Advising Situations

Students transitioning into university

Many students do not feel adequately prepared for life at university. They might have received little guidance from their school or family through the application process, meaning that they do not give much thought to the type of studies (programme or discipline)  they are applying for, or the type of university and living arrangements that will best suit their needs. And the adjustment challenges are manifold: new ways of thinking and writing about the world, new learning strategies and teaching techniques, new peers, a new city, a new country, a new continent… the list goes on. There is often a very real gap in students’ ability between school and university, but also a mismatch between their expectations and their new experiences. For students who are particularly ill-prepared and ill-informed, this period of transition can be a significant culture shock, which in turn can be a huge challenge to their wellbeing and ultimately to their success as students. Attrition rates, widening participation challenges and mental health problems are central to questions of transition, and there is increased concern about all three in universities across the globe. How can universities help students transition successfully into further education, and what role should the academic advisor play in this process?

Many strategies are available for making this transition easier. Research carried out by Brinkworth, McCann, Matthews and Nordström suggests ‘non-specialised transition programmes’ are key. These programmes might do several things: focus on addressing students’ feelings of isolation by building a sense of community within a specific department; support mental health and well-being by addressing key points of stress for the students (assessment, speaking in seminar etc.); provide students with a space outside of their specific programmes to discuss issues and ideas with their peers, and academic advisors; additionally provide academic advisors with a platform from which to engage students with key issues (module choice / programme building, pedagogical strategies at university etc.); and bridge the gap between academic and pastoral support, something which is increasingly becoming a crucial element of the role of the academic advisor.

The English department at KCL has addressed the transition issue through the Skills and Support for your English Degree programme (SSED). Alongside the Counselling Service and King’s Wellbeing, they have developed a series of workshops that provide students with the skills and support they need to thrive. The programme dissolves the traditional boundaries between academic and pastoral support and encourages students to think of self-care as a key skill they will develop as part of their degree, and to consider their wellbeing as intrinsically linked to their academic success. Students raised concerns through the National Student Survey and the Student/Staff Liaison Committee about a lack of community in the department. They also requested more academic skills sessions outside of modules, such as help with essay writing, assessment and feedback. The SSED programme addressed these concerns by hosting a series of social events aimed at building a sense of community between students and staff within the department and by developing and delivering workshops that provide students with academic and pastoral support and skills development. The programme generated a sense of community and shared endeavor between students and staff, enabling the kind of learning that promotes wellbeing and enables successful transitions.

 

Further Reading

Brinkworth, Russell & Mccann, Ben & Matthews, Carol & Nordström, Karin. (2009). First year expectations and experiences: Student and teacher perspectives. Higher Education. 58. 157-173. doi: 10.1007/s10734-008-9188-3

Durkin, K. & Main, A. (2002). Discipline-based study skills support for first-year undergraduate students. Active learning 
in higher education 3(1), 24-39. doi: 10.1177/1469787402003001003

Foster, D. (2002). Chapter 4: Making the Transition to University: Student Writers in Germany. In D. Foster (Ed.) Writing and Learning in Cross-National Perspective: Transitions from Secondary to Higher Education (pp. 192-241) Mahwah, New Jersey: National Council of Teachers of English. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED463557.pdf#page=200 Link to full publication listing: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED463557

Green, A. (2007). A Matter of Expectation: The Transition from School to University English. Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 14 (2), 121-33. https://doi.org/10.1080/13586840701442927

Hayton, N. (2014). Adapting from School to University: Adaptations in the Transition. In D. Cartmell & I. Whelehan (Eds), Teaching Adaptations (pp. 120-134). Palgrave Macmillan.

Woodrow, L. (2013). Motivation and the Transition to University. In E. Ushioda (Ed.) International Perspectives on Motivation: Language Learning and Professional Challenges (pp. 117-32). Palgrave Macmillan.

Student decision-making

Advising systems assist students in making decisions within the complex scenarios of their studies and lives. The role of advising in student decision-making can vary. On the one extreme, advisors can help students strategically navigate systems and procedures in order to achieve advantageous ends. On the other extreme, advisors can help students to experientially process their emotions regarding unexpected outcomes of previous decisions.

Many different models or theories of decision-making exist, but in advising contexts decision-making is typically understood as a process with a series of discrete steps. Where and when advisors can help students in the process will depend a lot on the institutional set-up, the goals of the advising system, and the individual people involved.

Below, each step of a typical decision-making process is described and the potential contribution of the advisor is discussed.

1) Identifying the decision

Identifying a decision-making situation is not always straightforward. If external circumstances (a procedural deadline, a supervisor’s email, etc.) don’t force an explicit decision, then students may come to advisors with only a vague sense of unease or dissatisfaction.

