Using Noncognitive Variables in

Advising Nontraditional Students

William E. Sedlacek

Research Report #3-91





Using Noncognitive Variables in Advising

Nontraditional Students

William E. Sedlacek

Research Report #3-91



Academic advisors must not only understand the rules, regulations, and requirements of the institution, they must also understand the context of the student. That is, an advisor must understand the variables that are affecting a student's life; which include traditional ones, such as academic ability and financial need, but less traditional ones dealing with cultural and racial background. The nontraditional variables become particularly crucial when we are interacting with students from culturally diverse backgrounds. Sternberg points out that traditional tests measure only one of three kinds of intelligence.


A model for advising using the other two kinds of intelligence is presented and discussed. The model consists of eight noncognitive variable developed by the writer and others which are; self concept, realistic self appraisal, understanding racism, long range goals, strong support person, leadership, community involvement, and nontraditional knowledge.


Use of the variables in different points in the curriculum using interviews or questionnaire assessments is discussed. Sample case studies and charts for use of the variables are included.


Academic advising is an important but complicated function in higher education. It is important because the quality of the advising will directly affect a student's progress, or lack thereof through the system. It is complicated because a good advisor must not only understand the rules, regulations, and academic requirements of the institution, he or she must also understand the context of the student. That is, an advisor must understand the variables that are affecting a student's life; which include traditional ones

such as academic ability and financial need, but less traditional ones dealing with cultural and racial background. The nontraditional variables become particularly crucial when we are interacting with students from culturally diverse backgrounds.


While there are many articles which discuss strategies or issues concerning retention or orientation (e.g. Garnett, 1990; Whitaker & Roberts, 1990), there seem to be few comprehensive models to approach advising, particularly for nontraditional students. For purposes of this article nontraditional students include cultural/racial minorities, international students, older students etc. Thus nontraditional students are those other than White middle class males; the group for whom we have designed most of our higher education system.


There has been more attention in the higher education literature in recent years to the retention of students; particularly nontraditional students (e.g. Sedlacek, 1987, 1989)0



A model for considering attributes that will lead to the success or failure of nontraditional students has been developed and utilized in admissions and post matriculation programs (Sedlacek, 1987, 1989; Sedlacek & Brooks, 1976; Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989). The above studies and many others have generally shown that traditional measures such as standardized tests and prior grades have limited utility in working with nontraditional students. Nontraditional students show their abilities in other ways. Exhibit 1 lists and defines the eight noncognitive variables in the model.


Westbrook & Sedlacek (1988) concluded that students can be advised using the list of variables by identifying student behaviors associated with good or poor performance of each of the eight (see Exhibit 2).




Standardized tests such as the ACT or SAT were designed to predict first year grades at a time when most students were White, male and upper-middle class. The tests performed this function fairly well for these students throughout the years, and still do Sedlacek (1989). As colleges and universities have admitted more females, and students with a wider range of cultural, racial and socio-economic characteristics, standardized tests have not correlated as well with freshman grades for these groups.


Generally these tests were not designed to correlate with grades beyond the first year, with retention in any year, or with



graduation and success beyond college. They tend not to correlate well with these criteria for any group, including White, upper-middle class males (Sedlacek, 1989). In the case of students from racial and cultural minority groups, the SAT is virtually unrelated to these criteria.


Why don't standardized tests relate to measures of student success beyond the first year? Aside from not being designed to do so, Sternberg (1985, 1986) points out that tests measure only one aspect of intelligence: analytic ability. He defines analytic ability as "one's capacity to interpret information in a well-defined and unchanging context." Sternberg feels standardized tests generally do not measure synthetic ability or systemic ability; the two other components of intelligence he identifies. Students with synthetic ability are able to interpret. information in changing contexts. They can easily shift from one perspective to another. They are creative, and are likely to be the best researchers or contributors to their fields. Students with systemic intelligence know how to interpret and use the system or environment to their advantage. They are "street-wise."


If we examine a typical curriculum, many would agree that synthetic and systemic intelligence come into play more in the later years of most programs; since upper-level courses tend to require students to write more, discuss more, and hopefully think more. Analytic skills, as defined by Sternberg, appear less useful by themselves beyond the first year.



