Applying Choice Theory to Academic Advising
When academic advisers feel frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to guide students toward the “right” course of action, the advisers may be suffering under an external control psychology, which creates a lack of satisfaction in their role. Hopefully this frustration is not an everyday experience, but unless all students are superior problem solvers and are self-motivated, advisers likely have experienced it often enough to wish for a solution.
Changing from an External Control worldview to a Choice Theory worldview can lead to greater satisfaction and better learning outcomes. This perspective supports the call from Baxter Magolda and King (2008) and others (Pizzolato, 2008; Mezirow, 2000) to promote self-authorship in students via academic advising. Mezirow emphasized moving the student from an external definition of self, in which he or she is still dependent on others for approval and acknowledgement, to self-authorship, in which students actively reflect on their experiences and develop their “own purposes, values, feelings, and meanings” (2000, p. 8). This mindset adjustment shifts the responsibility for success from an adviser to the students themselves. Taking on a Choice Theory perspective relates to self-authorship but is also distinct in that advisers and students understand control is something they do for themselves and not something they do to others. This perspective encourages advisers to regard their success not in coercive terms or as a measure of what they can get students to do, but in relational terms that represent how they can connect with students.
External Control psychology is a term coined by William Glasser, M.D., to describe the coercive methods many in society employ when they wish to affect another’s behavior (2003). It is the notion that “I am right and you are wrong, so you must change.” Embedded is the belief that if we are having difficulty with others, we should pressure them into behaving the way we want them to. This leads to dissatisfaction in the relationship by both participants and has no guarantee of compliance. As Glasser (2003) stated, “Since all humans resist control … the use of this psychology is the major cause of human misery” (p. 73). He explained that we accept this, because we hold beliefs that we are controlled by outside forces, that we can control someone else, and that we know what’s right. These beliefs are fueled by what Glasser called the “seven deadly habits of external control,” which include criticizing (even the constructive kind), blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, and reward to control (2003, p. 78–80).
Seven Deadly Habits and Their Application to Academic Advising
Criticizing. Any time advisers tell students they are doing something wrong, it can easily be perceived as criticism, even if we are telling them for “their own good.”
Blaming. A close second to harmful criticizing is blaming (Glasser, 2003). In advising, it is easy to sink into an I-told-you-so position.
Complaining. Sometimes students will make poor decisions, however, complaining about the behavior or complaining in general does not make others wish to be around us.
Nagging. It is important as advisers that we ensure students have all the information they need to make informed decisions and that we adequately monitor their progress; however, flooding them with reminders and notices creates a situation in which they may stop paying attention.
Threatening. Again, if a student doesn’t follow through with a recommended action, threats or dire warnings are simply a form of coercive power.
Punishing. Academic advisers should not take on the role of gatekeeper or punisher. How can we support students if they see us as being able to hurt them?
Reward to Control. Students perceive they must jump through hoops to get to the next stage in their degree progression. The result can vary, as some students rebel, some quit, and some become game players. It is important for advisers to clearly explain the academic processes, discuss the relevance of overcoming obstacles, and encourage students to fully engage.
Our experience in advising gave us reason to begin applying Choice Theory to that relational context. In this article, we will share how the external control worldview commonly seen in academic institutions does not have to be the norm in advising sessions and how changing to a Choice Theory view can create opportunities to connect instead of control. Modeling this connection-versus-control perspective supports the goals of self-authorship and shifts one’s mindset. Choice Theory focuses on changing our own behavior to improve a relationship rather than imposing a new perspective on the relationship. We offer in this article an understanding of Choice Theory and how it can be applied in advising sessions, and we provide potential outcomes related to making the change by examining three case studies.
Seven Alternative Habits through Choice Theory
Supporting. We know our advising role requires us to provide informational support to students, but we also know that it is the emotional support we provide that motivates students toward their goals.
Encouraging. Advisers can help students find and appreciate their unique characteristics, which they can then use to move toward success. This is not the same as praise or rewards.
Listening. Holding back judgment. Being neutral and personally unaffected by what students share can draw out the issues that may be blocking a student’s progression.
Accepting. When listening, we have opportunities to show acceptance. An adviser’s understanding can free students from the burden of guilt, so they can focus more clearly on the choices available to make progress.
Trusting. Letting students know we trust them to use available information to make sound decisions, even though our experience too often shows that students can make poor choices with good information. Allow students to experience natural and agreed upon consequences (Carter, 2005).
Respecting. Respect cannot be demanded from students, nor can we force them earn our respect. Modeling respectful responses is the best option.
Negotiating Differences. This is about creating a democratic environment for students in which they see themselves as stakeholders in decision making. Understanding our differences in terms of roles and abilities can aid the process.
Below are three scenarios that demonstrate the differences between External Control and Choice theories when applied to the same situation.
Scenario 1. External Control Application: Criticizing, Blaming, Nagging
Georgia is a sophomore and had a bad semester. She is now on academic probation and before she can register for courses, she must meet with her academic adviser. When Georgia arrives, her adviser greets her with a stern look and says, “You are in a bad place right now. If you do not get back on track, you will be dismissed from the university.” The student explains that she got involved in some social groups and overextended herself at the cost of her studies. The adviser replies, “You can’t continue doing all these activities and expect to get your grades up.” After hearing more of the lecture on time management, Georgia says, “Don’t I need you to sign something so I can register for classes?” The adviser signs off and the student leaves the office. Georgia does not seek any further advising than what is required.
