Thursday, May 13, 2010


The Advising Handoff

To get a sense of the stuff that drives administrators crazy, see if you can spot the hole in the three decision rules:

1. Students need academic advisors from day one.

2. Students' academic advisors should be faculty in their chosen majors.

3. Students shouldn't have to change advisors.

If you guessed "but students don't always know what they want to major in," you win! (I'd also give credit to "but students change their majors all the time!")

Over the past couple of years, I've heard plenty of complaints about academic advisement. I had thought -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that the major student complaint would be advisors who didn't know their programs, and/or who gave incorrect information about degree requirements. In fact, the primary student complaint was having to change advisors upon choosing a major.

Who knew?

The students drew a distinction between the advisor and the advice.

I had made the mistake of thinking of advisors the way I thought of them when I was a student: someone who could clarify rules if I needed it, but who was otherwise useless.

The students, by contrast, see the advisors as something closer to sherpas, helping them climb the mountain. They form a bond of trust, even if a relatively light one, and any time the advisor is changed the bond is broken. Given how tenuous the connection between the student and the college can be, especially in the early going, that light bond can mean a great deal.

It would be easy to square the circle by stipulating that every advisor would be an expert in every program, but that's just not gonna happen. Given some degree of specialization, it's pretty much inevitable that the first-guess assignments will include some mismatches. But to many students, the cure is worse than the disease.

Shows ya what I know.

Wise and worldly readers, I assume that many of you have dealt with this too. Have you seen a relatively seamless way to execute the advising handoff?

I'm not sure I would feel (or impose) institutional pressure to change advisers as majors change. If your systems can allow it I would let the student keep the first relationship open. As your question implies there are semi-high switching costs. Some are emotional, as a student feels a connection with their first adviser. Others are logistical - finding the faculty member's office, and setting some mutual expectation that the student will be welcome to that office.

I teach a section of our gen ed freshman seminar and as a result become a freshman adviser. Through out the year and into the next my students choose majors and start reaching out to their new departments. Yet I offer to remain in touch and some of my frosh still come back and see me. I can't help them with their department specific questions, but I'm happy to help them navigate gen ed and general graduation requirements, thinking about foreign study, etc. Why not let those informal relationships persist?
2. Students' academic advisors should be faculty in their chosen majors.

Why? Some of the best advisors I have encountered have been professional advisors, not faculty. I agree that students need mentors in their discipline area but many times full-time advisors are much more adept at navigating the minutia of policies and procedures at the institution.
My freshman adviser in undergrad was a blithering idiot. I found someone I liked and went to HIM for all my signatures. Though technically he didn't have advisees--he signed things. When he left, I kept going to his replacement. She had no advisees either, and no clue, but "The registrar said I needed to ask you to sign these forms, need a pen?" worked really well.
Having been a professional academic advisor in the past (for over 10 years), I have some bias toward that model. Although certainly not all professional advisors are good--one of the worst advisors I ever had was a professional, and I use him as an example of what NOT to do often.

What I found was that most faculty knew an awful lot about their subject, often somewhat less about their colleagues' specialties, and next to nothing about divisional requirements, special permissions, policy changes, etc. The faculty in my program were more than happy to refer their advisees to me for the technical stuff, and in fact, often suggested students come to talk with me about creative ways to put together their academic programs.

It wasn't that the faculty were uninterested, it was that they were not as knowledgeable about "the rules" and deferred to someone else's expertise. Even accounting for possibly suspect revisionist student history ("But professor so-and-so told me to do it this way.."), I saw enough mistakes that made me believe in the very real value of professional advisors who work with many students and get a real sense of the university/college's entire curriculum through what they take.

My suggestion is that one should have a first/second year professional advisor for technical and some curriculum-based assistance and then add (not hand off) the major advisor once the student has declared. This allows for mentoring in the major program, as well as a professional check for students to make sure they're on target for graduation. I can't count the number of seniors who came to see me just to make sure they hadn't missed something and that their faculty advisor had absolutely no clue about..
I think your flaw here (other than the one you point out) is stipulation #2. As others have said, good professional staff advisors who make it clear from the beginning that they are there to help with G.E. and choosing a major is the way to go. Then, you do the handoff to the major advisor.
This just reminds me of when I was in college. I was in the honors program, and so we had special honors advisors. Mine was one of the assistant deans for the pre-professional program, and I was studying pure math. She was, and I may be understating things here, completely worthless. And they wouldn't let me switch advisors.

I wound up getting a better understanding of the rules than she had, and when I wanted to take an art class in a different college within the university, she told me that I wasn't allowed to. I found out the next semester that I was. After my first semester, I avoided her like the plague.

