Appreciative Advising: How the Academic Centers for Excellence at the University of South Carolina are Using this Breakthrough Concept

Lindsay Reitmeier Hall, University of South Carolina

Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's spring 2008 graduate course in the higher education and student affairs program at the University of South Carolina. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

A movement is afoot in the realm of academic advising. Based on the tenets of Appreciative Inquiry, Appreciative Advising (Bloom & Martin, 2002; Hutson, 2006; Hutson & Bloom, 2007; Bloom, Hutson, & He, in press) is gaining increased support among academic advisers and professionals working in the area of student success. Appreciative Advising is “the intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials” (Bloom, in press). This article showcases how the Academic Centers for Excellence (ACE) program at the University of South Carolina (USC) adopted the Appreciative Advising model. The content below first provides an overview of the Appreciative Advising model and then delves into the purposes of the ACE program and manner by which the ACE program adopted the Appreciative Advising model.

There are six phases of Appreciative Advising: disarm, discover, dream, design, deliver, and don't settle (Bloom, Huston, & He, in press). The activities in each phase are fairly intuitive and involve the art and practice of asking students positive, open-ended questions. During the disarm phase, the adviser actively seeks to gain the student's trust. The discovery phase focuses on learning about the student and his/her skills and abilities. This phase may also include some self-discovery on the part of the student. During the dream phase, a student does just what the name implies: he dreams about the future. In this phase, nothing is regarded as unattainable. In the design phase, the student and adviser work together to craft an action plan to achieve their goals. In the deliver phase, the student acts on what has been planned. The don't-settle phase involves the adviser challenging the student to improve even more once trust and rapport have been established with them. This appreciative approach to advising and working with students is different from traditional methods in that it devotes much time and energy to understanding students holistically: their passions, strengths, aspirations, etc.

ACE Program

The Academic Centers for Excellence (ACE) program was established at USC in 1995. The program was originally created in response to concerns about the low retention rates of students on probation. Today, the ACE program is directed by Claire Robinson, coordinator of Academic Success Initiatives, and is free to all USC students. It is designed to coach any and all students who desire help with academic issues or study skills. While some students are required to participate, such as those who earn low grade-point averages (GPAs) while receiving financial aid, those placed on probation while living in university housing, and those with GPAs below a certain level in particular majors, many other USC students choose to use the service as well. The center currently employs both volunteer and paid graduate students in the higher education and student affairs master's degree program at USC. These “coaches” meet one-on-one with students from across campus. Many of the students who come to ACE are low performing and are either academically deficient by university standards or are referred by an academic adviser or professor. The center also receives numerous referrals from the university housing office, whether the students are residents or resident advisers (C. Robinson, personal communication, March 24, 2008).

Adopting the Appreciative Advising Model

In fall 2007, a number of factors converged and consequently led Claire Robinson to consider adopting the Appreciative Advising model. First, Jennifer Bloom, a clinical associate professor and pioneer in the Appreciative Advising movement, joined the faculty of the higher education and student affairs program at USC. Robinson attended a presentation that Bloom delivered to USC academic advisers that fall and immediately began to consider how the Appreciative Advising model could be incorporated into the ACE program. Bloom, Robinson, and two other student affairs professionals subsequently visited the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), an institution that had successfully infused Appreciative Advising into its advising program and other student-success initiatives. The USC team hoped to gain insight into effectively implementing Appreciative Advising techniques within the ACE program. During the visit, the USC group conducted interviews with UNCG administrators and staff to discover best practices for implementing the Appreciative Advising model (C. Robinson, personal communication, March 24, 2008). According to Robinson, the University of South Carolina's approach to appreciatively advising students differs from UNCG's approach, but the group members were able to use much of what they learned during their site visit (C. Robinson, personal communication, March 24, 2008).