The noncognitive variables system noted in Exhibits 1 and 2 appears to measure synthetic and systemic ability. Thus the task for the advisor is to tap the student's full range of abilities by doing all the assessments necessary. Students show abilities in different ways. Nontraditional students tend to need synthetic and systemic abilities to survive; more than do traditional students. For instance, realistic self-appraisal appears to be a synthetic ability while handling racism shows a systemic ability. Equality, in advising as in other areas, should be equality of outcome, not process. If we need to assess different ways of showing abilities for different students to do our best job, let's do it.




The Noncognitive Questionnaire (NCQ)*


The NCQ was developed by Tracey & Sedlacek (1984, 1985,

1987, 1989) and yields a score for each scale.A manual for the


NCQ is available (Abler, Sedlacek & Tracey, 1991). An advisor in

collaboration with, or independent of, the admissions function

can develop a profile of strengths and weaknesses of a student

and advise accordingly.




Whether or not one employs the NCQ, it will be common for an advisor to interview students to make an original diagnosis of noncognitive variable abilities of students, or to probe certain areas more deeply. While a wide variety of interviewing methods



principles modified from some originally developed by Bingham and Moore (1959) (see Exhibit 3).


To assess noncognitive variables, an advisor should listen carefully in a kind of scanning posture using Exhibit 2. As a student touches on something that appears relevant, it should be probed using Principle 6 (Exhibit 3). Questions can be phrased more directly if this scanning procedure does not yield enough information, providing rapport is sufficiently established (Principle 4; Exhibit 3). For instance, asking a student how they find the interracial environment at the school might be asked directly if the issue has not come up otherwise.


Another key principle in Exhibit 3 is no. 18; making referrals. It is particularly important that advisors have extensive and current information on where advisees go for further information or assistance. In many instances it may be best to make an initial diagnosis of shortcomings on one of the noncognitive variables and refer the student to someone else to resolve the problem. It is often difficult for the same person to uncover an issue and then try to resolve it.


Case Studies


Two case studies are presented in Exhibits 4 and 5 to allow you try your hand at uncovering noncognitive variables that may be a problem for a nontraditional student. Both are real cases with names changed to protect their identities and are from a workshop developed by Westbrook & Sedlacek (1988). Before reading the discussion on each case, take Exhibit 2 and see if



reading the discussion on each case, take Exhibit 2 and see if you can determine the major noncognitive variable problem for the student.


Sara Davis (Exhibit 4)


Sara illustrates the dilemma of many nontraditional students who come to an academic area via a less traditional route. She had not been thinking about medicine for many years like some of her colleagues. She had not really shown interest in medicine, but because it seemed financially rewarding and that she was recruited, she moved in that direction. However, she had not learned from community or nonacademic activities and was a mismatch. Unless she was given information or help in understanding that she may not have had the same experiences as traditional students, or encouraged to peruse her interests we are doing her a disservice. She needed some good career counseling and her major noncognitive variable problem was in the knowledge acquired in a field area.


Sara's advisor diagnosed her dilemma and referred her to the counseling center for career counseling. She decided to stick with ballet and eventually went on to graduate school and is currently teaching and performing.


Joe Martin (Exhibit 5)


Because Jose decided to "pass" and deny his Chicano background, he lost a needed community resource. Community support is vital to nontraditional students; "Loners" have great difficulty. Mallinckrodt & Sedlacek (1987) showed that Black



students who used campus gyms and student unions were more likely to stay in school than those who did not. Such was not the case for White students. The White students had a larger community that accepted them on campus; the Black students did not and had to develop one for themselves.


Jose's advisor put him in touch with someone in the campus activities office who got him involved gradually in Chicano student activities. Jose earned a Master's degree and works for an electronics company.




Noncognitive variables can be used by advisors to greatly enhance the ability to advise nontraditional students. They can be used along with whatever other variables, models, or techniques are employed in whatever role or type of advising is involved.. Students can be worked with to improve their development on any of the dimensions (Westbrook & Sedlacek, 1988). Advisors who use the system can expect to obtain better student outcomes in terms of grades, retention, and satisfaction, as well as greater satisfaction themselves in employing something systematic with demonstrated validity in an area that often produces confusion and anxiety.