Ahh, it feels good to vent :)
General purpose advisors are the way to go with faculty advisors used only for specific questions about choosing courses within a major. We did this in biology by hiring a lecturer who spent .4 of her time advising our lower division students - she did both major advising and GE advising. It worked well because she really knew the majors, knew the College rules and generally gave everyone the same advice (not the case with faculty advisors).

At the CC level, since everything is prescribed because of transfers, I think a professional advising staff is vastly superior to faculty advising, provided they do more than just tell students to take GE courses. In the sciences, those who follow that advice spend 4 years after transfer trying to catch up - and are bitter, justifiably so.
Yes to all previous comments about the many important components of successful relationships. But don't forget one important thing to have regardless of your advising model: a campus-wide note-taking system. Because students do change their major and interests as they learn (a good outcome), it is difficult to construct a fail-safe model to meet all needs. But a campus-wide tool that allows for a new sherpa to jump in smoothly, addresses accuracy concerns, and keeps a record of exceptions and promises made will help advisors and students feel more comfortable. This tool also allows for accountability at the Deanly level should there be some, er, hiccups in the system.
At U of C, I think we had professional advisors assigned to us. Mine told me that I was required to take Calculus to fulfill the math requirement. I was reluctant, but she insisted it was required. So I took it, and flunked.

*Then* I found out that I could have taken one of the alternative math classes to fulfill the requirement instead; they just encouraged students to take calculus because it was needed for continuing in several of the science majors, and they apparently didn't believe me when I told them first quarter that I was quite sure I was going to be an English major. So, the following quarter, I took Probability Theory, and got an A.

I have been bitter about advising ever since.
At my undergraduate, we were shepherded by professional advisors within our schools. When I shifted from science to engineering (and then again to the humanities), I shifted advisors (and those officially were any one of a number of people in the advising offices).

Unofficially, I consulted profs and family members (faculty at the same U) when my detailed study of the calendar of course codes along with my personal "bingo sheet" was a bit unclear. It wasn't the wisest solution all the time, but it got me through and I always had the advising office to consult if anything was at all unclear!

I work at an institution where faculty are supposed to be advisors. Our department chair does ALL of the undergraduate advising (I, as graduate coordinator, do all of the graduate advising). We know our own programs well but with the prevalence of double concentrations at the undergraduate level, it's purely crazy-making.

Students don't have to see the advisors and most of them don't these days. They can just sign up for courses online. As a result, you have many majors who've never met with their advisor and then have the temerity to wonder why they won't graduate in the June convocation since they didn't meet the degree requirements!
It falls upon the first advisor to enumerate the advantages of having an advisor in the student's chosen program. It helps to convince the student that one's utter incompetence with the requirements of the chosen program would, inevitably, impede the student's academic progress.

More than anything, it helps to convince the student that careful attention to any program's requirements makes all the difference between confidence and anxiety. For an advisor, nothing is more gratifying than meeting with an advisee who already knows what they're doing.
My impression is that faculty advisors often aren't very good at knowing all the detailed requirements that students need to meet; but staff advisors can be very effective.

My impression is that faculty advisors can be a lot more helpful when giving students guidance on broader issues: career planning, how to select among courses when the students have a choice, how to get a summer job, etc.

So I think it makes sense to have some specialization in student advising.
I cannot really give advice on what to do about advisors, except to say that all of mine have sucked - big time!

In graduate school I learned more during a five minute conversation with the woman in the parking permit office than I did during several conversations with my assigned advisor. (His advise included such "sagelike" wisdom as in "for an elective, if you like history take a history course, if you like literature take a literature course" and "we don't get paid extra to help students with their master's thesis so good luck trying to get someone to help you on that")

I think that schools need to provide some sort of policy/procedures to make it easier for students to choose advisors. This way students will stand a better chance at getting the advice they are looking for and schools can quickly find out which advisors aren't worth the money they are paying them for; and then fire them!
The problem with having a staff of professional academic advisers is that they are an expense for most of the year. The staff we have at our CC don't have much advising to do for most of the year but are too few to handle the demands when registration rolls around.

Our biggest problem is that most students don't understand what the role of an adviser is. (Their only experience is with HS counselors.) They want us to tell them exactly what classes to take, so I can see why proprietary schools thrive on that model.

Where we could improve is by having a prescriptive curriculum for the transfer majors that are most common so every one of them got something that resembles the same good advice. And we might try telling the ones who don't know what they want to major in to work for a few years until they figure it out.

But our biggest problem is with "allied health" majors. Many of our students need a basic bio or chem class before they can succeed in anatomy and physiology, but we can't prescribe a course plan that is inconsistent with the specific requirements for the AS program and what financial aid will pay for, even if that plan would give them a chance to succeed.
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