Peer Review

Transforming Learning: Academic Advising At Spelman College

Under the leadership of provost Johnnella Butler in fall 2005, the faculty began to examine and reenvision the liberal arts mission of Spelman College. With the support from a 2006 Mellon Foundation Grant “Rethinking and Refocusing the General Education Curriculum,” the faculty began transforming our general education curriculum to an interdisciplinary, connected experience in liberal education. Included in this reenvisioning was an examination of our current advising program. Under the leadership of associate dean Geneva Baxter and former dean and professor of English Donna Akiba Harper, an advising working group was formed. This article will briefly describe the current system and detail the preliminary changes recommended by the advising working group.

Spelman’s Current Advising System

The mission of the advising program is to prepare students for lifelong learning by empowering them to develop and implement sound educational strategies that promote their academic, professional, and personal development. Students become self-directed learners and decision makers through a shared advisory process between advisers and advisees. This program, reflecting the institutional goal of excellence in teaching and promoting learning that focuses on student success, will:

  • ensure that students have access to knowledgeable and informed advisers who demonstrate care and respect

  • provide accurate information about educational opportunities, requirements, policies and procedures

  • teach students to use college resources to maximize their unique educational and personal potential

  • provide collaborative opportunities with students—particularly the undecided student—to develop and implement academic plans and probe educational experiences that complement their interests and abilities

  • provide a system that allows students to track their academic progress

  • provide a system to ensure regular communication among advisees, advisers and support/resource personnel

  • use technology to enhance advisement, which would include career advisement links on the office of undergraduate studies homepage

  • provide a daylong, campuswide information session/fair on majors so that students can visit prospective departments and explore majors

  • mentor students as they identify and clarify their values and educational goals

Advising is administratively divided between the office of undergraduate studies (OUS) and individual departments and programs. Advising of first-year students is coordinated by OUS and Lula Roberts of the Learning Resources Center. Once a student selects her major, the academic department she selects then assigns her an adviser to provide her with departmental advising.

First-Year Advising

The initial first-year advising session occurs during the new student orientation. Students who have selected a major are advised by a first-year adviser in their chosen discipline. Students who have not selected a major are asked to indicate whether they are interested in a science or nonscience major and are assigned an adviser accordingly. If a student thinks she will be a science major, then it is important that she is advised by science faculty because of the requisite courses required by the discipline.

First-year advisers are faculty members from the various academic departments and programs. All advisers must attend an advising training workshop before the initial meeting with first-year students. They are given a First-Year Advising Handbook, which mirrors the workshops and contains information on core and divisional requirements, the advising process and best practices, academic support services, academic policies and procedures, and an electronic tutorial. Also, advisers are given a Course Sequence Handbook, which outlines the recommended course sequences for each major and minor offered. Both the Advising and Course Sequence handbooks can be accessed online at the OUS and registrar’s homepages.

During new student orientation and before the student registers for classes, advisers meet with first-year students individually and in groups. Group meetings introduce the core requirements, the registration process, and share math and language placement examination results. During individual advising meetings, the adviser discusses the student’s Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate results, appropriate first-year courses, and helps the student register for her courses. After finalizing her courses in our administrative software system, the student prints three copies of her registration: one each for her adviser’s file, the registrar’s office, and herself.

Advising in the Major

Most students have selected a major by the sophomore year. Once they declare their major, the department assigns each student an adviser based on its advising system, which varies among departments. In most departments, advising responsibilities are shared equally among all department members. All students are assigned individual advisers; a few departments supplement one-on-one advising with group advising sessions. Most, if not all, departments provide their majors with departmental handbooks and/or major sequence checklists.

The student–faculty advising ratio is determined largely by the total number of majors in the department. Small departments average between five and twenty majors per adviser, and large departments average between twenty and forty majors per adviser. Some departments assign advisers according to the student’s classification while others assign the advisers to advise the same students through their junior year. In most departments, seniors and transfer students are advised by the department chairperson because chairpersons are responsible for conducting senior audits and verifying fulfillment of major and minor requirements. Chairpersons receive audit sheets and transcripts from the registrar’s office to complete this process.

Advising Probationary/Provisionally Admitted Students

First-year students admitted provisionally and those who fall below the recommended grade point average are advised not only by a departmental adviser but also by a learning resources specialist. Students must meet with the learning resources specialist on a biweekly basis and meet with their class dean monthly. Also, probationary students are required to attend academic success workshops that include topics such as task management, test-wise strategies, note taking, and textbook reading.

Advising Evaluated

Advising is evaluated on many levels. At the college level, the Office of Assessment and Student Learning annually administers the Survey of Academic Advising to first-year students and seniors. The results have been relatively consistent for the last three years, however more variation in assessment result is observed for first-year students.

