Advisor as an Empowerer

Curtis Edlin, Kanda University of International Studies
Amelia Yarwood, Kanda University of International Studies

Edlin, C., & Yarwood, A. (2019). Advisor as an empowerer. Relay Journal, 2(1), 63-65.

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Introduction by Kie Yamamoto

Advisors acknowledge that their words are powerful. On the one hand, they potentially influence a learner’s action if he or she is not confident enough to make his or her own decision. Thus, the degree of directiveness is a concern that they pay attention to in advising dialogues. On the other hand, advisors often encounter the situation where they play crucial roles in empowering learners to take a step forward to changing a critical situation, especially when he or she faces a difficulty. As the challenge involves not only academic matters but also interpersonal as well as emotional ones, they also take initiatives to create a “secure space” in their advising dialogues so that the learner feels accepted and comfortable sharing the core of his or her problem. The two stories below illustrate how advisors supported their learners in rather directive ways, which eventually ignited learners’ willingness to take charge of their own learning and overcome the challenging situation.

Lateral Application of Learning
Curtis Edlin

My most memorable advising session this year came on the heels of many weekly face-to-face advising sessions with a student. He had been both struggling to self-regulate well and reflect deeply in written work with learning advisors.

I noticed that when I met with this student, there were many misunderstandings, which seemed to parallel the written work. However, in a face-to-face setting, I could work in the moment to rephrase things, add sketches and figures to support the ideas we were talking about, give further examples, weave in Japanese, and overall repair many of our miscommunications and misinterpretations. This seemed to help focus him and overall improved the quality of his reflections. I asked him schedule a time to meet with me every week so that we could use reflective dialogue to talk through his reflections in a face-to-face setting. While this might constitute a slightly higher degree of directiveness than advisers are normally used to, it proved invaluable to prompting further reflection (PFR–an advising skill) and scaffolding the student to delve deeper into quality reflections that could inform further action. This seemed to mark a turning point for him and he was finally able to complete his work in self-directed learning for credit, which he was ecstatic about.

What made the final session of the semester memorable were some unprompted comments on how he had applied what he had learned about learning. The experience of self-directed learning, supported by reflective dialogue, changed not only how he approached his study of English, but also how he approached his other language classes and school in general. He even mentioned taking better care of his health so that he could be alert and learn more efficiently. His energy levels in turn supported his ability to manage his time more effectively. I was elated to see such a big change in his life and all his successes, and that he took what he learned and applied it laterally to his other courses and other parts of his life.

Asking for a push
Amelia Yarwood

Being new to world of language advising, I have had many memorable sessions which are often connected to my firsts. The first repeat student, the first crying student, the first ‘ah-hah’ moment, and the first student who bounded up to me to share the fruits of their learning plan in the form of a high test score. These are all memorable, but the session that is most clear in my memory occurred when my student stopped doing things how she thought I wanted her to do them, and opted for a path she felt more comfortable on. My student had been through the self-directed learning modules.

Throughout both modules, the students’ motivation had been a rollercoaster ride of sharp twists. When she lost motivation, her goals changed but her learning plans didn’t, causing a mismatch. When she had time, she procrastinated. When she didn’t think she had time, she cancelled meetings. She was tenacious in the sense that she tried to stick to methods she seemed to know weren’t working for her.

We had discussed motivation many times prior, but for some reason when I asked her why her motivation was so low, this time she answered with greater honesty. She told me that she needed someone to push her. When asked how she could create that push, she created a learning plan that utilized myself and an English teacher to keep her accountable through twice-weekly meetings. Later, in the comments section of her learning journal, she wrote, “I thought it’s fine to say my opinion about my study”.

I thought about this session for a while afterwards. Several things seemed to hit home. Firstly, I understood exactly where this student was coming from. For me, language learning isn’t something I can do by myself for long; an external push is often necessary for the ongoing study to be successful. Secondly, while autonomous learning might mean learning by one’s self for some students, for others, it is about the presence of structures that push them to reach the heights they are aiming for. Playing the role of the external force may seem contradictory to our notions of autonomous learning, but I think it is a position we still need to embrace – if it’s what our students want.

5 thoughts on “Advisor as an Empowerer”

  1. I was very pleased to read those two wonderful stories of learners in advising sessions. I could relate many parts of the stories with my own experiences as an advisor. Both cases refer to a certain concern on the level of directiveness on advising sessions. Even though many authors share this concern, my experience as an advisor has shown me that the process of taking charge of one’s own learning may benefit from certain level of directiveness, especially in the first moments of language advising. It seems to work as the push (using professor Yarwood’s term) students need to encourage them to start doing things. As they see how good it is for their learning when they start doing things for themselves, they become less fearful and end up taking more chances, making more choices of their own. I believe that, as advisors, we must keep in mind that autonomy may be a long gradual process for some learners, and they can benefit from some initial pushes. I guess it helps them to develop their awareness of language learning.

    Another thing that called my attention was the regularity of the meetings with the advisors. In our advising program in Brazil, we could realize that the most successful experiences in the development of learner autonomy happened when advisor and advisees met regularly, sometimes on a weekly basis. I am aware that it may be a feature of our context, as brazilians tend to have a greater levels of closeness and intimacy with their professors and peers. But the point is that regular meetings led to the creation of a safe warm environment in which learners felt comfortable to share their opinions freely. This environment created a bond between advisor and advisee and a constant effort to mutual support. I think that literature on Emotions and Language Learning may offer us some key points to confirm or refute this theory.

