Taking a Proactive Approach to Advising for At-Risk Students

illustration of online learning with computers and printed documents

In this first of several articles, Academic Impressions is interviewing leading experts on proactive approaches to academic advising. Over the course of the series, we will look at interventions early on the academic calendar and innovations in course scheduling that support intervention with at-risk students.

"By the time a student realizes they’re in trouble and asks an academic advisor for help, it’s usually too late for anything other than a conversation about dropping. The more you can front-load outreach into pre-term or start-of-term communications, the more options the advising office has to offer students."
Joe Murray, Miami University

Joe Murray, the director of academic advising and retention services at Miami University Hamilton Campus, is acutely aware of the issue; his institution is open-enrollment, with many adult learners, first-generation students, and academically underprepared students. With a large number of students who could be designated "at risk," Murray recognizes the critical importance of taking a proactive approach. Murray advocates an "intrusive advising" approach. Based on the research of Robert Glennen, intrusive advising focuses on early outreach and mandatory advising for at-risk students.

When we interviewed Murray this week, his primary suggestion was that a one-on-one, personal connection early on the academic calendar will make the most significant difference. We asked him to share a few tips about when and how to reach out to students "intrusively" or proactively at critical points on the academic calendar, based on his experience and success at Miami University. Here is his advice.

Gain strategies to engage and direct at-risk students on a path to success.

If you find this article useful, check out our webcast recording called 5 Key Components of a Successful Intrusive Advising Process.

Intrusive Outreach to At-Risk Students

"Identify those cohorts your institution is most concerned about, and target those," Murray suggests.

Generally, among the possible at-risk cohorts that you might focus on for intrusive advising:

  • Student athletes
  • Non-traditional students
  • English Language Learners (ELL)
  • Academically underprepared students
  • Other underrepresented student groups
  • Students who have been placed on academic probation

In the case of students on academic probation, the institution places a registration hold, so that they have to meet with an advisor prior to registering. "This allows us to solve many problems prior to the registration process," Murray explains. "There was initially some concern over whether we would have the resources to bring all of these students in to see an advisor. But in fact, if you don't do this during the spring and summer before registration, then you have to do it in a highly concentrated way right before classes. So the new approach is actually a time-saver."

Other times for early, intrusive advising might include:

  • Registration deadlines
  • Financial aid deadlines
  • Drop/withdrawal deadlines
  • Deadlines unique to specific academic programs

Outreach prior to these dates can make all the difference in ensuring that at-risk students are aware of the deadlines and of processes for moving forward (e.g., are your students clear on the processes for auditing courses, taking incompletes, dropping, etc.). These are also good times to discuss the students' degree goals and aspirations, and have collaborative planning conversations with the student that can help them make informed decisions and avoid scheduling problems later.

Intrusive Advising and Prerequisites

One innovation at Miami University is to check prerequisites for all students signed up for certain courses with high DFW (drop/fail/withdraw) rates and specific prerequisites. What Murray emphasizes is that while the registration system at most institutions will preclude registration for a course prior to taking its prerequisite, this actually doesn't solve the problem of having underprepared students enrolled in a course prior to completing its prerequisite. Here's why:

Suppose a student who is enrolled in spring term for pre-calculus registers in April for calculus starting in August. Because the student is taking pre-calculus, the system will let the student register. But suppose that after the registration date the student either drops or fails pre-calculus -- or passes with a very low grade. The student is still registered for calculus the next term, though the student is underprepared for the course.

The proactive or "intrusive" approach to this situation:

  • Before the term begins, check completion of prerequisites for all students who are registered for courses with high DFW rates and very specific prerequisites (science, engineering, math, nursing, etc.)
  • Call those students who have not completed the prerequisite
  • Be prepared to move them to a section of the prerequisite course

Murray notes that it's crucial to move them to a section of the prerequisite that is scheduled in the same time slot as the course in which they are currently registered. Avoid undue disruption of the student's course schedule after registration. If moving the student to a new course requires them to drop another required course, you have in effect solved one problem while creating a new one.