4 Ways You Can Empower Students to Make Decisions All on Their Own

Making decisions can be hard for anyone but especially for students. 

Some students feel lost when making decisions all on their own, especially if they’ve grown up with adults whom they’ve deferred to for even the smallest of tasks. Whether it’s helicopter parents, or any variation thereof, being shielded from the internal struggle of decision-making may leave students feeling unprepared and unsure of how to make any decisions.

And even though students of Generation Z have grown up with a world of information at their fingertips, they may feel overwhelmed by the number of choices available.

gif of a man saying 'I'm not indecisive. I just can't decide.'

These students are more pragmatic and analytical about their decisions than members of previous generations. A majority of Generation Z participants said they value knowing two separate things related to decision-making: Knowing what is going on around them and being in control. 

We want students to feel in control when facing decisions, but how can we empower this? 

In this post, I’ll offer ways you can guide students toward confidently developing this skill, as it’s necessary for success in college and beyond. Much like student development theories, my suggestions are frameworks (or mindsets or philosophies — pick your favorite word) that can support you in encouraging students to make their own decisions. 

4 Tips

1. Take tips from a student organization advisor 

If you’re wondering how to help students make their own decisions, talk to a student organization advisor.  Advisors who rise to the challenge and opportunity of their role help students make decisions to benefit the overall health of their organization, as well as their individual college experience. 

In my previous post about student organization advisors, I mention the attributes of good advisors, which include being able to help students make decisions.

As Valparaiso University’s advisor manual explains, an advisor may take on many roles, including that of a reflective agent, educator, and mentor. The role of a reflective agent is “providing time for students to reflect on how and what they are doing.” 

As reflective agents, advisors can lead conversations about a student’s strengths, areas of growth, and self-perceptions. They can also offer feedback. The student’s confidence and ability to make decisions are likely to surface as topics through such conversations.

This is the perfect chance to work on skill development with students so that they’ll feel more empowered the next time they’re faced with an important decision. You can be a reflective agent, meaning that you’ll focus on creating teachable moments rather than on directing students toward particular decisions. 

Plus, as educators, advisors provide information, answer questions, guide reflection, and understand policy. Yet, students will sometimes make decisions for their organization that advisors don’t agree with… or their decisions will lead to less than desirable outcomes. Advisors return to being a reflective agent to help students not only manage these outcomes but process the series of steps that led them there.

This same balance of being a resource and a reflective agent, with giving the student the support and autonomy to make the decision in between is another tip to learn from advisors on how to encourage students to make their own decisions. 

Students also seek out advisors as mentors to help with issues related to personal development.

As Meg Sunga says in her post about taking your advising skills to the next level: Know your role. The work is more hands-off than that of a supervisor. Advisors focus on advice, feedback, and the room (and grace) to learn from mistakes, with final decisions ultimately made by students. 

As the University of Colorado Boulder puts it,  advisors provide guidance, insight, and perspective but “it is up to the students to provide leadership and to make decisions for their organization.” 

gif of a woman saying 'I've done all I can do. It's up to you now.'

This same approach is helpful when supporting a student facing an important personal decision. It can empower students, as it conveys that you are there for them but also believe in their ability to choose. You won’t jump in to tell them what to do nor do it yourself, which may be what they expect to happen from their experiences with other adults. 

Successful advisors also know how to maintain autonomy and offer challenge and supportskills that can help students navigate decisions. 

Another move to consider? Hosting a decision-making workshop for your students. Although these programs are often housed within student conduct departments, it’s worth exploring a collaboration to bring these presentations to students outside of a sanctioned setting. The University of Cincinnati, UC Santa Cruz, and Georgia State University all provide examples of decision-making workshops. 

2. Use open-ended questions

Using open-ended questions is critical for encouraging students to make their own decisions. After all, simply telling a student, “You got this!” can leave them still feeling lost, even if it’s delivered with the best of intentions. 

Helping students make their own decisions isn’t so much about simply directing them to do it. Instead, it’s more about having conversations with them that help them feel empowered to do so.

In my post, “9 Open-Ended Questions to Use with Students,” I suggest questions that I have found productive to use when supporting students. Some of these are aimed at helping students evaluate options for making decisions. 

For example, asking students what they are most worried about and what they’re most confident about in making a particular decision gives them space to sort out their complex feelings. Ask students if they can anticipate the top possible outcomes of their decision. Then, help them evaluate how they feel about these possibilities and develop a plan to address them. This can help students feel empowered to take an active role in the process. 

Other excellent open-ended questions include, “How can I best support you in this?” as they go through making their decision and then, “How did you feel it went?” after they make the decision. These questions let them know you care and will be there for them, both before and after the process. 

Some students will be so focused on what’s in front of them that they’ll have trouble seeing the bigger pictures. Open-ended questions can help them make connections between decisions and outcomes. 

Other students will feel anxious as a result of considering every aspect of the big and small picture, so open-ended questions that help them organize their thoughts and sort our priorities. 

Another useful question to ask is, “What do you want to happen as a result of this decision?” As explained here, this question can help students understand the difference between problem-solving and decision making. The former is being forced to make a decision because of a problem whereas the latter means choosing to make a decision because you want something to happen that currently is not. Thus, asking students what they want to happen is a subtle way to convey they have power over the result. 

gif of Billy Eichner saying 'you have the power'

Other questions that can lead students through the process include “Who or what have you consulted with so far to help you get information?” and “How does this align with your organizational or personal values?” 

