Citizenship Learning Through Academic Advising

Julie Givans Voller, Arizona State University


In 2011, Kimmel suggested by taking a “community-minded” approach, academic advisers can play a role in preparing students for citizenship in a democracy (¶ 1). While Kimmel is to be commended for his efforts to demonstrate the potential for academic advisers to contribute to citizenship learning, academic advising has more to offer students than referrals. Academic advisers interested in maximizing students’ civic learning can engage students in ways that enhance the knowledge, abilities, and dispositions needed to effectively participate in a democratic society. When they focus on student learning, advisers help students make connections across the curriculum, teach them how the university functions, and support them in complex decision-making processes. By approaching student-adviser interactions from a learning-centered philosophy and with a dedication to preparing active citizens, academic advisers can contribute greatly to the civic mission of higher education.

Learning-Centered Academic Advising

With its focus on student learning outcomes, learning-centered academic advising has the potential not only to increase students’ understanding about the curriculum, but also to support citizenship learning. Learning-centered advising connects the literature on classroom pedagogy with what advisers do when meeting with their advisees (Hemwall & Trachte, 1999, 2005; Lowenstein, 1999; Reynolds, 2010). Advisers engage students in constructing an understanding of their whole curriculum just as an instructor engages students in constructing an understanding of the content of a single course (Lowenstein, 2005). The focus of learning-centered advising is student learning and understanding the purpose of higher education and how the courses a student takes come together to form a coherent whole, rather than a set of diverse units used to fill requirements.

Learning-centered advising is characterized by advisers engaging students in reflecting on their coursework, which includes considering how the concepts within different courses fit together, as well as what skills students learn in class (Lowenstein, 2011; Schulenberg & Lindhorst, 2008). A learning-centered approach also supports the student as a decision maker. Advisers provide relevant information and ask probing questions designed to engage the student in dialogue about possible outcomes and provoke critical thinking. With advisers’ guidance, students then make and act on their own decisions. Advising that is learning centered—on student decision making, drawing connections between ideas, and calling attention to ways knowledge and skills gained in one domain can be applied to a different domain—gives academic advising the potential to be a vehicle that supports civic learning. Civic learning through academic advising comes not only from calling students’ attention to knowledge they are gaining through advising but also from applying techniques from democratic classrooms during the advising interaction.

Democratic Classrooms

Learning-centered advising supports the idea that best practices in classroom teaching can be applied to academic advising by teaching students about the whole of the curriculum just as an effective teacher applies these best practices in a course. It therefore follows that if the best practices of democratic classroom teaching are applied to academic advising, advising can effectively support the development of attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed by citizens in a democracy. There is an expanding literature on incorporating citizenship learning in the classroom that applies to academic advising interactions.

Researchers and practitioners are sharing the techniques they use to create democratic classrooms. With guidance from instructors, democratic classrooms get students involved in shaping the learning process for themselves and their classmates. Instructors let students know their expectations and then, to a greater or lesser degree, let them set the agenda for the class (Girgin & Stevens, 2005). Some instructors have used their classrooms as a forum to identify problems, brainstorm possible solutions, and create formal proposals that are later presented to university or government officials (Dunbar, 2005). Students learn to solve problems, navigate government systems, and leverage their voices. Others describe working with each student individually to identify her goals for the course, including the knowledge and skills to be learned and how that learning will be assessed (Freie, 1997). These techniques for citizenship learning have direct applications in academic advising settings.

Thus, on a campus that has made a commitment to produce active citizens for a democratic society, academic advising has a role to play beyond referrals. Indeed, for some aspects of citizenship learning, such as practicing decision making and learning how government systems work, academic advisers are uniquely suited to facilitate student learning.

What Would Democratic Advising Look Like?

Kimmel (2011) suggested academic advisers adopt a “community-minded” approach in their work and outlined the need to prepare students to engage in civic life. He included compelling recommendations that advisers dispense information on community service opportunities, encourage students to participate in service learning, and act as role models by engaging with the community themselves (Kimmel, 2011). However, Kimmel failed to address the ways well-constructed academic advising interactions can prepare students for participation in a democratic society. Academic advising can support students in learning the knowledge, abilities, and dispositions conducive to becoming active participants in a democracy.

