Friday, August 13, 2010



In our never-ending quest to help students succeed, we’re taking a fresh look at how we do academic advising on campus. From asking around, it seems like there are several different schools of thought on academic advising, each pretty much talking past the others.

First, there’s the “advising is scheduling” school. This group sees advising as a discrete function to be carried out almost entirely in the first week of registration, consisting almost entirely of helping students decipher degree requirements and sequences of prerequisites. I think of this as the sherpa function; the sherpa doesn’t ask why you want to climb this mountain; he just guides you to the top. The appeal of this line of thought is its implied humility: I don’t know why people do the things they do, I just help them realize their revealed preferences. The downside, of course, is that people don’t always know what they want, or they may not understand the difference between, say, “criminal justice” and “prelaw.” If you don’t ask the second question, you’re just helping the student dig herself in deeper.

Then there’s the “whole person” school of advisement, which elevates the adviser to something like guru status. This school holds that the adviser is supposed to see past the student’s self-delusion and suss out what s/he really wants. When it actually works, it’s lovely, but it’s hard to reproduce at scale, and it’s certainly open to charges of arrogance or self-dealing. (My adviser in college was a physics professor who just couldn’t understand why anybody would ever major in anything other than physics. I’m sure he meant well, but he didn’t help me any..)

A close variation on that is the “role model” adviser. This usually gets applied to students in underrepresented groups. The idea is that people make assumptions about what they can do based in part on who’s doing those things now, so putting some recognizably similar faces in key roles can send a powerful message. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this line of thought, but there’s some empirical support for it, so I hold my tongue.

There’s also a basic tension between those who insist that the faculty should own advisement, and those who believe that it’s reasonable to have full-time advisers. I side with the latter camp, only because the faculty simply aren’t around during the summer and vacations, but students come in year-round. I don’t want to say to a kid who shows up in June “sorry, come back in September and someone will talk to you.” I get the philosophical argument for faculty ownership, and in some tightly-constructed cohort programs (Nursing, music) we go with that by default. But in the fairly popular and loosely-built transfer major, the pragmatic argument for having some folks around whenever seems more persuasive to me.

“Intrusive advisement” is all the rage in the national literature now. I think of it as systematic nagging, though that may say as much about me as it does about intrusive advising. The intrusive model -- yes, they actually call it that -- involves deputizing certain staffers to become a variation on truant officers, chasing down students who miss class to ask them what’s up and help them get back on track before they fall so far behind that there’s just no hope. The whole enterprise strikes me as demeaning and vaguely creepy, but the results I’ve seen suggest that for certain populations, it can actually work.

Finally, there’s the libertarian line of thought, which I think of as the old computer helpdesk term “RTFM” (for “Read the F-ing Manual”). This school says that learning how to navigate bureaucracies is a life skill, and part of what a college graduate should be able to do. As long as the catalog and related information is available and accurate, it should fall to the student to figure out both what she wants to do with her career and how she should do it. If she can’t be bothered, well, let her learn the consequences of that, too.

I’ll admit some philosophical affinity with this view, but pragmatically, it doesn’t work. Part of the reason for that is that the manual itself changes, and I can’t claim with any certainty that it’s flawless. The manual also rests on a series of assumptions about students -- they’re full time, they start in the Fall, they don’t fail anything -- that don’t always hold. (In this setting, they’re actually the exception.) There’s also a perfectly valid argument to the effect that learning how to seek out good help is a useful life skill; a little humility isn’t always a bad thing.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a reasonably successful way to handle undergraduate advisement?

I prefer the libertarian approach, but there are times when someone really should ask students "why are you in this major?". I've seen too many cases where students think they should be in major X in order to achieve career goal Y when they really should be in major Z.

While I don't think that people should be too attached to a particular career at age 19, it is tragic how some students waste years on the wrong path because they didn't properly research the job requirements
What are your criteria for "successful?" Graduated in X years? Properly trained for the career they want? Educated in a vague wholistic sense? How interested are you in faculty-student mentoring? Seems like those sorts of questions about the goals of advising would come before judging systems.
I haven't started advising, so bear in mind that I'm writing out of ignorance, but...

