Proactive Advising: A Case Study
The Student Success Center (SSC) on my campus was a peculiar collection of resources. There was the campus testing center, where students took various standardized exams, and next to that the Office of Disability Services. In the remaining suite of offices were the staff who made up the advising side of the SSC. These advising staff worked with a variety of student populations, including the incoming first-year students, the students who were on academic probation, and those who had been admitted conditionally; they also organized the tutoring and supplemental instruction resources.
In the summer of 2016, following a promise by the chancellor to address advising disparities, the SSC was approved to hire three new advising staff. These staff members were hired specifically to work with the incoming first-year population and to complement the faculty academic advisers. These new staff were titled “success counselors” because of the turf war over “academic advising” with the faculty. Rather than discuss academic progress, these counselors emphasized academic literacy and student success.
Under the supervision of an experienced advising staffer, these new counselors began their training in advising through the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). The NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies Model (2017) has three categories: the conceptual, which covers advising theory; the informational, which covers the important knowledge an advisor must have; and the relational, which emphasizes the skills necessary to have a meaningful advising session. The first-years were required to meet with their success counselor twice per semester and just talk. The success counselors made sure the students knew what prerequisites, course sequences, general education, major core coursework, minimum grade requirements, and more were. In addition to improving students’ academic literacy, the success counselors learned to ask questions and solve all kinds of problems, such as homesickness, food insecurity, academic struggles, relationship problems, and mental health issues. Their advising training was a game changer. Soon, these counselors were the first-years’ go-to people. These were people who were not intimidating; there was no judgement and or preconceived expectations. They were simply friendly faces on campus—there to help.
Proactive advising was formerly known as intrusive academic advising (Varney, 2012). In his meta-model of academic advising, Schaffling (2018) also points us to other current approaches to advising, known as developmental and appreciative. Proactive advising was intrusive, and it required the adviser to engage in behaviors that many would find uncomfortable. It is always easier to advise the successful student who is on track, who has a strong support network, who knows what career field they are going to pursue, and who has the grades to be successful. The struggle comes with the student who is failing a class, has no “plan B,” has run into financial problems, has no home to go to over winter break, is depressed, is out of meal swipes for the week, or might have a sick parent who needs them. It is through training and experience that the good adviser then digs in to show they care about the success of the student. Many faculty are ill-prepared for advising outside the context of their expertise (Zarges et al., 2018). The challenge comes with advising the whole student.
It did not take long to realize that advising was so much more than selecting classes for the next semester and making sure the student was making progress towards graduation. The Proactive Advising eTutorials training modules taken through NACADA were multi-week sessions that required reading and homework assignments. There were sessions on advising theory and practice, advising first-generation students, exploratory students and advising the student-athlete. These modules emphasized that students can get tripped up and abandon their dreams for the most innocuous reasons. Thus the appreciation of the whole student.
The success counselors met their first-year students for the first time during summer orientation. At this meeting, they exchanged phone numbers and set up their first appointments. During the first summer of the Freshman Success Counselors program, they fielded over 1,200 questions from incoming first-years. Friendships were formed and problems being solved. Throughout the semester the counselors helped students with lost ID cards, missing mopeds, getting out of stuck elevators, exploring new career options, connecting with professors, finding a club on campus, homesickness, depression, and much more. As I reviewed the retention data, it was evident that, anecdotally, these counselors were making an impact with the students on the main campus.
The NACADA training sessions taught that advising was supposed to be intrusive and that anyone who has the responsibility to advise needed to learn these new skills. Professional advisers and faculty academic advisers were supposed to be interventionists. They were supposed to intercede in a meaningful way to find what motivates the student. Advisers needed to be asking questions about home and high school, friends and family, hobbies and travel. Additionally, they should ask questions that would engage a first-generation student or one who had not decided on a discipline of study or was an athlete. Mokel (2021) mentions that one of the questions she asks her students is, “Is there anything I should know about you that would prevent successful completion of the [nursing] program?” Most important, develop a relationship with the student and make notes so that during the next meeting the adviser can ask about the new puppy, the new job, or the athletic team.
Next, advisers need to be involved with the students. The adviser or faculty member needs to be where the students are, going to club meetings and athletic events, walking through the cafeteria or library, and inviting them to participate in activities or research. The student is more likely to be engaged if there is a personal invitation and an expectation to “see you there.”