University as a Model of Governance Structures

Academic advising provides numerous opportunities for gaining knowledge about navigating government structures. Certainly, advisers recommend courses that contain content on governance structures, including political science, sociology, justice studies, or history, but advisers can do much more. Colleges and universities are large organizations with complex governance systems similar to municipal and state governments. For most traditional-aged college students, the university is the largest system within which they have ever worked. An important facet of the adviser’s role is teaching students how to navigate the university system. Three important areas of learning coincide with indicators of civic and political knowledge used by Schugurensky (2006): the students’ rights and responsibilities, jurisdictional differences, and nuances of how things get done.

The literature indicates that understanding how government agencies work is an important component of learning to be an active participant in a democratic society (Merrifield, 2002; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004), and is analogous to understanding how the university works. An academic adviser, often the first person a student will reach out to when he or she has a problem, is in a unique position to teach students how bureaucratic systems work. Knowledge shared might include the university’s decision-making processes, as well as its hierarchical structure. If a student has a concern to air, the learning-centered adviser teaches him or her how to navigate the offices and representatives involved. For example, if a student has a complaint about a grade received in a class, the student may bring that complaint to the adviser. The adviser’s role is to describe the steps for addressing the complaint—first to the professor presenting the course, then to the chair of the department, and, if necessary, to the grievance committee of the college. In addition, the adviser teaches the student how to professionally present the issue at each level of the system, whether the interaction is conducted in person or in writing. In this way, the adviser educates the student on effective ways of contacting government agencies, another important outcome of citizenship education (Schugurensky, 2006).

In addition, advisers demonstrate how systems work when they explain how administrators make curriculum decisions or adopt certain rules or policies. In some cases, advisers may talk with students about how they have worked within the system themselves to accomplish tasks. Clearly, in such cases students are learning much more from their advisers than what courses to take. They are learning how complex bureaucratic systems work and how to work through bureaucratic channels to achieve their goals.

Academic advisers also help students learn about their rights and duties as students/citizens (Schugurensky, 2006). Learning-centered advisers who take a democratic approach will find opportunities to engage students in discussions about the reasons certain rules and policies are in place. A student with a health issue may learn about her right to request and, with proper documentation, receive a medical withdrawal from classes. Another student may learn that although the college has the authority to allow a student to drop a class after the deadline, his circumstances to do not fit the criteria for such an exception; it was his duty to drop the class before the deadline. An adviser taking a democratic approach could use such situations as springboards to discussions about self-interest versus the common good. Often, students who do not receive what they want from the university (e.g. approval to drop a class after the deadline, avoid taking math, schedule a class for which they do not have the prerequisites) cannot see beyond their own situation and view the university’s policy as unfair. These are teachable moments for an academic adviser. The adviser can engage the student in a dialogue about why the policy is in place and how the student’s degree might be devalued if, for example, all students were permitted to graduate without completing the required math class. Discussion of the value society places on the degree, the trust employers put in the institution, and what it means to have a university degree can open students’ eyes to the common good served by the enforcement of university rules. In such cases, students not only learn about their rights and duties as students/citizens, but also are provided with an opportunity to reflect on the long-term needs of society as a whole in relation to their own immediate self-interest.

In educating students about the university, academic advisers teach students how to interact with large bureaucracies. This can include teaching students how to understand and interpret official documents such as the academic catalog or student code of conduct. In addition, part of learning to navigate bureaucratic channels includes understanding jurisdictional differences. Knowledge of jurisdictional differences incorporates information on who has the authority to make decisions or enforce particular rules or policies. Here, again, advisers are in a position to teach students what they need to know to effectively participate within the university structure. One political science adviser teaches her advisees where to address their concerns through analogy. She draws a parallel between the federal, state, and local governments in the United States and the university, college, and department jurisdictions of the institution.

Advisers who take the time to explain these connections educate students about which jurisdiction has authority over specific areas of concern. Moreover, academic advisers can also help students develop effective self-advocacy skills across a variety of situations. Students prepared in this way have the opportunity, as Merrifield (2002) described, to engage in solving problems, working within systems, and experiencing government processes for themselves, rather than just passively reading or hearing about governance. In these examples of citizenship learning through academic advising, the university itself functions a microcosm of larger governance systems. It serves as a laboratory for learning how to participate in a democratic society, with the academic adviser as a guide to navigating the system.

