Improving Faculty Advising

Academic advising: Image of an advisor and a student in conversation

Over the past nine months, Academic Impressions has conducted several surveys of academic deans, department chairs, and directors of advising to investigate current trends in developing and assessing both faculty advisors and professional advisors. Among the key findings:

  • In a March 2012 survey, we learned that less than one-fifth of those institutions surveyed devote “sufficient resources” toward improving faculty advising — even though one-half of those surveyed cite improving faculty advising as a key priority for the next year
  • In an earlier survey (October 2011), less than one-fourth of academic deans and advising directors surveyed indicated that data from assessment of academic advising is used effectively to inform future training and development of faculty advisors

Yet we also confirmed that over three-quarters of institutions surveyed rely heavily on faculty advisors (even if they also employ some professional advising staff). While there are many resources available for training and developing professional advising staff, faculty advisors often receive little or no training — yet they provide most of the advising services at colleges and universities in the US. Improving faculty advising is thus a critical and often neglected step toward improving student retention and supporting students’ academic success.

This week, we asked Tom Grites, past president of NACADA and assistant to the provost at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, for his advice on the subject.

Grites suggests:

  • Establishing a set of shared goals for academic advising
  • Developing a system for ongoing and systematic assessment of advising effectiveness
  • Providing the necessary development and peer-to-peer training for faculty advisors
  • Writing an “advising syllabus” to outline specific expectations and guide the work of faculty advisors

Establish Agreement on the Goals of Advising

“The institution has to reach some level of agreement on what advising is. The smaller the campus, the easier it may be to establish an institution-wide definition. At a larger university, where different kinds of advising structures come into play, strive for consensus within each college or each school. The key is to get a mission or a vision statement that establishes what the work of academic advising is trying to achieve. Then you can work to ensure that within each department, advisors are working toward that shared goal.”
Tom Grites, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

To get started, identify the extent to which the advising process is a teaching process. “Every time a student comes into my office,” Grites notes, “I see that as an opportunity to teach. The learning may be focused on a specific life situation, maybe a specific skill. Maybe it’s about fulfilling requirements. Whatever the content of the interaction, approach it as a teaching and learning opportunity. You are helping that student learn how to make the best use of their time at this institution.”

Conduct Ongoing Assessment

Second, conduct ongoing and systematic review and assessment of the advising program, identifying practices and procedures that may need to be improved upon, either because of curriculum and policy changes, or based on data on the effectiveness of the advising delivered. Grites recommends forming a standing committee or advisory body to conduct assessment and make recommendations for improvement.

Grites cautions that the advisory body has to include both faculty voices and representation from the institution’s center for academic advising. “Both faculty and professional advisors must have a seat at the table, and the committee must have the support of the faculty senate if it is to be effective,” Grites suggests. “This needs to be about people across your institution working toward a shared goal.”

Faculty Development

Once you have a shared definition of faculty advising and what you are aiming to achieve by it, and once you have a system in place for assessing its effectiveness, Grites emphasizes the importance of a concerted faculty development effort to change commonly held perceptions about what advising is.

“Many faculty see advising as course scheduling and course selection,” Grites notes, “and as essentially a registrar function, rather than a teaching function. Yet most institutions have some type of automated degree audit. If the degree audit is the only purpose of academic advising, then let the machine do it.”

“Faculty intervention is about helping students make the most of their choices. A faculty advisor can play a critical role in helping a student brainstorm the best opportunities for enhancing their plan of study through service learning, independent study, study abroad, internship, and other programs. The faculty advisor’s role is to help the student articulate their curricular, co-curricular, and career goals, and then assist them in creating a campus experience that will facilitate reaching those goals.”
Tom Grites, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

To help faculty re-envision their role as advisors:

  • Focus on the attitude, the mission, and the concept of what the advising process needs to be (based on a college-wide or institution-wide definition), and provide this perspective through peer-to-peer training; “rely on faculty advisors to teach other faculty advisors,” Grites suggests, “and to invite other faculty into dialogue about the work of advising.”
  • Educate faculty about the types of co-curricular experiences available to students and how these experiences can be used to enhance a student’s degree program, skill development, career advancement, and their overall student development.
  • Invite faculty to apply their pedagogy and their classroom skills to advising
  • Suggest alternative approaches to the traditional model for advising. For example, many faculty advisors may not have considered the merits of using a group approach to advising sessions. “By sitting down with 4-5 students in an advising seminar rather than a series of one-on-one meetings,” Grites suggests, “you create a setting where students can inform each other. This saves time and multiplies the opportunities for learning. It shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of one-on-one contact, but it is another strategy that can help faculty make the shift toward approaching advising as a teaching process.”
  • Help faculty see that advising can be an ongoing and continuous process — that it doesn’t need to start and stop around registration deadlines. “You can advise a student in a five-minute encounter when you run into them at a local retail store or at a cafeteria, if you understand advising as a teaching role,” Grites adds.
  • For context, provide some background on learning theory and student development — but lean more heavily toward practical examples and scenarios that faculty can apply to the work of advising.

“Some degree of faculty development has to come into play, because most faculty have not been trained or exposed to what undergraduate advising is about. You need to raise awareness and equip them with information, examples, and practice.”
Tom Grites, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Consider an Advising Syllabus

One concept that Tom Grites and NACADA have been working on recently is that of the “advising syllabus.” The idea is that each academic department or each college could write one, outlining shared outcomes for academic advising and steps toward achieving them. In the best case, this syllabus would define expectations for advising of first-year, second-year, third-year, and fourth-year students, recognizing that students’ needs for advising will change throughout their course of study. For example, first-year advising may be more prescriptive by necessity, while advising for upper division students may be less so.

“This advising syllabus is also a good way to get conversation going among faculty,” Grites notes. “The dean or department chair should invite faculty to collaborate and provide input into the syllabus.”

Finally, Grites suggests taking a hard look at how the department or the college will recognize and reward exemplary faculty advising. Will there be a stipend? Will there be release time? “When it takes time to do advising well,” Grites emphasizes, “faculty need to be acknowledged for that effort and for its success.”