My feeling is that it should be somewhere between "sherpa" and "guru". Rather than limiting advising to just selecting courses for graduation and a major, the advisor should be aware of what the student wants to do with that major once they've finished college. This is really about helping the students to make informed decisions about major selection.

I don't think it's practical, though for advisors to regularly see past self-delusion, and we're nominally dealing with adults responsible for their own decisions, so I don't think advisors should be expected to take on the guru role.

As far as faculty vs. dedicated advisors - I think dedicated advisors are worthwhile, but there's a definite value to having an advisor more familiar with your field of study that full-time advisors are likely to be.
Ideally, someone in advising would be effective at student triage. They would be able to determine which students just need a signature, which students need a role model, and which students need a drill sergeant cracking the whip on them. Perhaps they would even assign counselors/advisers on the basis of student needs and adviser styles.

At my CC, they get an epic FAIL when it comes to individualizing advising to student needs. It really sucks if you're an A-student who would thrive under a libertarian approach and you're continuously getting jammed up by an adviser who treats you as if you're an at-risk student. I imagine the reverse scenario would suck equally badly.

IMO, if a student comes in with a reasonable schedule card filled out, they should sign off on it (the system still won't let students skip prereqs). If a student has, say, 15 units with a GPA>3.9 or 3.5 or something, they shouldn't be FORCED to see an adviser before signing up for classes in future semesters.

My CC has professional advisers and they're constantly giving lousy advice. Most good students view them as a roadblock to their success. Students who listen to them often get screwed royally, since many of them don't know the difference between transfer requirements and major requirements (i.e requirements for an AA degree in 'humanities & social science' or 'science' -- an unnecessary and time-consuming track for students who plan on getting a BA/BS anyways, especially the science majors). They push the associates degrees so hard on the very students who are the least likely to need a 2-year degree.

The problem with advising is the complete randomness of it (due to the lack of triage). Advisers are assigned randomly and advisers range so broadly in their styles that you see extreme examples of both over-advising and under-advising. Both can royally screw students.

A big pet peeve of mine is when advisers tell science students & premeds to take the not-for-majors version of a science class before taking the for-majors version that they need. You can't get credit for both! Most of the students interested in majoring in science (who have the prereqs to take the classes for majors), don't need the extra preparation - it can waste a year of their life, a fair amount of money, and makes for a transcript that looks screwy.

I understand putting all of most students through intensive advising before their first semester. But after that, focus the few resources on the students who REALLY need the extra help and hand-holding. Either make advising optional for the rest of us or let us switch to the burnt-out guy who rubber-stamps everything.
Going along with MRW, my impulse is to say that there is a place for both a dedicated advising staff and for faculty advisers. I think it's a poor use of faculty resources to have faculty members figuring out undergraduate schedules for 2 or 3 weeks each semester - if students need a sherpa, it's useful for there to be an advising center or something like it to help them with those issues.

But faculty advisers do a lot more than just help students to figure out what classes to take - or they can do more if the sherpa duties are assigned elsewhere. In my capacity as adviser, I have talked to students about career paths, scholarship opportunities, and internships; I have written students letters of recommendation; I have helped students to find the resources on campus that they needed during crises (and I'm not convinced that they would have sought out that help if they didn't know me as more than a scheduler). However great a dedicated advising staff is, they are not best suited to do most of those things that I list.

For myself, I'm a big fan of giving students ownership over their own educations, and so I have a form that I give to students that is "homework" they must do before I'll advise them. This helps me to sort out the ones who can RTFM and those who are totally clueless (a), but also it takes some of the sherpa pressure off me, and puts responsibility on students' shoulders - where, quite frankly, it does belong.
At one state school I was at, every student was assigned an advisor, who were supposed to hold hours in the advising center (as well as their office hours). The only problem was that the professors never showed up to the advising center. This resulted in the advising center becoming a computer station where a work study student would direct you to the school website and Gee thanks, I never thought to check the website on my own. I checked the website, I am feeling unclear/uncertain, I need someone to explain this stuff to me.

