Isra Wongsarnpigoon, Kanda University of International Studies
Wongsarnpigoon, I. (2018). Finding the positive: Reflective observation of an advising session. Relay Journal, 1(2), 317-329.
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This reflective paper contains observations on a specific advising session between a student and the author, who was in his first year as a learning advisor. During the session, particular attention was paid to the use of certain advising skills, namely empathizing and complimenting, and establishing a positive mood in the session. Following the session, the author reflected on the session and shared his observations with colleagues. The target skills were effective in prompting reflection from the student and acknowledging her positive achievements, and the session was more positive than previous ones. Observation also revealed, however, that there were other areas of the author’s advising that he could focus in the future. Finally, actions taken to act on the findings are described, along with further reflections on the author’s advising since the observation as well as how the reflection process aided his development as an advisor.
Keywords: Advising in language learning, professional development, reflective practice, positive emotions, feedback, self-access
Making the transition from teaching languages to language advising involves a significant change in roles and skills. Even experienced educators often find various challenges in acclimating to this transition (Morrison & Navarro, 2012). As such, for those new to the field, reflection on their evolving practices is crucial in the development of their identities as advisors. This was true in my own case, as well. I am currently in my second year as a learning advisor in the Self-Access Learning Center (SALC) at Kanda University of International Studies. Previously, I had taught English in Japanese classrooms for many years, but becoming an advisor required me to adjust to working with learners in a different way. Fortunately, my training during my first year as an advisor included the opportunity to observe and reflect on my own advising and to share my findings with my peers. This paper contains my observation of an advising session during that first year, my reflections on it, and how I applied what I found to my continuing development as a learning advisor.
The advisee, Mari (a pseudonym), was in her first year of university at the time of this observation. She was taking the SALC’s Effective Learning Module 2 (ELM2), for which I was her advisor. In the previous semester, we had also worked together on a SALC module, and she had done very well. She took her learning quite seriously and always showed careful thought in her written reflections.
The SALC modules are optional, one-semester, self-directed modules. Students taking ELM2 meet individually with their learning advisors four times during the semester, and this particular session was the third such meeting between myself and Mari. The purpose of the session was for the student to reflect on the previous month of their self-directed learning. This process might typically include discussing ongoing issues with her learning, evaluating her progress during the past month, or refining her learning focus.
Although Mari and I had a good personal rapport, the mood in our advising sessions tended to be somewhat tense and serious. Prior to the observed session, my peer mentor and I both watched a video recording of an earlier meeting between myself and Mari, in order to identify potential areas to focus on in my observation. My mentor noted that my facial expressions and body language differed from how she had normally observed me interacting with students. I had not previously identified this as an issue when advising other students and felt that I was successful at keeping other sessions positive. My mentor and I agreed, however, that it is important to be consistent in presenting a supportive and friendly setting to every student.
The serious atmosphere could be due to the weight that Mari placed on her own learning. Another factor might have been the fact that at that point, she had been somewhat dissatisfied with her self-directed learning that semester and had experienced less success in that area than in the previous semester. As a result of this overall mood, I was somewhat preoccupied thinking of the right strategies or questions to use and had experienced some difficulty maintaining a natural flow of dialogue and positive atmosphere in our previous sessions together.
Following the discussion with my peer mentor, I decided on some aspects of my advising to focus on in this session: empathizing and complimenting, and more generally, maintaining a positive atmosphere in the session through, for instance, eye contact and smiling. Empathizing and complimenting are advising strategies that can be used to target affective issues. When empathizing, an advisor tries to view a situation from the student’s perspective and imagines the student’s thoughts or feelings. This action can improve the trust between the advisor and student (Kato & Mynard, 2015). Complimenting might seem self-explanatory, but in advising, it refers more specifically to giving positive comments directed at something that the advisor has noticed is meaningful. The functions of these two strategies in advising include highlighting positive achievements that the learner might not have noticed, demonstrating that the advisor is truly noticing the learner and considers her important, confirming the learner’s efforts, or improving rapport (Kato & Mynard, 2015).
