Simple Questions and Positivity: Analysis and Reflection of a Formative Advising Session

Bryan Buschner, Pennsylvania State University

Buschner, B. (2020). Simple questions and positivity: Analysis and reflection of a formative advising session. Relay Journal, 3(2).

Abstract

This manuscript was a reflection on a single advising session with a Japanese university student, following the conclusion of an advisor training course. It combined a reflective practice approach (Schön, 1987) with elements of discourse analysis (Strauss & Feiz, 2014) to better understand the choices I (the advisor) made during the session. Originating as an assignment aimed at personal development, the reflection encouraged introspection on the events of the session. Analysis of the discourse offered further insight, resulting in a focus on three strategies that were used extensively and emerged as valuable on my road to becoming a better advisor: (1) use of questions, (2) use of metaview and linking strategies, and (3) use of positive reframing (Kato & Mynard, 2016). While investigation identified benefits from, and appreciation of, a focus on positive reframing, it also suggested that questions could have been used more effectively. More precisely, use of questions as a strategy might have been improved with a focus on more powerful questions. The reflection concludes with a discussion of insights gained from analysis and addresses some specific questions asked by advisor trainers for personal development. Finally, I offer some suggestions for my own professional development and future research.

Keywords: discourse analysis, reflective practice, language advising

 

It has been my experience as a researcher in the last few years that analysis of any advising session is interesting.  Analysis of my first advising session with a university student was no exception – an intricate web of in-situ actions and decisions as advisor and student co-constructed a path to better English language study. As part of an adviser training certificate course, I was assigned the task of conducting an advising session and then reflecting on the interaction. This paper is a reflection and analysis of that session. To better understand the interaction in the session, I employed a discourse analytic approach (Strauss & Feiz, 2014; Gee, 2018) to analyze the language used.  To give both structure and clarity to the reflection, I drew on strategies of reflective practice (Schön, 1987) and professional development questions.  The professional development questions set the stage by prompting an initial reflection, completed within hours of the advising session. Later the results of the reflection were more deeply analyzed, focused through the lens of a more detached discourse analysis.  Thus, this manuscript is a combination of discourse analysis and direct self-reflection.

This focus on discourse analysis is something of a safe place for me as an academic writer.  I am a PhD student in applied linguistics and much of my work is discourse analysis of one sort or another.  Although I have interests in a number of different sub-disciplines and theories (sociocultural theory, conceptual metaphor theory, English for specific purposes, just to name a few) discourse analysis of language advising is a major area of study.  As a result, I felt most comfortable incorporating the more detached role of analyst to that of the reflective student.  The tone of the essay too, is a combination of genres – more personal for self-reflection, more detached for analysis.  This reflection is generally organized like many research articles: introduction, brief background and discussion of methods, data, then results and discussion.  The concluding section directly addresses reflection questions asked by my advisor trainers, answering them in light of insights gained from analysis.

Preparation for the Session

Following the direction of advisor trainers, I prepared for the advising session by deciding on what aspects of advising, and what strategies, I wanted to focus on during the session.  I chose to focus on the aspect of positivity – something that attracted me to language advising from the beginning.  I decided that I would bring to the session as much positive energy as possible, and that I would actively try to reframe situations, conclusions and difficulties in a positive light.  I did not write out a script or prepare points, instead just jotting down a note on paper to “keep it positive!”  Further preparation for the advising session included a review of information provided by the student about her goals for the session, and the uploading of a digital copy of the Wheel of Language Learning worksheet (Kato and Mynard, 2016 p.42).

Participant

The data for this analysis were collected from a single advising session that was conducted with a volunteer undergraduate student at small Japanese university.  This advising session was arranged by an advisor trainer and the student was chosen by that advisor trainer. I am unclear on the exact details of her connection to the advisor training program but am aware that she has acted in a similar role in the past.  To protect her anonymity, I did not ask for additional information beyond what I was given.  I had no prior contact with the student before the beginning of the session and was unlikely to ever meet her again after the advising session finished.  The student, Rika (a pseudonym) was interested in language advising and had some experience as an advisee as well as some understanding of the advising process beyond that of the average student.  Her goals for the session were to review her performance in language classes during the previous semester and discuss time management.  Beyond this I was given no additional information about Rika.

