Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Advising, Thin and Thick

The headline to this article pretty much tells its story: “Student Advising Plays Key Role in College Success -- Just As It’s Being Cut.”  It goes on to detail the rollout of an automated advising program at Arizona State.

I smiled with recognition.  Advising has been a missing term in much of the discussion of, say, MOOCs.  It matters tremendously to students, but in budgetary terms, it’s “overhead.”  It brings in no independent revenue stream, outside of a few grant-funded programs.  Which means that it takes much more conscious effort to sustain at a high level when budgets get cut.

On my campus, we’ve had years of discussion about sustainable ways to improve advising.  It’s harder than you would think.

The first obstacle is defining the term.  What is “advising?”  

Different people have different operational definitions.  Some adhere to what I call the “thick” model of advising, in which the goal is to have a wide-ranging discussion with a student -- ideally such discussions over two years -- in which the advisor -- ideally a professor in the student’s field of interest -- peers into the student’s soul, divines interests the student didn’t know he had, and sets the student on the path to enlightenment, a good job, graduate school, and a long and happy life.

Which is wonderful, when it works.  But reality doesn’t always cooperate.

Others have adopted a “thin” model of advising, in which the advisor basically cross-references the courses the student has taken with the requirements for the major, and makes sure that next semester’s selections will count.  It’s not nearly as personal, but it’s easy to replicate at scale.  And it works well with busy schedules.

The boundary between advising and scheduling isn’t always obvious, either.  I’m told that many faculty appointments with advisees wind up becoming much more about finding an open section than about discussing life goals.  Some of that is probably inevitable, but it’s hardly a great use of anyone’s time.

The second obstacle is staffing.  Who should do advising, and how much?

We’ve adopted a hybrid model.  Full-time faculty have advisees as part of their contractual workloads.  But there aren’t nearly enough full-time faculty to handle all of the students.  So we also have adjuncts on advising contracts, paid a union-negotiated rate to advise students in their fields.  And we have full-time advisors on staff, who are able to be around when other people are teaching. (Deans and other administrators aren’t allowed to advise, due to union contract issues.)

As with any hybrid model, ensuring consistency is a challenge.  We’re adopting a new software system to make the cross-referencing of requirements easier, which should help.  But it’s tough when requirements change fairly quickly, and some folks are more up to date (or computer savvy) than others.

The next great experiment -- which I’m hopeful will help -- involves separating advising periods from scheduling.  The idea is to force some “thickness” into the “thin” model.  If advising sessions can’t become games of “find the open section,” then maybe, by default, the sessions might become a bit more reflective.  Which is really what students need anyway.

We can automate the reasonably routine stuff, like checklists of required courses.  But the really important questions -- why are you majoring in this, anyway? -- require a thoughtful human interlocutor.  We’ve had considerable early success with moving career advising into the first semester, to help students start to identify goals.  Students who know what they want tend to be much more persistent than those who aren’t quite sure.  The goals can shift -- and they do -- but they need to be emotionally real to the student.  That’s the value that a thoughtful human can add, and a checklist just can’t.

But finances are an issue.  

Classes have tuition and fees attached to them, so there’s a natural revenue source to pay for them.  But advising appointments are free, even as the faculty and staff who provide the advice have to be paid.  As operating subsidies get cut, this becomes a progressively greater challenge.  

Economic theory teaches us that part of the value of institutions is in reducing transaction costs.  If you define course selection as a transaction -- which, at a really basic level, it is -- then part of the institutional value of a college is in helping students choose the right courses.  Avoiding “wasted” credits is an economic issue for students, and avoiding wasted time does wonders for graduation rates.  But as subsidies get tighter, finding elegant ways to do that on a large scale is getting harder.

I’d hate to have to retreat to automated, thin advising across the board.  It would save money in the short run, but over time, it would corrode the college’s reason to exist.  If you aren’t going to reduce transaction costs, then the argument for the institution starts to fade.  This is value we can, and should, add.

Hey, I just had a bunch of students come in for thick advising today (and many other Wednesdays). "So, why do you want to switch into Software Engineering anyway?"

At my university, advising is a service task that certain faculty do for limited times, replacing one teaching task. So, yes, that costs real money.

