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Reenvisioning and Revitalizing Academic Advising at Western Oregon University
Western Oregon University is a public, four year, comprehensive, liberal arts university that is grounded in student access and success. Our incoming students are 51 percent first generation and 8 percent Latino/a. Located in the Willamette Valley, the university strives to help students attain a college education and change their lives.
In 2004, as part of its work on a new strategic plan, the university conducted a sample survey of approximately 600 students. At that time, 50 percent of students rated academic advising as poor. Hired as the director of the Academic Advising and Learning Center in August 2005, I was given the mandate to change advising. Fortunately for me, there were already many good systems and policies in place, thanks to the hard work of the previous director.
A Shared Model of Academic Advising
Coming into the director position, I made it clear that I am a developmental adviser. Many institutions and advisers still use prescriptive advising. In the latter model, there is a distinct power differential between the adviser and student. The adviser is in charge and tells the student what to do. From a theoretical standpoint, I base my interactions with students on the work of Burns Crookston and Terry O’Banion. Both Crookston and O’Banion presented their separate views on developmental advising in 1972. Put quite simply, they believe that advising is a holistic, developmental process. Scheduling classes, while important, is not the most important thing we do in academic advising. Instead, it is the questions we ask students to reflect on—what they are doing and why they are doing it—that is of fundamental importance. When a student announces they want to be a teacher, my immediate response is “Why?” I want students to learn how to articulate their academic goals, but in relation to their values and their life plans. It is the bigger picture of “Who are you and what do you want to do with your life?” Developmental advising focuses on student potentiality and student values, and how these values and potential relate to their academic goals.
Western Oregon University has a shared model of academic advising. The Academic Advising and Learning Center (AALC) works primarily with exploratory students, pre-education majors, and those who have questions about the general education program, known at Western as the Liberal Arts Core Curriculum. Prospective students, academically at-risk students, and any students who have questions about advising often use the AALC.
Western Oregon faculty are committed to working with students and helping them succeed. Once a student has selected a major, he or she meets with a faculty adviser in the chosen discipline. New faculty members are not assigned advisees until they have spent a year at the university. This allows them the opportunity to get to know the university and the policies and procedures prior to advising students.
Upon coming to Western Oregon University, my first task was to assess the current operations. In speaking with the staff, it became apparent that no one knew what or where the office mission was, and, therefore, no one was using it. An old copy of the mission was finally located, but it did not align with the university’s current mission statement. Around this time, one of the advisers decided to return to teaching, as she had been offered a position that paid more. Shortly afterward, the other academic adviser accepted a position in his academic field. Finally, the receptionist decided to move to the East Coast. Only one staff member remained. In a matter of three months I had almost a complete turnover in staff.
Another challenge that I faced as the new director of academic advising was that my predecessor was still on campus in another position. Since I had been charged with revamping the advising system, I risked treading on a lot of sacred ground.
Taking Advising Practices to the Next Level
In the midst of all this doom and gloom there was, however, a bright side. This unexpected turn of events allowed me the opportunity to look at advising and reenvision the process. The bones of the system were good; we just needed to take things to the next level. I was able to take the front desk position and pool that money with the other two adviser salaries to create three full-time, twelve-month positions, compared to the previous two advisers, who were full time for nine months. At the front desk, I used student peer advisers to answer phones, schedule appointments, and file. When three new advisers were hired, our first project together was to create a mission statement. We opted for this short but concise mission statement that accurately reflects the developmental process and is aligned with the university mission:
The Academic Advising and Learning Center engages students in identifying and pursuing their educational, career, and life goals through personalized learning experiences. The AALC serves and supports students in developing collaborative relationships that foster student success.
The next task set forward was to create an academic advising syllabus for students. Most students entering colleges and universities do not understand the role of an academic adviser. A syllabus sends a clear message to students that, first and foremost, this is a teaching relationship based on where that student is in his/her own development. One of my colleagues compares it to extemporaneous thinking because an adviser is constantly adjusting his or her guidance based on where the student is developmentally. A syllabus also sets up the learner outcomes and adviser/advisee responsibilities. This proved to be a great opportunity for the new advisers to work together to create a dynamic document.
Now that we had our foundation in place with a mission statement and syllabus the office was ready to move forward. One of our peer advisers painted the mission statement on the wall as you enter the office so everyone could see it. We posted the syllabus online and started handing it out to new entering students. It became a talking point in our presentations to new students at summer orientation advising and registration in the summer.
