Wednesday, October 09, 2013


Advising and Registration

This one is a little detail-y for civilians, but higher ed folks will get it.

Every semester, we have an advising period for continuing students.  Students are supposed to see their assigned academic advisors before choosing their classes.  The advisors have the PIN numbers for the students to register online; the idea is that the students have to contact the advisor to get the PIN.  (It gets more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)  The “nudge” is supposed to get the students to bother to show up, on the theory that students who have contact with advisors are likelier to make good decisions -- and therefore to stay on track academically -- than are students who are left to their own devices.

Advisors can be full-time faculty, adjunct faculty on additional contracts, or full-time staff advisors.  (Adjuncts are not required to advise; those who do it get paid extra for it at a rate agreed to with their union.)  Every full-time student is assigned an advisor.

In practice, I’m told almost unanimously, advising sessions are scheduling sessions.  Students will show up with a list of the classes they want and ask the advisor to put them in.  Frequently, most of the session consists of negotiations over available timeslots.  (“I have to be out by 1:00, and I don’t want any gaps.”)  This strikes me as a wasteful use of faculty and staff time.

So this semester, we’re trying something new.  And I’m curious to hear from my wise and worldly readers about whether they’ve seen or done something similar.

Over the past few years, we’ve tried asking advisors to focus more on “big picture” issues than on finding open seats in desirable timeslots, but the gravitational pull of registration has just been too powerful.  So this year, we split the advising period and the registration period.  This semester, for the first time, the advising period ends before registration begins.  The idea is to force, by default, the discussions away from “is there anything at 9:00?” and towards “where do you want to go from here?” and “is this the right program for you?”

Students will still get their PINs from their advisors, but the PINs won’t be effective for a few weeks.  The incentive to show up is still there, but the incentive to spend the advising session playing “find the open seat” is gone.

My guess -- and we’ve only just begun, so there’s no way of knowing yet -- is that after the initial awkwardness of any new system, we’ll see a bifurcation.  Some meetings will be brief and perfunctory, but others will take advantage of the new opportunity to focus on larger issues and actually focus on larger issues.  I’d much rather have faculty use their knowledge of their field -- and of academe generally -- to help students figure out the larger issues of what they want to be when they graduate, and how they want to get there.  A student who knows why she’s doing what she’s doing will be much likelier to stick with it.  And she can find her own open seat.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or worked with a system like this?  Is there anything we should know to expect?

I've never seen or participated in a system like this, but I think it's flippin' brilliant. In my particular School of Music, the "big-picture" and nuts & bolts scheduling issues are addressed in the same meeting; fortunately, through the not-at-all-uncommon medium of a senior adviser who has seen it all and who the kids (quite rightly) regard as the final arbiter. Your proposal is brilliant. Hope it works!
What do you do when they don't see an advisor? Are they effectively kicked out? We used to have students assigned to individuals for mandatory advising, but that was an epic fail. There were problems scheduling appointments, but the real reason it failed was admin lifted the holds as the new semester approached because they didn't want to turn away $tudent$ who didn't bother to visit an advisor in a timely fashion and would have faced long lines to get advised at the last minute.

We have a system where it is very difficult, if not impossible, for faculty to do that kind of micromanagement of scheduling. Only the students can select class slots. That said, advising during the last few weeks to days before the start of the next semester often does devolve into what you describe. They log in on their laptop or phone and ask for exactly the kind of help you describe.

Our advising period starts a few weeks before registration does, but students can be advised at any time until classes start. We have a walk-in center for them to meet with those assigned there, but they can also meet with any professor or in special groups (like honors, pre-nursing, STEM, etc). The latter work really well, by the way.

I rather like the idea of giving them a PIN. That would be about the only thing we haven't tried! We click on a little flag that allows them to register, but only a subset of students have mandatory advising.
Well, we mostly block schedule our engineering students. As Associate Director of Software Engineering, I'm the advisor for our SE students. But the only time I help them make schedules (and we need better software for this) is when it's a special case, like a transfer (typically into SE). Well, sometimes they need to change sections of courses, but that doesn't happen that often.

