Doctoral studies of an advising program at a small, private, religiously affiliated college in Canada resulted in a series of recommendations for a more effective program. The greatest need identified was that of a common understanding of the purpose of academic advising. Other recommendations focused on providing increased assistance and information to advisers in order to help students more effectively.
The project used a mixed-methods study of the college's advising program by surveying both faculty advisers and students. The majority of the questions collected quantitative data via closed-ended queries, many of which related to students' perceptions of time spent with their advisers and how that time was used. These were rated on an interval scale, ranging from always (4.0) to never (0.0). A few open-ended questions provided additional, qualitative data. The adviser and student surveys were very similar, allowing for comparison of perceptions.
The size of the student body is relatively small, therefore all students assigned to advisers were given the opportunity to complete the survey. Fifty-four percent of the student body responded, reflecting what is considered to be a valid sample size. The demographics of the sample matched that of the student body fairly closely, helping to confirm that the sample was realistic. Data analysts looked at statistical averages and deviations, as well as differences in scores for the same question on the two surveys.
Perception indicates that advisers are doing a reasonable job relating to students and helping them find solutions to questions and concerns. Many of the advising program's perceived strengths relate to the personal nature of the student-adviser relationship. Advisers are available to students and communicate their concern for advisees by their availability, the atmosphere they provide, and the personal nature of their contact with students. For the most part, students feel their advisers care about them as individuals. They see this expressed when advisers offer encouragement, answer questions, listen to problems, and offer guidance. They appreciate advisers' attempts to get to know them and to build relationships.
Results of the two surveys compared the area of advising enjoyment. Advisers rated how much they enjoy advising lower than students' perception of it. As would be expected, two advisers who rated their enjoyment lowest, or rarely, also indicated they would prefer not to be advisers. Another four of the ten advisers scored their enjoyment of advising as sometimes. Students scored the same question higher, indicating that those advisers who do not enjoy advising are not communicating this to their advisees and are providing effective service.
Despite strong scores in the personal relationship areas, other areas either did not receive such high scores or revealed significant differences between the two scores. Students were asked about areas in which advisers could improve. Several expressed a desire for their advisers to get to know them better. One student's comment was insightful: I know [my adviser] cares, [he or she] just doesn't know how to show it. Students also suggested advisers should know more about the college's policies and procedures and about students' plans after graduation. When asked about their own weaknesses, advisers recognized the need to be more informed and more efficient in scheduling and recordkeeping.
Though advisers did not tend to communicate to students their lack of advising enjoyment, it appears they did communicate their lack of time for advising. Students recognize that everyone is busy; however, it appears some feel shortchanged in relationships with their advisers because of time constraints. They cite advisers who are poorly prepared or unable to build relationships because they are too busy.
Many of the areas with low scores on the student survey received significantly higher scores on the adviser survey. These are the areas that formed the basis of the recommendations arising from the study. In all areas in which wide differences existed between adviser and student scores, advisers rated the practice, trait, or characteristic higher than the students did. It appears that advisers may reach out to students, but students are not hearing the message, thus pointing to a breakdown in communication between adviser and student.
The question eliciting the greatest difference between student and adviser responses regarded the frequency of discussing the purpose of advising. According to advisers, they sometimes talk with their advisees about the purpose of advising (3.20). According to students, however, conversations with their advisers about the purpose of advising rarely occur (1.84). A difference of 1.36 on a 4.00-point scale is significant. Answers to the open-ended question about the purpose of advising were equally varied.
Many student and adviser comments relate to adviser training in the areas of developing personal relationships and providing better guidance to students. The recommendations that follow incorporate these sentiments and point to urgent issues in the college's advising program:
- Advisers and students should understand the purpose of the advising program.
- All advisers should receive training.
- Students with specific needs should receive increased assistance.
- Advisers should focus on developing personal relationships with their advisees.
The recommendations are comparable to those arising from a survey at a similar college. Legutko's (2006) survey of thirty-nine senior students at a religiously affiliated college recommended increased workshops and information sessions; increased availability of advisers, even by email; and increase[d] ... number of interactions per semester with student advisees for reasons other than scheduling classes (Recommendation section, ¶27).
Although the issues are categorized, they are interrelated. Training for advisers must address the other issues covered here. For example, understanding the purpose of advising will help advisers comprehend the value of paying greater attention to those on probation. Developing personal relationships will give advisers the platform from which they can assist students in identifying strengths and weaknesses.
Understand the Purpose of Advising
The inconsistency in scores for the question addressing the purpose of advising, combined with the range of answers to the open-ended question about why students are assigned to advisers, indicates confusion about the purpose of advising. Many of the statements made by students regarding the purpose of advising are true but are only components of advising. Advisers help students register for courses and plan programs, but there is much more to advising than course selection and paperwork. Students and advisers need to understand the general purposes of advising and the institution's specific goals for its advising program. This appears to be the missing link at the college. There is no general comprehension of the purpose of such a program and no specifically stated purpose or mission.