Data

The session was conducted online via Zoom and lasted for just over 30 minutes.  The session was video-recorded and then transcribed.  The transcription was analyzed for advising strategies then data were collected and organized into themes.  Specifically, data were coded according to the 16 advising strategies suggested by Kato and Mynard (2016). Emergent from the data were several themes, including – (a) advisor’s use of questions, (b) use of metaview and linking strategies and (c) advisor’s use of positive reframing.  Additional themes (advisor’s use of time, difficulties in virtual workspaces, balance of student and advisor talk time etc.) were identified but will not be addressed here.

Data were coded for each of the 16 advising strategies: Repeating, Mirroring, Restating, Summarizing, Positive Feedback, Empathy, Complimenting, Metaview/Linking, Metaphor, Powerful Questions, Intuiting, Challenging, Confronting, Sharing, Accountability, and Silence.   During coding it became clear that extant categories needed slight modification to match the data more closely.  Thus, the strategy of ‘Powerful Questions’ was expanded to a range of question types set on a continuum of least to most powerful.  This follows a simplified version of Vogt, Brown and Isaacs’s model (2003) which also inspired Kato and Mynard (2016).  The new set of five classifications became: simple questions (yes/no and short answer), what questions, how questions, why questions and powerful questions.  Structurally, powerful questions consisted of ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions but needed to be separated from other ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions because of the ways they were approached by the advisor and the answers they elicited from the student. The answers to these ‘most powerful questions’ required expanded answers, personal reflection and insight.  One additional change was made to Kato and Maynard’s list of advising strategies, namely that of ‘Positive Feedback.’  The idea of feedback was broadened to ‘Positive Reframing’ to address all manner of approaches to positivity beyond that of feedback. To be clear, I am using “feedback” as defined in Initiation, Response, Feedback/Evaluation (IRF/IRE) interactions (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975; Mehan, 1979).

Table 1.
Use of Advising Strategies

Repeating – 8 Positive Reframe – 10 Metaphor -1 Confronting – 0
Mirroring -1 Empathy – 12 Questions – *105 Sharing – 2
Restating – 16 Complimenting -7 Intuiting – 4 Accountability – 0
Summarizing – 10 Meta/ Linking – 19 Challenging – 1 Silence – *

 

Table 1 shows the number of times each strategy was used during the session with Rika.  The most commonly used strategies were: metaview/ linking (19), restating (16), empathy (12), summary (10) and positive reframing (10), with repeating (8) and compliment (7) close behind.  Mirroring, metaphor and challenging were only used a single time, and confronting and accountability were not used at all.

As mentioned above, the ‘Powerful Questions’ category was expanded to a continuum that contains five separate classifications which were coded separately: simple questions (77), what questions (18), how questions (3), why questions (3) and powerful questions (4).  The category of ‘simple questions’ contained yes/no questions as well as the “Wh” questions: which, who, when and where.  This condensed category was created due to the similarity in responses, as each consisted of either a single word or a single piece of information as an answer. (see Examples A and B in appendix)

Silence was not coded (marked in Table 1 with an asterisk) as the category was difficult both to quantify and to consistently identify in strategic use in the transcript.  This is a fascinating advising strategy and is area I wish to investigate further at another time.  Reflecting on my use of silence, I did actively attempt to make use of it as a tool.  I purposely gave Rika more than enough time to answer questions or expand on thoughts.  I did this to allow more thinking time, to avoid providing answers where deeper thought would happen naturally and to push her to expand when and where she was able.  Investigation of the usage and value of silence in this session is something that I would like to return to in the future.

Results and Discussion

Several themes of advisor behavior emerged from the data.  Here I will briefly address three themes: use of questions, use of positive reframing, and use of metaview and linking.

Use of questions

Even a cursory analysis reveals an extensive use of questions over the course of this session.  In 155 advisor turns (roughly counted via the transcription) I asked 105 questions.  Of the questions 77 (73%) were simple questions that were answered with a yes or no, or a single phrase that required minimal expansion.  The aim of my questions appears to have been the collection of specific information.  The questions were aimed at clearing up ambiguities or to establish a foundation of understanding between myself and Rika; creating a set of ‘known’ information from which we could both interact in the moment.  For this purpose, simple questions seemed a good choice.

However, short answers to simple questions offered little in terms of thoughtful responses.  Few of Rika’s answers lead to significant insight or added information beyond what was asked.  Reflecting on why I took this approach of asking many simple questions – I believe that I had hoped to “pin down” certain aspects of Rika’s study habits to identify problems or areas of interest.  Once those were established, I believed that we could discuss them more generally.  However, instead of going to plan, her responses did not set any clear space for discussion of problem areas (see Example B in appendix).  Alternatively, a few of her more unexpected responses did suggest expansion but into new topic areas that felt tangential to the goals of the session.

