The Meaning of “Student-Centered” Advising: Challenges to the Advising Learning Community

E. R. Melander, Penn State University

Penn State's President, Graham B. Spanier, has put the goal of becoming a “student-centered” university before higher education institutions in general and, specifically, before the advising community as well. (See his essay in the April–June 2002 issue of The Mentor.) While he presents definitions of “student-centered,” he recognizes that considerable dialogue is needed in order to “transform our historic mission of teaching, research, and service into a forward-looking agenda of learning, discovery, and engagement,” as suggested by the Kellogg Commission in its monograph on the “engaged university.”

Most faculty, administrators, staff, and students are not certain what student-centered means. No one, including Spanier, seems to be suggesting that the university should become less research-centered or less service-centered. To many, focusing on the student is what we already do—and do well—so what is to be different?

Spanier's response to this point of view quite likely would be something to this effect: to be student-centered does not necessarily mean more effort or resources are to be aimed at students; what it does mean is that we do what we do better, as measured in terms of impact on the student. The key is to focus on the student—on his or her learning and development, well-being, and retention—such that our programs and services are delivered in ways that are demonstrably in the student's best interests.

Learning must be at the core of how a student-centered university defines itself—i.e., a student-centered university is learner-centered. Not only must faculty be focused on learning outcomes, but so must all others who have responsibilities for delivering programs and services in the learning environment. It takes a whole community to educate a single learner. The whole community must be engaged in learning and must measure its performance in terms of impact on or outcomes for the learner.

So how does all this relate to advising and the advising learning community? I shall try to address four questions:
  1. What is implied by student-centered advising?
  2. What is the expanded role of the student-centered adviser?
  3. How are information and communication technologies best utilized to help deliver advising that is student-centered?
  4. To become more student-centered, what does the advising community need to address?
What is implied by student-centered advising?

To be student-centered, advising can no longer be merely passing on information or advice; rather, it becomes focused on coaching the student toward the development of attitudes, skills, and behaviors as a learner, decision maker, and community participant, with success measured in terms of learner outcomes.

Student-centered advising enlarges the domain of concerns beyond basic student decisions about the formal curriculum—i.e., beyond questions of what major to choose and what courses to take. The overarching question for the student becomes “what activities and experiences should I program to develop my understandings and capacities as a learner?” The path chosen can be thought of as the student's development curriculum, and it should be the centerpiece of the adviser/advisee relationship.

Student-centered advising should focus on providing a syllabus and learning resources for guiding the student's discovery, understanding, and decision-making abilities regarding learning and development opportunities in the formal curriculum and the community engagement curriculum of the university. Student-centered advising should also shape the student's own capacities for What is the expanded role of the student-centered adviser?

The professional adviser develops rapport with the learner, forming a personalized relationship with each advisee. The relationship is that of a mentor—built on trust and operationalized through personal interactions with the advisee. The adviser's professionalism lies in providing both expert knowledge and practiced skills: knowledge of learner development models and formal and informal curricula, together used in establishing syllabi to guide development of individual learners and, additionally, practiced skills in individualizing interpretations and assessments and motivating student engagement.

In delivering advising, the adviser functions to How are information and communication technologies best utilized to help deliver advising that is student-centered?

There are many difficulties and challenges to overcome in delivering advising: uninterested advisees; high ratios of advisees to advisers; slow or uninitiated communications; outdated or inaccessible information; prescriptive, not individualized advice; attention focused on “how to” checklists rather than the “why” of the curriculum; lack of goal-setting and planning; and the unrecognized role of self-discovery and reflection.

Information and communication technologies offer the promise that advising can be provided more effectively and more efficiently. By connecting the advisee via the Web to all types of information—general and individualized—a large number of advising interactions can be conducted via telecommunications in a Web-based environment.

But can the relationship between adviser and advisee be established and sustained if all interactions are conducted via telecommunications? (Here, telecommunications includes e-mail, online chat sessions, online information access, or online assessment protocols.) My guess is not typically. Just as basic medical diagnoses and treatment plans are best conducted in face-to-face physician/patient sessions, the developmental needs and action paths of the learner are best diagnosed and planned in face-to-face adviser/advisee conversations.

There is no formula for determining the proper balance between face-to-face contacts and technology-mediated interactions in the adviser/advisee relationship. As the university-wide learning environment becomes increasingly based on technology-mediated interactions in support of teaching, advisees will be more comfortable with—and more demanding of—greater use of technology in their interactions with advisers.

In teaching/learning environments, technology is used by instructors to manage interactions of students with course syllabi, learning resources, assessment protocols, and peer learners. For example, Penn State uses software called A New Global Environment for Learning (ANGEL) to help faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants to enhance their courses with Web-based materials without having any knowledge of the Web. Perhaps similar technologies can be used to manage student engagement in the learner development meta-curriculum through the adviser/advisee relationship—i.e., through use of an ANGEL-like advising management system. A correspondence may also be drawn between the direct use of technologies to support student knowledge construction activities—say, through e-course portfolios—with the use of similar technologies to support advisee development activities—say, through e-development planning and assessment portfolios.

One approach to forming each adviser/advisee relationship might be to begin with a substantial face-to-face interaction intended to get to know each other's expectations and patterns and to establish a sense of openness and mutual commitment, and then to leave subsequent interactions to whichever format—face-to-face or technology-mediated—that either participant chooses to initiate. When the advisee reaches key development decision points such as deciding on a learner development plan, choosing a major, or making planning adjustments as the result of reflection on developmental outcomes, these might be times when either the advisee or the adviser initiates a meaningful interaction through a face-to-face dialogue.

To become more student-centered, what does the advising community need to address? Open and shared dialogue is needed around these questions, at the university level and, in turn, within each unit of the learning and advising community. Learners in the community—faculty, advisers, students—should be expected to develop specific goals, strategies, and action plans (to transform their understandings and to develop capacities as learners or learner-centered professionals) and, in turn, to demonstrate development and learning outcomes.

About the Author

E. R. Melander is faculty associate, Center for the Study of Higher Education, associate vice provost emeritus, Undergraduate Education, and professor emeritus of Quantitative Business Analysis at the Pennsylvania State University. He can be reached at

Published in The Mentor on November 27, 2002, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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