The Community College Research Center (CCRC) recently published a working paper co-authored by Phase Two's founder, Melinda Karp. The paper, Why do some community college students use institutional resources differently than others in program planning and selection?, explores the ways that community college students' personality characteristics influence their use of advising tools. Based on interviews with 132 students, the authors find that the extent to which individuals are comfortable with ambiguity influences how they feel about and engage with resources. In other words, the same resource doesn't have the same level of usefulness across students, even if it's offered at the same time in their educational career.
What does this mean for colleges and college personnel? Most importantly, it reminds us that there isn't a one-size-fits all to student supports. "Solutions," such as a program planning tool, may work for some students but not others. Colleges need to deploy multiple support approaches in order to increase the likelihood that at least one will resonate with every student.
Don't forget, though, that these approaches need to be consistent in the information they provide. Nothing frustrates students--even those with a high tolerance for ambiguity--more than receiving conflicting information. Multiple modalities shouldn't mean conflicting messages. Rather, multiple modalities need to be integrated pieces of a coherent approach. The program planning tool should align with paper planning tools, which should align with the student success course curriculum...and so forth.
Another implication of this research study is that need for personalization and sustained relationships. Students with different levels of ambiguity need different forms of engagement, even around the same issue. For example, when choosing a program of study, a student with high tolerance for ambiguity (i.e. they find the challenge of figuring out how to make sense of conflicting information engaging and exciting) may be drawn to advisor who poses guiding questions or provides a framework for gathering program-related information. A student with lower ambiguity tolerance may need a more direct approach, such as having an advisor provide two or three specific action steps or program options.
Like most personality characteristics, though, tolerance for ambiguity isn't immediately apparent. Rather, it comes through over time, when students tell their stories and think through choices and plans. In order for support personnel to guide students in ways that meet their unique needs, they need to have enough time to get to know a student and tailor engagement appropriately. They also need to have the opportunity to build a repertoire of approaches to key advising engagements, such that they can bring out the right tools at the right time for the right student.
In essence, advisors need to "code switch" from open ended to prescriptive depending on the task at hand and the student they are with at any given moment. Such code switching doesn't happen overnight. It comes with practice, and it comes when advisors have the chance to get to know their students and can "read" their needs.
In short, this new research study demonstrates the need to create advising models that (a) include multiple modalities; (b) give students and advisors the time and space to get to know one another; and (c) provide advisors and other personnel the space to develop and leverage different approaches to providing support.