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The Targeted Advising Model for Undecided Students
Authored ByPatrick Cate

I was a helicopter advisor.  My students relied on me for almost every academic related issue and many not related to academics. While my workload increased, student learning decreased. This is the problem I tackled with the Targeted Advising Model.

Many who work with undecided students assume that these students do not like being undeclared and when we, as advisors, buy into that notion, we assume that our job is to help students clarify their options and create an environment where they can make decisions regarding their majors. On the contrary, a majority of students I have worked with have very little, if any, dissonance about being undeclared!

Ambivalence is one of the main reasons many traditional advising approaches aimed at undeclared students fail to live up to expectations. All the software programs, lectures, and assessments are less than effective when students are not engaged in the process. In fact many students, who were seemingly engaged when I used traditional advising methods with them, tell me later that they faked the results of their assessments simply so that they could move on. In these, and many other cases, solving student ambivalence is critical to advising success.

The Targeted Advising Model (TAM) is built on the premise that students are not as engaged in the process as they need to be in order to make good decisions about their majors. TAM is based on concepts from addictions counseling, identity development, and academic advising pedagogy.

The TAM model consists of three steps or stages of observed student behavior with each stage representing a level of both self-knowledge and self-motivation. Understanding where a student is on the TAM scale has shown great promise in working with undeclared students here at Plymouth State.

Targeted Advising Model Stages

There are three stages in the Targeted Advising Model: precontemplation, deliberation, and action.

A student in the precontemplation stage is unlikely to respond to action-oriented exploration tasks.  Not only do these students lack a desire to participate, they often are not sure of the true purpose of exploration. Thus they make decisions based more on short-term needs (course schedule, a familiar or liked professor) than on long-term desires.

In the precontemplation stage, students exhibit what James Marcia (1966) called identity diffusion and foreclosure marked closely by a lack of crisis. During identity diffusion students are care-free and unconcerned about any possible ill effects from not having a major. Their ambivalence is obvious and they may not participate in other academic-related activities. These students have a tendency to miss advising meetings and may fail to follow up on anything the advisor suggests.

Identity foreclosure is the state in which students rely on extrinsic motivators to make a choice they have not embraced.  A common scenario is one where advisors see students who decide on majors or career paths based upon a parent’s suggestion or an occupation held by a family member. Students in identify foreclosure are free of dissonance because they have accepted no responsibility for their decisions, they are simply following an external decision-making source. At some point, externally made decisions must be tested; the key for advisors is to help students test these decisions before their senior year.

Providing career and major information to students in the precontemplation stage  does not engage them or help them decide on a major. These students are better served when advisors help them understand why having a major will help their lives. When students understand this basic principle they begin to be more open to personal exploration of aptitudes, attitudes, and goals, all necessary steps if advisors are to engage them in the career and major exploration process. Moving to this engagement may best be done by initiating purposeful dissonance to challenge students.

Introducing dissonance into our student interactions is not in the normal advisors’ repertoire.  However, if advisors are to move a student beyond precontemplation, then we must help students see the discrepancy between their present state (undecided) and what could be (being engaged in a major.) Advisors should have frank discussions with students about the benefits of being appropriately declared and the drawbacks of being undeclared if students are to move onto another development stage.

The move from precontemplation to deliberation is the key step in the Targeted Advising Model. Much of what is “new” to advising undecided students is found in this process. Using a motivational interview style, an advisor can guide students to move from relying on extrinsic motivators to developing intrinsic motivators. Being intrinsically motivated is the essential developmental task needed to make decisions about a major and is, in my opinion, one of the key indicators of success later in life. Students who use intrinsic motivation more often make decisions based upon long-term goals and less on short-term needs and desires.

Students with the desire to find a major and who are willing participants in the exploration process are in the deliberation phase. The main goals of this phase are student discovery of information needed to make personally relevant decisions about a major. Many of the processes that occur during this phase are described by O’Banion’s (1972) Exploration of Life Goals and Exploration of Career/Educational Goals stages.

Career exploration assessments such as those based on Holland and Strong’s theories should be used in this stage. Students’ development of a sense of personal values, interests, and abilities will provide the foundation for their future decision making. Learning how to make decisions based on personally relevant information rather than external influences is a skill set students will need throughout the students’ lives.

Students move through this stage at different rates. While many of my students go through the deliberation stage in a short amount of time, some find this stage difficult. Many students may not have received lessons in effective decision making in high school. As is true of many of the lessons advisors teach, the process for these students is nearly as important as the outcome. It is imperative that the process be an honest one; the advisor must revisit the outcomes of each student’s precontemplation stage to ensure that students stay engaged. If students are to successfully maneuver through this stage then they must deliberate on their options and be able to make personally relevant decisions.

Some students can remain fairly passive through this stage; they can give little and receive much.  While students can learn a lot in this stage, they may not yet be ready to make many well-reasoned decisions on their own and may need to return to advisors for assistance with decision making in the future. Still once students feel that they have either narrowed down their options or have the information they need to make a decision, they are ready to move to action.

Students in the action stage are ready for a more hands off approach. This is when students have the desire to choose a major, the information needed about themselves, and have an adequate understanding of degree and career options. At this point, students simply need to act to finish the administrative steps it takes to declare the major and share their decision with others.

At this point, advisors should share with students the procedures needed to declare the chosen major. I mention the administrative process of declaring a major because many students do not navigate administrative tasks well. While advisors tend to live and breathe policy and procedure, students do not. It is our obligation to help them understand how the process works and what their responsibilities are.

Also in this stage of the TAM process advisors should help students connect with advisors and/or faculty within their chosen department to discuss their field. This step can make the difference in the TAM process working or not. Students who do not connect beyond coursework and fail to interact with individuals and activities within their major often return and question their decisions. While questioning is sometimes good, if the original TAM process was well executed, the decision should hold.

The Targeted Advising Model has been effective in our institution. It has allowed us to increase our advisee caseload by a multiple of four without increasing staff.  Further, our students declare their majors in a shorter amount of time than when traditional advising techniques were used. The TAM process has not been used at many other institutions; I am eager to see a larger test of the concept. If this concept looks like something that would work at your institution, please contact me and I will be glad to help you try it.

Patrick Cate
Plymouth State University


Marcia, J. E., (1966), Development and validation of ego identity status, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3, pp. 551-558

O’Banion, T. (2009). An academic advising model. NACADA Journal 29 (1): 83-89. (Original work published 1972 in Journal College Journal, 42, pp. 62, 64, 66-69.)

Cite this using APA style as:

Cate. P. (2010). The Targeted advising model for undecided students. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:

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