within daily advising appointments and advising communications are critical. We offer the following brief statements as examples:

  • “I’m glad you’re here.”
  • “Coming in today was a good first step.”
  • “I see you are making progress in this area … excellent work.”
  • “I am concerned about you. Come visit me in office hours to talk more about this.”
  • “I know this is difficult news …”
  • “I understand that you are frustrated …”
  • “Have you thought about using this campus resource (e.g. the learning center, counseling and wellness services, the writing center)? Many successful students utilize this campus resource.”
  • “I can tell that you are very outgoing/intellectually driven/social; have you considered participating in this opportunity/program …?”
  • “I see that you feel good about this, and I believe you should be proud of what you have accomplished thus far.”

It should be noted that intentionally incorporating micro-affirmations into regular advising practices does not mean ignoring challenges or avoiding unpleasant conversations addressing negative student behaviors or academic outcomes. In fact, micro-affirmations can be most effective when delivering bad news or talking with a student who is experiencing significant academic challenge. Rowe (2008) described micro-affirmations as being particularly instrumental in helping people to build on strengths to correct or manage areas of weakness when they experience (real or perceived) exclusion, rejection, failure, or disappointment (p. 46). For example, recognizing all the experiences—even minute—that lead to a student’s detrimental situation and validating their feelings can help students be more receptive to advice about productive next steps, because they are more likely to believe the adviser genuinely cares about their success.

Limitations and Implications for Future Research

As with all student-success interventions in higher education, there are potential limitations to the intentional use of micro-affirmations as an advising strategy. First, student engagement in the process of advising is critical. Students must possess a true desire to persist and graduate and some willingness to learn in order to benefit from any effective advising practice, including micro-affirmations. While micro-affirmations can build trust between student and adviser, a student who is not motivated to contribute the effort necessary to academically succeed is less likely to be retained than a student who is struggling yet putting forth much concerted effort toward succeeding in college (Astin, 1984; Lau, 2003).

Further, just as individual student approaches to academic work factor into the effectiveness of interventions, so do the advising approaches and styles of academic advisers. Advisers who embrace a developmental approach seek to build a reciprocal relationship with students and assist with identifying and accessing opportunities for success and engagement beyond course selection (Hale, Graham, & Johnson, 2009). Prescriptive advising usually focuses on course selection and typically does not empower the student as an equal part of the advising process (Hale, Graham, & Johnson, 2009). Advisers who ascribe to a more developmental approach tend to value application of micro-affirmation strategies as an everyday practice. A first step for future research is to better define, capture, and record micro-affirmations in the context of higher education.  Subsequently, formal assessment of the impact of micro-affirmations within the context of higher education is necessary.

Conclusion

Effective academic advising practices are critical contributors to undergraduate student retention (Drake, 2011; Fowler & Boylan, 2010; Glennen & Vowell, 1995; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005; Robbins et al., 2009). As a consistent source of academic support, academic advisers are well positioned to affirm student experiences. Micro-affirmations are tools to communicate to students, especially those who feel marginalized, that they are welcome, visible, and capable of succeeding. Micro-affirmations can be incorporated into the practice of even the most time-constricted of advisers. Much discussion and research has explored the detrimental influence and power of micro-aggressions. It seems likely that there is equally potent power in micro-affirmations and that such power has the potential to fuel student thriving and ultimately retention and graduation outcomes.  With these reflections in mind, we encourage advising teams to consider the benefits of exploring micro-affirmations as an intentional component of their advising practice and culture.

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About the Author(s)

Candice Powell, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Candice Powell, M.Ed., is the retention specialist in the Office of Undergraduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She can be reached at candicef@email.unc.edu

Cynthia Demetriou, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Cynthia Demetriou, Ed.M., is the director for retention in the Office of Undergraduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She can be reached at cyndem@email.unc.edu

Annice Fisher, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Annice Fisher, M.Ed., is the transfer student coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She can be reached at fisherae@email.unc.edu.

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    Sabrina Kozikis

    This article really hits home when it comes to advising techniques we have talked about in our advising seminar. When focusing on communication and interpersonal skills, we looked at how to interact successfully and correctly with students coming into advising. The techniques are very similar to those in this article; we practiced being active listeners and what it means to not only verbally, but physically, communicate with students to ensure your full attention. As peer advisors, we are also taught about on campus resources to refer students to as well as learn how to be empathetic and supportive of the problems and questions students seeking help are facing. These techniques, as explained through the article, are micro-affirmations. I believe that I try to utilize these skills when speaking to students because I know that if I needed help, I would want someone to be as attentive and supportive as the article frames micro-affirmations. By just using simple phrases and actions, an advisor can go from a stranger to a helping friend instantly.
    I can also see a lot of connections between what is being discussed in the article and things we have learned in class through CMASS, Stonewall Center, and the CCPH visits. Micro-aggressions, for example, really relate to what we discussed at CMASS involving campus diversity and being sensitive to others’ race, ethnicity, and diversity. We learned at CMASS to recognize that every individual has his or her own identity and that we should not make leaping generalizations upon a student coming in and asking for advising. Micro-aggressions create a sense of an unwelcoming and unsupportive environment, which is the exact opposite of an advising office’s agenda. Also, this idea of micro-aggression relates to the Stonewall Center Ally training because advising needs to be a safe space for everyone who enters. Micro-affirmations, not aggressions, are key to a successful and welcoming advising office. I also saw a connection between advisors being a source for other campus resources and our meeting with CCPH workers. As advisors we need to be aware of students who are under great stress and how to help them when it goes beyond our expertise. This is where referrals to other campus resources, like the CCPH, comes into play. This is another form of micro-affirmations that I think is very important to the advising process. There is also a connection between what we learned from the CCPH workers and the idea of validating a student’s needs and experiences as well as affirm their feelings. When a student is under stress, advisors are not only there to answer questions about classes, but to also make students feel like someone is listening positively and can give them reassurance whether through a simple “That is a lot of work for you to take on, and I completely understand why you are feeling stressed” or a suggestion to go talk to someone at a more professional level. Micro-affirmations are a great way to reinforce a safe and supportive advising environment!

 



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