Advising should be intense. Bottom line, if faculty are the academic advisers, they might also have responsibilities in retention, graduation rates, persistence, and recruitment (Zarges et al., 2018). Even in the early work of Tinto, as Schaffling (2017) reports, the academic advisor is an integral part of a student’s integration into a campus community. Advisers have to be intense and be forthcoming with information that they know, such as GPA requirements to apply for graduate school or what looks good or bad on a transcript. Additionally, students must be told about important information such as graduation requirements, FAFSA, clearing holds and reverse transfer eligibility. Advisers must consider advising as a semester-long job, one where they check in with their students at week four of the semester if the university does not have an early alert program, at mid-semester to check on grades and progress, again around the last day to drop a class, and once more when final grades are certified. Advising is intense, and the adviser needs to remember that they can always refer students to other resources on campus.
Additionally, the student needs to hear their options. The advisers and faculty need to be able to discuss career options within their professional disciplines and talk about plans B and C. So, if physical therapy school is out of reach, there are always the physical therapy assistant or technician professions. Showing the student that there are options with their degree is important, and letting them know that changing their major or going to a different program might be in their best interest. Advisers should listen to the student and hear what they are saying. They should ask questions to get a full understanding of the student’s career vision. They should talk about all possible outcomes of the student’s situation and connect them with resources. Advisers should be the student’s biggest fan and help them find a path to success.
Last, advisers need to be proactive when they see a situation developing. This could be what is seen in the classroom (tiredness, poor hygiene), grades or repeated drops, late assignments, not responding to email, or not coming prepared for meetings. Advisers must be sensitive to mental health issues, food insecurities, homelessness, and much more. Having a meaningful advising session with an advisee can be the reason that they succeed. Advisers must have a variety of interpersonal, communication, and listening skills (Menke et al., 2018).
Advising can be approached a number of ways. Some universities use professional advisers, others use faculty, and others still use a combination of both (Ellis, 2016; Zarges et al., 2018). It is important to point out that using a proactive, developmental, or appreciative advising model requires much more energy and time than most faculty have allotted in the past. Faculty need to be trained, and the administration must be sensitive to the caseload of each faculty member if advising is a faculty responsibility.
An incremental implementation of a solid theory and practice for advising can be accomplished over time. It is first important to understand how advising is handled on the campus and who is responsible for advising. Does the campus have professional advisers, faculty advisers, or a combination of both? Is advising a well-defined faculty responsibility that factors into tenure and promotion? Or do professional advisers make all the connections with the students during the first two years, before the latter are transferred to faculty advisers for their junior and senior years? Ellis (2016) describes the development of a first-year advising program using professional advisers and how the program has grown over the years following implementation. The program did not start across the entire university; it was rolled out as departments and colleges saw the benefits.
Whether revitalizing an existing advising program or creating a new advising model, the school administration must assess the process carefully. The administration of a campus might want to hire a consultant before making any changes. Consultants are available through NACADA and other organizations to assess current practices and to recommend new, more effective ones. The NACADA has developed a three book series as described by Kovacs (2017) in an interview with one of the book authors. Bottom line: not all institutions are the same, and therefore, prescribing a “best” model is impractical. Administrators need to engage their current advisers, review the data, and commit to a rich and rewarding advising program.
Many researchers have tied advising and retention to each other. During my time in the Student Success Center, I saw the impact of meaningful advising and learned how to better my own practices. Since returning to the faculty ranks, I have employed the proactive advising model with my advisees. The process is more time consuming, but I know so much more about my advisees and their journeys. Advising is not for everyone, and every institution needs to review its current practices and pursue the best advising model possible. Students are our clients, and they deserve the best we have.
Ellis, K. (2016). It takes a campus—15 initiatives to improve retention. The Nautilus Publishing Company.
Kovacs, K. (2017, January). Guiding those who guide students. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/04/qa-editor-book-academic-advising
Menke, D., Stuck, S., & Ackerson, S. (2018). Assessing advisor competencies: A Delphi method study. NACADA Journal, 38(1), 12–21. https://meridian.allenpress.com/nacada-journal/article/38/1/12/36455/Assessing-Advisor-Competencies-A-Delphi-Method
Mokel, M. (2021, May 17). Holistic advising: A question you should ask your students. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/academic-leadership/holistic-advising-a-question-you-should-ask-your-students
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx
Schaffling, S. (2018, September). Common factors: A meta-model of academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Common-Factors-A-Meta-Model-of-Academic-Advising.aspx
Varney, J. (2012, September). Proactive (intrusive) advising! Academic Advising Today, 35(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Proactive-Intrusive-Advising.aspx
Zarges, K. M., Adams, T. A., Higgins, E. M., & Muhovich, N. (2018). Assessing the impact of academic advising: Current issues and future trends. New Directions for Higher Education, 184, 47–57. https://doi.org/10.1002/he.20302
Janet Wilbert, EdD, is an associate professor of health and human performance at the University of Tennessee at Martin.