At a private university I was at, advisors were professors from your major, and they made it clear that you needed to ask for as much help as you needed, from 0 to guru level. They always happily supplied the help, either via email or in person. That was nice.
What do students do when the school has a policy of using faculty as advisors; but the faculty doesn't want to advise and their method of dealing with it is to be of no use to students? or even worse, give wrong advise so that students will only come to them for mandatory signatures.

I had that situation in school and was basically SOL. The wrong advice cost me an extra semester (money I would have prefered to not spend). Now, if the school had several different methods for advising then I would have been able to "shop around" for the best fit. So, I think no one school of thought will work for every student.

Perhaps, having a "basic" advisor for the requirements and then a more "in-depth" advisor for those who can help students who are seeking more guidance would be helpful.

I agree with those who say there is a need for the advisor to play these different roles, and be able to decide what kind of advise will best serve the student; but what if they don't?
I think a combination of staff and faculty advising works well. The staff advisors where I teach are able to keep track of the nitty gritty of general education requirements, exceptions, transfer credit, etc.; faculty advisors concentrate on the major. I am in a unit that takes advising very seriously because there is some flex in how degree requirements are fulfilled. That doesn't mean the student takes anything; it means that the degree is fleshed out collaboratively.

Anyway, speaking to the CC, our best prepared transfer students are those who have had at least some discipline-specific advising, whether from a staff advisor or a faculty advisor. I'm in music. There's a bunch of stuff that should be completed in the first 2 years, or else it adds time to the degree--assuming that person is admitted to the 4-year program at all...
I was a student in the system Leslie is describing. I had a general advisor from my college (Liberal Arts) who was full-time and advised me on major choice and core classes. I had a professor from my major who advised my on major classes only. Both were good about deferring to the other.

I grant that this system won't work for every student, may not work at a CC at all (effectively, I could have seen only the general adviser for two years to fulfill all core requirements and then spent two years with the major adviser, and it occurs to me that a CC might just need the first rather than the second), and definitely won't work if communication between the two advisers is bad. But it worked well for me.
At my community college, advising was done by staff and it was initially mandatory but I think optional after the first semester (possibly dependent on ok academic performance, I don't know since that wasn't at issue for me). It was ok. They tended to be very busy, but they involved and supportive and I didn't get poor advice (although they usually only really helped advise intended transfer students well if they'd already had students go to that specific program recently- but then, the state school system transfer agreement thing was pretty new back then).
I did have to take a 1 credit hour 'skills for college success' class that was basically "this is how you RTFM" (also: "how to use the library!") THAT was a waste of time.

At my public 4 year, advising initially was a mix of a major-specific advisor, department type advising, and the college advising for gen eds (college of liberal arts and sciences). The major advising was fantstic, while it lasted (they were in the process of phasing out my specific major and folding it into a broader umbrella program). The department type advisors were also decent, and they had a nice office where job opportunities were placed.
The *college* gen ed advisors, however... If there is ONE reason I may never donate any money or time or assistance to my alma mater, it will be the college advising office. Not only were they NOT at ALL flexible, and not only were they focused like crazy on throughput of students, but they enforced WRONG interpretations of the transfer requirements. /still bitter

So I can't see why you wouldn't have a mix of faculty and staff- they can serve useful purposes that are distinct. On the other hand, don't use staff if they are only going to be bitter and busy and hostile (or, probably, don't use faculty if they are only going to be resentful and hostile, though I never encountered that).
I've never been on the "advisor" side of the desk at college (I teach high school, and have done advising at that level, but it's a completely different animal since everyone has the same grad requirements rather than various majors) but I do have my recollections as a student.

I was assigned an advisor from my major. He had no interest in anything outside of computer science (except for math) and was not able to give me any guidance on whether my schedule was too ambitious for a first-term freshman. (It was. I was taking a 200-level modern language course I was probably appropriately prepared for but which was going to EAT MY LIFE if I wanted to be successful, a theoretically 100-level ancient language course usually taken by upper-division religious studies majors that I was taking because it "looked like an interesting elective" from a professor known to be a very rigorous grader, the majors-track math class I placed into, the required freshman core class, a music performance class, theatre tech for the fall play, editing the sports section of the school newspaper, and doing off-season workouts for the spring tennis tryouts. This would have been crazy for a student who wasn't also trying to adjust to college. I had no idea that college classes were that much more work than high school ones, so I was replicating my high school workload but with two fewer classes.)

