Academic advising to see further evaluation

Following the beginnings of a readjustment to the first-year advising system for a portion of the Class of 2013, which involved a more comprehensive and detailed matching system between advisors and advisees, administrators have continued to look at how the system could be further improved. Administrators hope that the updates, which were maintained and enhanced for the Class of 2014, have been able to more easily facilitate successful advising relationships for first-year students.

Traditionally, students and advisors have been matched together based on a “hand-matching system, where we just tried to do the best we could by pairing advisors with advisees based on similar academic interests,” said Dave Johnson ’71, associate dean and dean of first-year students. However, following the emergence of a substantial first-generation population in the Class of 2013, the College moved to provide first-year students with more tailored support.
“We felt that since the emergence of the first-generation population established a group whose academics needs might require a more hands-on advising process, it would be worth looking at the whole way we did advising,” Johnson said.

The first-generation initiative for the Class of 2013 focused primarily on having specially selected advisors contact their advisees over the summer in an attempt to provide earlier support, which “was a pretty big change for us because normally faculty are not expected really to advise until everything starts up in the fall,” Johnson said. While that policy was not implemented for the entire first-year class, the system of matching advisors to advisees was adapted to apply to the entire Class of 2014 following the first-generation trial run in fall 2009.

Furthermore, the Choosing First-Year Courses handbook, which is distributed to all students in the summer, has seen additions in order to provide students with contact information for department chairs and other faculty available to answer questions throughout the summer. “We’re trying to improve access to information for first-years,” Dean Bolton said. “We’re trying help faculty envision a team of advisors for each student, which includes the faculty advisor but also others such as faculty members in other departments or staff in Academic Resources, the Health Center or Financial Aid, for example.” Another change is that the First-Year Advising Handbook for advisors will now be posted on the Dean of the Faculty’s website. The handbook has been expanded to include a guide for advisors in order to help them work more effectively with advisees that have more difficulty adjusting to campus life.

Director of Institutional Research Chris Winters was instrumental in devising a process by which advisors could be better matched with incoming students. The program matches students and faculty across a number of categories including intellectual interests, extracurricular interests and hobbies, according to Johnson.

Incoming first-years in the Class of 2014 were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their academic and extracurricular interests early in the summer. Faculty filled out a similar questionnaire in order to “provide a lot of points of similarity,“ according to Winters.

The questionnaire data is run through a program in order to find points of similarity between the approximately 550 first-year students and 250 faculty members. The program assigns point values for each of the similarities between the student and the advisor, which are used to weight the value of different types of matches. For example, a shared academic interest would be given more weight on the point system than a shared hobby, allowing the College to prioritize academics in terms of matching students up with advisors. All of the approximately 137,000 matched-pair scores are then run through a Hungarian Algorithm to find the “best overall solution,” Winters said.

“We learned stuff the first year and we applied it this year,” Winters said of expanding the program this year. “In practice it is no more complicated to do this for 550 students than it is to do it for 100. So we felt like there was a certain logic to this that it was worth a bigger experiment. It’s still an experiment because there’s no empirical evidence that there’s better advising. But it’s certainly logical to assume that better matched pairs lead to better advising relationships.”

Both Johnson and Winters noted that determining whether the changes have led to “better” advising is difficult, thanks to the nature of advising itself. “We know that freshmen this past year felt that they were better matched to their advisors than did previous years’ classes. But it is much harder to assess the ‘quality’ of advising,” Winters said.

In light of these difficulties, Bolton has been working closely with the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), particularly the committee’s student representative Cadence Hardenbergh ’11, in order to come up with additional systems to augment the current first-year advising system. One such supplementary program is a peer advising program, which will be piloted next year. Students would meet with peer mentors prior to their first meetings with advisors, according to Bolton. “Students will get a chance to think with an older student about the curriculum and think through their questions before meeting with their faculty advisor,” she said. “We want to help incoming students to preregister as well as they can, which is especially important when there are enrollment constraints.”

“Everybody sees [advising] a little differently,” Johnson said. “Personally, from my office here and working with first-year kids, I want to see it as a welcoming presence in their life … I want students to come on campus feeling there’s an adult presence that’s going to be happy to see them … be able to direct them to proper resources and be there as somebody who has an interest in how they’re doing across the first year. So that’s not necessarily what every student wants, but that’s why it’s almost impossible to satisfy all the different levels of needs in the students and, frankly, their parents, who are getting more involved too.”

As for the future, both Johnson and Winters said that they are not planning any significant further changes, mostly because the newer matching system seems to be going well and hasn’t been in place long enough for the effects to be assessed properly. At the most, the new matching system will likely be fine-tuned, as reformatting the foundation of the advising system is difficult in practice.

“We’re continuing to try to hone the process,” Bolton said. “We’re also thinking about longer term pieces, including the possibility of having several faculty members available one or two days over the summer on Skype or webinar to answer students’ questions.”

“Because it’s part of the faculty responsibility, changing the advising system requires [faculty] buy-in, and probably any major changes would require their vote,” Johnson said. “So it’s a complicated number of stakeholders in the whole process that we’re trying to keep happy and represent.”

Bolton emphasized the distinctions between what each group wants from first-year advising as a challenge. “More ways to get advice at the right times is helpful for students. Faculty, on the other hand, continue to think about how they can have the most useful conversations they can with students. We’re trying to figure out what students need most at those moments and how best to provide it.”