I do have a couple of advising talks with undergrads. The most recent ones had to do with startups: "should I quit school and start/join a startup?" They are fairly uncommon, though. I probably have fewer than 10 such conversations in a semester, and I advise about 400 students.

We don't have any mandatory advising; we assume that if they're in an engineering program they know what they want. This isn't completely true, but probably pretty close.
We have mandatory advising in engineering so we can prove to our accreditors that advising occurs. Most advising is by full-time faculty in the student's engineering dept, and the depth of the advising depends on the faculty member. We click a button that lifts a hold, which then allows the student to register (as in CCPhysicist's description). Comments we type that describe the meeting are logged in a database.

Advising is usually before the registration period. Some meetings include some big picture. Others focus on "will class X fill slot Y in my program". That is at least somewhat better than "find an open slot", especially when class X is a technical elective and I can relate it to a discussion about what the student wants to do in their career.

We have a separate advising system for first year and transfer students. This system involves more formal (and easy-to-schedule) meeting times, and advisors expect more new-student questions. I think the same advisor hold button system is used to ensure a meeting prior to class registration.
At a SLAC, we have a system like HS lab partner describes. Advising times are prior to registration, over a week before. Students can't register until the advisor lifts the hold. Advisors can enter in notes about the appointment. It works fairly well. Some of the meetings happen through e-mail and or Skype as some students are off campus (abroad or taking a leave).
This proposal is very intriguing! Do update us on its success over time.

During my undegraduate days, I had to have my classes pre-approved by my advisor. We didn't have a PIN per se, but registration was separate from advising. The system worked really well; there definitely was no "Is there a seat at 9.00?" discussion.

Also, each program had lists of courses you could take. There were mandatory courses, "program electives" (a list of courses relevant to the program, pick a subset), "arts electives", and "open electives" (very few of these). Having these lists definitely helped move the discussion along.
At my previous SLAC, we had a similar system. Instead of a PIN, the advisor would check off in the system once they'd met with a student. Registration was about a week later and done entirely online. Worked pretty well. Nursing and education were the pilot programs for that process. Made a lot of sense and was full instituted.
We have a similar system to your "new system" at my SLAC. In practice, there are four types of interactions: the quick, cursory meetings you envision; some of the longer conversations you hope for; a few schedule-focused meetings; and several "I didn't come talk to you during the advising period and now my registration time is here and can you please email me my PIN?" moments.
How well do the advisors know the "big picture"?

Most academic have been in academia for quite a while, and the working world has changed in that time. Fields, especially technological ones, have also changed.

Even within an institution knowledge can be surprisingly lacking. For example, at a local university one of the biomedical programs requires incoming students to have biology and chemistry; physics is recommended but not required. The professors teaching the program know that over 80% of students without the recommended course drop out or fail, yet students are still advised to drop physics to raise their average, so they get admitted.

To my mind, a real 'big picture' look at the situation would either make physics a requirement, or inform students of the odds, but the university does neither. Instead, the advisors look at the requirements to get into the program and 'game' the system to raise the average while meeting all requirements.
I work in a system like this in a university environment, and it's true: I don't deal with scheduling issues during advising (except at the beginning of the fall when we put in first-years). Be prepared for some students to simply put off meeting with the advisor until they go to register and don't have their PIN.
Also, sometimes scheduling issues point to systematic issues that an advisor would do well to know about - e.g. these two departments always hold their intro classes at 10, so double-majors in those departments are going to have problems. So I'm not above looking up schedules in my advising meetings to make sure there won't be conflicts, but students are encouraged to do that themselves.
I will say that we do have a chance to talk about what kinds of electives students *should* be looking for and other sorts of priorities, without the distress of classes rapidly filling up as we speak.
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