Student As The Expert: Avoiding The Advice-giving Trap

As campus professionals, we have a lot of information and knowledge about our college/university that students may not have. This makes us great resources for students who need help around GPA improvement, internship attainment, social concerns etc. In my roles as coach and motivational interviewing practitioner/trainer, I am constantly assessing the ways I approach student interactions. I believe that there is no ceiling to effective communication, and I am devoted to being a life-long learner of communication approaches. The benefits and challenges of working with people are that no two people are alike. Therefore, I am sharing the following with the perspective that students who come to meet with me to gain information or to solve a problem are the experts on themselves. I believe that if there is one small commitment we can make during our interactions with students, it is to only offer the most necessary information and advice. My reasoning comes from my background in motivational interviewing (MI) and coaching as defined by the International Coach Federation, but more importantly, from the experiences I have had meeting with hundreds of college students.

The information/advice-giving trap

Let’s set the scene. A student enters your office for a one-on-one meeting. You are a concerned faculty or staff member who wants to help this student get back on track academically or resolve a social concern. Maybe you invited them to meet, or maybe they reached out to you. In scenarios like these, we, as caring university professionals, often feel this strong “fix-it” urge. We might inquire about the situation further and then the “shoulds” start pouring out. “Calculus is a tough class. You should make a tutoring appointment.” or “That’s a tough situation. You should talk to your RA about your roommate issues.” or “I can tell you’re finding it difficult to balance your academic and social life. You should go out fewer days a week.”

The downside of direct advice-giving

The above examples clearly come from a place of genuine concern, and we give advice out of good intention. At the same time, there may be ways to reframe our approach to allow students more autonomy and ownership over resolving their concern. For instance, as soon as someone shares a problem with us, our instinct is to jump in with a solution. What if we fought against that instinct and gathered all of the facts before making any suggestions?

You might be thinking: “That sounds like it would take way too long!” Maybe you are someone who works with a caseload of 300 students, or maybe you have a line of students at office hours waiting to discuss their test grade. It is a common misconception that it would be easier and quicker to tell the student what to do and how to do it. Or possibly to do it for them. It depends on the expected outcome.

If we hope to develop student autonomy and increase the student’s confidence for dealing with future issues, it is typically more effective to find out more from the student before offering any suggestions.

Referring back to the above example, let’s say we are talking to a student struggling in calculus. Take a look below at a bit of dialogue between the student and a campus professional:

  • Campus professional: “How can I help you today?”
  • Student: “I’m concerned about my calculus grade. I’ve been studying non-stop but I’m not doing well on my tests.”
  • Campus professional: “I’m sorry to hear that. You know, we have a great tutoring center on campus. I’ll show you how to make an appointment.”

The logic here makes sense:

  • Student is struggling in calculus...
  • Calculus tutors help students do better in calculus...
  • Faculty/staff member refers student to tutoring...
  • Student attends tutoring session.

Take a second look at the logic.

The last item “student attends tutoring session” is an assumption we cannot make without gathering all of the facts. What are the possible downsides of jumping right to the solution here? One is that we lose some trust with the student because we make an assumption that they have not considered/used all of their resources. Second, direct advice giving, without gathering all the facts, can lead to low follow-through.

But there are times when I give advice and the student follows-through

That’s great! This is not to say advice giving is never effective. I am just referring to those times when direct advice giving does not work. What are the signs that our advice giving did not land well?

1) The student is quick to agree: “Yeah, sure I’ll do that.”
2) The student begins to shut down/becomes very quiet.
3) The student gets defensive: “I’ve already gone to tutoring. It didn’t help!”
4) The student’s body language changes: avoiding eye contact, crossed arms, leaning away from you.

Let’s take a step back.

What are the missing facts, and how do we obtain them? Without gathering the facts, we lose key pieces of information. For example, the student from the above example may be open to tutoring, but is hesitant to go because they work full time, and have difficulty finding time to schedule appointments. Therefore, if we just tell a student to go to tutoring, or make the appointment for them, it is unlikely they will follow through. We need to know this key information so we can help the student develop a plan to fit tutoring into their day or to find an alternate resource.

