Effective academic advising

One of the components of the ‘service’ part of my job is advising undergraduates from their sophomore year onwards. Each of the faculty in my department takes a (mostly equal) portion of the advising load – at our current enrollment that means 15-20 advisees each. Faculty don’t necessarily make the best advisors – many schools have full-time academic advisors who specialize in guiding students through their college careers. But at most schools, particularly smaller institutions, faculty are the primary advisors on campus or share that responsibility with professional staff. Like teaching, academic advising is another important part of many of our jobs that we aren’t trained for sufficiently, if at all. Academic advising contains pieces of teaching, personal counseling, and career counseling, but is yet distinct from all of them. In a previous post I talked about the challenges of dealing with the emotional side of advising. Recently I have been thinking about whether I am the best academic advisor I can be, and if there are changes I could make to my approach that would help my students.

Traits of a good advisor

An effective advisor has sufficient knowledge to guide their advisees, is invested in a positive college experience and the attainment of their advisees’ goals, and takes the time to pass that knowledge onto their advisees. Some of these thoughts were inspired by the work of Dr. Saundra McGuire, an expert in student learning through metacognition and effective tutoring and advising.

  • Course catalog basics: An advisor is only going to be effective with a strong foundation of knowledge about course offerings, major requirements, and prerequisites. Unfortunately this takes time and sometimes a bit of trial and error. I’ve made a couple of mistakes, but luckily have only received one irate call from a parent. After a year and a half of advising I am feeling more confident, but I still have more to learn.
  • Extended knowledge: The best advisors have been around long enough to know which classes (and professors) to steer students towards and away from. I’m starting to develop a mental list of which classes students like, and which teachers to avoid (primarily due to heavy accents that make learning difficult, or issues of prior sexual harassment).
  • Where to send students for further help: It is critical that we as advisors are well informed about the offices and support structures in the areas of disabilities, counseling, and mental health services. For students that need imminent help, call and make an appointment for them or walk them directly to the relevant office.
  • Have a network of internship opportunities: At least in STEM fields, it is key that students have had research or technical experience outside of classes to get a job. We might invite some students to do research with us, but I certainly don’t have time to provide 20 advisees with hands on research experience. Those other students need to be found other opportunities, and a good advisor has connections and knowledge of student placement opportunities.
  • Investment in student success: We have to truly care whether our student succeed, being willing to go the extra mile with contacting peers for internship opportunities, and performing ‘intrusive advising’ when necessary. “Intrusive advising” is one way some colleges have dealt with students who need help the most but never seek it. Advisors attempt to force students to interact with them by calling repeatedly, visiting the students in person, and/or stopping the student in the hallway whenever possible. At my college students can’t register for classes until they have met with their advisor to get a registration key – although many advisors just bypass the system and send the codes directly to the students without a meeting.
  • The door is always open: The best advisors make time for their advisees whenever they need it, and schedules substantial time with their advisees. If an advisee stops by and asks for a moment of your time, and you are busy, schedule a future meeting so that your advisee knows that their success is important to you. My advising sessions have typically been half an hour, but I am going to extend them to one-hour time slots for sophomores and juniors.

What does an effective advising session look like?

The six stages of Appreciative Advising

The six stages of Appreciative Advising

Once you actually get a student to sit down with you, how do you make an advising session productive for both parties? Jenny Bloom and colleagues developed the appreciative advising model. This model has six phases.

  1. Disarm: Make a positive first impression with the student, build rapport, and create a safe, welcoming space.
  2. Discover: Ask positive open-ended questions that help advisers learn about students’ strengths, skills, and abilities
  3. Dream: Inquire about students’ hopes and dreams for their futures
  4. Design: Co-create a plan for making their dreams a reality.
  5. Deliver: The student delivers on the plan, and the adviser is available for encouragement and support.
  6. Don’t Settle: Advisers and students alike need to set their own internal bars of expectations high.