I chose these strategies based on things that my mentor and I had noticed in our meeting. First, we both felt that I was already effectively using basic advising strategies, such as restating and summarizing, and that I could push myself to focus on some more challenging ones. Additionally, my mentor pointed out that in the previous session, the discussion proceeded quite linearly, in that I would ask a question, Mari would answer, and I would then move on to the next question. Empathizing or complimenting would allow me to step in and include my own feedback to her answers, indicate that a topic was significant, and remain on that issue rather than letting it go. The strategies could also help us both handle Mari’s perceptions of experiencing less success than she had in the first module. Additionally, through complimenting, I could encourage her to focus on her achievements and feel positive about them. Finally, a goal of mine during the year had been to improve my global listening skills. Concentrating on finding the underlying message in students’ words to properly empathize with or compliment would help me develop those skills. In turn, this could also build positive rapport with the student by helping her feel that I was really listening to her.
I also decided to focus on keeping a positive atmosphere in the session, particularly by improving my eye contact and smiling more, from observing the video of the earlier meeting. While mirroring is a valuable strategy in advising, I felt that I had been allowing the student to set the tone of the discussions and perhaps mirroring her too much. Thus, as Mari is serious about her learning and had been struggling to find success, my expression and the overall tone of the session became similarly serious. I also noticed moments in the video in which Mari would look at me after saying something, as if seeking confirmation or agreement, but I had missed those glances in the moment. These observations helped me recognize the influence that an advisor has in establishing the mood of a session. My peer mentor remarked that she always tries to maintain a slight smile in advising sessions and suggested that I could do the same.
Observation of Focus Areas
The 30-minute session was conducted in a semi-private advising space within the SALC. With permission from Mari, I recorded our meeting. Following the session, I watched the video and took notes on what I observed. In addition, I transcribed key parts of the session. My peer mentor also watched the video. We later met to discuss what we had noticed, which was highly valuable in helping me make my reflections stronger and more cohesive.
Empathizing and complimenting
In this session, I made a conscious effort to use empathizing and complimenting. I did not find it difficult or unnatural to do so; on the contrary, it felt satisfying. It seemed like I was really trying to go deeper, past my student’s surface statements, in order to find her true message. I feel that the strategies were effective in both highlighting Mari’s positive achievements and helping me listen deeply in order to find the right points to accentuate.
For example, at one point, Mari described her feelings about her studies. She liked studying but had expressed in her written reflections that she was still working through her perceptions of her learning obligations. She also wanted to make her studying more effective. I tried to use empathizing and complimenting in order to show that I was aware of her efforts and that I thought that she was doing well. I also tried to make a connection with her work from the previous semester, when she had been successful in the first SALC module, in order to remind her that she had been experiencing success that year. In that sense, I also employed summarizing as well as metaview and linking skills in order to help her see the larger picture of her learning throughout the year:
Learning Advisor (LA): …I know that you wrote in your module also that you want to start thinking about studying as “I have to.” You’ll start thinking “I have to” and not “I want to…”
Student (S): I like studying. I enjoy study. I want to study more, but in university, always, I have deadline.
LA: Of course, yeah.
S: I’m conscious of deadline. I feel, “I have to do, I have to do.”
LA: So the deadline makes you feel like you have to do it.
S: But it is shoganai. Shoganai. [“It can’t be helped”]
LA: So you can’t help it. That’s interesting.
Yeah, it seems to me, I can see that you are really motivated. That you like, that you’re interested in your studying. But I understand that students, some things you have to do all the time. So often, I think, there’s kind of a, these two things are kind of fighting all the time. The things that you want to do and things that you have to do. But I think that you’re doing a really good job, that you’re trying to make the things interesting.
Especially last semester, also, I think you did a really good job of using the materials and using learning which was interesting for you, and I think that you’ve been trying to find that this semester too. I know it’s not easy to balance everything, but I think that you’re trying really hard, and I think you’re doing a good job.
At other times, I was able to use these strategies to add my own feedback to her reflections as well as confirm that she had been achieving some positive things:
S: Right now resources, is a good match for me.