By contrast, the 28 questions from the other categories (what, how, why and powerful questions) lead to more thoughtful, extended responses (see Example C in appendix).  Although I have been aware of the strengths and weaknesses of these different question types for years, I seem to have fallen prey to the novice mistake of focusing on simple, low yield, questions.  Reflecting on it later, it seemed quite possible that a greater number of “more powerful” questions could have opened-up conversation and allowed Rika to contribute more as well as take more from the experience.

Positivity

As mentioned above, the category of positive feedback was expanded beyond ‘feedback’ to positive reframing.  Although this phenomenon appeared in several guises, the most prominent form of positive reframing was that of highlighting positive aspects of Rika’s “problems” (see examples D and E in appendix).  In this way I attempted to actively change Rika’s perception of events and circumstances – making lemons into lemonade, if you will.

As positivity was a focus of mine entering the session, only 10 instances of its use may seem like a small number.  Indeed, compared to the use of questions or repetition and rephrasing, it is.  However, I decided that not every comment or response needed to be overly positive.  Instead my focus was on taking what I learned and applying a positive spin to larger issues – the main issue being that Rika was unhappy with her lack of free time for activities beyond schoolwork.  To this end it seems that positive reframing, compliments, empathy and sharing of personal stories contributed to the following interaction at the conclusion of the session:

Advisor: So do you have any questions for me?

Student: I don’t have questions.  I understand what I can do.

Advisor: Ok, well I don’t know if I really helped you organize your time.  It sounds like you’re very good at organizing your time.

Student: Yes, I can find the positive things

Rika’s response and statement about being able to “find the positive things” is not connected to any explicit interaction earlier in the dialogue about positivity or being positive.  In fact, the word positive was never used nor was the idea of “finding” fun or positive things.  This surprising statement from her suggests that my attempts to refocus her attention to the positive did not go unnoticed.

Metaview

A surprising number of my questions and comments were aimed at focusing Rika’s attention to how her actions, choices and activities fit into a larger picture of her life.  From the beginning of the session I aimed to get her to illustrate her life and schedule holistically.  However, as the session changed from a focus on schedules to a focus on plans for the future, these metaview and linking strategies became a way of juxtaposing happy thoughts and plans, like a trip to Disneyland, against the hard work of the semester and her worries about finding a job (see example F in appendix).

Reflection

As a post-session reflection, I considered questions given to me by an advisor trainer: (1) How did the tools used in the session facilitate the dialogue? (2) What was the turning point of the session? (3) What was learned from the session?  I addressed these questions directly after the conclusion of the session and prior to data analysis.  The answers below are an expansion on my original answers, which have been considered in light of the analysis.

To begin with, I did not use any advising tools, such as worksheets or activities (like the scheduling worksheet or writing a letter to one’s future self).  Despite preparing a scan of the Wheel of Language Learning (WLL), I did not use it.  I did not begin with the WLL because the conversation began naturally and seemed to flow easily from introductions into the first topic.  The situation did not seem conducive to a sudden switch-up to the use of a worksheet.  As the session progressed, I did consider stopping to use the WLL.  However, each time I considered using it, I decided against it.

In retrospect, it seems like the WLL worksheet could have been useful in several ways.  After hearing Rika’s explanations, it might have offered a new angle for her to visualize and express her feelings and conclusions about study. Perhaps the WLL or another tool would have opened a new door by offering a different perspective or enticing Rika to re-envision her perspective.  In addition, the use of a worksheet of any type may have simply helped me stay on topic when conversation began to shift.  There were points in the flow of conversation that I wish were clearly connected to the main topic of schedules, study and free time.  In those instances, I choose to ask more questions which eventually allowed us to move to new ground and make the connection back.  Unfortunately, this was not without what felt like wasted time and what appears (in the transcript) as a tangent.  In this single session I felt pressured to accomplish a lot, knowing that I would not have a chance to meet Rika again.  An activity or worksheet about planning, conceptualizations or even just simple feelings, might have opened a new approach and allowed better use of time.

