Embarrassment, disappointment, and desolation can be felt by a student who has failed to meet the academic requirements of his or her institution. Imagine experiencing all of these emotions and not knowing how to get back on track. Probationary students are just one of many student populations that academic advisers encounter on a regular basis. At my institution, some departments have special programs in place to work with probationary students, but othersbecause of adviser caseloads or other factorshave not yet established an official program to assist these students. Whether or not your department or institution has a program in place does not negate the fact that probationary students desperately need help. This paper will offer some suggestions on how to work with this population.
Before discussing things advisers can do to help probationary students, let us first take a look at who they are. At most institutions, students are placed on academic probation if they have earned a grade point average (GPA) lower than 2.0 on a 4.0 scale. In some cases, failure is directly related to students' inability to grasp the material being presented or their lack of interest in particular courses. In other cases, outside factors such as financial problems (Dunwoody & Frank, 1995; Lemoncelli & Leonard, 1990; Lucas, 1991; Trombley, 2000) or personal/family problems (Dunwoody & Frank, 1995; Lemoncelli & Leonard, 1990; Lucas, 1991; Olson, 1990, Trombley, 2000) may be the cause of poor grades. Although research studies often group at-risk students in the same category as probation students, it is important to distinguish between these groups. At-risk students are typically defined as students who have financial difficulties, job responsibilities, or deficiencies in certain skills (Santa Rita & Scranton, 2001). Ethnic minorities and students with a low socioeconomic status are also considered at-risk (Heisserer & Parette, 2002). While there are at-risk students who find themselves on academic probation, it is important to note that not all probationary students begin their college careers with an at-risk label. It has been my experience as an adviser that probation students come from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Even students with stellar standardized test scores and high school ranks sometimes end up on academic probation. For the purposes of this paper, probationary students will be defined as students who earn below a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.
If an institution does not have an official probation program, individual advisers can take specific steps to better serve students. First, the adviser must initiate communication with the student. As stated earlier, some probation students are embarrassed about their grades. Because of this, it is highly unlikely that students will voluntarily come in to meet with an adviser. Initial contact should be by letter or e-mail, and it should be clear in this initial correspondence that an appointment should be made by a certain date. If students do not meet with or schedule an appointment with an adviser by the assigned date, the adviser should follow up by telephone. Make sure students are aware that your goal as an adviser is to help them deal positively with their current situation. In the first meeting, take time to get to know the students and the circumstances that led to their academic probation. This process requires good questioning and listening skills on the part of the adviser. Many students will initially share as little information as possible. It may be helpful to share personal information so they feel comfortable with you. For example, since I was once on probation as an undergraduate, I find that sharing this information makes the students more willing to share their stories.
Once you find the root of the problem, begin to work on a plan of action for recovery. At times, the problem may be out of the adviser's scope of expertise, and, in that case, it is necessary to refer students to the proper resources on campus. Although taking advantage of these resources is ultimately the students' responsibility, the adviser must be persistent in making sure students follow through with referrals. This persistence may involve asking the student to bring in documentation or contacting offices for information (students must have signed a release with the adviser and the other office).
Sometimes students fail courses because they are not interested in what is being taught. Major and career exploration is also a vital part of helping probationary students. Asking students positive questions is, again, an important part of finding out their strengths and what they enjoy doing. Help them explore careers that will incorporate both their strengths and their passions.
Meeting with probationary students on a regular basis is paramount. Meetings should ideally be held every two weeks. Use the meetings to talk about their classes, major and career interests, and social aspects of their life. Lastly, advisers need to stay positive, helping students to stay motivated because they know someone believes in them.
Much of what I have described here is what the research terms intrusive advising. According to an article by Molina and Abelman (2000), intrusive advising is described as having a more personal than professional approach. It incorporates intervention strategies that allow the adviser to become an active part of the student's life, which, in turn, helps the student to stay motivated (Glennen, 1995; Heisserer & Parette, 2002). This personal relationship encourages students to be more responsible for their academic performance (Earl, 1988; Molina & Abelman, 2000). Studies have shown that students are more likely to keep up with their schoolwork when they know that their academic adviser will be contacting them about it (Heisserer & Parette, 2002; Holmes, 2000). Studies have also shown that probationary students have a higher GPA when intrusive advising is used (Heisserer & Parette, 2002; Schultz, 1989; Spears 1990).
Taking time to get to know students is the key in developing relationships that will encourage personal and academic growth. In most instances, advisers may only schedule advising appointments that last fifteen to thirty minutes, which is not enough time to address the complex problems facing probationary students. With a large advising staff, it may make sense to have one person designated as the probationary specialist. This person would work exclusively with these students to develop more personal and trusting individual relationships. The probation specialist could be given a lighter advising load to allow for longer and more frequent advising sessions.
When students finally are able to get off probation, they are usually motivated, excited about learning, and self-confident. Some of my former probationary students who once thought they would be unable to graduate now have a renewed interest in their classes and have become involved in extracurricular activities that relate to their prospective careers. As advisers, we play integral roles in the successes of our probationary students. The attitude we present, the information we give, and how we react to their situations can make all the difference in their lives. Take the time to listen and understand: it may be all they need to succeed.