LA: Yeah, good. I know that you were not sure about your resource last time, so you found something which suits you better. You made an adjustment because you weren’t satisfied last time, so I think that was a good job, that you could make an adjustment to your plan. Nice. So you’re happier with your resource.
In the above extract, the advising strategies allowed me to acknowledge her achievements, and I hope that in turn, she was also able to confirm them while also feeling that her efforts had been noticed.
In this next extract from later in the session, we were using the Wheel of Language Learning (Kato & Mynard, 2015), an advising tool. It is used to facilitate reflection on the student’s progress and her satisfaction with her learning. I was again able to use complimenting to support Mari’s own reflections and provide feedback on her strategies for managing her time (and her energy). To that end, I also used empathizing and incorporated some experience sharing:
LA: And I think also, because you have a good idea for Time Management, to use your time and not be sleepy, if you can use those exercises or techniques well, then maybe you’ll be able to use your time to make the balance better.
LA: But I agree, that you did a good job using your “Study” and “Use” time this month.
LA: So I think you used your time very positively for those things. So which ones do you think you want to focus on for the next month?
S: Hmm…Time Management and exercise.
LA: Yeah, so you want to go out and exercise also.
S: It can, it makes, it affects many things.
LA: Right! Yeah!
S: Time management, SURE Balance, Motivation.
LA: Yeah, I think you can see. You did a good job to notice that they’re all connected.
I also feel, sometimes when I feel really sleepy, I have the same problem. And I think, sometimes I try to just drink coffee or tea, but at time, maybe the best thing for me is just to walk around the building and go for a short walk. It’s effective for me, too.
Another highly interesting moment from earlier in the meeting caught my attention. I made an attempt to empathize and incorporate intuiting skills. Even though my guess at Mari’s underlying point was incorrect, the strategies were still useful in that she took the opportunity to correct me and redirect the conversation towards the points she was trying to make:
LA: I know that you’re very busy, because you’re also majoring in another language, so you’re learning two languages. So to me, I can see that you want to do a lot of things at one time. Does it make a lot of pressure for you?
S: Pressure? No, I don’t feel pressure. But I push. Push me up. I have to, I have to…
LA: So you feel like you have to do something?
S: But I feel… English and Spanish and part-time job, and now, I all things I’m doing is I want to do. I have to do, but also I want to do it. So… I don’t feel pressure, but…
nandarou? [“What is it?”] I feel, I have to, I have to… more… effectively and efficiently. I can’t do it now.
I had taken a chance at intuiting that having many obligations was creating unpleasant pressure for her, but she was able to correct me and clarify that it actually motivated her. She could then express that her issue laid more in her dissatisfaction with not doing everything effectively. In this case, the strategy did not produce the expected outcome but led to a very helpful result.
Maintaining a positive atmosphere
I also tried to keep a positive atmosphere in this session by focusing on making eye contact and maintaining a smile. As a result, the mood was better and much less tense than that of our previous meeting. Although this change could have been partly due to Mari having more positive results from that month, I believe that my efforts were successful. She was more animated than before and seemed much more engaged in our discussion.
For instance, I noticed that Mari was more expressive than she had been before, using many gestures:
S: Now, if I, in this week, I finish all of things I have to do in this weekend, [gesturing] next week, something which I will have to do next week? So next week I can be free. And I can use that time for other things. So I want to do everything.
But sometimes I tend to… ato-mawashi? Ato-mawashi…
LA: You mean you put it off until later?
S: Yes. So it is my bad habit.
LA: So when you try to think about the things you need to do, you put some things ‘til later?
LA: Yeah, when you think about the things you need to do, you tend to…
S: For example, in [teacher K]’s class, I have to write, make a writing paragraph. If its deadline is next Tuesday, I have one week. But “I will do it tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…” [gesturing to represent procrastination]
S: So, I, next Monday I will try, when I feel sleepy or tired, I exercise?
LA: Ooh, interesting!
S: Yes. Until now, if, when I feel sleepy, [makes sleeping actions]
LA: Right, yes, so you give up to your sleepiness.
