Advising for Students: A Problem or Solution?

by Wendy Fischman

Students go to college for various reasons. Some want to pursue a particular academic interest or passion, possibly one in which they may specialize thereafter in graduate school. For others, college is simply the obvious next step after high school; in the absence of a particular academic goal, they may want to meet new people, explore campus life, or just earn a diploma.

Regardless of these differing “mental models,” as we call them (see blog post), how do students make sense of the college experience? How do they learn about requirements for their major, for scholarships, or for graduation? How do they find out about campus resources—the writing center, mental health support, study abroad programs and the like?

Enter the faculty. On some college campuses, faculty members serve as formal advisors to students. Faculty advisors may be assigned to students in their first semester or students may request a particular faculty advisor once they have chosen their major and/or met with faculty members in their respective departments. The assumption being that these “on-campus adults” will provide helpful tips and recommendations about choices in the curriculum, as well as information about supports, services, and opportunities on-campus.

However, in our national study of higher education (see blog post), many students report that they do not receive sufficient guidance from their advisors for either academic or campus life issues. Students claim that advisors lack sufficient and accurate information about the general curriculum and its requirements. Sometimes, advisors lead them astray, which in extreme cases can result in an additional semester or year worth of work! Yet, we have also heard from faculty members about apathy among students. Many faculty members in our study claim that they make themselves available for students during office hours and even invite them to attend—but students don’t show up. When students do come to office hours, it is only to get course registration forms signed, not to talk.

This “misalignment” begs two important questions.

To whom are students turning when they need help?

In our interviews, we ask students specifically to whom they turn when they need help with a problem. Students respond that they rely on a number of people on and off campus, mainly their peers (and peer advisors, including peer residential advisors), college and university staff members (e.g. those who deal explicitly with student life issues), and their parents. Perhaps because of the influx of technology, apps, and social media, students (including those at residential campuses) still ask their parents for help—even regarding course selection and decisions about their major. One high-level administrator at a public state university told us that at course registration, when students don’t get their first choices, they immediately call their parents (on their smart phones) to discuss other options. Students frequently identify faculty members as “influencers,” but mostly for a particular course that sparked an interest or a teaching style that was enjoyable and/or effective; rarely is a faculty member cited as an “advisor” or “mentor.”

What kind of help do students want?

For the most part, students indicate that they seek help on personal and inter-personal issues with which they struggle. It becomes clear, then, why many students turn to peers, to family members, and to those adults on-campus who are specifically trained to help young people with such problems, including mental health counselors. Students often seek curricular advice, but it is usually in terms of how to satisfy requirements (for both the general curriculum and the respective majors or programs).

In both cases, faculty may be unable to help students.

First, most faculty members do not feel comfortable (or do not feel that it is their place) to help students with mounting personal problems, such as roommate woes, sexual abuse, or depression. One faculty member, a psychology professor, told us that she actually got rid of the couch in her office because students viewed it as an opportunity to come in to talk about these kind of situations, which she did not feel equipped (or responsible) to handle. 

Second, even in the academic realm, faculty members lament that their knowledge can be thin when it comes to advice about the ever-changing and often complicated requirements for graduation. For example, a biology professor may not know the particulars about the school’s language requirement.

So perhaps the essential question is: “What kind of help do students need?” Certainly, students need help with both personal issues and curricular issues: but perhaps students could benefit most from conversations with faculty “advisors” about their goals for higher education, areas of interest, and how these may connect for a meaningful life after graduation.

What can be done?

In our study of ten disparate colleges and universities, we have encountered different models for bringing students and faculty together. At small, residential campuses where students and faculty essentially live within the same community, we have seen faculty invite students over for dinner and, in the happiest circumstances, become a part of students’ lives. At the other end of the spectrum, at large community colleges, individuals are employed exclusively to advise students by means of “intrusive advising.” For example, in City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP), students and advisors are required to meet a certain number of times over the course of a semester and to document the goals and outcomes of the meetings.

Situated between these two models are other school-sponsored, voluntary programs, which provide opportunities for students to interact with faculty.

One such program is Duke University’s Focus Program. “Focus,” as it is often dubbed, brings together faculty and students who choose to live in residential living communities that center on interdisciplinary topics of mutual interest. Involvement in this community includes attending gatherings featuring a public speaker or a student debate and dinner conversations. Among foci in recent years are: Cognitive Neuroscience and the Law, in which students learn about how the brain is structured, how it produces and comprehends language, and how it influences people’s judgments on issues of legal responsibility; and Visions of Freedom, which combines a variety of disciplines to explore the concepts of free people, free government, free economy, and personal or moral freedom.

A second example is The Ohio State University’s STEP program (Second-Year Transformational Experience Program). In STEP professors interact with students, either in small groups or one-on-one, to structure opportunities for personal and professional growth and to help them make sense of the college experience. As one faculty member put it, STEP encourages and facilitates “substantive interactions” through regular meetings of students and faculty members outside of the classroom. As part of the program, students also receive small stipends to carry out a “signature project,” which they design with their mentors. These projects range from an archaeological dig in Ireland to exploring the concept of happiness, to visiting every national park in the country.

While programs like FOCUS or STEP can be effective for select students, their overall impact is limited since only a small proportion of the student population qualify, sign up, or get accepted for these voluntary opportunities. So we face this challenging question: How can colleges instill advisory opportunities for more students on a regular basis? Perhaps some of the features of the aforementioned models can be combined.

For example, imagine that in order for students to get a required “signature” on their registration form, they must bring a question or a topic to discuss at the meeting—one that goes beyond logistics available on the college website. Then, at the end of each semester, students must submit a written take-away from this conversation—whatever that may be—to both the faculty member and the registrar, along with the required signature, in order to register for the following semester. Optimally, such a soft requirement would catalyze regular contact between students and designated faculty members (and perhaps even the department as a whole).

To be sure, the needs and problems students confront are not the same among disparate institutions of higher learning. While some students struggle to find balance among working for income, taking care of their families, and executing schoolwork, others look for guidance on how to partake in a field study or laboratory work. While some students need motivation to stick with their studies, others need a reminder to explore different areas and not to focus solely on building a resume for post-college careers.

It is clear that students need to take some agency to initiate conversations with their advisors. At the same time, faculty need to be accountable to keep office hours, to respond to substantive questions, and, when serious personal issues arise, to make sure that students connect with the appropriate personnel and resources. 

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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  1. Peer Advising: Benefits and Challenges | Howard Gardner - December 3, 2018

    […] at the same time, students don’t feel that they get the help they need (see recent blog post here). Certainly, faculty and staff influence students, but according to the participants in our study, […]

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