Advising adjusted for Class of 2013

In an effort to address a significant source of dissatisfaction on campus, a group of faculty, staff, students and members of the Dean’s Office are seeking to reform the first-year advising system for the Class of 2013 by making changes to both the scheduling and matching aspects of the advising process.

According to Chris Winters, director of Institutional Research, a 2007-2008 survey of first-year students revealed that 26 percent rated the quality of their academic advising as fair, while an additional 6 percent rated it as poor. “We think those numbers are too high,” Winters said. “There is a general consensus that first-year advising at Williams is not all that it could be.”

The campaign platform of newly elected College Council (CC) co-presidents Lizzy Brickley ’10 and Mike Tcheyan ’10 included a reform of academic advising as one of its key items. “We felt that at a small school with such an emphasis on student-faculty interaction, academic advising is not up to the standards of the campus,” Tcheyan said. Brickley, who served on an academic advising evaluation committee during her first-year on campus, agreed. “It’s important to have a focus on providing students with mentors, to have advisors help make connections and to also have them give students the best advice in the context of the students’ lives and plans,” she said.

Such a change will take place almost immediately through the work of the current committee on advising, which was formed shortly before the end of the fall semester. As the committee continues its discussions, committee members have defined multiple areas where changes can be made, including student-advisor matching, the availability of resources for advisors and the logistical component of First Days scheduling.

A common complaint from students is a lack of understanding about why they were paired with their particular advisor. “Much of this stems from an often-unmet expectation that their advisors should necessarily come from a specific academic discipline or division,” Winters said. “First-year students tend to mistakenly believe that only advisors who share a very narrow academic interest can offer good advice.”

Winters explained that not only is placing students with advisors in certain disciplines unnecessary, but it is also impractical in terms of numbers. For instance, “the number of students who come to Williams thinking they are pre-med far exceeds the supply of Division III advisors,” Winters said.

To that end, plans are in the works to match students with advisors based on more broad dimensions. “We’re looking at different ways to match students with advisors, using a pairing survey to match people on work style, different demographics, etc.,” said Joya Sonnenfeldt ’10, a member of the committee.

Dean Dave Johnson, who is also part of the committee, suggested that the new matching approach will be more interactive in taking student admissions information and faculty interests into consideration. “We’re hoping to try to put personality into the matching,” he said.

Winters explained that a successful match is about more than academic interests and pursuits. “Shared academic interest is but a single variable in the universe of all possible shared interests,” he said. “We need to get students and faculty thinking beyond the boundaries of academic disciplines when they think of what it means to be ‘matched’.”

The survey that the committee plans to give to advisors this spring will ask about academic interests outside of a faculty member’s particular department, as well as extracurricular interests and activities, which can then be used to place students with advisors. “By ensuring that every student and faculty pair share some meaningful similarity, we hope to increase the likelihood that every pair will click in a way that leads to a meaningful mentoring relationship that is satisfying for both the student and the faculty member,” Winters said.

“We don’t want the faculty to feel that they need to be experts on the curriculum of every department,” Johnson said. “It’s just nice for students to have a friendly adult face and be able to chat about courses.”

2012 pilot advising program as model

Many of the proposed matching and faculty support ideas are modeled from the trial advising program piloted for members of the Class of 2012 in the fall. The program, organized by Lili Rodriguez, associate director of Admission, and Liz Creighton, assistant director of Admission, recruited faculty who would be interested in filling a more committed mentoring role. “While our faculty mentors are not necessarily spending more time with their mentees than they were before this program, they are asking different questions and spending a ‘different type’ of time with advisees,” Rodriguez said.

As part of the program, mentors contacted their advisees over the summer, took time to familiarize themselves with students’ admission profiles and worked to maintain ongoing contact with advisees throughout the year. Most importantly, though, according to Rodriguez, was that the faculty involved were trained to be mentors. “We wanted them to think of themselves as another resource, someone that asks about life in general rather than just academics,” she said.

Although the pilot program was organized separately from general advising last year, advising will not fall into different categories for the Class of 2013. “The pilot program [that was] tried this past year involved more mentoring as opposed to straight academic advising,” Sonnenfeldt said. “We’re trying to put [the different programs] together.”

The pilot advising program, aside from providing for more student-advisor communication, also created a forum that brought advisors together to discuss advising. “The program had a launch for the advisors,” Johnson said. “We’re considering ways to generate more guidance and support for faculty.”

Sonnenfeldt stressed that as much as advising requires students to be on board, it also requires faculty buy-in and comfort with the process. “We want students to want advisors, and we also want advisors to want to advise,” she said. “We want to make sure that advisors are comfortable utilizing institutional information, such as links with and knowledge of other faculty and departments.”

Johnson noted that advising represents a significant time commitment on the part of the advisor. Sonnenfeldt explained that First Days scheduling has contained conflicts that have made advising meeting difficult for some. “Students waiting in line for the 1914 Library have missed their advising meetings in the past,” she said. “We want to alleviate that issue and find the best way to maximize within the schedule.”

Committee members agreed that their efforts will most likely not provide the final solutions to the advising issue. “The restructuring is in its early stages,” Johnson said. “Everything we do will be evaluated to see if it has helped make the program work better.”