S: But when I try, if I feel sleep, stand up and walk, walking around here [gestures around second floor]
In these extracts, Mari smiled often and was quite animated, even almost playful, which is not a characteristic I would have associated with her in previous meetings. As an experiment, I watched the video without sound, and even then, it was clear from her body language and eye contact that she was actively invested in our conversation. Conversely, when Mari wanted to talk about more serious topics, I incorporated mirroring appropriately to reflect her feelings. Mirroring allowed me to listen to her earnestly without dragging down the mood of the session.
Overall, I was satisfied with this session; I was moderately successful in using my target strategies and succeeded in maintaining a positive atmosphere. Having already become comfortable with some basic advising strategies, I was thus pleased at being able to push myself to use some different ones here, such as empathizing and complimenting. These strategies helped my student be aware of her positive achievements and were also useful in my becoming a more active listener. In terms of keeping a positive atmosphere, I was able to do so by improving my eye contact and smiling more. It seemed that this atmosphere helped Mari to actively reflect on her achievements and feel more positive about her self-directed learning.
After watching the video, my peer mentor also indicated that I was quite adept at using open-ended questions in order to help students reflect on their learning. She said that at times, I was able to come up with questions that had not even occurred to her, raising this extract as an example:
LA: What do you think is different from the last time that made [the Wheel of Language Learning] get so much bigger?
S: I think… At that time, I didn’t do well all things, like deadline, I can’t save deadline, or I couldn’t finish what I decided. So, I was in…spiral? Bad spiral?
Even though this was not my main focus in this session, it was gratifying to realize this growth in my advising skills. Using these questions was not something I had been working on explicitly, but it was something I wanted to be able to do effectively in my advising in the long term. It could be one of my strengths as an advisor, and it was nice to have this recognized by a colleague. Without the opportunity to reflect with a peer, I might have not have identified this aspect of my advising on my own.
Areas for further improvement
Although I was able to use advising strategies to validate important points raised by my student, upon reflecting on the session, I found that I was still following a linear question-answer pattern to some extent. There was still room for me to let certain issues develop more. For instance, Mari talked about needing to study more “effectively and efficiently” and used the word “shoganai” (“it can’t be helped”) in describing her struggles in managing her obligations and interests in her studies:
S: I feel, I have to, I have to… more… effectively and efficiently. I can’t do it now.
S: I like studying. I enjoy study. I want to study more, but in university, always, I have deadline.
LA: Of course, yeah.
S: I’m conscious of deadline. I feel, “I have to do, I have to do.”
LA: So the deadline makes you feel like you have to do it.
S: But it is shoganai. Shoganai.
LA: So you can’t help it. That’s interesting.
When reflecting on these extracts, I felt that I let this point get away because I had been focusing on my own strategies while listening, thinking about the right way to respond, rather than immersing myself in what the student was saying. I could have explored what “effective and efficient” meant to her or challenged her to be more positive in her expectations for herself. There was also a missed opportunity to further discuss her feelings of having to do things and her perception of her obligations as “shoganai.” To her, these were likely important points to her that she was still struggling with. She used these terms multiple times, so she probably wanted to talk about them and express something to me. These areas might have escaped my attention at the time. I realize that having an explicit intent to use specific strategies is unnatural in advising, but it is also an inherent part of this type of observation. With time, I hope that as these strategies become more instinctive to me, I will be able to pick up on such points more naturally.
Later in the session, Mari related having escaped a negative pattern:
S: I think… At that time, I didn’t do well all things, like deadline, I can’t save deadline, or I couldn’t finish what I decided. So, I was in… spiral? Bad spiral?
LA: Ah, you were in a downward spiral. [gestures] Interesting.
S: So, I feel down. But now, I have some trouble, some problems? But I can improve it. And I have improved from now, until now.
It was a very meaningful achievement for her that semester, and I could have spent more time highlighting it and confirming its importance through complimenting. At the time, I remember stepping back and opting to let her direct the conversation, which soon shifted to another topic. My mentor helped me realize that at times like these, I can be more proactive in inserting my own feedback, as the point was worth emphasizing. I had tended to give students control of our sessions in order to avoid pushing my own agenda, but reflecting on this experience helped me notice that there are appropriate moments in which I can use my instincts to step in and offer input based on my professional experience.