UNCG Model

Although the Appreciative Advising movement may still be in its infancy, some programs, such as the one offered at UNCG, have had great success in using this approach with low-performing students. According to the university's Student Academic Services (2008) website:
Student Academic Services is among the leaders in developing the 'Appreciative Advising Model.' This approach involves the systematic and consistent employment of Appreciative Inquiry to assist students in uncovering and building upon their strengths to achieve persistence and academic success. This approach has been particularly useful in cases of internal transfer and academic difficulty, and has been central to the success of our Strategies for Academic Success program and our efforts to assist at-risk Nursing students.
UNCG is able to back up this claim with some impressive numbers. For example, when UNCG introduced an appreciative approach to its Strategies for Academic Success 100 class, a course designed for students on probation, retention rates for those students rose by approximately 18 percent (Hutson & Bloom, 2007). Additionally, among students who participated in a voluntary program requiring them to participate in a series of appreciative advising sessions, “90% of the participants in the program were eligible to continue in the spring 2007 semester, and 58% earned term GPAs over 3.00” (Hutson & Bloom, 2007, p. 7).

Next Steps in the Adoption of Appreciative Advising at the ACE Program

As Robinson began implementing the Appreciative Advising model at USC, she worked with Bloom to align other aspects of the ACE program with the Appreciative Advising model. First, they modified initial letters to students on financial aid probation, which notified them that they were required to meet with an ACE coach. They similarly modified letters to probationary students living in university housing. Robinson explains that these letters were previously very negative and focused on students' bad grades and the necessity to improve. The new letters were written in a much more inviting way by using an Appreciative Advising approach. The letters now focus on students' potential and the fact that their ACE coaches can help them meet that potential by using free resources available throughout campus (C. Robinson, personal communication, February 24, 2008).

Second, devising and implementing a three-session Appreciative Advising outline added more valuable one-on-one time with students. As opposed to receiving a one-time, “quick fix” advising session, the program strongly encourages students to meet with an ACE coach at least three times. This allows the coaches to establish strong rapport with the students and allows time for the coach to continue employing Appreciative Advising techniques (C. Robinson, personal communication, February 24, 2008).

Lastly, the ACE program began using the Appreciative Advising instrument (Bloom, Hutson, & He, in press), which calls for students to complete it before meeting with ACE coaches as a means to help them identify their strengths and assets. Advisers use the results of the instrument as a springboard for asking positive, open-ended questions; building rapport with advisees; and learning about students' skills, abilities, and strengths. The University of South Carolina is one of a handful of institutions in the country to pilot this assessment tool. The instrument that the ACE used previously had been fairly dry. It had gathered more basic, fact-oriented information, and it had not left much room for rapport building with students or for the kind of self-examination and discovery encouraged by the Appreciative Advising approach. The Appreciative Advising instrument was introduced during the fall 2007 semester; and, although data from the instrument has not yet been analyzed, initial reports from ACE coaches indicate that it has been much more effective in helping coaches build rapport with their students (C. Robinson, personal communication, February 24, 2008).

Conclusion

No one yet knows how large an impact these new practices will have on the overall efficacy of the ACE. If results mirror those of other schools that have used appreciative approaches with low-performing students, it is exciting to imagine just how large the improvement might become.

Appreciative Advising is still in its infancy but is gaining momentum as more and more institutions begin to intentionally incorporate Appreciative Advising techniques. Initial assessment data from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008; Hutson & Bloom, 2007), as well as anecdotal reports from the University of South Carolina's ACE program seem to indicate that this methodology is a promising one. As more institutions are able to quantify and document success using Appreciative Advising techniques, other schools that hope to improve their current advising programs will be compelled to discover and incorporate Appreciative Advising. Could Appreciative Advising be the next big thing for academic advisers and student-success professionals? It just might be.

References

Bloom, J. L. (in press). Moving on from college. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.).

Hutson, B. L., & Bloom, J. L. (2007, September). The impact of appreciative advising on student success. E-Source for College Transitions, 5(1).

Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (in press). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Bloom, J. L. & Martin, N. A. (2002, August 29). Incorporating appreciative inquiry into academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 4(3). Retrieved August 20, 2007, from http://www.psu.edu/dus/mentor/

Hutson, B. L. (2006). Monitoring for success: Implementing a proactive probation program for diverse, at-risk college students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Student Academic Services, University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2008, February 26). Academic Advising. Retrieved April 6, 2008, from http://web.uncg.edu/adv/advising/

About the Author

Lindsay Hall is a graduate student in the higher education and student affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She also serves as a graduate assistant in the Office of Student Government and Student Organizations. She can be reached at halllm@mailbox.sc.edu.

Published in The Mentor on July 23, 2008, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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