What We Have Learned from Other Institutions

Advising is constantly evolving and must be a part of a cycle of continuous improvement. That’s one of the key messages from our conversations with other institutions. Students change, needs change, understanding and expectations of advising change.... and advising structures need to respond to those changes, always keeping students at the center and aiming to develop the best possible support system to help them thrive.

More specifically, the Task Force has made several key observations based on the review of practices at other institutions (Appendix D lists the institutions reviewed and their advising websites).12 These are as follows.

1. Advising structures vary across institutions, but in all the institutions we examined, the Provost Office helps to coordinate advising

How universities structure advising varies greatly, in part depending on when students declare majors (e.g., at entry, at the end of the first year, at the end of the second year), how many schools they have (e.g., whether all students enter initially through Arts and Sciences or multiple schools), and their history. Overall, there is more consistency with major advising, which is typically done within schools/departments. First-year and/or pre-major 13 advising structures are much more variable – at times first-year/pre-major advising is done by one centralized unit and at other times within individual schools.

Regardless of the structure, there is some coordination from the Provost Office, which is the case even at highly decentralized institutions. For example, at Boston University, one BU initiative, which focused on enabling students to take classes across schools at BU, led to a range of changes related to aligning policies and general education requirements across schools, as well as advising. Advising became more coordinated across schools with the Provost’s Office leading an Advising Network which, among other activities, has developed key principles for advising at BU and worked with schools to implement changes to their practices in order to align with those principles.

Similarly, at the University of Minnesota, an Advising Task Force Report served as a foundation for notable changes toward greater coordination, with the overarching goal of providing an “excellent and consistent advising experience for students across campus (p.1).” While advising is done primarily within schools, it is coordinated through the Office of Undergraduate Education, which hosts a centralized website, organizes advisor training, leads the Advising Steering Committee, etc.

2. Pre-major advising is unique: full-time professional advisors and starting early

All SERU peer institutions with more favorable advising ratings than UVA’s rely on staff advising (i.e., full-time professionals) for pre-major academic advising. Indeed, the Task Force could not identify a single flagship institution of comparable size that relied on faculty advisors for pre-major students to the extent that we do. The common pattern is for pre-major students to be advised by staff, while students who have declared a major are advised by faculty (or a mix of faculty and staff). 

Staff Advising: Among the 9 SERU institutions with higher ratings on advising questions, 7 rely exclusively on staff advising in the first year. The other two rely on a combination of staff and faculty advising. This apparent deviation is largely in line with the overall pattern of engaging faculty in major advising as most of the students at those institutions declare majors at entry and thus are advised within schools and/or departments starting in the first year. Moreover, first-year students at both institutions can access additional support services and other types of advising through programs embedded in their residence halls.

Institutions with staff advising models were overall pleased with them but noted that turnover, particularly among younger advisors, can be a challenge. Advisors are typically newly minted Master’s students who do not stay at the institution for a long time. Institutions are addressing this challenge by developing clear career ladders (with increased pay and responsibility) and professional development opportunities.

Advising Begins the Summer Before the First Year: At a number of institutions, first-year advising begins during the summer. At some institutions first-year advisors are very proactive – reading admission files, working on building relationships over the summer, and keeping in regular contact with students throughout the first year. Schools that have early engagement with students emphasized that as one of the more impactful aspects of their advising model, since those early interactions build a foundation for productive engagement over the course of the first year.

Major Advising in the Department/School: After students declare majors, advising shifts to the schools/departments. In some instances, advising is still done by staff while at most it is done by faculty or a combination of staff and faculty. For example, at the University of Michigan, advising occurs within departments after students declare a major. Faculty serve as advisors, and faculty advisors and students in larger majors are supported by staff advising coordinators who, depending upon the department, help with record-keeping and paperwork, but may also help to plan career-related and similar co-curricular events. At the University of Iowa, most advising (for both first-years and declared majors) is done by staff. Most first-year students are advised through a central office, while departments have their own staff advisors for declared majors.

3. Advising is relational (or learner-centered) as opposed to transactional (or information-centered)

All the institutions we consulted emphasized the importance of the relational component of advising. Historically, they all started with a more transactional mode of advising, but changes in students’ needs, an emphasis on holistic advising, and learning what works best led them to adopt a relational approach to advising. This shift in focus has resulted in a move away from transactional or prescriptive advising, which is characterized by brief exchanges of information or top-down prescribing of solutions, to learner-centered advising, which focuses on students’ unique needs and sees advising as a learning and meaning-making process.