One thing I’m thinking of doing (as part of Discover and Dream) is developing a document that I ask new advisees to fill out before our first meeting, which asks about their career goals, a bit about their educational history, and if there are any courses in our major they particularly want to take so I can fit it into their plan (most of our upper level courses are only taught once every two years). My hope with this document is that it will give students some time to think about why they are going to college, and help them formulate their thoughts outside of the sometimes stressful advising meetings – even though I try to be empathetic and create a welcoming space (aka Disarm) just my existence as an older authority figure makes some student shy.

No matter how great I get at being an academic advisor, though, the students’ success ultimately comes down to numbers 5 and 6, delivering and not settling. Even if I craft the ‘perfect’ course schedule and find internship opportunities, student apathy and poor performance in classes keeps many of my students from finishing their degree on time or even at all. Thus the downside of being an academic advisor – for every student that does well and gets their dream job, there are an equal or greater number that muddle through or give up. For me, the biggest challenge to being a great academic advisor might end up being staying optimistic!

What academic advising strategies have worked for you? How do you deal with students that are resistant to taking advice?

8 thoughts on “Effective academic advising

  1. An absolutely crucial trait is knowing where you (the advisor) can find people to help you (the advisor). Who do you call when (x) happens? Who can tell you about exception (y)?

    Especially pre-tenure, my job is to minimize many aspects of my job — to not learn everything from scratch, and to take advantage of my colleagues’ accumulated knowledge. One of my colleagues had a set of documents that laid out our course requirements much better and was happy to share it. Another colleague is, well, a walking registrar’s office. If I did not take advantage of all the ways and people my U has to support and help me as an advisor — if I thought I had to do and learn everything from scratch — I wouldn’t be a very good advisor.

    • I agree with some aspects of your comment – I definitely do lean on my colleagues when I am faced with new advising problems, since their experience is invaluable and can keep me from making mistakes that will put my advisees in a bind.

      But I am leery of ‘minimizing’ this aspect of my job – to me, the interactions we have with students via teaching, research, AND advising are the primary ways we ‘teach’ at educational institutions (aka prepare students for success). To me, that’s what educational institutions are for.

  2. I think it is important to realise and remind yourself that there is only so much you can do. What good is it if you care more about someone’s future than they do?

    B x

  3. NACADA, the National Academic Advising Association, is a good resource as well. They have a more research-oriented journal (The NACADA Journal) as well as a more practically-oriented one as well (Academic Advising Today).

    NACADA’s take is that advising is teaching. I attended their national conference about a year ago and sat in on a great session where we began the process of developing an advising syllabus. It is just what it sounds like– a schedule of important ‘events’ in a students time at college, the rights and responsibilities of both the advisor and the student, resources and critical forms–all rolled into one. An interest inventory, such as the one you want to develop drmellivora, would fit right in there.

  4. Do you find this responsibility overwhelming or a challenge you are happy to tackle even if you don’t have all the answers??

    I assume it would be learning experience for you as you decipher if you have what it takes to be a ‘good advisor’ or if it’s more than you bargained for.

    I’ve learned over the years that even if someone is well versed in a particular topic or field of expertise that person does not necessarily possess the desired skills to teach someone else what they know. In other words, not all experts are good teachers!

    However, the fact that you took the time to research what it means to be a ‘good advisor’ and are worried about how good a job you’ll do in that capacity, tells me that you care and, in my humble opinion, that’s the most important quality of being a ‘good advisor’.

    This new task has a learning curve like everything else, but I think you’ll do great or at least make a valiant effort. Good luck! ^_^

  5. Nice! I especially like the pulling the contacts part. I really appreciate the people who did this for me in college, recomending me for corporate internships I wouldn’t have known existed or had a way of getting into otherwise. This wasn’t done by my advisor, bu by administrators in an office I worked in who knew me well. I would add to this list, work with the students’ value system. Most colleges I’ve worked in have lower class minority populations, and sometimes, the values of the people entrusted their guidance are different. Example: my advisor told me to get a PhD in the middle of nowhere, and I was not at that point ready to leave my family, much less for more expense without a salary! It was much more about a lucrative career for me, with the knowledge that I could change my mind later. I really appreciate the people who understood this.

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