I'm surprised at the number of "wasted" credits. I'm also not sure it's in universities' interests to reduce them, if they're funded by the credit hour. It is if they're funded by the term (as we are). But most engineering students don't want to take course overloads.
At my four year state school, we started a 1 credit "intro to the psychology major" course that all majors have to take before graduation (preferably in their sophomore year). The course covers career options in the major, how to succeed in the major, how to research and prepare for grad school, non-grad school options, etc.

At some level, it's a semester-long group advising session with a faculty member. It's not a panacea, but students say they find it helpful, and they do seem better prepared and a bit more mindful when they come in for individual advising later on. It's definitely cut down on the number of students coming in at the end of the fall semester of their senior year saying "I want to go to grad school, what do I need to do?"

Offering this kind of course might be one way to formally recognize the need for advising and offset the cost of advising.
i remember back in college, i was advised to take a class my first semester that was basically a "get to know the university" class. we had to learn the university songs, and had to learn about the buildings and go to various events. when i finally figured out what was going on, it was too late. money down the drain.

i remember we were required to see our guidance counselors once a year. it's such a stupid thing. maybe 5% actually got something out of it. for the rest of us, it was an inconvenience. and it cost the university money and time.

the solution: a web tool where a student can drag and drop his/her degree path. "i'm going to take this class in this semester, that class in that semester." algorithms can detect stupid decisions, and counselors can review the ones that set off alarms. they call the kids in when they need to.

considering software is my thing, i can tell you that such a system would probably cost $100k to implement, but would be very marketable to other universities.

boom. problem solved.
Department websites within a college should have a lot more information about their degree program, than many of them currently do. A list of FAQ's, which can be prominently found from the home page of a college should answer at least some of the general questions a student has.

Deandad- I looked at your college website - and perhaps this info is in one of the services you need to log into (4 different portals, though?).

The FAQ page could include:
1) videos for general advising
2) placement tests (and their importance)
3) Online contact info and online appointment making with advisers, whether general advising or faculty advising

I think advising is part of the "cost of doing business" of running a college or university. It's also an area which can be somewhat streamlined with technology (as suggested by the previous post), since students are web savvy and search out information on the college web site (or try to, but cannot easily find it...). Much of this is bulletin board style posting of information, and so should be straightforward, and not expensive. I am surprised that many colleges do not post such basic information...

Also, future faculty/administrator union negotiations should include advising in a more prominent role for conditions for full time employment, especially at a community college or a teaching oriented four year college, where there are limited research and publishing expectations.
The schedule-building, finding-open-sections problem is mostly a problem with your enrollment management software. It is a problem with (almost?) everyone's enrollment management software. Just like we no longer rely as heavily on human travel agents for finding our options for flights, the enrollment management software should be able to tell the students that if they switch their Spanish class from afternoon to morning that they can get into an open section of English comp without having to change planes in Toronto.

Similarly, the enrollment management system should know what major the student has declared, which courses the student has taken that count towards this major, which courses still need to be taken, and (ideally) the prerequisite chain and recommended sequencing. Thus, when the student clicks on the button for "register for classes for next term" instead of seeing a blank screen with a button that says "search for classes" or "pick a department," the system should say: "Hi, Sally Student, your records show that your major is: Nursing. In order to be on track to graduate, the classes you should take next semester are: Anatomy and Physiology II, Intro to Nutrition, Statistics, and a humanities elective. Click here to pick your humanities elective from the approved list." At that point the student can pick courses for the flexible part of the schedule (while having no choice -- yet -- about the required part) and then click "go" to have the system build a schedule. Once the initial schedule is built, the student can then manually deselect and/or swap out the recommended courses for other, desired courses.

But you really shouldn't need to have your entire faculty acting as registration concierges.
I do much of the "thick" advising throughout the year as I meet with students (many who aren't technically my advisees) for other reasons; see them at lunch; or strike up conversations before, during, and after class. I considr this to be part of being an effective instructor.

Most of my "traditional advising" (helping students pick which classes they are taking in the next term) could be done by software and would save both the students and me a lot of grief.
A previous commenter suggested an advising system like: "Hi, Sally Student, your records show that your major is: Nursing. In order to be on track to graduate, the classes you should take next semester are . . ."

