Thursday, May 12, 2005


Academic Advisement

It’s finals week, so students are beginning to confront the realities of failed courses, missed graduation requirements, and the next step in life.

This means, among other things, that this is when lots of students first figure out that they need to decide what to take next. My college requires full-time students to get an advisor’s clearance before scheduling courses, so the students have to track somebody down and get a stamp of approval. The idea is to prevent silly mistakes, like a kid with a full-time job taking 24 credits, or taking the same course twice having passed it the first time. (You smirk, but I’ve seen it happen.)

You’d think this would be easy, but it isn’t. The faculty, as a group, like to claim ownership of academic advisement, and for lots of good reasons: they understand course content better than anybody else, they build relationships with students, and they see up close the consequences of a marginally-capable kid taking 21 credits at a time. When a student is able to have a productive conversation with a professor in his chosen field, everyone wins.

The catch, of course, is that many faculty also like to get the hell off campus at the first possible opportunity. Once final exams begin, as far as many of them are concerned, the time for student contact is done.

Hence, the dilemma. Heaven forbid that anybody other than a professor advise a student; heaven forbid that a professor be asked to do anything resembling advisement between early May and early September.

The more I deal with faculty ‘ownership’ of various parts of the college (advisement, curriculum, standards, etc.), the more I realize that we’re dealing with different definitions of ownership. To my mind, ownership implies control, but it also implies responsibility; if you give up responsibility, you give up control. Many faculty (and I keep saying ‘many’ because I don’t mean ‘all’) seem to have in mind something closer to veto power. They don’t want to put in the hours and do the work, but they do want to be able to shoot down the products of anyone else’s labor. We don’t want to be bothered with advisement, but those boneheads in counseling who actually put in the hours are terribly incompetent. Don’t they care about the students?

If we had more students than we could shake a stick at, the issue wouldn’t be quite so urgent – just adopt ‘sink or swim’ as an ethos, and be done with it. Sadly, we’re not there.

Various solutions suggest themselves, but each is ugly in its own way. We could simply declare that advisement is the province of the counseling office, but the faculty wouldn’t accept that, and would take it as (still more) evidence of The Administration Trying to Run The College Like a Business. (I have a macro for that phrase now.) We could agree that the faculty owns advisement, and require everyone to put in office hours all year accordingly, but I don’t even want to think about the reaction to that. We could adopt a don’t-bitch-if-you-don’t-bother policy, which is my personal preference, but it would run so utterly counter to the local culture that it would surely fail.

Alternately, we could simply abandon the requirement that students get advisement before signing up for classes, and simply let them take what they think appropriate. If they take the wrong classes, too bad for them. While I’d like to think this would work, experience suggests otherwise. Too many would get it wrong, and would either drop out in frustration or take eons to graduate. More likely, we’d wind up processing course substitutions until the proverbial cows come home, satisfying nobody.

If every student signed up for September classes by the end of April, we wouldn’t have an issue. But they don’t, and they won’t.

Any ideas out there?

Let me strongly second the notion that you can't just leave students alone to make their own selections. I'm at a regional campus of a state university, and all too many students don't understand the idea of prerequisites (imagine what happens to people who take stat without the math prerequisite).

What to do? That's harder. Those of us who are around most of the time wind up advising our own students and everyone else's, which doesn't always make us happy.

One possibility is to designate some faculty as lead advisers, and to compensate them for the time spent on it--with time reassignments, or with small (I know thats all there is) amounts of cash for summer advising. It sounds odd to have to comepnsate people for something that you might think is already part of the job, but, speaking as an economist, I'd suggest that it just might work.
if I'm grasping the issue correctly here (I'm from Canada, attending a Canadian university), I believe we do things similar to what doc suggested...or at least relatively.

Although not every course has to be ok'd by an advisor, it is stongly suggested that we check in with them at some point, and is mandatory to check in to declare our major in our third year. Also, we have advisors in each of our departments which help out with more detailed part of a degree on top of the academic advisors (kinda like counselling I'm guessing) who do the broader picture on being on the right track for graduation.

but then again, this is a university and not a college, so maybe it's all different all over again...

sorry if this is all incomprehensible, I just spent the entire afternoon on the phone for our upcoming provincial election
I don't understand why the idea of requiring professors or instructors to keep a minimum number of office hours during an advisement period isn't an option. Because they don't want to do it? They're on salary, aren't they? I understand there's an attitude problem to contend with, but if it becomes a requirement it becomes a requirement, and let the bitching commence. It will anyway.

Instructors at the community college I attended were required to have a minimum number of office hours per week throughout the entire semester. During advisement period they had to increase their office hours accordingly, which usually only meant that they were required to stay until 2 or 3 p.m. even when their last class ended at noon or 1 and they normally would've been out the door. The result of this was that I was able to have the same adviser all four semesters, and that was a great help. Not much was required of her; she basically just made sure I wasn't doing anything stupid and gave me the needed stamp of approval. But there were also times that she was able to point out options that I hadn't considered.

