Developmental Advising: A Practical View

William G. Hendey, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Since there is nearly universal agreement that academic advising should be “developmental,” I thought it might be useful to discuss the concept of “developmental advising” a bit, because it clearly means lots of different things to lots of different people. The fact that there are many different developmental theories only makes a precise common understanding of developmental advising all the more difficult. There are theories detailing cognitive development, psychosocial development, career-maturity development, ethnicity-based development, gender-based development, moral-reasoning development, identity-formation development, and so on. It all gets rather complicated and confusing. And, as at least one prominent voice, Ned Laff (1994), in the national discourse on academic advising, has very cogently argued, we may be on the wrong track, anyway, in the way we attempt to shape advising methodology in terms of developmental theory. My own view is that the various developmental configurations are attempts to describe in freeze frame phenomena that are inherently fluid and that thus occur and can occur only in continuous, erratic motion. Or, as Laff (1994, p. 48) points out, development is diachronic but developmental theories are synchronic.

The proponents of the various developmental theories all seem to recognize that development does not really take place in a series of discrete, clearly definable steps. But when they describe their particular version of development, they describe it in a series of discrete, clearly definable steps. Maybe they are trying to describe the indescribable. Maybe an infinitely and intricately fluid mental phenomenon is just too elusive, too mercurial for the language. As a result, what is described is what can be described. The developmental theorists can give us only snapshots of the results of development at a point in time. But we look at the series of results of development and call them development itself. Then we attempt to employ a process (academic advising) to address a series of static conditions (development as described by the various theories). Well ... you see my concern. I believe it is a mistake to think in terms of stages or phases of development as we approach our work in academic advising. In reality, everything is in transition; and all our students are moving, at different rates and in eccentric patterns, through a tortuous developmental passage.

Thus, I think our best bet is not to get bogged down in specific theories of development, though I do think it is necessary to have some knowledge of several of the specific theories. Understanding – of anything – always requires a field, a gestalt, of background knowledge which provides analogues, taxonomies, definitions, and precursor concepts. Therefore, the broader the field of background knowledge the greater the potential for deep understanding. But it seems to me that none of the specific developmental theories is particularly applicable in my day-to-day work with students. Still, I'm sure that my knowledge of the theories shapes my approach to academic advising.

But on a practical day-to-day basis, what I find workable for advising purposes is a more generalized understanding of development, a development concept writ large, if you will. I find Burns Crookston's definition of developmental advising still very useful in this regard: “... Developmental counseling or advising is concerned not only with a specific personal or vocational decision but also with facilitating the student's rational processes, environmental and interpersonal interactions, behavior awareness, and problem-solving, decision-making, and evaluation skills” (Crookston, 1972/94, p. 5). Crookston's definition, though, is not completely satisfactory. Maybe it's writ too large. I think it's too ambitious, in any case. And Crookston does not describe a developmental advising methodology that would promote the development of the cognitive and affective skills listed in his definition. It would be really nice if Crookston would provide some examples or at least offer some formula for facilitating students' rational processes or their behavior awareness. He doesn't. Nevertheless, the definition is useful because it captures the whole essence of developmental advising in one fairly succinct statement. It is thus useful in helping one to establish a mental benchmark, a ready understanding or grasp of what is meant by “developmental advising.”

So for me, Crookston's definition forms the backdrop. But that's not quite enough. I also find Terry O'Banion's well-known model extremely useful. Though the model is now nearly twenty-seven years old, I have seen nothing in recent years that serves as a better guide for academic advising. And O'Banion's model is a study in simplicity: “The process of academic advising includes the following dimensions: (1) exploration of life goals, (2) exploration of vocational goals, (3) program choice, (4) course choice, and (5) scheduling courses” (O'Banion, 1972/94, p. 10). The first four dimensions are highly complex operations and require a great deal of skill and knowledge on the part of the adviser. But O'Banion also says, “Contrary to those systems in which advisers make decisions for students, this writer believes that students are responsible for making decisions throughout the process. It is the responsibility of the adviser to provide information and a climate of freedom in which students can best make such decisions” (p. 11). Clearly, O'Banion is not incompatible with Crookston. Indeed, O'Banion's model seems fairly to dictate a developmental approach to advising. Thus, if we use O'Banion's model with skill and insight and if we assign decision-making all along the way to the students, where O'Banion say it belongs, we will be doing a certain amount of developmental advising without even thinking too much about it. But if we also have Crookston's general definition of developmental advising in mind when we employ O'Banion's model, we will be even more developmental in our approach, and we will be that way by design.

I still have a nagging concern, though. What I have been discussing above is a general, practical – sort of “pedestrian” – use of the developmental concept. What I know, however, is that development is learning, and learning requires a degree of dissonance. In fact, I would simply put it this way: If there is no dissonance, there is no learning. Learning (development) takes place when there is a rub, a friction, when past experience does not cover a present circumstance, when, to be effective, responses have to be reformulated. I have no doubt that advisers can move students toward greater autonomy; but in order to be teachers, which is what we must be if we are truly to pursue the kind of advising envisioned by Crookston's definition, we must employ dissonance as a tool in our work with students. And I know that this is not something we do typically as part of our area of responsibility with students. The technique does not readily fit, given the nature of our work. As a result, I cannot help believing that our definition of “development” in academic advising is a bit specialized.

Having said that, then, I must conclude by once again saying that I believe that Crookston's definition is somewhat grandiose. I believe that what advisers can accomplish with students in terms of development is less than what is implicit in Crookston's statement. But as long as we remember that in matters of aspiration our reach should exceed our grasp, we can use Crookston as a guide and not be led astray.


Crookston, B. B. (1994). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. NACADA Journal, 14(2), 5-9.

Laff, N. S. (1994). Reconsidering the developmental view of advising: Have we come a long way? NACADA Journal, 14(2), 46-49.

O'Banion, T. (1994). An academic advising model. NACADA Journal, 14(2), 10-16.

William G. Hendey is assistant director of academic counseling and advising at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He can be reached at (618) 650-3729 or

Published in The Mentor on January 20, 1999, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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