Ensuring Your Developmental Advising is Effective

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Due to rising enrollment and budget cuts, academic advisors can find themselves nearly overwhelmed with high student traffic and high student/advisor ratios. Given this situation, how can directors of advising ensure a high quality of developmental advising, and how can they best encourage and support their staff in providing it?

We spoke this week with Susan Ohrablo, a doctoral enrollment counselor with the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University. Prior to joining the Fischler School, Ohrablo served as the director of academic advising for the business school at NSU, providing training and leadership to a large staff of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral academic advisors. Here is her advice.

Where Developmental Advising Efforts Often Fall Short

“Given the lack of time and high expectations from students for a fast turnaround in responses to their inquiries,” Ohrablo cautions, “it’s easy for the advisor to focus on answering the immediate question at hand without necessarily engaging in actual developmental advising.”

Ohrablo offers this scenario. Suppose a student calls indicating they have one more class to register for, and they are asking if they should take a certain course they find interesting. The advisor, pressed for time, responds with a speedy “yes,” indicating that the course will count as an elective.

“The advisor has not misadvised the student,” Ohrablo observes, “but the advisor hasn’t done a comprehensive job of addressing the students’ needs, either. The advisor hasn’t asked about the student’s career goals or reviewed the student’s record, hasn’t checked for issues the student didn’t know to ask about. The advisor might look and see that the student has nearly reached the time limit on their degree, and a discussion is needed about that. So, even though the student called to ask about an elective course, there may be other issues the student isn’t aware of. Unless the advisor takes the time to look at the student record and talk with the student, the advisor will also remain unaware of these issues.”

The Issue is One of Approach, not Time

“If I give a student five brief answers to five specific questions over time, this means the student has called or emailed five times, and I’ve had five interactions, as opposed to having just one comprehensive discussion. It seems counterintuitive, but investing in the comprehensive advising reduces advisor workload in the long term by reducing student traffic and by reducing each student’s total number of visits and calls.”
Susan Ohrablo, Nova Southeastern University

Ohrablo emphasizes that it is crucial to encourage your advising staff to view developmental advising not as a function of time, but as a function of approach and problem-solving. It’s not an increase in workload, but a reallocation of the advisor’s time.

A related concern is that many academic advisors devote time to tasks that aren’t as necessary. “One thing I used to tell my employees when I first hired them,” Ohrablo recalls, “is that I did not hire you to be a catalog; I have one of those. I did not hire you to be a website; I have one of those. If you are just replicating content that is already available to the student, this is a good check that you’re not adding value through developmental advising.”

Rather than provide and go over course or program descriptions, an advisor could send the student a degree audit prior to the student’s visit, and then invest the time spent in the visit in supporting the student’s decision-making and goal-setting.

Envisioning the Academic Advisor as the Student’s Partner

When training or coaching your academic advisors, prompt them to:

  • Articulate how they will balance the need to provide guidance and knowledge the student doesn’t have with the need to join the student in shared responsibility for problem-solving and decision-making
  • Define the value they bring to advising sessions (what the student will receive or achieve in those sessions that they cannot elsewhere) — such as offering a supportive shoulder, helping students think creatively about their goals, and helping students navigate the options available to them and outline strategies to reach their goals
  • Think through the importance of listening to the student (and watching for nonverbal cues) that may help them adjust their advising to the student’s level of readiness (for example, there is little value and possibly some harm in launching into an intensive discussion of concentrations and minors, career goals, and internships with a student is feeling completely overwhelmed)

This may entail a shift in mindset for some staff, particularly professional advisers who haven’t previously received formal training in advising. “One advisor,” Ohrablo notes, “may believe that sending an email to the student with 10 links to 10 resources in the catalog or course schedule may be a comprehensive job. But this is duplicating resources, it may overwhelm the student, and there has been no assessment of the student’s needs.”

“Reinforce the fact that we’re not simply here to give information or restate policies and procedures. Advising goes well beyond that. Keep the focus on decision-making, goal-setting, and helping students anticipate and overcome obstacles to their goals.”
Susan Ohrablo, Nova Southeastern University