Recently I started a new position at a local university as an Applied Learning Facilitator in the Office of Field Education for graduate level social work students. Naturally as a Motivational Interviewing (MI) enthusiast, I immediately looked for ways to incorporate my MI passion into my new job. One of my primary roles in this position is to act as a field advisor to practicum students, and I believe that MI could fit quite naturally in the 30 minute advising appointments that I have with students. I believe that by utilizing some MI skills and the MI spirit, an advisor such as myself can be more student-centered and more effective in helping students in their professional growth and development. What follows is a review of some literature written on using MI in advising-type roles, and toward the end of this article I have included some of my thoughts on how I and other advisors might use MI in the advising appointment.
A core part of MI is that it builds solid therapeutic alliances; in the student-advisor relationship it may help to develop strong working alliances. Self Determination Theory reminds us that honoring autonomy, relatedness, and confidence is key to building intrinsic motivation in students (2005). MI utilizes a guiding approach based on evocation in which the helper and person to be helped embark on a collaborative journey together. The MI approach is less likely to evoke student resistance than traditional directive approaches, and when applied to students this approach can develop relationships that serve as fertile ground for productive helping conversation (Iarussi, 2013). The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) has found that incorporating MI into advising appointments can make an advisor more effective with student advisee. A list of their “8 Tips” for advisors is listed in the table below and also available in video format here (CELT, 2015 & Clifford, 2016).
In the context of the advisor-student relationship, MI offers a great way to build a working alliance with students using basic communication skills. The basic MI skills are open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections and summaries (OARS) focused on the student’s experience, feelings and perspective. Intentionally incorporating these skills into an advising appointment is an obvious way that MI can be used to establish an alliance with a student. It is important to incorporating the MI spirit of compassion into the appointment through verbal, body language, and even environmental language.
There are also several things that are important not to do. It is important that the advisor resist the “righting reflex” (urge to jump to problem solving) and allow the student to come to their own solutions. Advisors may want to be wary of building focus too early in the appointment (premature focus trap), and instead spend some time exploring possible topics for the appointment (agenda setting) before jumping into one issue. Finally, it might be helpful to avoid asking scripted closed-ended fact-finding questions (assessment trap), and instead use more open-ended questions to allow the student to talk more than the advisor during the conversation.
One obvious role of the advisor it to advise. On its face, the task of giving advice seems simple and benign. Motivational Interviewing scholars warn us to be careful with giving advice, as it can sometimes backfire. Sometimes getting bad advice in the wrong way can be like opening the box of a birthday present with great anticipation only to find a pair of pink socks that are too small for one’s feet and are made from a material that causes allergies. Or as Steve Rollnick puts it:
“Advice is information with a steer, a sting, depending on how you give it. It’s a message about what the student should or could do, and the skillfulness of delivery might make all the difference between a blank look and a keener uptake… There is an important difference between a genuine suggestion and an instruction. The former helps the student choose that which suits her or him, the latter leaves little choice” (2016, p. 66).
MI suggests that before giving advice we first elicit student thoughts and ideas, then ask permission, then give the advice. After giving the advice, MI suggests that we invite the student to verbally reflect on, consider, or elaborate on that advice. This method of giving advice is called “Elicit-Provide-Elicit” (EPE), and it provides students with more autonomy, honors their competence, and increases the likelihood that the advice will be used (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).
In addition to using the EPE strategy and asking permission before giving advice, it is also important to look at the content of the advice given to the student. Advice should be concise and understandable, so advisors may want to be careful about giving “advice avalanches” to students. It is also worth considering the timing of advice in the conversation, giving advice too early on in the conversation may be an indication of the advisor falling onto the expert trap. When it comes down to it, students are usually able to come up with their own ideas, and a “wall of words” approach can shut down the conversation and discourage a student from taking ownership or even listen to what is being said.
Development and Learning
The reflective, collaborative approach can also be helpful in actively supporting a student’s professional and interpersonal growth. The Reflective Learning Model highlights the collaborative journey-like nature of learning, Davys & Beddoe write:
“[supervision of social work students] is a forum for learning and that the main vehicle for learning is reflection. Reflection in this context refers to a conscious bringing to the surface of different forms of knowledge, while attending to the thoughts and emotions present in the student both in situ and after the experience”(2009, p. 20).