That went as well as any reasonable college-knowledgeable person would expect it to, and I ended up getting diagnosed with a learning disability during the fallout. This was one of the best things that could have happened to me, because the person I worked with in the learning disabilities office was much, much better at advising than my "real" advisor. The main "accommodation" I ended up using in college was meeting with her once a term to plan my schedule appropriately. (I do have a disability, but I'm also smart and able to work hard, so if I have a carefully-planned workload I can work harder to compensate. In my case this meant taking at least one proof/logic based math/computer science class to avoid having to do too much memorization of arbitrary things, among other strategies.)

To be fair, other students thrived with my assigned advisor and sought him out for advice in addition to their assigned advisor. We were just poorly matched. He didn't believe in learning disabilities (he changed his tune after having me in class for a semester) and didn't have much respect for the humanities, and I'm a generalist with a learning disability. We actually get along fine now, but he just wasn't the one to guide my 17-year-old self into college. (I needed someone to tell me I wanted to be in physics rather than computer science, among other things.)

That makes me in favor of having a person who does advising be the main advisor, although I think it's also important to have a system for talking to people from the department at times. (For example, no one outside of our Putnam competition coach ever told my friend that if he wanted to go to grad school in math, he should take French, Russian, or German rather than Spanish, and that's something that a math department advisor would have known. My friend was dual comm/math and had a comm advisor.)

My CS grad school did panel advising, where each student had 2 or 3 advisors. That may be a better system since you have multiple shots at getting someone you fit well with, but it does make advising take up 2 or 3 times as much time, which could be a problem at the undergrad level.

I guess in Magical Pony Well-Funded Land, I'd like to see students have 3 advisors: a full-time advisor, a professor from their major department, and a professor from another department in a different area of the college. Between the three of them, they should know pretty much every trap a student might fall into and be able to give good advice. I realize that's not realistic, though.
"I guess in Magical Pony Well-Funded Land, I'd like to see students have 3 advisors: a full-time advisor, a professor from their major department, and a professor from another department in a different area of the college. Between the three of them, they should know pretty much every trap a student might fall into and be able to give good advice. I realize that's not realistic, though."

I see why you'd say that, but tend to disagree. The problem with that approach, in my opinion, is that it's too splintered. Certainly, if a student isn't a good match with an assigned advisor, then there needs to be a good mechanism for switching, with no repercussions. Other than that, there's a real advantage to sticking with the same person for the long term, because of the possibilities of developing a good relationship.

I earlier spoke of having both staff and faculty advisors in my college--I have to emphasize that only one person signs off every quarter: the faculty member. We maintain good lines of communication and information flow with the staff advisors and send students there with specific procedural questions, but the schedule is fleshed out (some require more help than others) by the faculty advisor and the student.

Probably should mention that these are students who have declared a major (in one of several disciplines cutting across the arts, sciences and humanities) at the start of the freshman year.

And yes, it's work. But it's an important part of the job.
There is another role for advisers that I think you might have missed: "the insider". To the extent that this role is filled, it's usually filled by upperclassmen.

Upperclassmen share the information that adviser don't have or won't admit to. "Do/Don't take such-and-such a math class. It's half physicists and half arts students, and it's graded on a curve with a mean of 60%. Take this class instead, it sounds boring but the prof gives amazing lectures and you'll learn skills which are really useful in later courses."

How can you minimize late fees on tuition and library fines? How can you get out of parking fines? How can you withdraw from a class after the W date without losing tuition or failing? Which classes are never taught, but are still in the calendar? How can you jump prerequisites? How can you get into a class which is over-subscribed? How can I graduate in four years if I discover that I can't cut it in my program after three? I'm overwhelmed halfway through the semester and need a lifeline, what do I do?

I guess I subscribe to the libertarian line of thought - you've got to learn the rules of the system yourself - with the adviser playing the hacker who knows all the back doors. Needless to say, most advisers fall short of my expectations.
Good post. Here's my take:

The benefit of an advisor is that they can (in theory) develop a bit of a relationship with the student. Then they can be available for a mentorship role. Sure, the smart/lucky/connected/rich students will find or hire their own mentors without help, but the system has to exist for everyone else.