These tangential sections offer a nice transition to question two, about the “turning point” in the session.  I believe a turning point in the session occurred when we moved away from the review of Rika’s semester classes to enjoyable things outside of schoolwork.  I wanted to gain more information about how she spent her free time.  This was part of my broad plan to reframe things as positive, but it put me in a position where I suddenly needed information about things we had not discussed.  Unfortunately, this topical shift did not happen seamlessly, and conversation bogged down in places where I asked banks of simple questions and got one phrase responses.  The end result was successful to some degree, as I was able to gain information that I needed to juxtapose positive things with her hard work. But it came at the cost of fighting for the answers.  In retrospect, I wonder if asking Rika to draw or find a picture of “a pleasant day” or asking her to describe a great day might have been more successful.  The ideas of using pictures or descriptions were strategies discussed during the advisor training course and are supported by worksheets that could have been helpful. Moving forward, I would like to have several tools readily available for use during a session.

The experience as a whole – the session, the reflection, the analysis and the writing of this manuscript – has been an enlightening experience.  Addressing the third question of what I had learned, these exercises encouraged me to think about many things including: use of time, use of positive reframing, student vs. advisor talk time, meditation, use of questions, how to pick up dying topics of conversation, and difficulties in holding advisees accountable.  The topics were many and varied and now each begs for more investigation.  Perhaps the real lesson from this is that I have received a taste of how much more I would like to learn about so many elements of advising.

From deeper analysis, I learned the most about my use of questions and my potential influence on student’s positivity.  What emerged, in terms of question use, was unexpected and informative.  Though I had examined and reflected on the use of questions in the past, this advising experience suggests a reevaluation.  It seems that I may have become a touch rusty in making the best use of questions.  In my next advising session, I plan to focus on what types of questions I use and to carefully consider the reasons why I use them.  Future research into questions types, and how they resonate, might be especially interesting if conducted across a wide range of levels (both in language skill and in level of autonomy).

In contrast to the use of questions in my advising session with Rika, I felt that the use of positive reframing was a great success.  This is something that I intended to focus on from the beginning and plan to pursue again in the future.  As discussed above, I do not believe that I needed to enact a greater amount of positive reframing.  Instead, I would like to peruse a means of enacting better positive reframing.  Perhaps there is a way in which I can be more effective.  Before my next session I would like to see how others bring positivity to the advising session and hope to learn from their choices.  This may also offer an interesting direction for experimental research, perhaps informed by studies in counseling, an area I would like to learn more about.  Alternatively, discourse analysis and reflection might be enhanced by areas close to applied linguistics like sociocultural theory (Lantolf & Poehner, 2014) or conceptual metaphor theory (Dancygier & Sweetser, 2014).

Conclusion

This analysis and reflection was an important step on my path to becoming a better advisor.  Careful reflection of the decisions made, and student reactions, highlighted the effectiveness of some of my approaches and the ineffectiveness of others.  I will not always have the questions of advisor trainers to direct me.  However, my work now through conducting sessions and reflection should help to support my own autonomy in the same way I hope to support language learning autonomy in students.  Kato and Mynard (2016) offer a learning trajectory for advisors, of which the third step is “Becoming Aware: Know yourself as an advisor” (p.17).  I think that the process of reflection and analysis described here has helped shift me closer to that step – closer to knowing myself as an advisor.

Returning to the beginning, I stated that every analysis of an advising session has been interesting.  It has been and continues to be.  My entry point into world of language advising is the less common route of researcher first and practitioner second.  Though I have surely missed out on some experiences as a result, it has guided me to engage tools like discourse analysis and encouraged me to try to keep a broad view. As I learn more about advising and begin to take on the role of the advisor, I hope that I can not only help students in sessions, co-constructing their paths to learning, but also aid the field in untangling the webbing of this complex and unique environment.

References

Dancygier, B., & Sweetser, E. (2014). Figurative language. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. P. (2018). Introducing discourse analysis: From grammar to society. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kato, S., & Mynard, J. (2016). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lantolf, J. P., & Poehner, M. E. (2014). Sociocultural theory and the pedagogical imperative in L2 education: Vygotskian praxis and the research/practice divide. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sinclair, J. M., & Coulthard, M. (1975). Towards and analysis of discourse: The English used by teachers and pupils.  London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Strauss, S., & Feiz, P. (2014). Discourse analysis: Putting our worlds into words. New York, NY: Routledge.

Vogt, E. E., Brown, J., and Isaacs, D. (2003). The art of powerful questions: Catalyzing, insight, innovation and action. Mill Valley, CA: Whole Systems Associates.

 [Appendices]

 

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