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Advising Undecided and Indecisive Students

Tomorrow's Academy

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Undecided students clearly experience a number of transitional issues. As Gordon (2007) noted, "the developmental approach views undecided students not as persons searching for an academic or career niche but as individuals continually engaged in a series of developmental tasks that ultimately enables them to adapt and change in a pluralistic world. 



The posting below gives some good suggestions on how faculty and counselors assist undecided and indecisive students about college majors and career plans. It is from Chapter Ten, Moving through College, by George E. Steele and Melinda L. McDonald in the book, Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook, by Virginia N. Gordon, Wesley R. Habley, Thomas J. Grites, and Associates. Copyright (c) 2008 by the National Academic Advising Association, Kansas State University, 2323 Anderson Avenue, Suite 225. Manhattan, KS 66502-2912.[]. Published by Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 []. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Advising Undecided and Indecisive Students  




In the research literature, there is a clear distinction between the use of the terms undecided and indecisive when describing college students. This is an important consideration when defining the roles and responsibilities of advisors and counselors as well. Gordon (2007, p. x) defined undecided students as those students who were "unwilling, unable, or unready to make educational and/or vocational decisions." A student who has difficulty making any decision, however, may be considered indecisive (Appel, Haak, & Witzke, 1970; Goodstein, 1965). Gordon (2007) described an indecisive student as having characteristics deriving from the "result of unsatisfactory habits of thinking that permeates the individual's total life" (p. 11). The important distinction between these two definitions is that advisors, working within the framework of either the developmental or mentoring role as defined by Kuhn, Gordon, and Webber (2006), should be prepared to not only work with undecided students but to have the capability to detect characteristics of indecisive students so that they may refer them for personal counseling.

The transitions undecided students go through vary greatly and truly reflect issues most students must address during their progression through college. After reviewing the literature on undecided students, Lewallen (1993) concluded that the research was "conflicting, contradictory, and confusing." Other researchers have determined that undecided students are a heterogeneous group with few similarities (Baird, 1967; Hagstrom, Skovholt, & Rivers, 1997; Holland & Holland, 1977). Perhaps the key to understanding this phenomenon is that many early studies attempted to compare "undecided" students with those who were "decided." During the 1990s, much of the research was focused on investigating undecided student characteristics by defining subtypes of undecided and decided students (Newman, Fuqua, & Minger, 1990; Savickas & Jorgourna, 1991). These studies suggested ways of grouping decided and undecided students so that specifically designed interventions, based upon their personality characteristics and decision-making abilities, could be created.

Gordon (1998) took on the task of comparing these studies on decided and undecided students. She reviewed fifteen studies and proposed seven subtypes: (a) very decided, (b) somewhat decided, (c) unstable decided, (d) tentatively undecided, (e) developmentally undecided, (f) seriously undecided, and (g) chronically indecisive. Gordon identified the similarities and differences among these subtypes and proposed interventions and advising strategies. A critical element in her proposed synthesis of subtypes is that the states of decidedness and undecidedness lie on a continuum rather than exist as separate entities. This perspective is critical for all advisors, in that it clearly suggests that more than just those first-year students who have declared themselves as decided could benefit from learning and using techniques to assist them with active educational and vocational decision-making or exploration.

Transition Issues

Undecided students clearly experience a number of transitional issues. As Gordon (2007) noted, "the developmental approach views undecided students not as persons searching for an academic or career niche but as individuals continually engaged in a series of developmental tasks that ultimately enables them to adapt and change in a pluralistic world" (p. 56). Some may go through anticipated transitions, such as accepting that it is all right to enter college as undecided on the assumption that the "right" major or occupation will "happen" to then eventually. Some may not anticipate any difficulty in pursuing a general direction such as health-related caress and the course work needed to achieve their goals. Some may believe that a particular major leads to only one career field or that a particular occupation can be accessed only through one academic path. Success and disappointment in fulfilling these anticipated transitions can lead to unanticipated transitions when students find they must engage in new or renewed exploration. This occurs in many ways, as when students need to reconsider their abilities for an academic area or recognize that the relationship between academic preparation and occupations is multidimensional.

General non-event transitions that could affect undecided students can involve many personal or social issues. Not receiving anticipated financial support to attend the college of their choice may influence a student who was decided to become undecided about choice of major. Attending college and developing a new peer group with different expectations can also affect students' initial ideas about the goals they want to pursue. The dynamics of the interactions students experience prior to and during college can create a multiplicity of potential anticipated and unanticipated transitions.

The Advising-Counseling Continuum and Triggers

Considering all the social and personal developmental issues college students address during their first year, helping them focus on academic and vocational decision-making is difficult but necessary. There are a host of decision-making models advisors can use to help students make satisfying decisions. Gordon (1992) proposed an integrated academic and career-planning model that relies on a student-centered approach that seeks to integrate self-knowledge, occupational knowledge, educational knowledge, and decision-making knowledge. Schein and Laff (1997) proposed a student-centered approach in which students answer questions about their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and hopes for the future. This engages them in a process of designing a field of study rather than selecting an established major. Beck (1999) used chaos theory as a metaphor to articulate several key guides for advising undecided students. Bertram (1996) offered a model that advocated a less rational approach to working with undecided students by contrasting it with the rational decision-making model used by many advisors. Steele (2003) reviewed and summarized common characterizes found in all four models.

