On Getting #AcAdv Right

pinky_brainSo, my boss shared this article with me the other day, and, before I’d gotten too far into the article, I had added about 18 more things to my already-too-long “to do” list (the name of this file on my desk top is “Plot to Take Over the World”).
Despite the fact that they misspell the word advisor (*grinning), it is an important—and quick—read. Have a quick go at it and then promise me you’ll come back for a few observations…


The Problem of Competing Interests

The first thing I started to trouble over was a seeming set of competing interests. We know there are courses we can offer and support that we can provide that will result in more positive developmental outcomes for our students. But how do we make certain that this support and these opportunities to provide transformative educational experiences are not accompanied by the addition of tons of extra (read “costly”) credits to a student’s pathway to completion?

As a result of reading this article and perusing the linked studies, I’ve become intensely interested in the idea of fast-track remediation. As we consider the academic development of students beginning their higher education at the community college level especially, I think it is important to think about transferability as well as the educational effort and the financial resources we’re asking students to commit to the process. While “fast track remediation” and Supplemental Instruction might offer excellent opportunities to lighten the burden of remedial coursework when considering the intellectual and financial cost to the student, I think we’ve still a way to go when it comes to the question of success courses and “first year experience” seminars. How do we balance the need for support with the addition of requirements and elongation of a student’s time to degree?

As an aside, this “we” refers to all of higher education, by the way, not just my own campus

Correlation and Causation

While I’m not one to disavow the sort of statistics this article cites, given that correlation is sometimes the best we can hope for when assessing the effectiveness of advising and academic support services, the same questions always crop up for me—even when the data are my own.

On highly structured courses—attendance required:

“Developmental-math students were nearly three times more likely to complete the course when all of their instructors clearly explained attendance policies.”

Was this the only thing the instructors did differently?

On FYE and Academic Success courses:

“Developmental students who participated in such courses, which cover topics such as study skills, test-taking strategies, and time management, were nearly four times more likely to pass an introductory, college-level English course.”

Did these students self-select? If so, were they not more likely to succeed anyway, given that they showed the initiative to voluntarily engage in a course that would help them succeed?

On early registration into courses:

“Students enrolled in college-level classes were more than four times more likely to persist from fall to spring, and more than 11 times more likely to continue from fall to fall, when they registered for all of their courses before the first class.”

I’d again point out that students who are self-motivated to engage are already pre-disposed to succeed (and that’s not just my opinion, it was Astin’s and Tinto’s and the list goes on).

Challenge and SupportSupport versus Challenge

Finally, when considering the suggested creation of “structured pathways that offer fewer choices,” for me, this brings to mind Sanford’s Challenge and Support theory—the one that suggests in order for growth to occur, you need to provide an equal and appropriate amount of support and challenge. Every time we select a course for a student, we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to understand their curriculum and make the selection for her- or him-self. In my opinion, this article, and the study it summarizes, do not go far enough to account for the inherent difficulty of taking on too much responsibility for students’ motivation and engagement.

I say this, again, not to disavow the approach all together. Especially when thinking about Community College and non-traditional students, who typically have a greater number of non-curricular responsibilities to balance along with their student responsibilities, it is critical to make certain we present a clear and understandable curriculum. We must also take specific care to provide individualized support while teaching them to understand their curriculum and make thoughtful decisions about their educational responsibilities.

My point in making these observation is not to disavow these data or the approaches espoused by the studies and the Chronicle piece. Rather, I’m merely expressing my opinion that creating these opportunities for students is only the first step. I think that the necessary second step is to engage the entire population of students—the self-starters and the disengaged—and provide the counsel and advice required to convince them how and why they will benefit from participation in these courses and from adherence to curricular structure.

I agree with the studies’ assertion that advisors are necessary for the success of any such programming. It supports a belief that I hold about advising—that when advising works, it is a bigger concept than any one educator, be they a staff member, a professional advisor, or a faculty member. That when we get itright, Academic Advising is part of the culture of the entire institution, and that every interaction with a student is approached as a teachable moment, with the student’s potential for development informing our actions.




About Art

I've been a higher education professional for over 15 years and an Academic Advising administrator for the past eight of those. I have a background in exploratory student advising and have spent a great deal of time guiding students through contemplating their personal college-to-career pathways. I've published, presented, and consulted on the intersection of social media and academia and am a firm believer in social media's power as a tool for engagement rather than solely information delivery. I've worked at public and private institutions as well as 2-year colleges and 4-year universities. I believe in Academic Advising as a teaching and learning activity, that learner-centered education is the key to students' academic success, and that as long as we keep students' individual goals and success at the center of our decision-making process, the problem of college-level student attrition can be solved.
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