Scenario 1. Choice Theory Application: Supporting, Listening, Accepting
Georgia is a sophomore and had a bad semester. She is now on academic probation and she can register for courses, she must meet with her academic adviser. When Georgia arrives, her adviser greets her with a warm welcome and says, “How are things going? I noticed you are on academic probation and was concerned.” The student explains that she got involved in some social groups and overextended herself at the cost of her studies. The adviser replies, “What do you think you can do to get yourself back on track?” The adviser listens carefully to Georgia’s solution, offering informational and resource support. Georgia receives the signature she needs to sign up for classes and stays on track through regular meetings with her adviser.
Scenario 2. External Control Application: Blaming, Complaining, Punishing
Roberto is in his senior year and has not seen his adviser since his junior year when he changed his major. He believes advising is a waste of time as the adviser in his first major never seemed to care and only told him what he could not do. Roberto assumes he has one semester of 12 credit hours remaining to graduate. When he meets his adviser, he learns he must complete 18 credit hours. However, Roberto is employed and has a work schedule that restricts when he can take courses, which is one of the reasons he changed majors. He gets angry with the adviser and says, “I can’t believe you people are doing this to me again.” He proceeds to tell the adviser all the “crap” he has had to deal with from this university and how no one seems to care. The adviser begins to get defensive and tells the student, “How can you expect us to help if you don’t ask questions in a timely fashion? I have done my part; it is your responsibility to get the information you need.” The student storms out and slams the door. It takes him three more semesters to graduate.
Scenario 2. Choice Theory Application: Listening, Respecting, Negotiating Difference
Roberto is in his senior year and has not seen his adviser since his junior year when he changed his major. He believes advising is a waste of time as the adviser in his first major never seemed to care and only told him what he could not do. Roberto assumes he has one semester of 12 credits hours remaining to graduate. When he meets his adviser, he learns he must complete 18 credit hours. However, Roberto is employed and has a schedule that restricts when he can take courses, which is one of the reasons he changed majors. He gets angry with the adviser and says, “I can’t believe you people are doing this to me again.” He proceeds to tell the adviser all the “crap” he has had to deal with from this university and how no one seems to care. The adviser listens without judgment and says, “It sounds like you have had a tough time but really want to graduate. I want to help make sure you get to your goal, so let’s work out a plan.” After negotiating options, they come up with a plan that works. Roberto graduates a semester later and sends a thank-you note to his adviser.
Scenario 3. External Control Application: Nagging, Reward to Control
Marcus wants to take a class that is restricted. To do so, he must get written approval from the instructor. Marcus misses the class and does not meet with the instructor, but he really needs the class, so he approaches an adviser and says, “My instructor was supposed to arrange a permit for me to get into her class; can you arrange that for me?” The adviser reminds the student that written notification from the instructor is required, and as soon as it is received, he will be able to take the course. The adviser calls the instructor to check on the status of the student’s request, but the instructor says she has not received any requests from students. Meanwhile, the student walks down the hall to another adviser to see if he might have more luck with someone else.
Scenario 3. Choice Theory Application: Encouraging, Trusting
Marcus wants to get into a class that is restricted. To do so, he must get written approval from the instructor. Marcus misses the class and does not meet with the instructor, but he really needs the class, so he approaches an adviser and says, “My instructor was supposed to arrange a permit for me to get into her class; can you arrange that for me?” The adviser says, “I am glad you followed up on this, it shows persistence. Let me know when you receive permission from the instructor and if you need any assistance in working that out with her.” The student asks for the instructor’s contact information and office hours and negotiates the permission he needs.
Implications for Academic Advising
From the above examples, one can begin to see how Choice Theory prescribes a transformative approach to working with students. When adopted, this philosophy creates a positive environment for advising. Similar to self-authorship, Choice Theory encourages interactions and minimizes external definitions. These encouraging relationships provide a foundation on which to build self-authorship. Without encouraging relationships, the reflective conversations promoted by Baxter Magolda and King (2008) are not received positively and could be perceived by students as attempts to withhold what they want, according to their external definitions or culture of control.
Applying Choice Theory to academic advising also shares some of the goals of appreciative advising (Bloom & Martin, 2002) and developmental advising (Crookston, 1972), in that it provides a way to enhance the relational aspects of advising to ensure information is delivered and processed in a way that benefits both the student and the adviser. Although the focus of appreciative and developmental theories is on relational outcomes, there is also emphasis on changing the student’s behavior. These two theories still assume that somehow our behavior in advising will control the choices of the advisee, which can lead to dissatisfaction for both the adviser and student as they struggle to live up to the model. The Choice Theory perspective emphasizes building connections. When advisers choose to let go of external control, they make a choice to preserve their own mental health and encourage students to take responsibility for their own well-being and academic decisions. Students still need to make this choice for themselves. Advisers’ positive approach opens the door, but advisees must decide to walk through.
Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2008). Toward reflective conversations: An advising approach that promotes self-authorship. Peer Review, 10(1), 8–11.
Bloom, J. L., & Martin, N. A. (2002, August 29). Incorporating appreciative inquiry into academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 4(3). Retrieved from http://dus.psu.edu/mentor
Carter, G. (2005). Parenting Today’s Teenager: A Guide to Fostering Democracy, Cooperation, and Teamwork in Your Home. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHhouse.
Crookston, B. (1972). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. Journal of College Student Personnel, 13(1), 12–17.
Glasser, W. (2003). Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Mezirow, J. (Ed.). (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Pizzolato, J. E. (2008, September). On being good company: Cultural considerations in learning partnerships for advising. Academic Advising Today, 31(3).
About the Author(s)
Leslie Tod is an academic adviser at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christie Rinck, Ph.D., is an academic adviser at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. She can be reached at email@example.com.