As an example of the difference between transactional/check-list advising and learner-centered/meaning-making advising, consider a student who has three requirements, one of which is a core course. In a transactional advising model, the advisor makes sure that the student completed (or is planning to complete) the three requirements. In a learner-centered model, the advisor explores how a student experiences those requirements (e.g., requirement B may be more meaningful than A, and C may be pivotal for their educational journey). In addition, the advisor considers how a co-curricular experience, such as a service-learning course, research project, or internship, may create cohesion and deepen students’ learning. In this form of advising, “educational experience is personalized and integrated and as a result, becomes more meaningful and transformative.” 14

This shift to learner-centered advising means that traditional “academic advising” – characterized by helping students register for courses and/or majors – is being supplanted across institutions by an expanded definition of academic advising that supports students’ academic experiences inside and outside of the classroom and connects them to a range of campus resources and services. For an example of the transition from a limited conception of academic advising as course planning and major guidance to a more comprehensive vision, see a recent report bythe University of South Carolina.15

The shift in emphasis to learner-centered advising across institutions has led to a number of changes, such as:

  • Examination of policies: Efforts to simplify policies, as curriculum and policy complexity are major hurdles for students as well as advisors. Efforts to ensure that policies are coherently integrated both within and across schools.
  • Changes in culture: Emphasis on holistic advising including integration of academic, career, and personal, which often focuses on wellness and belonging. Corresponding changes in advisor training and expectations of advisors.
  • Attention to technology: Effort to automate some tasks so that people time can be used for more complex advising. For example, several institutions use chatbots to answer simple questions (see more under #6) or use their advising software to deliver messages around midterms/finals/key deadlines. Some have automated degree audit systems. Overall, schools are working to maximize the time advisors have to build relationships and help students learn and grow while using technology to perform simple tasks.
4. Advisor training is critical

All of the institutions we talked to emphasized the importance of advisor training. For many, this has become an increasing area of importance as they aim to coordinate advising across schools and pay increasing attention to integrating academic, career, and personal advising. At many institutions, advisor training is conducted by a pan-university unit, such as the Office of Undergraduate Education or a centralized undergraduate advising unit. Training for first-year advisors is particularly extensive, with additional professional development opportunities available throughout the year.

One of the most developed examples of advisor training and professional development is UW-Madison, highlighted by several institutions we talked to. They have developed core competencies for all advisors and an extensive set of resources (see the resources tab on the advising website). This training is broad and includes both cultural literacy and awareness of equity, access and achievement issues at the institution and higher education more broadly. They also offer a range of professional development opportunities for advisors, including shadowing, learning communities, advising conference, and advisor academy.

Another institution that has been mentioned for exemplary advisor training is the University of South Carolina, which offers a 5-level advisor certification program available to all academic advisors (faculty or staff), in addition to extensive professional development opportunities. All advisors are required to complete the first training course in order obtain access to the advising system. 

5. Software is needed for collaboration among advisors across the institution

All institutions recognized the need for software that allows for collaboration across advisors and have emphasized several features in particular: integration with other university systems (e.g., enrollment and grades), integration across different units (e.g., academic, career center, student affairs), ability to share meeting notes, and ability to directly refer students to resources and to see if they have followed through. Very few institutions we talked to, however, were satisfied with their current state of technology and many were exploring options for technology to more effectively support advising. Their dissatisfaction stemmed in large part from the lack of a centralized system used across units.

This dissatisfaction is echoed in a recent report from Tyton Partners (2019), which found that “institutions struggle to realize the full promise of the technology when they have to integrate multiple systems” (p. 9).  This report summarized current technology offerings in 12 categories related to advising and student support and surveyed stakeholders at more than 1,000 institutions about their utilization of these tools and their perceived effectiveness. Technology in the category of Academic Planning and Audit is the most widely adopted by far, with more than half of institutions reporting usage of such tools. Products in 4 other categories were perceived by stakeholders as potentially highly impactful: Caseload Management (platform to integrate advising services); Diagnostics (assessment of students’ skills); Alerts, Signals, and Notifications (tech-based behavioral nudges); and Performance Measurement and Management (data for institutional reporting).

6. Developing websites as effective means of information sharing

Replacing paper handbooks, websites have become the primary repositories of advising-related information. Institutions utilize websites in a number of different ways, from describing the structure of advising to providing information for self-advising and creating an easy link to the advising office.

Boston University’s centralized advising website includes one page that explains BU’s team approach to advising and breaks down the roles and types of advisors, and another that emphasizes the role students play in their own advising experience. The site supports students in self-advising by providing simple tools such as a printable roadmap, which illustrates the process for long-term course planning, and provides guidance on topics relevant across schools of enrollment (e.g., questions about taking an incomplete or transferring across schools).