For advisors encountering students who are more certain about their academic major but less certain about their vocational goals, two authors offer models and guidance for integrating career development techniques and goal-setting into their advising. Gordon's 3-I process (Inquire, Inform, and Integrate) (2006) describes the advisor's role in the decision-making process, which includes a questioning period during which students' needs and concerns are explored, a period when many types of information essential to decision-making are gathered, and finally a period of integration when the process is internalized and action is taken. In a similar manner, McCalla-Wriggins (2000) reviews career theories and elements of career planning and offers suggestions for integrating these with academic advising.

These proposals, models, and theories share the characteristic of addressing in various ways the common needs of undecided students that Gordon (2007) describes (i.e., information deficits, developmental-skills deficits, and personal and social concerns). All these models assume that undecided students will demonstrate different levels of readiness to explore. As Gordon (2007) notes, "The programs and services offered undecided students must reflect many levels of ability to differentiate and integrate aspects of the decision-making process" (p. 58).

Since the exploration process is part of the transition most college students go through, advisors can help them develop the skills and habits necessary for setting academic and vocational goals and decision-making. Once these skills are acquired, they may carry over into how students address similar unanticipated transitions and non-event transitions in their future.

Students graduating from college for the past several decades have faced a world of work in which career change is the constant. There are no economic projections for the future that suggest that lifetime employment with one employer will once again become the norm. Social customs and global economic disruptions such as divorce and outsourcing of jobs can create dramatic and unanticipated changes at the personal level. As students struggle with academic and career decision-making, advisors can have a lasting impact when they recognize and take advantage of important "advisable moments."

As advisors confront the issues surrounding decided and undecided college students, they are clearly working in the middle of Kuhn, Gordon, and Webber's (2006) advisor-counselor responsibility continuum as Explanatory, Developmental, or Mentoring advisors, since the focus of the advising session is centered on the student, or the person. The issues and the need to address them are centered on students' concerns and the task of clarifying personal, social, educational, and vocational goals. Using the triggers identified by Kuhn, Gordon, and Webber, there are several observable behaviors emotions, and modes of thinking that should suggest that a student may need a referral to a counselor. The research on undecided students provides us with a grounded basis for identifying these triggers. Some triggers that characterize students needing help in decision-making include anxiety about occupational choice (Appel, Haak, & Witzke, 1970; Fuqua, Seaworth, & Newman, 1987; Kimes & Troth, 1974; Mau, 1995), fear of commitment (Serling & Betz, 1990; Zytowski, 1965), poor self-efficacy (Luzzo & Andrews, 1999; Srsis & Walsh, 2001; Taylor & Betz, 1983), ego-identity status (Gordon & Kline, 1989), identity and vocational immaturity (Holland & Holland, 1977), lack of persistence and academic success (Foote, 1980), gender and sex-role stereotyping (Gianakos & Subich, 1986; Harren, Kass, Tinley, & Moreland, 1978; Orlofsky, 1978; Rose & Elton, 1971), and learning disabilities and reasoning weakness (Layton & Lock, 2003). Examples of how these could be manifested as observable behaviors, emotions, or modes of thinking are listed below.

Examples of Triggers for Undecided or Exploring Students

1. Student "declares" a different major at each advising session.

2. Student registers for course work that does not correspond to her "declared" major.

3. Student declares a popular major without any explanation.

4. There is a serious disconnect between student's academic abilities and skills and declared major.

5. Student informs advisor that her choice of major is due to parental or peer pressure or expectations.

6. A male student decides not to pursue nursing as a major despite his interests and abilities because of the

   perception that it is a career field for women.

7. A student with high math ability fears committing to an engineering degree because the course work might

   adversely affect her grade point average.

8. A student will not commit to a major in history because he does not want to teach.

9. Student is unaware of curricular and career information available through the advising office

10.A student admits he is undecided, but would rather discuss issues related to his problems adapting to the campus

   social environment.

Indecisive students often experience similar developmental and decision-making problems, but at much higher levels of anxiety and intensity that are often combined with other social or psychological problems (Gaffner & Hazler, 2002; Salamone, 1982; Van Matre & Cooper, 1984). Indecisive students, in general, have difficulty taking a particular course of action, since the inability to make a commitment permeates most areas of their lives. While very few students manifest extreme characteristics, those who do should be referred for more in-depth counseling (Heppner & Hendricks, 1995). Steele (2003) makes the following suggestions for when advisors refer indecisive students to counselors: "(advisors) should focus on whether a student has a general inability to make any type of decision. They should also pay attention to other signs of social or psychological problems. If these problems are detected, the advisor then must show great empathy and consideration when referring the student to counseling services" (p. 13).


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