Deirdre Mooney is an Academic Advisor, Exploratory Students at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta.
Advising undeclared or undecided students can be challenging. When we first started doing this work, we lamented on how non-linear and unstructured conversations about choosing a major can be. Not to mention students expect us to tell them which degree to choose – that’s fortune telling not advising!
The key goal of exploratory advising is to provide an explicit framework to help students move through exploring their options, decision-making, and educational planning. To facilitate this goal, we created the Major Exploration Process Model, the How to Choose a Major Workbook, and the How to Choose a Major Workshop to support students individually and through group advising. While the work focuses specifically on choosing a major, we stress that students can use the process and skills throughout their lives to make better informed decisions.
Framing the Process
Students who seek exploratory advising know that they need to make a decision, but often don’t know where to start. How do we help them take action? Largely, it depends on where they are in the process.
Truly undecided students will need to start with serious self-reflection about the things driving their decision. Others may have a good sense of who they are and what they want, but need help discovering the options available to them. Still others may have narrowed their options and need support evaluating them before making a choice. In all cases, we use the Major Exploration Process Model to situate students’ experience of exploration and lead the way forward. Individual advising appointments become coaching conversations full of open-ended powerful questions to get students thinking. Although these conversations are still not linear, the Model and Workbook give them a lot more structure!
Reflect and Connect
Choosing a major starts with self-reflection. The activities in this stage help students explore their motivators, personality traits, interests, and academics:
- Motivators – students consider and rank the things they deem important about their education and what they want to get out of their experience;
- Personality Traits – based on Holland Codes the traits provide students with a guidepost to better understand themselves and what they may be looking for in a degree;
- Interests – students categorize and prioritize interests to consider what they want to discover, learn, and develop through their education (hobbies vs academic pursuits);
- Academics – students reflect on academic strengths and challenges, how they learn, how subjects are taught, the approaches of fields of study, and available academic supports.
First students reflect on these components separately and then are encouraged to make connections between these pieces to prioritize the role each component plays in their decision-making.
Information and Options
This stage requires students to conduct their own research into the various degree options available to them. Students gather information on:
- Programs Offered – consider what is available and determine which programs are non-options to narrow choice from everything to potential or realistic possibilities;
- Academics – consider whether the types of learning required to study specific disciplines fit personality traits, academic strengths, and interests;
- Admission Requirements – review criteria to determine if possibilities are realistic and discover pathways for becoming admissible;
- Program Structure – find out how current courses fit within possible programs (or don’t fit) and what requirements are left to complete;
- Career Options – explore the careers that alumni with desired degrees are doing and consider the transferrable career skills gained from each program;
- Experiential Learning / Extra-curricular – explore opportunities for building an educational experience beyond academics.
The aim is for students to get more familiar with campus resources and opportunities, and to connect the information gathered about programs to the learning gleaned from the Reflect and Connect stage.
To facilitate this part of the conversation, we demonstrate how students can use a variety of key university online resources and chart their learning in the Workbook. Sometimes this initial review of resources within the appointment will help a student establish a few possible programs to further explore on their own. This is often paired with a lot of referrals to other campus offices.
Evaluate and Decide
Once a student has reflected on their motivators, personality traits, interests, and academics, and has gathered information about potential options, it’s time to evaluate!
We created a rank-order chart where students assign five points per category across the degree options they are weighing. The tallies should illuminate whether a program choice is realistic, and help a student determine a pathway based on what is most important to them. This stage is all about critical thinking and prioritizing, which advisors support best through strong coaching questions.
After deciding on a program of study, a student’s next step is to develop an action plan to make it happen! This may mean submitting an application to a realistic program of their choosing, or taking incremental steps like completing prerequisite courses or improving a GPA for admission. Whatever the next steps are, our role is help students map out their upcoming educational journey.
Advising undeclared or undecided students is undoubtedly challenging. We, as advisors, have the benefit of hindsight when we talk about our educational experiences. It is easier for us to articulate the process of becoming decided because we’ve already done it. The benefits that work to our advantage in supporting undecided students, however, are the knowledge we have about our programs, our toolkit of advising skills, and the resources developed within the advising community.
So, please try out the Model and Workbook activities! Let us know how it goes so we can continue to improve our exploratory conversations to help students become comfortable with exploring!
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