Additionally, my peer mentor remarked that in this session, Mari and I did not spend much time talking about her goals or her progress towards them. In this meeting and throughout the semester, I had felt that Mari had maintained a strong awareness of her goals, and we had both been satisfied with the connection between her learning plan and her goals. Her goal was to improve her TOEIC test score, and she was using materials specifically targeting the exam. As such, her activities were clearly relevant, particularly because she had changed from less directly related resources earlier in the semester. I did not directly raise the topics in this particular session, but I realized that in future meetings, it could be beneficial to review students’ goals and plans. Addressing these topics might help students regain focus on their goals or prompt reflection on their learning.
Finally, I realized that I tended to rely on certain phrases in my feedback, particularly when complimenting (e.g., “Good job,” “Good work,” “Interesting”). I could use more varied phrases, more emphatic language to convey my sincerity, and language that is more specific to the student’s individual situation. My positive feedback might then feel more genuine to my advisees and thus be more effective (Kato & Mynard, 2015). My peer mentor had noticed that I often gave specific positive feedback in my written comments to students in the SALC learning course that we were team-teaching together. She suggested that it was something that I could do more of in my spoken advising.
Post-reflection Action and Conclusion
Following my reflection, the SALC director also viewed the video recording, read my observations, and gave her own feedback. She agreed with the things that I had noticed and offered suggestions for addressing the areas in which I want to improve. In particular, she commented that as I was already succeeding in the practical, language learning elements of advising, it might benefit me to explore the emotional aspect of advising more. For instance, because Mari was so serious in our meetings, I could have purposely directed the session toward the emotional facets to her learning through comments or questions.
Since this observation, I have indeed started using positive feedback and talking about feelings more in my advising. I often find myself asking students about their emotional reactions to things that occur in their learning. In addition, as many of our learners come to us with problems or tend to focus on their perceived failures, I try to use the strategies discussed here, such as positive feedback that is specific to the learner, to help them recognize their positive achievements. These efforts have met with success; several students have commented that my advising helped them to feel better about their learning and realize their accomplishments. It was also especially rewarding that Mari, in her reflective final report for the module, specifically identified my support as a factor in her increased satisfaction with her learning. Also, in advising sessions, I have been able to maintain a lighter, positive atmosphere more consistently, through the effective use of humor, personal anecdotes, and drawings. These developments in my advising felt quite natural to me, and seeing the positive outcomes reassured me that I am heading in the right direction.
For my further professional development, I also followed up on suggestions from the SALC director that I could learn more about positive feedback and emotional factors and, in doing so, have recently become interested in positive psychology and its relevance in language learning. This expansion of my professional interests has come about through exploring the relevant literature, attending presentations, and taking an online course. It remains to be seen whether this will develop into a long-term research interest, but what I learn will undoubtedly be of practical use in my advising.
This observation was just one aspect of professional development for learning advisors in the SALC, but it was an immensely valuable experience. It allowed me to reflect on my strengths as an advisor, what I still needed to improve, and the progress that I had made in the transition from teaching to advising. With the busy daily schedule of a learning advisor, I might have overlooked these insights without the gentle push to reflect that was given by this observation. The observation also supplied the impetus to explore different strategies in my advising; without it, it might have been easy to continue at a comfortable but low-risk pace, potentially becoming stagnant. I recognize the importance to my continued growth of regularly taking time to reflect on my practices. Finally, this process would not have been nearly as fruitful without input from others. Collaborating with my mentor and director revealed new things and deepened my own reflection; my colleagues will continue to be invaluable parts of my professional progress. While the observations I have recorded here draw from my own specific situation, I hope that they provide an example of the potential that reflective observation has in aiding the development of an advisor.
Notes on the Contributor
Isra Wongsarnpigoon is a learning advisor at Kanda University of International Studies. He holds an M.S.Ed. from Temple University, Japan Campus and has worked in English education in Japan since 2004.
Kato, S., & Mynard, K. (2015). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. New York. NY: Routledge.
Morrison, B. R., & Navarro, D. (2012). Shifting roles: From language teachers to learning advisors. System, 40(3), 349-359.