Here advisors can often be very helpful to students just by reframing their problem or situation as a potential decision or moment of agency. Advisors usually cannot solve student problems, but they can turn a difficulty or frustration into an opportunity for empowerment simply by asking the student what they plan to do about their situation. This can start a decision-making process that leads to growth and learning.

2) Gathering information

Collecting relevant information is essential to any decision-making process. Generally, students need to consult both external resources and their own internal goals and preferences.

This part of the process carries some dangers for advising:

First, students may have unrealistic expectations about what kind of information advisors have at hand. What careers can I pursue with this degree? What are all the implications of choosing this course or that one? In which country will I have a better study abroad experience? While most advisors have a reasonable working knowledge of the institution and field they work in, there is simply no way to conveniently and centrally organize all information relevant to any possible student decision. Moreover, by their nature, decisions create unforeseen possibilities, and no decision can be made perfectly “safe” through the advisor’s imprimatur.

Hence, second, indecisive students can get stuck in this step of decision-making, essentially delaying the decision while maintaining the appearance of making progress.

In this phase, advisors may be of help in actually providing information when appropriate. But, more importantly, they can help students by a) suggesting realistic limits to the amount of external information a student needs and b) reminding students to consult their internal resources (goals, preferences, previous experiences, informed judgment).

3) Narrowing alternatives, weighing evidence

In this step of decision-making, the initial situation is contextualized with the information gathered to arrive at a concrete set of alternatives. Once the decision has been narrowed in this way, the gathered information can be consulted again to determine which factors are more or less important.

Here advisors may again play an important role in two ways:

First, contextualizing information--drawing connections, making distinctions, estimating the relative importance of competing evidence--is something with which all academic staff have extensive experience. Simply talking through the information and co-creating concrete alternatives with students can be helpful.

Second, in this phase, advisors can help students to cultivate their metacognition, their ability to reflect on their own thinking process. The advisor can suggest thought experiments like narrating or reconstructing their steps so far or imaginatively projecting themselves along one of the proposed alternatives. Such reflective exercises are a good learning opportunity for students in achieving greater rational self-control over the messy process of decision-making.

4) Reaching a decision, taking action

Coming to a decision often involves “gut feeling” as much as rational reflection, and in an important sense it is a personal and internal moment. However, this internal state is not a true outcome of the decision-making process until it is enacted in a way that translates into the lifeworld of the student. A decision has truly been reached when a student takes an action as a result of the previous steps.

Taking action, of course, may mean many things. And a student may wisely choose not to do something. But even inaction can be formulated positively as action in another direction. For instance, choosing not to take a particular class this semester is also a choice to commit fully to other classes. And choosing not to immediately pursue an MA degree frees the student to actively pursue a different path after graduation.

In this step, advisors can help students by encouraging (or even requiring) them to make explicit and to record the decision they are making, the action they are taking. In some situations, accountability to the advisor may help maintain student commitment. And a written record of the commitment--the minutes of an advising meeting, a student-produced reflection statement, etc.--may also help turn internal decisions into concrete actions.

5) Reflecting on the outcome of the action taken

Finally, a decision-making process is usually best integrated into future studies and life if it is actively reflected upon. If the consequences of a decision are short-term, a follow-up advising meeting can be planned during the primary one. If the consequences are longer-term, advisors may check in with students as they process the paths they choose.

One important outcome of a self-conscious decision-making process is cultivating student confidence in the face of imperfect knowledge and an uncertain future. The affective dimension of decision-making--processing positive and negative emotions, accepting responsibility, creating a viable personal narrative--is crucial for student resilience. In nearly all cases, the consequence of a decision will be neither perfectly satisfactory nor perfectly horrible. And even total failures are important learning moments that can help orient future decision-making.

Advisors can use many mechanisms to help students reflect upon and process their decisions. You can find ideas and suggestions about integration of study choices here.

 

Further Reading

Gordon, V.N. (2007). The undecided college student: an academic and career advising challenge. Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Steele, G. E. (2013). Decision-making: Interest and effort. Retrieved from
https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Decision-Making-Interest-and-Effort.aspx

 

Tools and Practices

UCM Student Workshop on Decision Making

Student mental health

In the UK, the media tells us on a daily basis that mental health issues have reached a crisis point among the university population. It is certainly true that counselling services at universities are more stretched than they have ever been before, and UK academics are experiencing increased numbers of interactions with students who have mental health problems, ranging from anxiety, depression and mood disorders, to self-harm and suicidal thoughts. The causes of this increase are manifold, with social media, cyber-aggression and subsequent loneliness at the top of the list. It is important to remember that university students are a percentage of a population that in general are experiencing increases in mental health problems, within the UK and beyond. In the UK: 50% of 18 and 19 year olds apply to study at university; 75% of adults accessing treatment had a diagnosable condition prior to the age of 25; and suicide is the second highest cause of death among 15-29 year olds. Other factors that potentially contribute to mental health problems are prevalent at university: changes in living arrangements, academic pressures, social network adjustments, financial struggles etc.

