Friday, February 6, 2015
Why a four-year advising model might be a good thing
Four years since the process began, we are seeing some aspects of the Trinity Tomorrow strategic plan come to fruition. Encouraging plans are underway for the soft launching of centers related to international initiatives, student success, and experiential learning. Other components in the plan, such as those related to academics, marketing, and admissions are well in motion. One recommendation yet to be addressed is a review of Trinity's advising model.
According to the plan there should be an initiative:
"...to revamp the advising process to include conversations about students' current and future goals - academic, professional, and personal. While these conversations certainly occur in some advising interactions, they are not as universal as they should be. Effective advising enhances student learning, promotes professional development and a healthy work-life balance, and strengthens student retention."
I believe that the vast majority of our faculty members are exceptional advisors. I think most issues with student advising are systemic, in part, because there isn't even agreement about the advising role.
The University has shown that it is committed to having faculty, rather than staff advising. There are many advantages to this. First, the faculty are already employed and we don't need to hire full-time advisors. Second, most faculty members generally are experienced with the curriculum. And third, and most important, it is in the ethos of the institution that our faculty advise our students. This is what students want when they come here: personalized attention from our faculty. And though I can't speak for the faculty, this is what I think draws many of them here too. These advising relationships can be very meaningful and the potential to develop them further is hopefully on the horizon.
As we are currently situated, advising is primarily academic, intended to assist students in course selection and registration, fulfillment of requirements, and consideration and completion of majors and minors. Many advisors take this further, naturally, by showing concern for the welfare of their advisees and continuing mentoring relationships.
When students declare majors, they generally switch advisors. In place of the (usually) random initial advisor, they choose -- or assigned -- someone in their major. Essentially the advising process that begins in year one is truncated in the sophomore or junior year. Then the process begins anew.
In order to achieve the goals laid out in the strategic plan, I propose consideration of a four-year advising model. Under such a plan, a faculty member would work with a small group from "cradle-to-grave" if you will: From new student orientation up until graduation, and maybe beyond.
Here are some potential advantages:
1. With a four-year advisor, each student will have one person who assists them, not only with the mechanics of registration, but with the full arc of their experience: academic, personal, professional. An advising syllabus would probably need to be developed so all advisors could cover all of the elements that make for a student's experience, not just the academic ones. Personal touchstones could include sleep, time management, health, substances, relationships, family, and more. Professionally advisors could discuss with students their involvement in activities, service, plans for going abroad, internships, and resumes as well as offer advice related to graduate school and employment. This would dovetail well with our residential model that builds over a period of time and is developmentally based.
2. If a student stops out for a period of time the advisor, under this model, is perfectly situated to keep in touch. Each advisor will have a better sense of their advisees and be able to track what is happening with their students, even if they leave. At times, a simple nudge from someone, anyone, when a student is six weeks out, six months out, or a year out may help get students back on track.
3. One program mentioned in the strategic plan is a reflections seminar. Ideally, the full experience here would have several points of natural reflection. Imagine an opportunity for advising groups to convene each semester -- or at least annually -- and to do some sort of informal and formal reflection and discussion. One of the exciting things about working with students is to watch their growth over four years as they mature into adulthood. By having a support group to address successes, challenges, and developmental issues in a sharing environment, students could put their experiences in context chronologically and with others.
There are clearly some logistical impediments, but none that couldn't be addressed:
1. Having a person who advises students on their major is currently important for upper-class students. In this model, there are no such roles. Formally. An advisor working with a person who has declared a major takes on some of the academic responsibilities, but often serves as a kind of informal role model and mentor. There is no reason that students couldn't still get the kind of mentor-ship from one or more faculty members in a department. Indeed, I suspect this happens routinely, especially as students take on multiple majors and minors. Given our culture and environment, perhaps the role of "major advisor" can be reconsidered. Concurrent to whatever transpires in a student's majors and minors, the student would continue the important advising relationship developed since day one.
2. The numbers still work. If professors don't serve in a "major" advising role, then that reduces their number of formal advisees. At any given time (2,400 students and 240 faculty) each faculty member would have one advising group. Perhaps the advising might be more intensive and fruitful, but not likely more time consuming.
3. There are areas that require very structured and specific advising. Engineering Science seems to be the most structured. We could continue with matching prospective Engineering students with that faculty. In Health Professions, most first year students who start there don't end there. For them, having four-year advising could be really beneficial. For those continuing in Health Professions, they will find the mentoring they need. I know there are certain structural pathways to navigating the Health Professions curriculum. But if those things can't be read in curricular bulletins they are likely too complex and subject to individual interpretation anyways. Certainly group sessions on the curriculum could supplement what transpires in individual advising.
4. Some feel that they, as faculty, are more oriented to their disciplines than to holistic advising. I would challenge that. I have yet to encounter a faculty member who isn't student-centered. With appropriate orientation, training, and resources - such as an advising handbook and syllabus - everyone here could be effective in a four-year model.
Though I am not a student or faculty member I do hear about these issues regularly. I don't feel unqualified to suggest something different. Advising as an issue was raised in a 1999 task force on student life and again in 2006 in the upper-class task force. That the issue has surfaced again in 2011 suggests that we have an obligation to do something different and bold. After all, our approach should be first and foremost student-centered, focused on creating an advising model around them. Perhaps it is something like this or something vastly different. I hope we can have energized and creative discussions around this topic. It is time.