Sometimes, decision anxiety stems from a student feeling like they don’t have any resources to which they can turn. So the first question encourages students to brainstorm about their options and practice consulting with others. (Check if they want any coaching on these skills; it can be hard for some students to know what to ask.)

The second question is especially great for members of fraternities and sororities, which have organizational values and rituals that define their memberships and can guide students in other areas.

Lastly, remember to make space for other aspects of the decision-making process that may not be obvious to you. For example, asking a student, “What is the priority for you in this decision?” is a great place to start and may add clarity for the student. 

Additionally asking “What other concerns are you’re considering?” acknowledges that decisions can be difficult and allows you to learn more about the student’s experience of the issue at hand. 

3. Learn from the counseling approach

Counseling is a great mix of respecting client autonomy while serving as a guiding resource. In my post outlining six harmful myths about therapy, I touch on some of the theoretical orientations that counselors learn in their training. Counselors typically choose one  or a few of these to guide their work.

However, you don’t have to have a masters’ degree in counseling to use some of their best tools. 

Being objective, non-judgmental, and demonstrating unconditional positive regard are three hallmarks of therapists that you can adopt. Just like a good student organization advisor, therapists don’t direct people to take one certain path. 

In fact, counselors don’t spend a lot of their time giving advice. Instead, they help clients organize their thoughts and feelings through active listening.  This highly prized skill helps therapists encourage reflection and learning in clients, offer helpful feedback, and supporting clients as they explore their needs and options. 

(Looking to up your game on active listening skills? Check out this advice for therapists or this TED talk from Julian Treasure.) These kinds of approaches will help you serve as a resource for any student grappling with a big decision. 

Motivational interviewing (MI) is an approach that’s largely used to address addiction and the management of physical health conditions, but it’s easily adaptable to other settings, including student affairs. Described as “an interpersonal style, not at all restricted to formal counseling settings”, motivational interviewing emphasizes helping people explore their ambivalence, acknowledge the challenges of change, and elicit internal motivators for change. 

The decisional balance worksheet, an MI activity, is particularly applicable to decision making. It explores the pros and cons of both sides of a decision, acknowledging that these considerations exist and giving room for a 360-degree view of the decision. 

After each pro and con column is complete, a counselor and client talk through what’s the most important to the client, marking these with a star. This narrows the decision down to a few key factors with a client eventually choosing what is most important to them. 

This activity helps a client organize their thoughts, offers a visual tool, and provides some structure to the process. The decision-maker is prevented from getting stuck in a loop or talking in circles. It also elicits their own “change talk” and helps them sort out their stuck points. 

This video offers an excellent demonstration of how to lead someone through the decisional balance activity. For additional resources, check out Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change

4. Build students’ confidence

While it’s important to have strategies like those mentioned above, it is equally important to find ways to help build a student’s confidence in smaller ways connected to the decision-making process. After all, empowering students to make their own decisions is partly about helping them build confidence. 

gif of Gordon Ramsay saying 'their confidence is incredible'

Look for opportunities to praise students for the decisions they make. Focus not just on the outcome but also on the process. Here are some examples: 

  • “That must have been a hard decision. I love how you handled it!” 
  • “Ah, that would have been a tough call. It sounds like you feel good about your choice.” 
  • “That’s great! How did you decide?”

It’s important to acknowledge your students’ efforts in making decisions, even when the outcomes are less than ideal. You might say, “I know it didn’t turn out exactly as you planned. You did a really good job of doing your research on this one, though.” 

Consider ways to adapt “The Super Mario Effect” for this as well. Although it’s a framework to re-envision the learning process, it can help students in decision making. The notion of “life gamification,” where the process is like a video game challenge you are trying to beat, can lessen the fear of failure and make the process feel lighter, leaving a student more empowered in the process. 

Give students opportunities to make decisions in their work with you, like choosing the color for new t-shirts that will be ordered. Entrusting them with this responsibility can go a long way to help them develop their confidence and autonomy.

Get their advice on select decisions as well. For example, if you’re planning a retreat for your student organization, ask for their input regarding location options. Not only does this show that you value and appreciate their perspectives, but students will get practice sorting through their own process when it comes to making decisions. 

You can also build a student’s confidence in decision making by taking the mystery out of it. Some students may think that they’re “just supposed to know” the right answer when faced with a tough decision. But that’s often untrue. It’s important to normalize the fact that, even for experienced decision-makers, decisions often don’t come easily or naturally.

Talk with students about the value of consultation and research. This way, they don’t sit along with their anxieties and make uninformed decisions by taking stabs in the dark. Instead, help them figure out who might be able to help them, along with how they can ask for help. Encourage students to think creatively here and point them toward applicable resources. 

At the same time, show that you trust in their ability to decide. Remind them that few decisions are fatal; it’s nearly always possible to change or readapt course. It can be powerful to share your own examples of when something you decided didn’t go as expected and how you made a shift. It helps remind them that things don’t always go as planned, but that’s okay; there are still options.

gif of a furry cartoon character saying 'we can fix this!'

How do you empower students to make their own decisions? Share your ideas with us on Twitter at @HelloPresence and @priyathomas757.

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Priya Thomas

About the author: Priya Thomas is a wellness and leadership development director and consultant, with 15 years of experience in Student Affairs. She is the former Director of Prevention & Wellness at Florida Gulf Coast University and actively volunteers with Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Her expertise includes wellness, mental health, student leadership and involvement, and fraternity and sorority life. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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