Holistic Advising: A Question You Should Ask Your Students

Advisor meets with student to discuss education

There are numerous expectations in any faculty role, many of which are learned on the job. In my case, I was terrified when I became an undergraduate advisor. I imagined that I needed to wear many hats—that of program advisor and course confirmer, as well as a counselor of sorts, a professional role model, and resource expert. Prior to initiation, I had seen other faculty use advising simply to prepare students on course preparation for the next semester, but I knew I wanted to be more holistic in my approach, especially given an ever-expanding diversity of students in academia. I understood that advising was an opportunity to make a difference in a student’s college experience. I would go as far to say that I believe that good advising may even help some students persist and remain in their programs.

The extant literature on holistic advising methods overlaps with developmental advising, which describes the student-centered nature of advising (Bland, 2003; Gries, 2013). The essential tenets of either are that advising with students’ personal, developmental, and educational needs in mind must underlie the advising encounter. Advisors interested in framing their advising with these approaches should self-reflect on the importance of a strong advisor-advisee relationship. Adopting such a perspective entails that the advisor uses their professional experiences to partner with students to promote personal growth and development so they can navigate our college systems, self-reflect on limitations, and seek out resources that position them to successfully complete what they started. Advisors should come armed with open-ended questions that not only help to identify mastery of course content and course completion, but also encourage discussion of any barriers that might impede positive program outcomes.

I decided that I could ask my students one question: “Is there anything I should know about you that would prevent successful completion of the program?” That question may sound therapeutic, but I have found that student responses are always somewhat similar—a little delight, followed by some self-searching, and concluded with an authentic and insightful response—a few answers in particular stand out to me. First, one student looked at me as if I was a mind-reader, almost to say, “How did you know?” She had only recently gotten a divorce, and given her young age, she seemed receptive to a chance to talk about how this change in her life intersected with her school work. Another student told me that she was hearing-impaired. I had been wondering why she seemed to be hanging on to my every word and initially felt that she may be critical of what I was saying. This question opened up an opportunity for us to talk about some of the accommodations she used in her past school and how important it was that she connect with someone in our current university system. I was under the impression that she may have chosen to blend in rather than seek out options to help her level the educational playing field. A final memorable outcome came from a student who was highly motivated, though she seemed to be having challenges managing school and home life. She confided in me that her father was not supportive of her major choice. She also shared that she regularly felt that she had something to prove throughout the program. This initiated discussion about self-care, alternate sources of support, and overcoming feelings of inadequacy (reflective of yet another one of our advising roles as that of encourager). Her regular updates on the issue led me to understand that she had developed a sense of validation that she had chosen the correct major for her personal goals. I have countless other examples of the positive effects from asking this one question.

I found that asking this simple question is also personally meaningful. It enables me to connect with my advisees and to gain their trust, while also helping to keep them aligned with their plans of study. Somehow, this question fosters a much different response than a simple, “How’s it going?” I found that this somewhat generic question was always met with a socially acceptable remark such as, “I’m fine.” Sometimes, I think students don’t want to trouble you or perhaps they feel you are only making obligatory conversation.

My recommendation is to ask students this one question, “Is there anything I should know about you that would prevent successful completion of the program?” each and every semester when you have an advisory meeting. As is discussed in the developmental advising literature, advising needs to happen consistently. It is amazing how much can change in students’ lives, especially for those who may struggle with fitting into our academic systems (e.g. first generation; international students; those who use ESL; LGBTQI+). Keep notes on student comments and use those to generate discussion next time you advise. This does not take a long time, but it can make a difference in the lives of your advisee. Looking back to my experience as a first-generation college student, I wish someone would have taken the time to do the same by asking me this specific question.

Melissa Mokel is an associate professor of nursing at University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, CT. Her overarching program of research focuses on health care disparities, health beliefs/behaviors, and culturally competent communication which underlies her work in the scholarship of teaching and learning.


Bland, Sharon Morris. “Advising Adults: Telling or Coaching”. Adult Learning 14, no. 2 (2003): 6 – 9.

Gries, Thomas J. “Developmental Academic Advising: A 40-Year Context”. NACADA Journal 33, no. 1 (2013): 5 – 15.