October 2004

Group Processes

Group advising is an area that I was not extremely familiar with until starting this new position. I had done group work in graduate school and had given countless group presentations. I had even done some group facilitation for certain courses and had done several student success workshops during my graduate internship. I didn't really believe that group academic advising would be all that difficult, and the thing I was most worried about was my lack of knowledge of the degree requirements and different academic majors and programs. Our unit requires that new first-year students attend two sessions during fall quarter: one group advising session and one individual follow-up appointment to further develop students' academic planning.

The goals of my group advising sessions were to explain the degree requirements, provide an environment for peers to learn from one another, bring to light how certain majors relate to the general education requirements, and teach students what they are responsible for versus what their advisers are responsible for. Each adviser in our office was required to hold these group sessions, although our director gave us the flexibility to facilitate them as we pleased. My game plan was as follows: (1) develop an agenda for the students to clearly articulate what the group advising session learning objectives are, (2) create activities and measures that will provide students the opportunity to show that the said learning objectives are met, and (3) instruct students in such a way that various learning styles are utilized.

My intention for each group session was to have students break up into subgroups, with each subgroup being assigned a different section of the general education requirements. The subgroups were given markers and a large sheet of poster paper and, after working together for ten minutes, the subgroups would teach the other students about their assigned portion of the general education requirements. Most of my groups were comprised of six to fifteen students, and there were six sessions. Students were told that their registration holds would be cleared after attending both a group session and a half-hour individual follow-up appointment.

Let's do the math here. I've got around 120 first-year students on my caseload. Let's say an average of 10 showed up for each of 6 group sessions. Multiply 10 by 6, and you get 60. So roughly half of my first-year students didn't show up for their group advising sessions. What was I supposed to do? I couldn't punish the students for not showing up. I couldn't prevent them from registering the next quarter, and I sure wasn't going to hold special group sessions for the students who failed to show up for the regular sessions.

What I eventually did with these nonattendees was remain firm on their individual follow-up appointments. I would not clear their registration holds unless they were sitting with me in my office. As for missing their group sessions, I treated them as adults and would say something similar to “I'm not going to yell at you or get mad. Those group sessions were for you. They were not for me—I already know this stuff. That's how college life usually is. You are given opportunities, and it is your responsibility to capitalize on those opportunities.” For some students I could see that, in the months to come, this new idea of choice was going to be either very beneficial or very detrimental to their academic and personal lives.

Returning to the group sessions, the method of having students teach their peers actually went well. It created a sense of healthy peer pressure and accountability among the participants. It was clear that when a subgroup presented their portion of the general education requirements back to the main group, the subgroup preferred to sound educated and articulate rather than unprepared and awkward. Creativity was encouraged, and I joked with the students that it should be mandatory. I realize that degree planning and academic requirements are not the most exciting things in the world. I tried to relay to students that being active participants and taking personal interest in their academic planning would increase their enjoyment in college. As they began to understand the entire university system, their stress would decrease and their feelings of independence and empowerment would increase. They wouldn't freak out when they were unable to get into certain classes listed on their academic plans because they would understand the overall degree structure and have the ability to rearrange their schedules accordingly.

Though it appeared that the majority of attendees benefited from the sessions, there were a few students who clearly wished they could have been someplace else. One particular student comes to mind, and I don't know that I will ever forget this incident. The session had gotten off to a rocky start as the makeup of the group consisted of nine first-year men and two first-year women. Apparently, this dynamic creates a tacit agreement among members that says participation is not cool. And colored markers—not cool either. In fact, this whole group advising thing was lame. As the session dragged on, one of the young women pulled out her cell phone. I tried to ignore her, assuming to myself that she was just going to sit quietly playing Tetris or checking her voicemail. Then she started dialing. She was calling a friend! She got her friend on the line and then had the gall to ask me when this thing was going to be over. I had no idea what to say. I wanted to rip the phone out of her hand and throw it out the window (we were on the third floor, so it would have shattered nicely).

Even the other students were surprised by her behavior, and I heard a few of them whispering “Ohh, mah goddd.” All I could think to say was “Jennifer, this is one of the rudest things anyone has ever done to me. It's completely inappropriate.”

“My name's not Jennifer, it's Janet,” she snapped back.

“Whatever,” I hastily replied, and then I continued with the rest of the instruction.

I'd say that about 90 percent of my attention during the remaining time in the session was focused on how I could have handled the situation differently and all the things I wished I would have said. I spoke to my fiancée that night about the interaction and came to the conclusion that there will always be instances that I can't be completely prepared for. Sometimes, I just won't know how I'll react until a situation actually happens, and the best I can do is learn from it and move on. But believe me—now I've got a whole list of ways to respond if a similar situation comes up. And that goes back to something that I mentioned in my second month's entry: “I constantly had to remind myself that becoming a good adviser was a lifelong process . . . I just tried to make sure that I was more knowledgeable each day regarding advising issues than the day before.”

Honestly, I was a fan of group advising until I had to do it. Now I don't know how I feel about it. Of course, there are many improvements that I believe will make my future sessions more productive, and I know I shouldn't let my limited number of experiences color my overall perception. However, I think there are some pertinent issues to think about: (1) Attendance really seems to be a problem unless punitive measures for lack of attendance are involved. I've seen other advisers struggle with poor attendance, which needlessly wastes financial and staffing resources. (2) From a student standpoint, I received both positive and negative feedback regarding my groups, and this was no surprise as different students prefer different learning methods. (3) From a learning point of view, the student development perspective says that we should challenge students to step outside their comfort zones and offer just enough support to maximize learning and development potential. Collaborative group learning lends itself nicely to the challenge and support concept, but do the benefits outweigh the cost when it's only a one-time group session and only a select number of students show up?

For me, the issue boils down to a matter of efficiency as advising units are asked to help decrease time to degree completion and increase retention rates in the face of budgets that fail to parallel swelling enrollments. Currently, it seems that my time would be better served seeing individual students for shorter amounts of time, most likely half-hour blocks. In my situation, I believe I can serve just as many students in the same number of total hours on a one-to-one basis as I can in group sessions. Here I am also taking into account the planning time I would spend trying to develop, evaluate, and modify group advising sessions. Of course, this is my individual situation, but I think group versus individual advising should be looked at by every advising unit in terms of academic and developmental costs/benefits to students and the costs/benefits to advising staff. Stated differently, is the advising unit most efficiently using its resources to maximize student learning potential?

With that, I'll suspend my commentary on what I'm sure will be an ongoing learning process for me so far as group versus individual advising and the most effective ratio of one to the other. While I'm confident that current advising literature regarding the benefits of group advising holds much merit, I simply want to make sure that I avoid hopping on the bandwagon until I know it's right for my students, our advising unit, and our institution as a whole.