Abler, R. M., Sedlacek, W. E., & Tracey, T. J. (1991). Noncognitive Questionnaire Users' Manual. University

of Maryland, College Park.


Bingham W. V. D., & Moore, B. V. (1959). How to Interview. New York: Harper and Brothers, 240-243.


Garnett, D. T. (1990). Retention strategies for higher risk students at a four year university. National

Academic Advising Association Journal, 10 (1), 22-25.


Mallinckrodt, B., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1987). Student retention and the use of campus facilities by race.

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 24 (3), 28-32.


Sedlacek, W. E. (1987). Blacks in White colleges and universities: Twenty years of research. Journal of

College Student Personnel, 28, 484-495.


Sedlacek, W. E. (1989). Noncognitive indicators of student success. Journal of College Admissions, 1 (Fall)

(125), 29.


Sedlacek, W. E., & Brooks, G. C., Jr. (1976). Racism in American education: A model for chance. Chicago, IL:



Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ. London, England: Cambridge.



Sternberg, R. J. (1986). What would better intelligence tests look like? In Measures in the college

admissions process, 146-150. New York: The College Entrance Examination Board.


Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1984). Noncognitive variables in predicting academic success by race.

Measurement and Evaluation in Guidance, 16, 172-178.


Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1985). The relationship of noncognitive variables to academic success: A

longitudinal comparison by race. Journal of College Student Personnel, 26, 405-410.


Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1987). Prediction of college graduation using noncognitive variables by

race. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 19, 177-184.


Tracey, T.. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1989). Factor structure of the Noncognitive Questionnaire-Revised across

samples of Black and White college students. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 49, 637-648.


Westbrook, F. W., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1988). Workshop on using noncognitive variables with minority students

in higher education. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 13, 8289.


Whitaker, V. W., & Roberts, F. L. (1990). Applying values and lifestyles psychographics to parental

involvement in college and university orientation. National Academic Advising Association Journal, 10 (1), 41-46.


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Exhibit 1





self-feeling, strength of character. Determination,



II.     REALISTIC SELF-APPRAISAL, especially academic.

Recognizes and accepts any deficiencies and works hard

at self- development. Recognizes need to broaden

his/her individuality.



personal experience of racism. Is committed to

fighting to improve existing system. Not submissive to

existing wrongs, nor hostile to society, nor a

"cop-out." Able to handle racist system. Asserts

school or organization role to fight racism.



NEEDS. Able to respond to deferred gratification.



in crises.



to his/her background (gang leader, church, sports,

noneducational groups, etc.)



his/her cultural community.



culturally related ways of obtaining information and

demonstrating knowledge. Field itself may be



* From Abler, Sedlacek & Tracey (1991)



Exhibit 2: Profiles of High and Low Scorers on Noncognitive Variables*


High Score


Low Score


Feels confident in making it through graduation. Makes positive statements about him/herself. Expects to do well in academic and non-academic areas. Assumes he/she can handle new situations or challenges.


Can express reason(s) why he/she might have to leave school. Not sure he/she has ability to it. Feels other students are better than he/she is. Expects to get marginal grades. Feels he/she will have trouble balancing personal and academic life. Avoids new challenges or situations.


Appreciates and accepts rewards as well as consequences of poor performance. Understands that reinforcement is imperfect, and does not overreact to positive or negative feedback. Has developed a system of using feedback to alter behavior.


Not sure how evaluations are done in school. Overreacts to most recent reinforcement (positive or negative), rather than seeing it in a larger context. Does not know how he/she is doing in class until grades are out. Does not have a good idea of how peers would rate his/her performance.


Understands he role of the "system" in his/her life and how it treats nontraditional persons, often unintentionally. Has developed a method of assessing the cultural/racial demands of the system and responding accordingly; assertively, if the gain is worth it, passively if the gain is small or the situation is ambiguous. Does not blame others for his/her problems or appear as a "Pollyanna" who does not see racism.


Not sure how the "system" works. Preoccupied with racism or does not feel racism exists. Blames others for problems. Reacts with the same intensity to large and small issues concerned with race/culture. Does not have a method of successfully handling racism that does not interfere with personal and academic development.