Other universities have sought to offer more information directly to students, rather than to encourage a connection with an advisor as information intermediary. For example, Purdue displays short lists of tasks recommended for students in each year of study (e.g., plan to study abroad, attend a career fair), along with links and short explanations of the importance of each task. The College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon has developed standardized maps for each of their majors. These maps describe the area of study, list common associated career paths, and highlight special course planning concerns or co-curricular learning opportunities. The maps are all available from one concise webpage and information for each is displayed within the same simple template.

Regardless of the structure, most websites offer opportunities for students to directly ask questions through chats, email, or other communications channels. Recently, it has become common for institutional websites to feature chatbots (see example here, in the lower right corner of the site for Michigan’s Newnan Advising Center and here, on NOVA’s site). 16 Though similar to each other in appearance, these bots perform a variety of functions. Some chatbots are built on an AI infrastructure. They answer questions automatically, without human staffing, by drawing on a database of structured information and FAQs, sometimes offering the option to be connected with live staff if the AI is inadequate. Other chatbots are simply windows that allow a site visitor to send a brief question to staff during working hours. These chatbots are familiar to students, as they look just like the customer service tools one would encounter when shopping online for shoes or cell phones. Instead of an add-on chatbot service, Oregon’s Tykeson College and Career Advising utilizes Microsoft Teams to answer questions by chat during office hours. Schools thus rely on technology to assist with simple/transactional tasks such that advisors can focus on more complex guidance – see point #3 above about relational as opposed to transactional advising.

7. Reliance on students as peer advisors

Many institutions rely on peer advisors. Peer advisors play a range of roles across institutions:

  • Work with staff advisors to offer advising to students, focusing in particular on some of the less complex questions (deadlines, requirements, etc.)

  • Hold office hours in the residence halls

  • Hold one-on-one meetings with students

  • Respond to emails/chats from websites

  • Organize workshops/group advising sessions

  • Work at the reception desk in the advising office

  • Coordinate exchange of information about majors (e.g., have a database where upper-class students are willing to be contacted to talk about their experiences in the major)

    All institutions that rely on peer advisors emphasized the importance of training and supervision. They relied on different models from peer advisors getting academic credit to being paid. All noted that using volunteer peer advisors is not effective. 

  • Peer advisors working with staff within advising offices are rarely visible, while those that work directly with students are typically a part of a more formal program, such as:

  • Advising Peers at Chapel Hill: https://advising.unc.edu/academic-difficulty/

  • Peer Success Leaders at Duke: https://academicguides.duke.edu/peer-success-leaders/

  • A number of schools pointed to Peer Advising Fellows at Harvard as a model:

8. Assessment as an area of growth

Most institutions we engaged with do not have a system-wide assessment plan in place. They recognize the importance of systemic assessment and are developing plans to do so. Current assessment activities at other institutions often involve discrete surveys/outreach efforts, and this is an area that most institutions recognize as needing improvement. Those with advising software rely on quick feedback (3-5 quick questions) following each advising session. Others administer surveys either annually or at key points – e.g., first year, major declaration, graduation. Schools that have been successful with high survey response rates have embedded assessment within other activities – e.g., when filling out the major declaration form, students are asked a series of questions about their pre-major advising. Some also have a culture of assessment where students complete standard assessments at specific points in the year, including advising.  

This review of practices at other institutions highlights key trends and patterns. It provides an overall guide to the current state of advising at similar institutions, and in particular a subset of institutions with comparable data from SERU. As we consider developing appropriate structures to support advising at UVA, other institutions can be consulted regarding specific practices. For example, UW-Madison and the University of South Carolina, which were not part of our institutional samples, are worth engaging when developing advisor training. The University of Arizona is quite advanced in their work with AI to answer basic advising questions. Harvard’s Peer Advising Fellow model is worth consulting for peer advising. For specific elements associated with advising, exemplar institutions can be identified and engaged, as needed.

12 The Task Force reviewed practices at a group of institutions that had higher ratings on advising questions in SERU as well as a set of peer institutions that have recently revised their advising practices. Institutional names are provided when relying on information available on public websites. Institutions are not identified when information was obtained through consultation with institutional representatives.

13 Those are not always the same as in some instances students declare majors when they enroll. At institutions where students are expected to declare a major at entry, undeclared students are often part of a special ‘exploratory studies’ program. One of the most developed examples we encountered is the Center for Academic Planning and Exploration at the University of Minnesota.

14 Based on the Elizabeth Wilcox’s article “An End to Checklist Thinking: Learning-Centered Advising in Practice”; see also NACADA’s discussion of core advising competencies, which include conceptual, informational and relational.

15 The University of South Carolina Advising Center Impact Report 2021

16Ocelot chatbot is one of the industry leaders in higher education.