Advising Students in Crisis: 7 Approaches to Maximize Advisors’ Effectiveness

This article is an excerpt from Sue Ohrablo's acclaimed book High-Impact Advising: A Guide for Academic Advisors, which you can find here.

Over the past few days, three different students have made comments to the effect of, "I am so glad I called. I almost didn’t. Honestly, before I called I had pretty much decided to withdraw from the program." By the end of my discussion with each of these students, the student decided to persist and agreed to continue a dialogue that would help them to succeed.

When students are in crisis, they are most vulnerable. They are apt to make rash decisions if they feel isolated and unsupported. If they have even one person within the institution on whom they know they can rely, it may make all the difference in retaining them.

Being able to have that conversation effectively with an at-risk student at the most critical moment is key. I want to share seven approaches that advisors can use to maximize their effectiveness and establish a reputation as someone to whom a student can turn.

1. Be Reliable and Available

Advisors can establish themselves as reliable advocates by consistently providing comprehensive advising and by making time for students, even in the busiest times of the year.

Providing comprehensive advising

Be comprehensive and thorough. Send out mass emails to students with pertinent information at strategic times throughout the year; this helps students develop trust in the information you provide and your understanding of their needs. And be thorough in the information you provide to students. If students are confident that the information or guidance you are providing is in their best interest, they will perceive you as a reliable source of assistance.

Making the time

I have worked hard throughout my career to avoid being “that advisor” who develops a reputation of never being available to students and is hard to reach. In order to avoid that reputation, I take walk-ins whenever possible, pick up the phone when it rings, and respond to emails in a timely manner. By doing this on a regular basis, I find that students are more understanding during peak periods when I may experience a delay in my usual response time or availability. I also use downtime to reach out to students and encourage them to meet with me prior to the peak periods, letting them know that I respect their time enough to want them to avoid a long wait or delay.

When you receive feedback such as “I knew I needed to call you,” or “You just took a weight off of my shoulders,” it is an indicator that students know they can rely on you to provide support and direction.

2. Be Approachable and Genuine

Often, students in crisis will adopt an avoidance and denial response. By withdrawing, blaming faculty, or even blaming the institution, the student seeks to ease their pain and anxiety. If a student perceives you as being "other than" the institution, you will not be perceived as a source of anxiety, but rather as a source of comfort with the potential to ease anxiety.

Sometimes, students will ask, "What would you do if you were me?" While that can be a dangerous question, it can also be an opportunity for the advisor to help the student examine options while taking the focus off of herself, and a chance to convey the message that she is not alone in her experience.

There are two ways to answer such a question:

  • The first is to embed information that you were going to provide anyway: "Well, I always like to look at my options…"
  • The second approach is to share with the student a similar experience.

This second approach helps the student see that you, who have successfully attained your degree(s), experienced similar challenges and successfully overcame them. Make sure you're comfortable with what you share, and that it is appropriate to the discussion and keeps the focus on the student. For example, when speaking with a student who wants to leave the program, I might share something to the effect of, "About halfway through the program, I wanted to give up. I was so tired and didn't see an end in sight. At that point, I just focused on the immediate task at hand and set small, manageable goals to help me get through."

By sharing such information in an approachable, genuine way, you can engage the student in a discussion about goal-setting.

3. Demonstrate Concern

Advisors sometimes run the risk of generalizing student problems and can become immune to the individual student experience. It is essential for advisors to genuinely care about their students and demonstrate concern for them.

With the adult population with whom I work, the majority of challenges the students face are related to their health, work, finances, and care for or loss of a family member. When a student shares with you that a close family member has been diagnosed with cancer and asks what he needs to do to withdraw from a course, make sure to address the emotional impact of the event as well as provide pertinent information to the student. You can demonstrate concern by making statements such as, "I'll keep your family in my thoughts," or "Please let me know how the surgery goes." For a student who is experiencing health issues, I’ll make comments such as, "Well, you have time to make this decision. Right now, you need to focus on getting well."

These types of statements help a student see you as someone who cares, and not just someone who quotes policies and procedures.

4. Listen (Even on Email)

When I poll advisors on what skills they think are essential, listening usually is the first and most frequent response. You don't always need an in-person conversation to listen effectively. An advisor can also "listen" through email communication.

Listening means transcending the words that the student is using in order to derive meaning and intent. Again, we run the risk of generalizing student issues, and when we kick into our "expert" mode, we stop listening.

Our first mental response to an incoming email may be: "This student is having surgery next week. She needs to inform her professor, withdraw from the class, and register for it again next semester." Instead of replying with this list of tasks, take a moment to ask the student what challenges she anticipates with the upcoming surgery. Perhaps, in anticipation of the surgery, she has worked ahead and completed assignments, or has already made arrangements with the professor. By listening closely, you can better provide the student individualized support and direction.

5. Provide Options and Structure

When a student is in crisis, he is at risk for developing tunnel vision, only able to see the problem that is right in front of him. Providing the student with options is key to helping him avoid the "all or nothing" mindset that can accompany anxiety. By providing options and structure, you help to empower students when they are feeling un-empowered.