Can set goals and proceed for some time without reinforcement. Shows patience. Can see partial fulfillment of a longer term goal. Is future and past oriented, and does not just see immediate issues or problems. Shows evidence of planning in academic and non-academic areas.


lack of evidence of setting and accomplishing goals. Likely to proceed without clear direction. Relies on other to determine outcomes. Lives in present. Does not have a "plan" for approaching a course, school in general, an activity, etc. Goals which are stated are vague and unrealistic.


Has identified and received help, support, and encouragement from one or more specific individuals. Does not rely solely on his/her own resource to solve problems. Is not a "loner". Willing to admit that he/she needs help when appropriate.


No evidence of turning to others for help. No single support person, mentor, or close advisor can be identified. Does not talk about his/her problems. Feels he/she can handle things on his/her own. Access to previous support person may be reduced or eliminated. Is not aware of the importance of a support person.


Has shown evidence of influencing others in academic and non-academic areas. Comfortable providing advice and direction to others. Has served as mediator in disputes or disagreements among colleagues. Comfortable in taking action where called for.


No evidence that others turn to him/her for advice or direction. Non-assertive. Does not take initiative. Overly cautious. Avoid controversy. Not well known by peers.


Identified with a group which is cultural, racial, and/or geographic. Has specific and long-term relationships in a community. Has been active in community activities over a period of time. Has accomplished specific goals in a community setting.


No involvement in cultural, racial or geographical group or community. Limited activities of any kind. Fringe member of group(s). Engages more in solitary rather than group activities (academic or non-academic).


Knows about a field or area that he/she has formally studied in school. Has a non-traditional possibly culturally or racially-biased view of a field. Has developed innovative ways to acquire new information about a given subject or field.


Appears to know little about or areas he/she has not studied in school. No evidence of learning from community or non-academic activities. Traditional in approach to learning. Has not received credit-by-examination possibilities.

* See Abler, Sedlacek & Tracey (1991).



Exhibit 3


Principles of Interviewing for Noncognitive Variable




1.  Provide conditions conducive to good interviews.

    The school atmosphere should reflect an orientation toward

    the individual, a flexible curriculum and instructional

    methods, and general use of grades and data in ways that

    will encourage students to seek personal help.


2.  Assemble and relate to the problem all the facts available. Ideally a cumulative personnel record should be accessible to student service workers.


3.  Meet the interviewee cordially.

    The friendly spirit needs to be natural, but not

    condescending or patronizing, and in harmony with the

    interviewer's personality.


4.  Begin the interview with a topic that is secondary but of

    interest to the interviewer and of potential interest to the


    Before the main issue is approached, rapport may be built by

    encouraging a short period during which the interviewer and

    interviewee can discuss an issue which is of common interest

    to them.


5.  Approach the problem as soon as rapport is assumed.

    Ask the students for a statement of the problem as they see



6.  Uncover the real difficulties.

    Listen to the obvious problems but watch for clues pointing

    to the real problems often existing behind them.


7.  Isolate the central problem by asking interviewees questions

    which direct their attention to salient issues.

    Give the students a chance to put several sets of facts

    together to reach new conclusions about their problems.


8.  Do not embarrass the interviewee unnecessarily.

    To make it easy for the students to disclose essential

    material, do not pry into matters not related to the

    problems at hand.


9.  Face the facts professionally.

    Do not betray, surprise, shock, or show emotional tension at




Exhibit 3 (Continued)


10.  Observe closely the student's behavior.

    As a natural manifestation of your interest while listening,

    you may give attention to the student's mannerisms and

    facial expressions, e.g., the student may be noticed giving

    poor eye contact.


11.  Avoid putting the student on the defensive.

    In case of resistance, resulting particularly from a

    difference of opinion, yield as much as possible.


12.  Alleviate the shock of disillusionment.

    Identifying the student's misinformation, error, or

    difficulty as similar to that of many other persons often

    helps to allay chagrin, shock, embarrassment, or new fears.


13.  Establish a reputation for being helpful and fair and for

    keeping confidences.

