Understanding Those Who Need Us: 4 Types of Students and How to Help Them

Faculty member supporting students

As next semester’s registration period ramps up, advisors will see an increase in student traffic, experiencing long days juggling back-to-back appointments, walk-ins, phone calls, and emails. It’s a time of year filled with stress. Students are concerned that they won’t get the classes that they need, worried that they may not pass a prerequisite course, and eager to get some direction from an advisor. Advisors are busy trying to triage the student traffic, struggling to respond to and assist all the students who are seeking their help, and managing a myriad of administrative duties between students.

It’s the same thing every semester. Or is it? Does it have to be? These are the thoughts and questions I’ve posed to myself throughout my career in higher education. There must be a better way to avoid the mad rush of registration leading up to the start of the semester. While institutions struggle with managing this workflow throughout the year, I have not found any system that effectively reduces or eliminates the rush. Such is the nature of human beings in need. They seek us out, which is a very good thing. The problem is, there are usually not enough of us to give them the time and attention they need when they get to us. So, is there a solution?

I believe that by understanding the needs and motivating factors that bring students to us, we can more effectively address them. By developing this understanding, we can strategically and proactively redirect traffic by promoting consistent, ongoing advising of students throughout the year and reduce the need for last minute assistance.

The “I don’t know how to” Student

While we expect our new students to need us for initial registration, we find ourselves scratching our heads when continuing students repeatedly seek out our assistance in registering. Why? What is so difficult? Considering that we give our technologically savvy students all of the online resources they could need, what is getting in their way? There could be factors which, once considered, may give us insight and ideas for providing these students what they need before they even realize they need it.

I encourage advisors to reflect on the frequently asked questions that students ask. In addition to putting together a list of FAQs and making them readily available to students, anticipate students’ needs by proactively providing them the information and resources they need.

  1. Ask questions
    • Have you tried to register? At what point do you get stuck?
    • What is the most confusing part of navigating the class schedule?
    • Let’s walk through the process and you can show me where you have questions.
  2. Show tips/tricks
    • Advisors who work within the student records and registration system every day may have some useful shortcuts and insights on how to best approach the process of identifying courses and registering. Share them with your students. An email prior to registration, social media posts, stories, and videos which include these tips and tricks can be useful tools for students.
  3. Monitor student registration
    • If you have access to a list of your students’ registration status, I encourage you to review it periodically. Who hasn’t registered? What does their current and previous academic record look like? Might they be hesitant to register due to fear and uncertainty, or do they have a financial hold? A simple call, email, or other communication is a great way to engage the student, identify concerns, and help resolve any barriers to registration.
    • If time restrictions prevent you from reaching out individually, be strategic in your mass communications. Simple registration reminders are not enough. Try to anticipate the needs and challenges of students who are not registered and provide them support. You may wish to target specific groups of students such as those who are academically at-risk or those who have financial holds.

The ”I don’t know how I’m doing” Student

Seldom are there surprises when it comes to academic standing. As they struggle to perform academically, students may react in a number of ways. They may “catastrophize” their situation and conclude that, because they failed a midterm exam they are going to be dismissed from the university. They may give up and feel helpless, concluding that they are not cut out for college. Or, they may ignore it entirely, possibly placing blame externally. “The professor has it out for me. My paper was fine!” In each of these scenarios, students may be anxious to see you right away during registration so that they can learn about their options. Unfortunately, anxiety levels are high, and time is limited during peak registration periods. Try these strategies to support your students prior to registration.

  1. Proactively review student records
    • Keep an eye out on these students and engage them frequently throughout the semester.
  2. Engage them early
    • Generally, you can develop an academic plan with a student prior to registration. Help them develop a “plan A” and “plan B,” and make sure their questions are answered prior to registration. Academically at-risk students need a lot of our time, and we don’t always have that time during peak registration periods.

The “I just want to touch base” Student

More often than we realize, students want to connect with us. Having someone they can relate to and rely on is invaluable as they navigate their college experience. For this reason, students may use the registration period as an opportunity to touch base with you for assurance and support. Although advisors know that advising goes well beyond registration, students may not. Instead of waiting until the rush to connect with your students, I encourage you to work on developing those relationships throughout the semester. If you have developed a supportive, trusting relationship with your students, they will use the tools you provide and seek your assistance earlier.

  1. Infuse humanity into your interactions
    • When communicating with students (email, phone, face-to-face), ask questions. Engage in two-way communication which extends beyond selecting courses. How’s it going? Any challenges? What’s the best thing to happen this semester? Share in their successes and provide support when they need it.
    • As appropriate, share some of yourself with your students. Did you have a hard time choosing a major? Were you afraid of failing? While an advising session is not meant to focus on you, students will connect with advisors who are willing to share a bit of themselves to build the relationship.
  2. Know your students
    • Review your student list. Are there names on there that you don’t know? Give them a call. Send them an email. Check their records. I have found the least and most at-risk students by doing this.
    • Some of our high-performing students may not need us and therefore don’t seek us out, but they would welcome an email or call to the effect of “Hi, I was just conducting a routine review of my students’ records and see that you have a 4.0 GPA. I wanted to congratulate you! I also want to let you about the University Leaders program that you’re eligible for. Would you like to discuss it sometime?”
    • Those students who are unknown to you and are at-risk academically can be tough to engage. The very behaviors and attitudes that may negatively impact their classroom performance can carry over into any institutional interactions. These students may be actively avoiding advising. Your task is to reduce the fear and anxiety they may be experiencing by letting them know it is safe to discuss their concerns with you.

The “I want to make sure I’m on the right track” Student

No matter how many tools you provide, no matter how many times you’ve reviewed a student’s academic plan with them, you still might find that there are some students who need to see you every semester just to make sure that they are accurately following a path to degree completion. Great! We want them to do that. Just not during peak registration.

  1. Introduce and explain the resources to be used in registration
    • As you introduce students to resources such as the degree audit, catalog, student portal, and schedule of classes, check for understanding and repeat if the student is uncertain.
  2. Have the student practice system navigation prior to registration
    • While specific classes may not be available prior to registration, students can familiarize themselves with the tools they’ll need to register ahead of time.
  3. Anticipate obstacles and provide information
    • Is the student enrolled in a prerequisite? Explain how to enroll in the next course, if needed, and discuss what to do if the prerequisite is not completed. Will the student need an override for a special class? Explain how and when to make such a request or enter the override prior to registration if appropriate.
    • Redirect the student to meet with you before registration and discuss options for alternate schedules.
    • If a student planned to take BIO 101 but all the sections are closed, what should they do? Rather than taking time you cannot afford to hunt for open sections of a science course with the student, make sure that the student understands all options so that they don’t need to check back with you. Anticipate the fact that they may not get the schedule you had planned together. “While I know you want to take BIO 101, just know that any life science course will satisfy this requirement. Here is a list of appropriate courses. If you really want BIO 101, you can also wait until next semester and take a social science or math class.”

Unfortunately, we cannot make a significant impact on the overall behavior patterns of college students. Some things have “been that way” for a long time. However, we can positively impact the behavior and attitudes of our own advisees and make subtle changes that may help to reduce the onslaught of student traffic that occurs during peak registration times while simultaneously promoting more meaningful, productive advising sessions throughout the year.