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?
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.
- Disarm: Make a positive first impression with the student, build rapport, and create a safe, welcoming space.
- Discover: Ask positive open-ended questions that help advisers learn about students’ strengths, skills, and abilities
- Dream: Inquire about students’ hopes and dreams for their futures
- Design: Co-create a plan for making their dreams a reality.
- Deliver: The student delivers on the plan, and the adviser is available for encouragement and support.
- 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?