    Personal information should be kept confidential without



14.  Give advice sparingly, if at all.

    If your advice is requested, you may say you would rather

    not advise; but you can review the relevant circumstances

    and encourage the students to formulate their own



15.  Give information as needed.

    Unless you feel they would be better served by being

    required to search out essential information for themselves,

    you may feel free to supply facts about educational or

    vocational opportunities or requirements.


16.  Make certain that all vital considerations relevant to a

    decision are brought forward.

    If you expect interviews to go beyond one, you may need to

    develop a list of the many essential points to be reviewed.


17.  Present alternative for the interviewee's consideration. Possible courses of action may be proposed without the implication that you are trying to impose your own views.


18.  Make other services available to interviewees.

    Refer to librarians, professors, clinicians, and any other

    experts who can help the interviewees gain insight into

    their problems.


14                             -

Exhibit 3 (Continued)


19.  Let the interviewees formulate their conclusions or plans of


    The interviewee's program of action must grow out of their



20.  Achieve something definite.

    Do not let the interview close until recognizable progress

    has been made and agreements reached on at least the next



21.  Make subsequent interviews easy. Do not attempt to move too fast.


* The 21 Principles of Interviewing came from Bingham, W.V.D. and Moore, B.V. (1959). How to Interview. New York: Harper and Brothers, 240-243.



Exhibit 4

SARA Davis

Sara Davis is a Black junior student. She started her courses but now has begun to slip in everything. Sara has SAT scores of 420 Math and 600 Verbal.


Sara went to an inner-city high school and she always read the material assigned and performed well on the tests. When Sara was not doing her course assignments, she was always busy working, taking care of her brothers and sisters or studying ballet - a field she almost pursued seriously. She decided that ballet was an impractical career given her financial needs and the difficulties of succeeding in that field.


She had always performed well in her science courses in high school and college; consequently, her advisor suggested that she consider a ,career in medicine so she switched to pre-med. Medicine offered her a real opportunity for a career beyond anything she had thought of previously and she was recruited by a nearby medical school.


As Sara began her first year in pre-med, she did fairly well on the early material but gradually seemed to be falling further and further behind. As Sara discussed the courses with her peers, she found that many knew more about the course content than she did. Many were working in labs or on science-related projects currently or before they came to college.


What really surprised Sara was that one of the other Black, pre-med students, was working in a walk-in medical check-up and



first aid program several blocks away from where she lived. Another student had learned some information and procedures that went beyond what was covered in the book.



Exhibit 5



Joe Martin is an Hispanic, second year graduate student, who got through his first year in fine shape and is doing passable work in his second year; but is considering leaving school because he is lonely and unhappy.


Joe's parents were born in Mexico and originally came to this country illegally as migrant workers. Joe was born in the United States and was bilingual in his early years. He was called Jose until his parents moved to the midwest just as he started junior high school. Joe was bright and was always a good student but he was not comfortable being singled out as a Chicano. So he worked hard at disguising his accent, started calling himself Joe and pronouncing the family name in English rather than Spanish.


He loved his parents but he avoided having his friends meet them because their English was poor and they were clearly Chicanos.


Joe was smart enough to get a scholarship to a school away from home and took the opportunity to move away from any identification as a Chicano. While this served him fairly well as an undergraduate, he was somewhat lonely and felt removed from the other students. His father died while he was in college; he chose not to return for the funeral.


Joe got the opportunity to go to graduate school in a state with a large Hispanic population. He did not think about this



Exhibit 5 (continued) much even when he arrived and saw that there were a number of Chicanos enrolled. He did not foresee any immediate problems.


As the first year students, got to know one another better, Joe sensed that he was not like any of the other students. The Chicano student group was active and provided many academic and non-academic services for the students, but Joe was not comfortable really declaring himself a Chicano and joining them.


At the same time, Joe was not comfortable with the Anglo students whose families, backgrounds, and interests were much different than his. He stayed to himself and did reasonably well. However, when he started his second year, somehow it came out that he was a Chicano and he felt really embarrassed and isolated. He felt that people were laughing at him and did not respect him. He felt so bad about things that he was about to leave school under the pretext that he was more interested in working full-time.