Advisers tend to focus the most on scheduling. That makes no sense at all. Scheduling assistance should be a general service provided by the college for all students. You don't need a personal relationship with a person to help her figure out what year she should take Bio 101. Likewise, the scheduling goals and status are entirely amenable to being stored in a file.

Any intelligent and competent person should be able to sit down with someone new, pick up their file, and see a list of "courses they want to take" and "major" and help them make a schedule. More to the point, those people don't have to be especially connected to the students; this is a different set of skills. Get a group of people from your college, train them right, and take that load off the advisors.

Where the advisor does (should!) come in is to help the student develop a list of courses that they want to take. and, more importantly, to help the student avoid mistakes.

I don't think that the "learning experience" model is worthwhile. The risks are simply too high: this is, as they say, Your Permanent Record. I *am not* exaggerating when I tell you that FIFTEEN YEARS after my freshman year, a grad school interviewer asked me about a grade that I got in my freshman fall semester. I am similarly 100% certain that a variety of things I would like to do (going to get another advanced degree, for example) are going to be directly dependent on my college grades.

I'm OK with that. But if the goal of the college is to produce successful people in the long term, you have to acknowledge that you may need to keep freshmen and sophomores from making really bad choices.
I missed this Friday, but can't resist chiming in. I apologize in advance for the length of the following rant.

I'm a F/T advisor. It is what I've done for most of my 15 years in higher education. My approach/philosphy is libertarian with a dash of sherpa and a pinch of guru. If I do a good job advising the first time I see a student I shouldn't have to see that student again unless he/she makes a signficant change in plans. I don't want to bless your schedule every semester; I outlined what you need, it you can't fill in the blanks you need more "professional" help than I am credentialed (or willing) to give you.

Unlike some of my coworkers, I don't give "bad advice." If a student wants details on a particular program (AAS/Vo-tech certificate), I direct students to the department for more information. I won't guess and make something up that sounds good. If a student tells me they want to transfer I ask, "Where?" If they don't know I'll get them in gen-ed, guaranteed-to-transfer courses (our state's "Core Curriculum") and tell them to go to the Career Center for an interest inventory (for whatever they're worth). Simialrly, if a student just wants "the basics" but has no idea what they want to major in I'll give them the Core curriculm and tell them to start thinking about their future. I tell them that, Yes, these courses are "required", but if they decide to be a Nursing major, taking General Biology because it's a core science requirement won't get them into a Nursing program.

If a student tells me where they plan to transfer, even though I know from years of experience what will or will not work at a specific university for a specific major, I send the student to the university itself or at least to the university's website to research it themselves. This gets the student's "face in the place" and they can exeperience what will be involved at that school.

Too many of my colleagues give advisors a bad name because they'll put students in courses they don't need or in courses that won't transfer to a particular program because they think they are doing the students a favor because it "fits their schedule" or it's required for an Associate's degree. I don't do that.

I tell students how it is. If they won't get into Vet school because they dropped Freshman English twice (yeah, it's an obscure admission requirement that you only get two chances on a course, no exceptions) I tell them. I know which schools accept "D"s in transfer and which ones don't; I won't let a student repeat a course they don't have to. I won't put a student in a course we "require" that won't fulfill a transfer requirement.

Many students appreciate my candor. The ones that do refer their friends to "the guy that won't jerk you around." Students that don't like my style cry (sometimes literally) to the boss about how I won't "work with them" (read for them) on what to take. For what it's worth, this example wasn't a first-time, first-generation student; she had been hanging around for multiple semesters taking what "they" put her in and told her to take. What I wanted her to "take" is ownership for her schedule and choices. But that makes me a bad guy.

I could go on, but suffice it to say no one style works for everyone in every situation.

We tried an "intrusive advising" system and, although I have not seen the data, I believe we abandoned it because it failed.

It was great for some students, the uncertain ones or ones in majors with tricky requirements, but only if they got a professor or adviser that cared enough to give a correct answer. However, the students who needed advising the most would simply not do it.

I think the problem is that they still envision "high school counselor" when they hear advising.
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