From 2004–7, the survey of first-year students and seniors reveal that most were satisfied with their advisers’ knowledge of the curriculum, their availability, and their support and encouragement (i.e., helped with academic issues, identified intern/graduate opportunities, scholarships). However, the results are lowest when assessing the level of personal interactions and student overall satisfaction with the advising system. Once again, first-year students’ results are significantly lower than those of seniors. This is expected, since seniors typically become less dependent on the assigned adviser as they learn to navigate the academic system and in many cases self-select mentors and advisers to support their academic growth. It is important to note that our current survey does not address any career advisement questions.

In addition, departments evaluate their advising process at departmental meetings and end-of-the year retreats. Likewise, chairpersons share advising concerns and solutions in Department Chairs’ Council. While students seem to be most satisfied with the mechanics of the advising system (completing registration process, knowledge of curriculum, etc.), faculty are more critical of the process. Their concerns include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • lack of communication with enrollment management regarding enrollment forecast, start-of-term reporting, and student progress

  • faculty workload/overload/overwork

  • nonattendance at annual advisers workshop/misadvising

  • consistent access to advisee records

  • self-advising by students

  • the college’s administrative software system not being fully functional

 

2006–2007

2005–2006

2004–2005

 

First Year
(N=275)
Senior
(N=228)
First Year
(N=378)
Senior
(N=381)
First Year
(N=302)
Senior
(N=359)
I consider my adviser to be effective.
54.5
69.7
64
66.4
62.2
62.7
My adviser was helpful to me.
59.3
71.9
71.1
68.7
70.9
67.4
My adviser provided adequate information to enable me to complete the registration process.
64.4
70.1
76.7
67.1
73.5
62.4
My adviser was knowledgeable about the college curriculum.
78.3
78.7
65.8
79.4
72.8
77.7
My adviser helped me with personal problems.
22.2
29.8
22.0
34.4
15.9
32.6
In general, the advising system met my needs.
49.8
64.9
61.7
61.7
62.9
59.6

Revamping the Spelman Advising System

From the faculty’s viewpoint, the advising system needs revamping; hence, our almost two-year-long discussion of how best to repair or dismantle the current system. Before discussing the existing program, the advising working group decided unanimously to transform the current system into an advising mentoring program, given students’ needs and the results of the Survey of Academic Advising, which reveals that we have fallen short of our mentoring goal. For example, the 2006–7 results indicate that only 22.2 and 29.8 percent of first-year students and seniors, respectively, report that advisers helped with personal problems. Additionally, less than 50 percent of the first-year students report that the advising system met their needs. These results indicate that advising has evolved into helping with students’ schedules and registration only. Hence, our first recommendation—to make mentoring the cornerstone of the first-year advising program that promotes frequent quality interaction between students and advisers. Currently some students only see their advisers once or twice a semester. However, a strong advising program demands more “face time,” formally and informally. We will ask first-year advisers to structure informal gatherings with the advisees, such as lunch or dinner in the cafeteria, and a visit to the museum or some educational or cultural event in the Atlanta area. The first of these interactions, a dinner for advisees and adviser, is planned during new student orientation.

The other major recommendation is the implementation of technology to facilitate the advising process, thereby creating more time for mentoring activities. Tools such as a degree auditing system and a conversation card would expeditiously move students from first-year advising to the departmental advising program by providing advisers with access to pertinent student information. To discourage self-advising, we will reinstitute the use of registration PINS to ensure adviser-advisee collaboration occurs prior to registration. In addition, advisers would be notified if there are any changes to the students’ schedules and would be able to advise students accordingly. Students will be held accountable for self-advising. We have also asked that the prerequisite module in our administrative software be activated so students cannot enroll in inappropriate courses.

Other recommendations include but are not limited to:

  • mandatory attendance at the advising workshop; advisees will be reassigned if the adviser does not attend the workshop

  • annual performance evaluation of advisers

  • advisers and department chairs will be attached to advisee and majors’ academic records

  • establishment of online adviser chats

  • formal declaration of major during the second semester of the sophomore year during a celebratory major-declaration convocation

We will implement our new system in phases, beginning fall 2008, and will continue to restructure it until we have completed our new academic mentoring process. Change is always slow but under the leadership of our strong and supportive provost and with the continued input of a motivated and committed faculty, Spelman’s redesigned academic advising program will serve our students more efficiently and effectively.


Desiree S. Pedescleaux is the dean of undergraduate studies and associate professor of political science at Spelman College; Geneva Baxter is the associate dean for First-Year Studies at Spelman College; Carmen Sidbury is the associate dean for sophomores and juniors at Spelman College.

 

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