I’ve been an academic advisor, teacher, and research mentor for three years now. I’ve done ok at figuring out the nuts and bolts of teaching and advising, and I’m doing better with understanding how to be there for students as an empathetic ear. As a teacher and research advisor I’ve gotten more flexible about my expectations given the fact that most of my students are non-traditional. Overall, I think I’ve made progress in learning how to be supportive and encouraging of students’ goals, while also realistic.
Each student comes into college with their unique set of abilities, resources, and drive to succeed. They also come with a set of expectations – perhaps simply of achieving a degree, or of getting straight As in their chosen major, or of getting into a top graduate program. Many students at my College are high achieving and could fit in at any top-tier university, and they achieve their goals. Others are relatively apathetic… ‘Cs (or Ds) get degrees’; they aren’t going to do that well, but they’ll pass the classes and get a bachelors, also achieving their goals. Others realize for themselves that they are not reaching their own expectations in their chosen major, and transfer to another department of their own accord.
The students that I continue to struggle with teaching and advising are those that are not achieving their own college expectations but can’t make the hard decisions that entails. Even worse are those whose college expectations for themselves were mismatched with the expectations of the program or the career they have chosen. How do you compassionately and effectively convince a student to reconsider their goals? How do you present them with facts and figures in a way that they will understand, accept, and actually make a difference?
For example, many students come into college Pre-Med. They may even graduate with a BS or BA in a relevant field and plan on applying to medical school, despite low GPAs and low MCAT scores. When should they have been advised to consider an alternate career path? By whom? I have heard complaints from students to the effect of “My advisor is discouraging me from applying to med school” or “My advisor doesn’t care what I want to do with my life.” Students don’t want to be told what to do. But doesn’t it do them a disservice to allow them to pay for four years of tuition and not achieve their goals?
Most recently, I had a disheartening experience with a student in a sophomore level core class in my department. She is not able to grasp the material that is being presented in class or prepare adequate work despite special accommodations from the office of student disabilities and the availability of a tutor (and me). During a one-on-one meeting I informed her that she is currently not achieving a passing grade, nor the minimum grade required to continue on to upper-division courses. Her response: “I don’t believe in grades. What matters to me is if I understand the material.” It is apparent to me that she will not be able to succeed in the class or our program. When should I tell her? Now? At the end of the class? Never, and let her figure it out for herself?
I don’t want to crush the hopes and dreams of budding doctors, scientists, or lawyers. But at some point it must be the advisor and teacher’s responsibility to be honest about the likelihood of students achieving their near- and long-term goals given their current performance. It seems like a thankless task, though. I’ve been told that the best way to go about it is “You don’t seem to be doing as well in these classes.. but look at these other classes you did well in! Did you ever consider X as a major?” It seems disingenuous when those high-grade classes are always freshman-level distribution classes not known for their rigor. I’m sure this is another thing that comes with experience, but I would like to know the best things to say and the best ways to say it. What do you do?