Email Advising: Doing it Wrong, Doing it Right

by Susan Ohrablo (Nova Southeastern University)

In a recent, interactive online training session, Susan Ohrablo, a doctoral enrollment counselor with the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University and past advising center director, conducted a detailed critique of a series of examples of advisor responses to students' email inquiries. Ohrablo reviewed what works and what doesn't work in email advising.

This article offers several key takeaways from that training session.

  • If you are an advising center director or a department chair, share this resource with your advisors or faculty, and consider whether to integrate this philosophy of advising into training.
  • If you are an advisor early in your career, take a look...see what you think. If you find this approach useful, share it with your peers.

Here are 3 principles that are key to effective, electronic advisor-student communication.

1. Be Available: Treat an Email Response as an Advising Session

One significant point that Ohrablo makes is that what works well in a face-to-face advising session needs to guide your understanding of what works well in electronic responses to student inquiries. During the online training, Susan Ohrablo polled advisors and advising directors at 41 institutions, asking what they thought made an advising session particularly effective. The responses:

  • Empathy and listening skills -- being able to communicate to the student that you can hear their concerns and understand
  • Clarity of goals
  • Action plans
  • Building trust
  • Asking questions
  • Addressing student concerns
  • Understanding student needs
  • Providing options for overcoming obstacles
  • Facilitating student decision making

This list of what constitutes effective developmental advising should also guide what an advisor sets out to achieve in an email response to a student.

"When you review your email," Ohrablo suggests, "remember that the student sending that email is an advisee. Treat your response as an advising session. If you do that, it will help keep you honest. The student has approached you with a question, and just because they aren't sitting in front of you, that doesn't mean the comprehensiveness of your response should be any different."

2. Be Comprehensive: Fight the Temptation to Just Give Quick Answers to Quick Questions

Ohrablo adds, "One of the things I've found in email advising is that we sometimes feel rushed...well, that's an understatement, right? I think oftentimes we feel rushed, oftentimes we feel like we don't have time in the day. It's so tempting to look at your email and see a simple question. It's so tempting to just write back a simple answer. But take the extra time. If the student was sitting in front of you, you wouldn't just say Yes or No or You're registered now. You'd take the time to talk through their concern, investigate what their needs might be, and find out what questions they haven't asked. What I'm suggesting is that we need to fight that urge to fire off a quick response and that we undertake comprehensive advising."

Not only that, but a student can easily misinterpret brevity in an email response as curtness or lack of empathy.

3. Be Timely: Because Alacrity in Response Saves You Time

Ohrablo suggests that when a student sends an email, they anticipate a rapid response. A delay in response will probably lead to student calls and voicemails to the advisor's office. This means increased work for the advisor. By contrast, if a response is both timely and comprehensive (so that the student's needs are anticipated and addressed), what could potentially be four or five interactions (or more) might be reduced to one or two.

A DEEPER LOOK: "DIAGNOSIS FOR ACADEMIC ADVISING: 3 MISSED OPPORTUNITIES"

In this past special edition of Higher Ed Impact, Susan Ohrablo, Joe Murray (Miami University Hamilton Campus), and Tom Grites (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey) offer their advice on:

  • Making the shift to truly developmental advising
  • Early intervention and "intrusive advising"
  • Improving faculty advising

Read more here.