We also unveiled a new program called Academic Success and Advancement Program (ASAP), which was directed at helping academically at-risk students get back on track. ASAP is the umbrella under which several different types of intrusive advising reside. Intrusive advising is intentional and proactive rather than reactive and utilizes intervention strategies such as mandatory advising sessions to help students become successful. For example, we started a new course called Academic Success for students who were on academic warning or probation. This two-credit, graded course is voluntary and helps students develop the study skills needed to be successful in their coursework. Another instrument to help students is the Action Plan, an individual approach to assist students who are struggling academically. Students are referred by faculty and staff on campus to come to the AALC to develop a strategy to assist them with their academic pursuits. Such a plan might consist of meeting with an adviser on a regular basis, engaging a tutor, visiting with a counselor, going to academic workshops, or a number of other things decided on by the adviser and student to help the student succeed.
Assessing Our Effectiveness
As an office, the AALC staff began developing ways to assess our effectiveness. An in-office survey was designed for students to complete when they came in to meet with an adviser. There was a pre- and post-advising appointment assessment. The survey also included information from the syllabus as well as the appointment, giving us richer data from which to respond.
Sixteen months into my position as director, in collaboration with the then-dean of enrollment management, admissions and retention, and the registrar, another survey on advising was sent out to the university community. This short, five-question survey received 4,136 responses. This time, only 7.9 percent of students rated advising as poor and 61.91 percent stated that advisers help students identify their educational, life, and career goals. Both qualitative and quantitative data were gleaned from this assessment, allowing us to see areas of improvement and areas that needed to be addressed.
By this point in revitalizing the advising process, we had our delivery going more smoothly and our procedures running well. Staffing remained a struggle, as we lost one adviser when she moved out of state after getting married. Another adviser left when he found a better paid position. I was able to hire an adviser, but went without the third position for over a year and a half. During this time, the numbers of student contacts, which includes advising appointments, phone calls, walk-ins and tutoring, continued to rise dramatically.
During the 2005–6 year we had 10,039 student contacts, which includes appointments, phone calls, walk-ins, and tutoring. In 2006–7, that number rose to 12, 939 student contacts. There were 1,179 more advising appointments in 2006–7 than in 2005–6. In the current year, we are already at 9,216 student contacts, and we expect to exceed last year’s number. As the numbers continue to rise, it gives strength to the notion that we are accessible and students view us as a resource on campus. Now students are sending their friends to meet wtih us.
Some of the reforms we’ve completed seemed like long shots at the outset. As a case in point, when we determined that our space was not being used functionally, one of our students (love those math majors!) created a plan that was enbraced by the entire staff. Now instead of having students walk in the front door and being met by the desk—which can be seen as a roadblock to some — the front area features our student computers and study tables. The reception desk was placed halfway back and the advising offices completed the second half of the office. What we lacked in financing we made up for in dreaming. I showed the finished plans to anyone who would look at them and talked about why we wanted to do this and how it would benefit students, especially providing more confidentiality during appointments. At the end of last year, the university had some funds left over that needed to be spent. Our plans were put forward by the associate provost and approved. By July, we had a newly reconfigured office that was not only aesthetically pleasing, but a more functional space.
Supporting the Advising Staff
What are the best means to provide effective support to staff? As a director, I feel that one of my jobs is to model appropriate behavior to my students. In addition, I feel it is appropriate to model professional behavior to my staff. Since they are all at different stages of their careers, I find it useful to have each one develop a professional development plan. These plans are updated each year and allow the staff opportunities to identify areas they want to work on in the ensuing months. Together, we look for ways that they can attain the skills or opportunities needed to continue their growth as professionals. Given that I have no professional-development funds in my budget to help them, it means we have to get creative in finding opportunities and resources for them.
We have come a long way in a few years, but we still have a long way to go. This summer, we will be creating a new plan to take us through the next three to five years. Included in that plan will be a new assessment cycle that we are rolling out this spring. One of my secret weapons as a director has been the support I have received from the National Academic Advising Association. Aside from opportunities to go to conferences and institutes, I have been able to pick up the phone on numerous occasions and call colleagues across the country. Their insight and problem-solving skills have allowed me to reframe issues and approach them from a different point of view.
Looking back, I have learned many things in this position. Perhaps the most important is that I work at an institution that truly values student learning. I work with faculty and staff who are passionate about teaching and learning, and most important, I work with incredible students each day. Good academic advising is labor intensive and time consuming, but in the long run, it is worth it.
Crookston, B. B. 1972. A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. Journal of College Student Personnel, 13, 12-17
O’Banion, T. 1972. An academic advising model. Junior College Journal 42: 62, 64, 66-69.
Karen Sullivan-Vance is the director of the Academic Advising and Learning Center at Western Oregon University.