This may be the single best idea I have ever heard. Ever. I would dance in the street if we had a system that could do this.
"I would dance in the street if we had a system that could do this."

20 minutes with the school catalog should give anyone who is college ready the basic info they need to register for classes. I've never understood why students couldn't do this for themselves.

When a grad student at Arizona State, I and my fellow TAs ended up doing a lot of basic translation of degree requirement gobbledygook and college catalogs written to obfuscate for our majors and, indeed, a bunch of non-majors. And yes, the best faculty took the time to do this as well--though some of the bigger dogs seemed to sidestep this inconvenient activity. Was our advising useful? I think so--we recruited a few new majors that way and probably helped prevent or delay a few academic train wrecks. Could these students have done as well by simply sitting down at a CRT, opening their catalogs and registering? Maybe. Or maybe not. That human contact, the sense that maybe someone is handing along some good inside info or advice, has to count for something, which is why I view MOOCs with deep skepticism (and yes, I have taught a number of online classes, so I'm not cyber-averse).

This said, I admit that my own long-ago undergrad program was done with thin-to-no advising. I was assigned an undergrad advisor, listened to him bamboozling another student, picked up my folder and never looked back. I signed my own registration forms, learned to closely read the catalog, sampled widely, made a few 'oops' choices and still graduated in 5 1/2 years. I could have graduated in four or less if I'd had strong, effective advising, but I figured out that college is the best opportunity one gets to feed the elephant's child, so I made the most of it. Lucky is the student whose advisor can see goals beyond fast completion of a tightly-defined degree program.
20 minutes with the school catalog should give anyone who is college ready the basic info they need to register for classes. I've never understood why students couldn't do this for themselves.

For tightly-defined fields, like engineering (back when I was at uni), this is true. Pick a major and most of your courses are set (especially in the first year), so you're really just picking a major and one or two electives.

I've got 2.5 degrees, but I honestly have trouble figuring out what some of the classes offered at our local universities are even about, let alone whether they'd qualify for a degree. When is a course on "Data management" about maintaining database integrity, and when is about interpreting statistics? And which would be most useful to a particular student?

Add in transfer credits and sometimes the department I'm taking a course from has had to fight the university to let me register. (Because a course in "Microprocessor Design" has nothing to do with computers, because it doesn't have the letters "CMPT" in the course code, right?)
20 minutes with the school catalog should give anyone who is college ready the basic info they need to register for classes. I've never understood why students couldn't do this for themselves.

I mean, they probably can do it, but is it really worth 10,000 * 20 person-minutes? (Multiply by the appropriate number of students at your institution.) Not to mention the additional time checking to see if a course is actually offered this spring (or is it fall-only) or whether there are any sections with open seats.

Not everyone enjoys reading over the rulebook to find all the loopholes. Heck, I buy the "growth mix" mutual fund instead of spending the time to research individual stocks. Nothing wrong with making people's decision-making easier.
I wouldn't accept microprocessor design as anything but a free elective in our CS program. That's a very specialist engineering course, which doesn't match well to our concentrations. YMMV.

I always surprised when a student says "but Dr. [University College Advisor] didn't tell me I had to take [whatever]." We semester by semester course recommendations in our catalog, and checklists.. the 20 min comment is correct (at least for our department)

The biggest problem I see is that many students at our CC perceive "advising" as the same as "counseling" in HS, where the person's job is to provide a schedule. Those kids really need a flowchart for college and we rarely give one to them.

The payoff for good advising is retention. It has a lot in common with good teaching, where enthusiasm and the right questions can pull out what a student really wants to do.

As alluded to above, a major cost of bad (or no) advising is wasted credits. Not only are they still part of that student's debt, they might discourage a student from returning because of the frustration of a lack of progress.
At the extremes, you can see students who don't need any advising at all (not uncommon, if they are alert and have a goal that stays the same) and students who need to be hand-held through every aspect of their college academic experience. In my dream world, it would be possible to flag which type of student was sitting across the table from the faculty adviser or scheduler, and divert her/him to either heavier advising or lighter advising as appropriate. Huge universities have a greater need for "thick" advising because their course offerings and degree requirements are so complex; smaller ones and CC's need "thick" advising for students who are first-in-family college attenders, ELLS's, etc.
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