Academic advising: how should it be done?

How do you feel about academic advising?

If the answer to that question is “not so good,” well, you will soon get a chance to change that.

Cathleen Smith, professor of the Psychology department, and Janine Allen, a professor in educational policy, foundations and administrative studies and formerly vice provost for Enrollment and Student Services, are about to administer an online survey to gather data on student’s experience of academic advising at PSU. Students who take the survey, which will take about 10 minutes to complete, will be entered to win one of five $100 PSU bookstore gift certificates.

The survey is a follow-up to similar surveys issued in 2005 and 2003, which were responses to President Dan Bernstein’s Initiative on Advising, which was intended to address the “advising problem” – the lack of satisfaction with or even basic understanding of advising process at PSU.

Academic advising has been a key issue of concern for PSU students for practically as long as the university has been in existence. The recurring concerns are heartbreakingly simple: where do I go for advising? Who do I see? And, how do I know that I am being advised properly?

According to Allen, “Academic advising is one of the student services that students are really not too satisfied with – here at PSU they’re more dissatisfied with advising than with Financial Aid.”

And that’s saying something.

The 2003 data revealed that fully one third of PSU students – and 50 percent of freshman – were not getting any academic advising at all. At the same time, these students indicate that quality advising is very important to them generally – and most important to non-traditional student populations, including ethnic minorities, low-income students and female students. The 70 percent of all students (and other half of the freshman class) who do receive some sort of academic advising – either from professional advisors or from faculty – are only somewhat satisfied with the advising they receive.

Finally, 34 percent of those students who did receive advising reported that they received inaccurate advising, and of that number, 40 percent reported that they took an unnecessary class because of advising, and 27 percent reported that misadvising delayed their graduation date.

So it’s clear that students at PSU are moderately to severely underserved in the area of academic advising. But, “PSU is not anomalous in this regard – advising is an issue at many, many campuses,” Allen said. Schools that do better in this area are typically smaller private schools.

It would be grossly irresponsible to pin dissatisfaction with advising on our institutional model – even in a large, urban institution, steps can be taken to increase satisfaction with and efficacy of advising. The administration obviously believes this, as the Presidential Initiative came in response to a series of round tables and public forums related to the Campus Climate and Life Report. The Initiative was responsible for the formation of the Student Advising Action Council, co-chaired by Smith and Allen, which issued the report and then itself evolved in to the implementation team for the report.

Quite serendipitously, around this time the Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS) was added to the web-based banner student information system, allowing students to run an automated report that identifies, based on their choices for major and degree, how many credits and in what areas they have remaining to take. Anecdotally, DARS has helped with advising quite a bit, but is clearly not a panacea for the advising problem – and data does not exist on exactly how much is has helped, nor on the size of the gap remaining to be breached.

Smith and Allen hope to change that. Their follow-up survey in 2005, although statistically hamstrung by a low response rate due to technical problems, demonstrated that student felt that advising was more important than ever, although their level of satisfaction with advising had only improved in two of 12 functional advising areas.

The upcoming survey hopes to assess the impacts made by the implementations of advising improvements, as well as answer a few key questions: most notably, which (if any) models of advising – professional advisors, group or individual sessions, peer advisors – are most effective?

The data gathered will be used to further inform choices in the practice of advising, and hopefully lead to the development of a more inclusive, targeting advising system. “Students need and want and deserve advising – the question is how should it be delivered?” Smith said.

Academic advising is a shared responsibility, and in this respect it is a lot like college, which typically provides rewards commensurate with results. Advising is one area in which students, especially students who might not otherwise have any sort of support, could establish a meaningful relationship with someone who supports their academic efforts. Working as I do as a Peer Mentor, I know very well that oftentimes student’s academic-related questions blossom into real-life concerns. A relationship with a single academic advisor, or even a faculty person who can provide competent advising, could go a long way towards improving student experience and encouraging retention.

The administration has definitely listened to students on this issue – from Dan Bernstein’s discussions with Roy Koch, provost and vice president of academic affairs, at the Campus Climate and Life Report, and more recently, with administrative moves to cement academic advising as one of PSU’s cornerstones. Cathleen Smith and Janine Allen are hoping that students will respond well to this open ear, and find their voices in the upcoming survey.

So watch your e-mail for the survey. You could win money – and at the very least, you’ll help improve academic advising here on campus. Certainly that’s a worthy use of 10 minutes.