For example, a student may inform you that he is feeling overwhelmed and may ask about withdrawing from a class. Engage the student first in a discussion about his current status in the class, his relationship with the professor, and his knowledge of the grading policy, and identify any assumptions he has made regarding his situation. Questions such as, "Have you checked the syllabus to see what the grading policy is?" or "Have you spoken to the professor about your standing in the class?" can help inform the plan of action you develop with the student.

Assigning "homework" to the student will also help to provide structure. Ask the student to talk to the professor and let you know the outcome. In the event of a conversaiton well ahead of the withdrawal deadline, inform the student that the deadline is weeks away and suggest steps he can take to attempt to resolve his problems between now and then. Ask the student to follow up with you before taking any action.

6. Anticipate Needs and Verify Assumptions

One of the most valuable contributions an advisor can make in a student's academic journey is to anticipate their needs before they do. Students only know what they know, and it is our role to look ahead for possible obstacles and opportunities. We need to use our experience to benefit the student.

I've found that many of my students place high expectations on themselves: managing a high level of responsibility at work, raising children, and striving for academic perfection. It is not surprising that these students become overwhelmed. When meeting with such a student, it is important to test the assumptions you have developed in order to accurately provide assistance. The student may make a statement such as, "I don’t know why I’m having so much trouble in this class. You can see by my record that I am a straight A student." Engage her in a discussion of the importance of having straight As, and test her assumption that she cannot earn an A in the class.

Your response will need to be customized to the student's situation. Sure, if a student is striving to earn a scholarship to a competitive graduate school, an A might be important. On the other hand, I find that my doctoral students are mostly conditioned to value only A grades. I engage them in a discussion about the importance of learning and applying content in their professional roles, regardless of the grade.

7. Develop an Ongoing Partnership

I admit it. I am possessive of my students. They are "my" students. Sometimes, I've heard advisors use this expression in a negative way: "He's not even my student." The implied meaning of that statement is: "I helped this student even though doing so was a burden because I have enough students of my own."

When I use the phrase "my student," it indicates that I have developed a partnership with that student and am committed to assisting him in attaining his academic goals.

To develop ongoing partnerships with students:

  1. Take interest in the whole student. Make notes that will remind you to ask about significant events in the student's life. Questions such as "How did the conversation with your math professor go?" or "I remember that the last time we spoke, you were concerned about finances..." help to communicate your investment in the student's wellbeing.
  2. Review the list of your advisees from time to time. During slow periods, do a spot check of their records or communications that you’ve had with them, and contact them as a follow-up. The follow-up could be a simple email or a phone call. For advisors that don't have an assigned population, reviewing past emails or advising notes might help to identify students who would benefit from a follow-up contact.
  3. Laugh with students. During their academic careers, students experience a great deal of stress, and advisors can provide a source of stress relief. Appropriate use of humor can be a great way to help a student feel comfortable and connected to you. There are days that I'm sure my coworkers think I'm goofing off because of the laughter that can be heard down the hall -- when in reality, I have just shared an uplifting moment with a student.

I sometimes smile when a student calls me and just says, "Hi, Dr. O.," and then starts to ask a question without introducing herself. This is a great indicator that the student feels connected to me.

As you develop these advising relationships, each party takes a role in problem-solving and decision-making. An advisor can reinforce these roles by making requests for follow up: "Here's how to contact financial aid. Once you do that, please let me know what they say." Even if you don't actually need to know, this sends the message that you are invested in the resolution of the problem.

I encourage advisors to consistently apply these approaches when interacting with students. Regardless of student load, advisors need to be engaged and committed to the success of every student with whom they work.

Get Sue Ohrablo's Book High-Impact Advising

High-Impact Academic Advising: CoverHow can academic advisors provide high-quality developmental advising in the face of diminishing resources and increased commitments? We brought this question to Sue Ohrablo, a nationally recognized speaker with 25+ years of experience working with diverse institutions and student populations. In this 300-page, comprehensive training guide, Sue offers practical guidelines for academic advisors.

“I highly recommend that all academic advising professionals read High-Impact Advising: A Guide for Academic Advisors, as it will help them to enhance key skills needed to establish positive relationships with students, appropriately assess students’ needs, effectively teach students, and efficiently provide high quality service.”
Jacqueline T. Hollins, Assistant Vice Provost/Director of Academic Advisement, SUNY at Buffalo (UB)

“As a department leader in academic advisement, I would use Sue’s book as a training resource and teaching mechanism for advisors. It allows advising professionals to understand today’s complex environment of advising students, beyond just selecting courses.”
Jake Shilts, Director, Advisement & Career Services, Miami Dade College

“Advisors will reap the benefits of this well-balanced, informative guide.”
Shari Saperstein, Associate Dean, College of Undergraduate Studies, Nova Southeastern University

"A student-centered, informative, and practical approach. Dr. Ohrablo presents powerful guidelines geared towards student success for 21st century academic advisors. The handbook offers indispensable information and engaging scenarios that mirror real life college instances that students experience. A key resource tool for academic advisors and higher education professionals."
Dr. DeLaine Priest, Associate Vice President of Student Development and Enrollment Services, University of Central Florida