Academic Advising Interactions

When academic advisers meet with students, opportunities abound for citizenship learning. Because advising interactions are primarily one-on-one meetings, they are not the sole locus of civic education. Nonetheless, academic advising can take an active role in a campus-wide commitment to prepare students for citizenship in a democracy. Advisers who take a learning-centered, democratic approach in their work can engage students in discussions about values (Merrifield, 2002), decision making, as well as reflection on and integration of their experiences and education (Finley, 2011), all skills and attitudes important for an engaged citizenry.

Gathering information, weighing consequences, and considering possible outcomes are all part of a thoughtful decision-making process. The decisions students make in consultation with their academic advisers have immediate and lasting effects on their day-to-day lives, therefore providing the perfect setting for practicing this skill. Advisers invested in student learning will assist students in gathering information and ask probing questions meant to help them anticipate possible consequences. For example, a student may consider withdrawing from a course. A learning-centered adviser will help a student gather information about the deadline and policies. She will then probe the student regarding the pros and cons of this action to ensure he or she has anticipated all consequences: Will withdrawing affect the student’s financial aid? Will it prolong the time to graduation? Will the student need to take summer courses as a result? Just as in a democratic classroom, students must take responsibility for their own learning.

In democratic classrooms, faculty and students work together to determine assignments and appropriate learning outcomes, as well as assess whether the course meets learning outcomes.  Freie (1997) accomplished this by meeting with each student to develop an individual learning contract. Learning-centered advisers can adapt this method to their practices by using advising meetings to develop an individual curriculum plan for each advisee. The process would involve the student working with an adviser to first identify his or her academic, personal, and career goals, including the things he likes to learn about, the skills he wants to develop, and the questions he has about the world. After identifying his goals, the student would gather information from a variety of resources about available courses and, in turn, discuss them with the adviser. The adviser, through questioning and deliberating, would assist the student in making decisions about constructing a curriculum contract that helps the student extract the most from his academic experiences (Lowenstein, 1999). Moreover, through the process of creating the contract, the student engages in deliberation with the academic adviser and practices solving problems—knowledge and abilities identified by Merrifield (2002) as necessary for active citizenship in a democracy.

Merrifield (2002) also suggested citizenship learning incorporates opportunities to become aware of the problem-solving process and to reflect. As advisers meet with students on a regular basis, they have opportunities, as Lowenstein (2005) suggested, to help students reflect on not only the knowledge, abilities, and dispositions they are learning through their courses but also the knowledge, abilities, and dispositions they are developing through their advising experiences. Advisers can ask students to represent their experiences in different ways to deepen their understanding of their learning, as they will use it as citizens in a democracy (Finley, 2011). By asking students to reflect on what they have learned in the context of democratic participation, students will understand the intentional connection between what they are learning in school and its applications to active citizenship in a democratic society. By bringing this information to the forefront, advisers will help students understand how their education contributes not only to their own interests but also to the common good.


People learn citizenship best by applying knowledge, abilities, and dispositions in real-life situations. Academic advising settings provide not only a setting to learn about the way governmental organizations work but also opportunities to put that knowledge into practice. Academic advisers can engage their students in deliberation, problem solving, and decision making, all important skills for effective participation in a democratic society (Merrifield, 2002). In turn, advisers can guide students in reflecting on what they have learned through the process, a key component that ensures students understand how they can apply their learning in other areas of their lives (Finley, 2011).

Clearly, academic advising can do much to support the civic mission of higher education. While Kimmel (2011) was correct in suggesting advisers should encourage students to participate in service learning and other community activities, there is much more advisers can do to support citizenship learning. Through their daily interactions with students, advisers who take a learning-centered approach will teach students how to navigate government systems, appreciate jurisdictional differences, and engage in effective decision making and self-reflection, representing important knowledge and abilities for citizenship in a democratic society.


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About the Author(s)

Julie Givans Voller, Arizona State University

Julie Givans Voller, Ed.D., is the director of academic advising at Phoenix College, part of the Maricopa County Community College District, in Phoenix, Arizona. She can be reached at

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