Alternative methods to direct advice giving

At this point, you may be asking, what can I say if I don’t give advice? The following ideas are drawn from using a style consistent with the spirit of motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2013) and coaching.

1) Ask open-ended questions to find out more about the situation: “What have you already tried?” “How did it go?” “What other resources are available that you would be willing to try?”

2) Ask permission: “Do you mind if I suggest some resources we haven’t yet discussed?” [asking permission before giving advice/information helps continue to support student autonomy; now we’re ready to give some direct information because we know more about what the student needs]

3) Get feedback from the student: “What are your thoughts on those resources?” [possible student response: “I work full time and barely have time to do my assignments let alone commit to a tutoring appointment”]

4) Reflect on that feedback: “You’re worried you don’t have time for tutoring.”

5) Assess importance/confidence: “How important is it to you to improve your grade in this class?” “How confident are you in your ability to do so?” “What would you need to improve your confidence?” [If it’s not very important, it's probably not worth spending energy on; if it is important, but confidence is low, focus on building confidence].

6) Collaborate with the student: “How can I best support you in resolving this concern moving forward?”

7) Develop next steps

What does this demonstrate?

1) Empathy: The student feels heard and understood. More often than not, people think they want advice, but once they receive it they get defensive. Sometimes this is because we offer suggestions they have already tried or thought of on their own. Other times it is because they do not really want advice and are just seeking someone who listens to their concerns and understands their needs.

2) Non-judgment: You did not make any assumptions about what your students have not done to resolve their concern. This will increase trust between you and your students and will make them more likely to hear your information/advice when you do offer it.

What does this lead to?

1) Trust: You took the time to understand the student’s situation, and to only offer the information they needed/asked for.

2) Self-efficacy: You helped the student assess their confidence in addressing their concerns, and supported them in increasing their confidence.

3) Autonomy: The student helped developed their next steps/solution

4) Increased follow-through: You helped the student explore their concerns from multiple angles, and they came up with realistic resources/solutions/plans based on what they know about themselves.

5) Lower burnout: We are not wasting our energy on providing information the student doesn’t want/need. We are letting the student guide the conversation and filling in with small bits of information here and there when it is requested/needed.

The irony that I am giving advice about limiting advice giving is not lost on me. I hope it is clear that I am not suggesting to never give advice. In many campus roles, we must provide information and give at least some advice. However, if you are willing to consider one takeaway from above it is this: before jumping straight to a solution for your students, sit back, learn from them and allow space for self-discovery.


The approach discussed is based on the spirit of motivational interviewing and coaching. To learn more about these styles of communication, I recommend the following:

Miller, R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd edition). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers website:
http://www.motivationalinterviewing.org/

International Coach Federation website: https://www.coachfederation.org/

About the author: Karen Hochheiser’s co-curricular experiences as an undergraduate student were so rewarding that she decided to pursue a career working with college students. She completed a Master of Arts in Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, and then moved to New Orleans in June 2010 to start her career at Tulane University. Her first role on campus was as a Health Educator at the Center for Wellness and Health Promotion (theWELL). In this role, Karen used a Motivational Interviewing approach to work with undergraduate students one-on-one to explore their health behaviors. She developed a passion for honing her communication skills so she could most effectively support each student. When the Success Coaching program started on campus, she was immediately drawn to the program’s mission and the opportunity to continue working with students in an individualized way that covered multiple facets of their lives. She transitioned to her current role as a Success Coach in July 2013 and became the Manager of Motivational Interviewing and Success Coach Training in January 2015. She continues to be dedicated to utilizing best practices in effective communication to create a coaching environment that supports the student as the expert and encourages personal growth, confidence and autonomy. Karen is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT) and is an Associate Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation.

Karen Hochheiser

Success Coach, Tulane University