Using Appreciative Inquiry in Advising At-Risk Students: Moving from Challenge to Success

Jack H. Truschel, East Stroudsburg University


“Appreciative Inquiry seeks out the best of what is to help ignite the collective imagination of what might be.”
Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000

All too often, we in higher education see students who are at the ends of their proverbial ropes when it comes to successfully navigating through a class (i.e., passing it). After graduating from high school, sometimes with distinction, students may enter college believing that they are academically capable. Unfortunately, this belief is often deceptive. In reality, these students need to seek assistance to fortify their understanding or knowledge about a particular subject. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) may be a valuable method for engaging at-risk students, helping them to modify their behaviors, and assisting them to achieve academic success.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

According to Cooperrider (1990), Appreciative Inquiry is a mindset and an approach we can use to enhance the learning process. AI includes an introductory phase used to determine the appreciative topic around which the inquiry will be focused. For example, if a student is failing a class, Appreciative Inquiry will be directed toward this particular class. This is a critical component of the AI process because it reflects the understanding that the topic choice is “fateful.”

The introductory phase is followed by discovery (conducting appreciative interviews and identifying the themes and life-giving forces). Discovery is uncovering and valuing the best of “what is.” In this phase, information is generated through energizing appreciative interviews. The dream phase (developing provocative propositions for the future) is next. In this phase, students are engaged in envisioning “what might be,” or what are the possibilities. Next is design (integrating wishes for the future with plans for needed changes to structure, systems, and processes). Here, the student begins to zero in on a vision that is pragmatic and rooted in strengths and achievement. The final phase is destiny (making it happen and making it sustainable over time). In this phase, the student begins to plan and implement his or her vision of life or “what will be.”

Figure 1 Appreciative Inquiry 4-D cycle

The Interview

The initial process and core activity is the interview. In theory, the interview has the potential to create a relationship and discover common ground. According to Watkins and Mohr (2001, p. 14), inquiry is defined as “the process of seeking to understand through asking questions.” Whitney and Trosten-Bloom (2003) maintain that an Appreciative Inquiry process creates six freedoms:
  1. freedom to be known in relationship
  2. freedom to be heard
  3. freedom to dream in community
  4. freedom to choose to participate
  5. freedom to act with support
  6. freedom to be positive
The interview leads to storytelling, which allows participants to discuss personal experiences with others. It allows the student and adviser to create a basis of trust and working alliance as well as the ability to create cognitive and behavioral changes. During the Appreciative Inquiry interview, speaking and listening by each participant is critical for reshaping the initial negative view into one that is positive and possible. In their daily interactions with the environment, people often focus on the negative events in their lives. For example, if we have 999 great things happen to us in a day and one negative thing occurs, most of us focus on the one negative thing rather then the 999 great things. Negativity consumes us. The AI process is different in that it allows people to focus on the positive aspects of life and academic pursuits.

The AI process does not focus on problems or issues that look at failure or what is wrong. The AI process focuses on what has worked, what is currently working, and what is going well. Borrowed from solution-focused therapy and the work of deShazer (1982), Appreciative Inquiry interviews have a common set of questions that refocus the attention to stories of times when things were at their best. In solution-focused therapy, “miracle questions” unfold as follows: imagine that while asleep, a miracle happens and in the morning the problem is solved, the goal is attained. Describe the next day in detail. What will be done? What will be different? Who will see the change? Another general question might be “Tell me about a time when ...” Academic advisers also might ask the question, “You were successful when studying ...?” Based on the student's detailed description, advisers try to understand the underlying meaning of the issues. The interview then moves into exploring the future and reflecting positively on the past. Interviewers might also ask participants to remember peak times or best experiences. Resulting stories can provide valuable insight into students' cognitive processes as well as a reflection of positive past events and successes, thereby creating a new view of the present. According to Pennebaker and Seagal (1999), this storytelling helps to organize the emotional effects of successful events as well as modify how one feels about current experiences.

Table 1 Sample interview questions and topics

Appreciative Inquiry and At-Risk Students

At-risk students are those who have earned below a 2.0 grade-point average in their first semesters. During post-advising interviews with at-risk students who have used Appreciative Inquiry, students report enjoying the AI format. According to survey results, students who were engaged in the process of Appreciative Inquiry felt better, believed in themselves, and were more optimistic about the future. Moreover, students liked not hearing the negatives of their academic plights and felt confident that they could enhance their previous performances. Anecdotally, students reported they initially were worried that the session would be more like what they received at home—“yelling.” Students also reported that they formed new understandings about what it would take to become successful. Bushe (1995) supports these findings and reports that the hallmark of successful Appreciative Inquiry interviews seems to be that the interviewee has at least one new insight.

Research indicates that the appreciative interview also has the capacity to create new bonds and a working alliance between the interviewer and interviewee. For example, Jourard (1971) reports that people need to reveal their real selves and that self-disclosure is a necessary precursor to both interpersonal relationships and knowing oneself.


In summary, using Appreciative Inquiry in advising can help students focus on the positive, what has worked in the past, and how to incorporate those behaviors into the present. Feedback from students has been mostly positive. The Appreciative Inquiry process enables the best to emerge, creates a form of social interaction, and assists students in creating a new and more positive reality.


Bushe, G. R. (1995). Advances in Appreciative Inquiry as an organization development intervention. Organization Development Journal, 13(3), 14–22.

Cooperrider, D. L. (1990). Positive image, positive action: The affirmative basis of organizing. In S. Srivastva & D. L. Cooperrider (Eds.), Appreciative management and leadership: The power of positive thought and action in organizations (pp. 91–125). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2000). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative Inquiry. In D. L. Cooperrider, P. F. Sorensen, D. Whitney, Jr., & T. F. Yaeger (Eds.), Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change (pp. 3–27). Champaign, IL: Stipes.

de Shazer, S. (1982). Patterns of brief family therapy. New York: Guilford.

Jourard, S. M. (1971). The transparent self (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(10), 1243–1254.

Watkins, J. M., & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Whitney, D., & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2003). The power of Appreciative Inquiry: A practical guide to positive change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

About the Author

Jack H. Truschel, Ed.D., Psy.D., is associate professor and director of academic advising at East Stroudsburg University. He can be reached at or 570-422-3383.

Published in The Mentor on July 6, 2007, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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