advising students

Six Ways to Make Advising More Than Transactional

Working with undergraduates necessarily means taking on advising roles. While formal responsibility might lie with advising staff at your institution, teaching a first-year seminar or a capstone automatically puts you in a position where students come to you for advice. So does guiding students

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Working with undergraduates necessarily means taking on advising roles. While formal responsibility might lie with advising staff at your institution, teaching a first-year seminar or a capstone automatically puts you in a position where students come to you for advice. So does guiding students on research projects or in practicums, teaching in an honors college, and working with students on high-impact practices (e.g., off-campus study and community-based learning).

Yet most faculty and instructors receive minimal, if any, training about how to do this important task well. As a result, advising is often transactional: helping students register for courses, declare a major, or check degree requirements. This was my early experience, and I was mostly at a loss for how to change it. How could I get students to my office? What did I do with them once they were there? What did I have to offer them? There are alternatives, evidence-based approaches that demonstrably increase success and retention, especially for students who are first-generation college attendees, from under-resourced communities, or from minoritized populations. What are these?

  1. Be proactive. This is about reaching out to students before they need you (e.g., to register for courses or when they’ve scored poorly on an exam or encountered a challenge in their research). Establish an intentional relationship early. Tailor the outreach to your specific role. This might be an initial get-to-know-you appointment if you are the formal advisor, but it could also be a short autobiographical writing assignment if you are their instructor or a conversation about career goals if you are a research supervisor.
  2. Be holistic. Get to know the advisee as both a student and a person. Be interested in their lives. What are their goals, strengths, needs, interests? Is the student employed? Are they a parent? What are their cocurricular activities? I know numerous faculty who are hesitant to become too personal with students. Again, you can tailor your approach. Talking about career paths or time management or whether the student has used tutors previously is a holistic approach that maintains more of a professional stance. For faculty that are willing to engage at a more personal level, Melissa Mokel suggests asking students whether there is anything that might prevent their success in the program. I like the question, “Is there something that’s important for me to know as your advisor/teacher/supervisor?”
  3. Emphasize goals. Encourage students to identify goals, not only long-term ones but also the steps along the way. Assist them in putting together an action plan. How does this course, that summer experience, or a community-based project get them closer to their goal? How can cocurricular experiences help build necessary skills? If a student is uncertain about their major or career plans, the goal can be to explore their interests to narrow the options. Even if you have a student for only a single course, ask them to share what they expect to gain across the semester.
  4. Prompt reflection. Students often need guidance as they think through their strengths, challenges, needs, and even their successes. How often have you let achieving a goal go unnoticed? Or persisted through a challenge and not taken the time to recognize how you achieved it? I like asking students to update their resumes to include their recent experiences. Did they learn a new technique or computer language in the previous semester? Have they gained interpersonal or leadership skills? I’ve also found the question, “What would you do differently next time?” to be useful when the student has faced a challenge.
  5. Be a resource hub. Recognize that you do not need to fulfill a student’s every need. You don’t have to be the one that helps develop better study or project management skills. Make yourself aware of the resources that are available—tutoring, mental health services, wellness programs, and food pantries, for example. Many campuses have located student services such as these in a central hub or have digitally aggregated them for easy reference. Don’t be shy about encouraging students to use them. Better yet, give students a guided tour through the facility.
  6. Validate the student. Many of us are familiar with the importance for student retention and success of creating a sense of belonging, of making a student feel part of a class or a team or an institution. Validation takes this one step further by communicating that a student’s experiences, identities, and abilities are valuable not only for them but also for the academic community. Validation can also take the form of normalizing struggle. Make it clear to students that everyone encounters some sort of challenge during college and that a mistake or failure is not a sign that they are inadequate or don’t belong.

Importantly, evidence suggests that it isn’t so much the specific services available to students as the underlying philosophy of the programs. Strategies should be student focused, collaborative across administrative silos, designed to provide more than just academic support, and “rooted in the belief that students come to college with assets, strengths, and capabilities to foster their success” (p. 2). Successful advising—whether in a formal setting, a first-year seminar, a capstone course, or an off-campus study experience—is about nurturing and developing those qualities.

I would argue that we can even incorporate many of the above features into large classes, reinforcing the messages students should be receiving from formal advising.

Here are just a few ideas:

Lastly, we all have the student who shows up at the last minute for their registration code, when both you and they are too busy to have much of a meaningful engagement. There are also those students who are nonresponsive to our multiple efforts. In these situations, be persistent or use your campus early-alert system to alert others that an intervention may be needed.

Additional resources

McGill, C. M., Ali, M., & Barton, D. (2020). Skills and competencies for effective academic advising and personal tutoring. Frontiers in Education, 5, Article 135.

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising

Promoting At-Promise Student Success

Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.