When I went to a state university it was completely different. Not every professor was required to do advisement every semester. They rotated, so in my 5 semesters there I had 5 different advisers. The result was that every time I went for advisement it took alot longer because the professor wasn't familiar with what I'd already taken. I quickly learned that I had to show up with a detailed outline of where I stood (something on paper, separate from a transcript), and that helped. Still many of them, even in my major's department, weren't familiar with exactly what was required for my degree. They didn't know what courses counted for which requirements, etc. They consistently gave me incorrect information, suggested the wrong classes, etc. I always left advisement with the feeling that they despised having to do it at all.

There was a "leave it to the student" policy but the wording in the bulletins is often so ambiguous that clarification is needed, even for those students who are generally capable of taking responsibility for their own educational paths. When I realized how hopelessly uninformed (and apathetic) the advisers were, I set out to get the information but kept being referred to the Dean's office, then to the Student Services office. I walked in circles for two semesters and never got any straight answers. At my university there was one lady in charge of giving the ultimate say in what would work and what wouldn't for every student in the entire Liberal Arts college and she was hopelessly overworked. I was told that I couldn't have ten minutes of her time until I applied for graduation, which I couldn't do until the first week of the semester I planned to graduate. That left no time to catch oversights. End result--2 years turned into 2 1/2, despite the fact that I spent hours trying to prevent it. It was very frustrating to be confronted with people who spoke to me as if I were a complete fool when the reality was that I knew exactly what was about to happen and they simply didn't know how to redirect me and didn't want to bother with ushering me through the red tape so I could find out.

The leave-it-to-the-students policy will not work when the advisers are not willing to give help when it's requested. It's a disservice to the students. But from a business point of view, maybe it's a great idea. They got an extra semester's tuition out of me, after all!

(sorry for such a lengthy comment!)
Doc -- You're right, of course, and we do that for July and August. We can't do it in May and June, though, since those months are part of the faculty contract, and we don't want to set the precedent of paying extra during the contract year.

Tara -- it sounds like the first part of your system allows the students to find their own way, at least until they declare a major. I'd love to adopt that system, but we're just a two-year school; by the time their junior year rolls around, they're gone. We have to catch them earlier, one way or another. (And no, I didn't find your comment incomprehensible at all.)

Ann -- I hear ya. The university where I got my doctorate was famous for its indifferent treatment of its undergrads. Faculty spoke openly and without censure of their efforts to minimize student contact. It was astonishingly arrogant, yet they got away with it. My current school treats its students much better than that, but as an open-door school, we don't really have a clearly defined "advisement period." If we did, we could tackle the problem much more effectively. Here, though, students trickle in more or less randomly. It's not a major issue between September and May (except around Xmas break), but it's a killer in the summer. If we could train the community to only show up during designated weeks, we'd be fine, but we don't have that luxury.

Thanks for the comments! I'm glad to know that my school isn't the only one struggling with this.
My institution does things similarly to Tara's. However, that doesn't mean it hasn't had it share of problems getting to that model. Many diff. advising models were tried and many failed.

We do have full time advisors in an advising dept. but my (private) institution also wanted students to connect to faculty on a meaningful level. For a while this took the form of a voluntary but paid faculty-advising program in which incoming students were paired with an advisor. The problem here was there was no rhyme or reason; even if a student had a major in mind there was no attempt to pair him/her up with a faculty member in the same dept. Furthermore, students didn't understand why there were advisor advisors and faculty advisors. Should they go just one? Both? If both, why? Who was better? It was a mess.

Now, students may choose their own advisor in their department once they decide upon a major. Personally, I don't understand the problem of faculty being required to hold a set number of office hours during the fall/spring semesters, either. Aren't all faculty everywhere expected to do this? (Granted, the specifics are determined by the institution.) I certainly can't speak for everyone but I actually prefer to advise students in my dept. vs. them getting 'advised' (and I use the term loosely) by the folks in the advising dept. It makes the process run much more smoothly, for students and faculty in said dept. (e.g., I don't have 10 students begging to get into a closed class they didn't realize they needed to graduate this semester until yesterday). But then again, that's just me.

Didn't mean to ramble on here and didn't really provide a solution--sorry!--but it's an interesting discussion.
At my school, academic advising is pretty much pointless. My first 2 semesters, because I was considered a "learning support student", because I scored too low on the Math entrance exams, I couldn't register for classes without going to my assigned advisor and it was a nightmare. She knew less about what I needed to graduate then I did. I wish someone would have told me in the beginning that if I only take 12 hours per semester I couldn't graduate within 2 years, but nobody did. My school gives the option for students to get advisement when registering but they don't make it a requirement. When I've talked to other students about academic advisement they pretty much agree that it's a waste of time and less of a pain to just navigate through the tricky world of college by themselves.
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