Research has shown that students more commonly speak to friends and family, rather than to formal mental health services, when they are experiencing mental health problems. Students’ reticence to attend a counselling session (and long waiting lists for counselling appointments, which average around 12 weeks at some institutions), means that the challenge of dealing with increased levels of mental health problems often lands squarely on the shoulders of academics, and particularly academic advisors.

Many academic advisors find themselves faced with the challenge of helping students who have problems they are not trained to deal with. What is the role of the university, the academic department, and the academic advisor when it comes to student mental health? What are our responsibilities? How do we define our duty of care? Cultural and institutional differences mean that the expectations on academic advisors differ widely across universities in Europe and beyond. It will be crucial to define clear responsibilities of various stakeholders (advisors, tutor, student psychologists, etc.) when it comes to providing support for students in response to what they need, and based on how the institution perceives its role.

 

Further Reading

Brown, J.S.L. (2018). Student mental health: some answers and more questions. Journal of Mental Health 27(3), 193-6. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638237.2018.1470319

King, T. (2015). Post-Indentitarian and Post-Intersectional Anxiety in the Neoliberal Corporate University. Feminist Formations 27(3), 114-138. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/607296/pdf

 

Tools and Practices

Conceptualizing and Contextualizing Academic Advising - CREATES Workshop for Advisors

Student-designed curricula

Universities increasingly ask their students to engage with their developing curriculums in active, personal and continually reflective ways. There is a growing expectation that, to varying extents and in different ways, our students will play a part in building their unfolding degrees on a curricular level. This work – of making decisions and forging creative connections – is both highly beneficial and a potentially daunting challenge. Managed correctly, this aspect of undergraduate study can significantly enrich the ultimate value of an individual’s educational experience and promote agency, confidence, and independence in students. But it also entails significant risks that students will become lost or overwhelmed or simply make superficial use of the opportunity. This is a facet of university teaching in which faculty advising can make key interventions.

This tendency towards student-driven curricula is most striking in the recent emergence of liberal, individualised, and interdisciplinary degree programmes. But there is room for this connective, synthesising work, even within curriculums which are, to all outward appearances, straightforwardly disciplinary and fixed. Faculty advising provides space for students to interpret and personalise the combinations of knowledge, skills, and experiences they accumulate during their time at university according to their own priorities, aptitudes and aspirations. But as Kevin Egan has written in his account of interdisciplinary study, “the ability to see how disciplines might inform one another and how information, concepts, and methodologies can be applied across boundaries – does not necessarily sprout forth on its own volition” (p. 78). These unfamiliar activities are difficult or impossible without adequate structure, signposting and support. Advising plays a crucial role by facilitating and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with students around these thought processes.

This portion of the toolkit collects practical strategies that have been used to foster these types of thinking, articulation of process, and development of a purposeful trajectory through considered decision-making. Below you will find tools and practices that concern what goes on in the meeting itself; wider structures in place to create shape and momentum across the course of study; and tools designed to foster particular skills, outlooks, or ways of thinking about curriculum. By spotlighting practical solutions that have been developed in specific circumstances, these tools illuminate ways in which we have created conditions for effective conversations and productive thinking to take place.

As Egan suggests, advising creates a space to “articulat[e] learning goals”, “strategiz[e]” and have “in-depth conversations regarding the rationale and structure of the curriculum that each student proposes” in which “the student is expected to explain” (p. 84) the curriculum they are building. In part, students make sense of their degree by describing it, constructing a compelling and dynamic story which accompanies its development. Beyond this common basis in productive dialogues, the specific conditions of any given programme give rise to particular needs, and therefore to particular tools. A range of such contexts are represented in the annotated collection of tools presented here. Each aims to provide a structure in which students can confidently build a curriculum which is meaningful to them and develop the capacity to articulate the paths they have taken. The results are degrees that embody students growing interests and understanding and which therefore create conditions for lifelong learning and enable confident next steps.

 

Further Reading

Egan, K. (2015). Academic Advising in individualised major programs: promoting the three I’s of general education. The Journal of General Education. A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences 6(2), 75-89. https://doi.org/10.1353/jge.2015.0015

Hagen, P.L. (2018). The power of story: narrative theory in academic advising. NACADA The Global Community for Academic Advising.

Husman, J. and Lens, W. (1999). The role of the future in student motivation. Educational Psychologist 34 (2), 113-125. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep3402_4

Lowenstein, M. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65-73. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-29.1.123

 

Tools and Practices

Enabling reflection and preparing for meetings

 

Structuring advising meetings

  • UCM Course Registration Meeting Flow Chart