Guiding Students to be Confident Decision Makers

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Decision making is a critical skill for all students to know upon completing their degree. What are strategies for helping students become confident decision makers in college? I share how to use club advising as one way!

Guiding students to be confident decision makers

Most of my professional career has been student-facing, supervising and advising students in many different capacities. During this time, I have changed the way I work with and advise students. I felt it would be interesting to explore the ways I have changed my advising style during my career. In this blog, I am going to talk about my advising style with student groups – in future posts I will explore my supervising style with students and advising as a faculty advisor.

It all began when a conversation starter in the Student Affairs Professionals on Facebook group asked the following question:

What is your advising philosophy?

What a great question!

I thought about all of my time spent working with and advising students and felt this was a great question. When I first started working in higher education, so much of my advising style was about compliance: how could I get students to check the boxes that were part of a good program? What would I need to do to help students meet the minimum required to sign-off on the program?

Welcome to Student Union B12

As you can imagine, this style of advising didn’t net the kind of results that students felt great about. Well, I had to think about my own experiences when I attended my elite, private university. I began to think about my own advisors in college and remembered something my Program Board advisor Rebecca said to me:

“Joseph, I’ve already been to college. I don’t need to make decisions about your programs, but I do need to help you understand what your choices mean.”

As a first-time, all-university programmer responsible for $30,000, this didn’t give me a great deal of guidance, but it did give me a great deal of confidence. Since I had to account for all the money spent, I needed to make decisions I could stand for.

I’m pretty sure I looked just like Kermit when I had to make my first big decision as a programmer in college.

Of course, this meant that the decisions I made could no longer be made on the fly. I couldn’t just show-up for the work at the last minute and hope to get my programs approved. I needed to know and understand my decisions in order to show Rebecca that I understood what my choices meant. And then it dawned on me: I was a confident decision maker because someone expected that from me.

Students Will Meet Our Expectations

Since receiving my masters degree and starting my full-time career, I have worked for many directors and deans who want me to guide students to the ‘right’ answer when planning a program. But I have found that when I talk to students about the guidelines and boundaries, and then ask them to show me they know and understand the guidelines and boundaries, their programming is much more interesting. Innovative. Confident.

So, I learned to start all of my advising sessions with students with my expectations:

I want them to understand why the deadlines are hard deadlines, and where to find these deadlines listed.

Student leaders should know the limits of what their budgets can and cannot pay for, and where to find the policies posted.

Programming must be barrier free and accessible, purposefully and intentionally.

I want them to know that I won’t save a program that is poorly planned, as long as it is is planned within the programming guidelines.

After these four expectations, I ask them talk to me about what they want to do. I guide them with decision making by telling them “I’ll talk to you about the decisions you make. I’ll also give you feedback on a decision before you make it, so you know what you’re truly deciding to do.” The first few times I tell this new programmers, I get the wide-eyed, side-ways glance as if to ask ‘Is this for real?’

Imagine the scenario

This is a typical interchange with a new student programmer at Any College USA.

Student Programmer: So I was thinking about holding a BBQ this weekend to welcome new students to our organization. I have a place in mind and they want me to sign a contract.

Me: Okay. So can you remind me about the process for hosting a BBQ or any other event?

Student Programmer: Well that’s why I’m here, so you can tell me.

Me: Ok, can you remind me where you can find the process for hosting a BBQ or any other event?

Student Programmer: Ok I can look that up, but I still need to get this contract signed.

Me: Ok, can you remind me where you can find policies about signing contracts?

Student Programmer: Um. Well I think I know what you’re going to say at this point.

Me: If these are your decisions, we can move forward. But I want to make sure you understand the policies before you commit to anything. Let’s talk in half an hour and I think we’ll know what other work needs to get decided next.


Trust Moira Rose. She knows how to end any scene.

When I first started working with students 20 years ago, I just wanted to give them the answers. I thought my life would be easier if I did that heavy lifting for them. But after a couple of years of students knocking on my door to ask, and always keep asking. if they were doing the right thing I realized I had to change tactics. I needed them to grow into their decision making and I began to think of my conversations with Rebecca.

And that’s who I realized that what I was doing was not just teaching students about confident decision-making, but also how to cultivate cultural capital.

Building Cultural Capital

After the the second or third program, the students are talking to me about how to do something more innovative with their programming, because they know and understand how to make good choices. They know the limits of what they can do – and have learned to asked good questions about how to stretch the limits when necessary. I can tell they have learned to meet these explicit expectations, which are not hidden to just the few leaders accessing premiere leadership (like a college programming board).

I have found that the private institutions where I have worked have more ‘touch’ with their student leaders. The smaller the institution, the more ‘touch’ there usually is with student leaders planning events. With this high-touch experience comes the transmission of cultural capital, or learning the hidden ways to get different and innovative programming developed. And I want to interrupt that behavior.

No matter the type of institution where I work, I try to remember the cultural capital that I gained while I attended an elite, private institution. I know that most students won’t have access to the tens of thousands of dollars that I had when I was an undergraduate programmer, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn the same skills around confident decision making that I learned – especially about knowing why you’re making the decision you’re making in the first place.

Start with Why

The author Simon Sinek, of the book Start with Why, speaks about understanding your why. He describes how successful organizations don’t start with the product they selling and sell the reasons we want to purchase it. They instead start with understanding what motivates people to do, think or believe something. In the case of student programming, understanding the why is understanding what creates successful programming that brings people together and builds community around a shared idea. This is very similar to developing values congruence in student organizations.

The Golden Circle from Simon Sinek's Start with Why

What we usually get, as advisors, are cookie-cutter programs that lack fully thought ideas. So when I ask students “why do you need food at your programs” and the only response is “well, it’s what will get people to the event” I respond with “well then you’re not planning a great program if people just want to eat. Why would people want to come other than food?”

Ask critical questions about why – why do people want to come out? What draws people other than food? How can you use food differently? What would be the outcome if you didn’t have any food?

I find that when you start asking questions about why – which is a decision I want students to stand behind – I get them to start thinking about different ways to do what could be a traditional program. Or to re-think the how-to of the program so that its closer to why people would come out in the first place.

We can all do more to guide students

We can all be better advisors for student organizations. Whether it’s the bulk of your position or you advise one or two groups, try to integrate more why questions into your one-on-one advising. Begin to ask if the decision they are making is the best decision. Challenge, but support, their ability to be confident in their decision making.

Share your stories in the comments about your advising style! Let’s share our best practices about helping students become more confident decision makers.

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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