Beyond conveying the general purposes of advising, an institution must develop a specific purpose or mission statement that relates to its overall mission (White, 2000). What should the advising program achieve? Prescriptively, advisers should be able to help students select courses and follow academic policy, understanding not only the letter of the law but also the rationale for the policy's existence and its implications. Advisers should be able to help students get the most out of their classes and assignments by making the best use of their time and abilities and by knowing when and whom to ask for help. Students should be stretched but not to the point of breaking. Outside the academic sphere, students should be able to interact appropriately with their peers as well as faculty and staff and those for whom they will work. Advisers should be available to talk with students about career choices and provide alternate options and career paths. This includes knowledge not only of the college's programs but also of further education and careers to which these programs can lead. Advisers should be able to help students when they face issues and concerns in other than academic areas. Because these issues cover a wide range of topics, advisers may not be able to help with them all but should be able to refer students to various resources. In the religiously affiliated college environment, students should be able to grow and develop in their faith and in the formation of their character. Students should be self-aware and understand themselves, so they can live and work to their fullest capacities.
In the survey, one fifth-year student came closest to capturing the purpose of academic advising. According to this student, the reason each student is assigned to an adviser is threefold:
- To help the students make decisions concerning academics, i.e. degree program, major, and minor option
- To develop a closer connection with a faculty member outside the classroom
- To have someone to talk to when problems come up, either academic, personal, or spiritual
Provide Training for Advisers
Consensus among advising professionals is that, even though advising is deemed to be a significant activity for faculty, there is little training for faculty advisers (Laird, 2007). As in any career, training must be provided if effective and increased performance is expected. Training must include not only explanations of institutional policies and procedures but also the theory involved in describing characteristics of advisees and learning to relate to these students. The institution's needs and the advisers within that institution will help to determine the goals, time frame, frequency, and style of adviser training sessions. New advisers will need different training than veteran advisers do. Changes in programs, policies, and procedures may demand further assistance for advisers. In addition, any perceived weakness in the relational skills of advisers will identify a need for further training.
Experts in the field of academic advising agree that content for an adviser development program can be divided into three categories. Conceptual content answers the question, What do advisers need to understand? In this case, advisers need to understand the purpose of advising. Informational content answers the question, What do advisers need to know? Relational content answers the question, What skills do advisers need to possess? (Nutt, 2006, Module 4). In many ways, these three areas relate to the three main objectives of any course or class session in which there is a need for head knowledge (informational), heart understanding (conceptual), and practical application (relational).
Provide Increased Assistance for Students with Specific Needs
Although college and university students have many characteristics in common, there are issues with which some students are coping that create unique problems for them. There are many students who could be classified as at-risk because of issues and characteristics they face as they manage classes, schedules, and course work. Even at this small college, there are students with physical and learning disabilities or students whose prior education has not fully prepared them for undergraduate work alongside honors students. Students throughout North America are mingling with international students and third-culture kids. Informational content of adviser training will help advisers to provide increased assistance to all students as they learn to adapt and accommodate their issues and characteristics.
The survey questions addressing student strengths and weaknesses all received fairly low scores. Both students and advisers felt that help was not available to identify student strengths and weaknesses. Advisers are encouraged to talk with their advisees and to lead them, through conversation and personal reflection, to identify areas of life in which they excel and areas in which they struggle. Here is an area in which the breadth of advising should include more than academic aspects, and each student should consider not only in which academic courses he or she performs better or worse, but also in which life skills he or she excels or struggles. Can the student identify if he is a people-person? Is she energized by people or does she prefer solitude? Is he an organized person? Does she struggle with keeping a calendar?
Focus on Developing Personal Relationships
Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association, considers advising to be the only structured activity on campus in which all students have the opportunity for one-to-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution (Nutt, 2006, Module 1, slide 7). According to Noel-Levitz (2006), advising is a process involving much more than scheduling and signatures. At its heart, academic advising is an ongoing relationship. Advising provides students with a person to whom they can turn with confidence when they need help (p. 1-B). Similarly, Barrow (2004) says that through advising we come to know not only the world around us, but also ourselves, by means of a developmental process of understanding, taking responsibility, and ultimately making choices that continually define and affirm who we are (¶1).
In the survey, this relationship factor was certainly reinforced in the students' expressions of appreciation for the opportunity to get to know faculty members better. Some used the word mentor in their definitions of the purpose of advising, either mentioning that they viewed their advisers as mentors or expressing a desire for a mentor. The discussion of the relationship between advising and mentoring is reserved for another occasion. Relationship building and mentoring skills, however, should be addressed in the relational content of adviser training to help advisers build deeper relationships with students.
These four recommendations, derived from the survey's qualitative and quantitative, address the most serious issues in the advising program at this college. Change will be gradual; it will take several years to educate a new generation of students about the raison d'être of the college's advising program. Change will need to begin with the advisers and spread to the students. Some changes are already occurring. Hopefully, the recommendations are not overwhelming but are viewed as a way to enhance an existing program by strengthening its foundation and rebuilding from the bottom up, using blueprints at every stage rather than, for example, repairing the roof before the walls are stable. The degree to which the recommendations are enacted will determine the strength of the advising program in the future and the level of contribution this project is able to make toward that end.