In a similar way, advising a student is a learning forum. While a student may come to the appointment with the presented need of “fix this for me,” it is the advisor’s responsibility to aim towards supporting the student’s professional growth and learning. When advisors pull out their “MI compass,” advisors can guide student exploration of values and goals, develop student’s self-efficacy and help students come to their own solutions. Iarussi describes how MI fits student development:
“MI seeks to enhance students’ motivations and guide them toward changing specific problem behaviors (W. R. Miller & Rollnick, 2002, 2009), whereas college student development involves students’ mastery of developmental tasks, achieving self-direction, and gaining independence (T. K. Miller & Prince, 1976). Components of MI (e.g., promoting client autonomy, supporting self-efficacy) that are integral to the approach appear to be consistent with fostering student development. For example, MI’s emphasis on the expression of empathy and evocation of clients’ perspective, values, and goals coincides with college student development theory’s promotion of student validation to encourage growth and development” (2013, p. 163).
Some skills that can elicit student reflection and values exploration include adept use of complex reflections, evocative questions, envisioning the future and others. MI strategies can also be used in practices that building autonomy and student self efficacy such as highlighting student choice, engaging in true collaboration on agendas, highlighting student strengths, reviewing past successes, using the decisional balance, values card sort, developing menus of options, etc. Advisors may also make use of the MI 10 evocation strategies in empowering students to step outside of their comfort zones and into a learning experience. Despite the potential for advisors to support student academic and professional growth, students at times may mistake advisors role to be that as “help dispensers,” and in those cases it can be helpful to first explicitly define and reframe the role of the advisor.
Structure of Supervision
Davys & Beddoe developed a student centered structure for social work student supervision based on the Reflective Learning Model (2009). Their structure is aimed at maximizing student learning and development through empathy, student participation and reflection. The 5 components of this reflective learning style of supervision line up well with the 4 processes of MI. One notable difference between the two is that the Reflective Learning Model develops the agenda at the beginning of the encounter, whereas MI focuses first on engaging and saves the agenda setting for later in the encounter (thereby avoiding the premature focus trap). The table below compares the two structures.
A Proposed Advising Appointment Using MI
The table below maps one way that MI might fit into an advising appointment with college level students. The appointment is structured using Miller and Rollnick’s four processes of MI, which are “both sequential and recursive” (Miller & Rollnick, 2013, p.26). Like a staircase, these processes build upon each other, but without the bottom stair in place all of the stairs would fall. In the same way that a staircase depends on the bottom stair, an advisor does not neglect to tend to earlier processes as they progress in the appointment.
The goals associated with each process provide a general aim for the advisor. The aim for the evoking process is a bit more complicated than the others and depends on the overall goal for the advising appointment and the particular agenda set in that appointment. Lastly, the skills and strategies/behaviors to avoid provide some ideas for helpful behaviors and mindsets for the advisor.
In the coming semesters, I hope to try to use some of these ideas in my practice with students. My intention is avoid giving advice avalanches, but remaining helpful in advising and helping students in their professional growth and development. During the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers International Forum of 2016 in Montreal, Steve Rollick described the unintentional demonization of advice-giving in previous versions of MI (pre 2013) as one of his major regrets. He now emphasizes the importance and value of giving advice in the right way. I hope to incorporate Steve’s vision into my new professional role.
Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) (2015). Connecting With Your Students: Moving From
Advising to Mentoring. Online Video Clip. Youtube. Retrieved on 12/29/16 from:
Clifford, D. (2016) Connecting with Your Students: Moving from Advising to Mentoring Dawn Clifford.
Unpublished Supplemental Handout. Chico: California State University.
Davys, A.M. & Beddoe, L. (2009). The reflective learning model: supervision of social work students. Social
Work Education, 28(8), 919–933.
Gagne, M. & Deci, E.L. (2005). Self-Determination Theory and Work Motivation. Journal of Organizational
Behavior, 26(4), 331-362.
Iarussi, M.M. (2013). Examining how motivational interviewing may foster college student development.
Journal of College Counseling 16, 163.
Miller, W.R., and Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational Interviewing: Helping people change. NY: Guilford Press.
Rollnick, S., Kaplan, S. G. & Rutschman, R. (2016). Motivational Interviewing in Schools: Conversations to
Improve Behavior and Learning. NY: Guilford Press.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a mental health professional, field instructor, trainer, and MINT member. He is passionate about issues of mental health, cultural humility, compassion, and motivational interviewing.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a member of the MINT network and active member of the MINT IDAC.
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