    The questions I selected to ask you are based in the reflections I made:

    1. Your stories show the benefit of a certain level of directiveness in the process of student empowerment. Do you agree that, for some students, directive advice may offer the awareness they need to gradually start taking control of their learning?

    2. Do you think that regular advising meetings, despite of what some researchers say, may actually help learners develop autonomy?

    I end my comment by congratulating you for the amazing work. Sharing those stories is really helpful for learning advisors. We can get lots of insights from your actions during the advising sessions. I can’t wait to hear more cases like those.

  2. Thank you for your comments Jhonatan. It was great to hear that you could relate to our stories, especially in relation to students’ need for a little push occasionally. In relation to your questions, I have the following comments to make:

    1. From an anecdotal perspective, a certain level of directiveness can be beneficial. However, I do believe that it must be well timed, and the student must want to receive it. In my own practice, I offer directive advice only when the student 1) has tried and failed on their own, multiple times, or 2) when they have personally requested advice for dealing with a specific issue. By sticking to these principles, I feel I am giving my students the chance to control their own learning.

    2. To respond to this question, I believe I first need to question who made the decision for regular advising sessions to occur. If the student made the decision, then they are exercising their autonomy in my mind. If the advisor requested the meeting, and the students feels that it would benefit them, then I would also frame this as the student exercising their autonomy. Secondly, I would have to question what the purpose of the advising session is. If the purpose is to allow the student to control the topic of conversation, then it is the student who is exercising their autonomy by asking personally relevant questions and seeking advice or a chance to work through their own understanding of their language troubles/success. Equally, if the sessions’ purpose is to scaffold self-directed learning processes, then it may well assist in the student’s development as an autonomous learner. If the purpose of the session is so the advisor can state what the student should do, then no, the student won’t develop autonomy (Unless they are very perceptive and able to discern the lessons to be learned).

    I feel that I could say so much more, but I may just leave it at the personal since this column is reflective-based. I do hope my comments have offered up something of use.

  3. I am a learning advisor in training, and I benefited greatly from reading your article. It helped me reflect further on the assumption that each case is unique, therefore, we need to be flexible in approach and creative in helping the student go forward. I now believe more than ever that advising also requires a good dose of sensitivity and common sense, besides good advising skills. I loved your title, empowering is a very inspiring word and it also has a special meaning to me, because I am fond of many principles of empowerment found in critical pedagogy. Thanks to your article I have now mentally made the connection between advising and critical pedagogy, it has enriched my perspective and it all makes so much more sense…

    Thank you! I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  4. I would like to begin by congratulating you on your accomplishments as advisors. You are obviously doing a great job and it is inspiring to read about it. As an advisor in training that is what I myself aspire to be.
    It was great to read this article and look at another way of approaching an advising session. I have often questioned myself how much can/should we allow ourselves to direct and push. I feel that it’s a thin and tricky line, and you have managed to do it successfully. I find it quite empowering how you get affected by your advising sessions and students, how you reflect on the same, and how each and every one of them has a special effect on you. That shows me that you really care about trying to make a positive change in students’ lives.
    There is still a lot for me to learn about this field of advising and it will take a lot of practice for me to find myself as a certain type of advisor. I will take a small step by asking you a question that might help me when I encounter advises similar to the ones you’ve written about:

    * How and when to take the initiative of a more direct approach and push?

    In these two examples, one student asked directly for a push, while in the case of the other one the advisor took the initiative of asking to schedule more sessions. But, I would like to know if you have encountered any common signs in behavior, language use, motivation and overall attitude that told you that the advisee needed a push form you? When is the perfect (or good) time to act and take the initiative of a more direct approach?

    Thank you for the article and I look forward to reading more of your work and experiences.

  5. Hi Edin,

    Thank you for your comments. I still have a lot to learn about being a learning advisor, but no doubt we are both on our way to becoming the best versions of ourselves as LAs.

    Your question about common signs or signals that let you know that ‘now’ is the time to push, is a difficult one to answer – and by no means is my answer rigorously tested. However, I do keep extensive notes on my advising sessions. These help me to notice patterns in the conversations that I have with me students. When I notice that ‘struggle’ is a common code that I assign to their sessions, then I re-read through what happened in the previous sessions and assess my approach in preparation for the next time we meet. I often then ‘challenge’ the student to examine their behaviours and scaffold their reflection. Ideally, they will come to their own useful conclusions and enact more effective learning behaviours. Not all students do achieve the level of reflection needed though, and this is when I will start considering taking a more direct approach (but always with choices available to the student).

    So to sum up, I would take a more direct approach:
    1. After I have gotten to know the student well
    2. After I have noticed re-occurring struggles and tried to scaffold more self-aware reflections through more targeted questions.
    eg. “You’ve been trying this method for a while but it seems it isn’t working for you. Why do you think that is?”
    3. If the student asks specifically to take a more direct approach.

    In regard to the last one, I would agree to a more direct approach but would still scaffold the way for a more student-led approach.

    I hope that has helped. I would love to hear more about your own experiences or struggles with teacher/student- led approaches in advising sessions.

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