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Brad Molder, University of Arkansas-Fort Smith

Brad Molder.jpgProblem: In my previous position as an advisor in the Fulbright College Advising Center (FCAC) at the University of Arkansas, I often found myself answering the question, “So what are electives?”  Out of curiosity, I tried to look up the definition for “electives” but didn’t find the term defined anywhere in the University of Arkansas Web site or in the Catalog of Studies. While I discovered that the term was not defined anywhere on campus, I did find a few examples of electives in the Catalog of Studies:

  • (College) Broadening Elective,
  • Discipline-related Elective,
  • University Core Elective (also listed under specific core areas such as Fine Arts),
  • Freshman/Basic Science Elective,
  • Free Elective,
  • Professional Elective,
  • Upper Level Elective Area ( e.g., Arts, Science),
  • Advanced Level Elective,
  • General Education Elective,
  • Elective Courses in Conference (or Consultation) with advisor,
  • Exemption Elective,
  • Approved Elective, and
  • Required Electives.

Not only were there more than a dozen uses of the term in completely different contexts, there also was a term that is an oxymoron: required electives. By the time I finished trying to find a definition, I wasn’t clear on the meaning of the term! I decided that a quick study of student understanding of the term was in order.

Method: Using Google Docs, I created an informal survey with three questions: 

  1. “What does the term ‘elective’ mean?”
  2. “How confident are you in your understanding of the term ‘elective’?”
  3. “Where did you learn about the term ‘elective’?”

The first question was open ended. The second used a Likert scale from 1 to 5, with 1 as “Very Confident,” and 5 being “Not Very Confident.”  Finally, the third question gave six multiple choice options: 1.) Advisor; 2.) Peer/Fellow Student; 3.) Catalog of Studies or University of Arkansas Web site; 4.) Faculty, Instructor, or Graduate Teaching Assistant; 5.) Other Administrative Person; or 6.) Other, which contained an open entry blank for students to enter their response. Students then were given access to the survey via Facebook©, with the request that only undergraduate students from the University of Arkansas respond. 

Results: The majority of respondents indicated that they understood that electives include those courses which are not specifically required. These students described electives as: “free choice,” “optional—you get to choose,” and “not required to pertain to your major.”  Two-thirds of the respondents reported that they were “Confident” or “Very Confident” in their understanding. However, these responses were not entirely accurate. In the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, the term elective is applied to three types of courses. First are General Electives, which represent the category above. They are courses not specifically required, but are necessary to help a student accrue the minimum hours needed for graduation. Most students understood what these were. Second are Major Electives. A good example can be found in the requirements for the Communication BA, which requires four specific courses and eight Communication Electives. Only a few students understood what these Major Electives were. Finally, there are Program Electives. These are courses taken toward a minor (many minors do not have specific course requirements) or for a pre-professional program that recommends, but does not require, certain kinds of courses. Virtually no students showed awareness of these electives. 

Discussion: The bottom line for advisors is that students can benefit from having a set of standard definitions made available. Also, students might benefit from seeing and hearing the terms applied more specifically and consistently. For example, using terms such as General Electives, Major Electives, or Program Electives in communication (person, print, or electronic) with students could help delineate the different forms of electives.

I proposed to our director that our office (FCAC) add a section to our FAQ’s Web site which defines and distinguishes the forms electives take. In addition, I proposed that our documents for incoming students include a definition of the term. Similarly, I proposed that the University of Arkansas include the definition in its future Catalogs of Studies.

Implications for Other Institutions: Academic advisors should look at their own standard usage of the term elective, especially in reference materials such as their institution’s Catalog of Studies. Institutions should offer concrete, uniform definitions that apply to their student population. This would ensure that when students see the term elective(s) they understand that it is used in a common language, as opposed to hearing several different applications of the term with sometimes radically different meanings.

Similarly, advisors should create a uniform set of terms to use when talking with students. Such consistent diction could help students spread their understanding to classmates, even if they unintentionally do so. At the very least, such common terms will make explanations much easier with returning students.

Conclusion: In general, this informal study shows the potential for examining the academic language advisors, faculty, and staff use in communication with students. If students do not understand their requirements they can hardly be expected to take ownership of their own educational experiences.

Further, this study serves as an example of how advisors can do quick, informal studies on topics that affect their advising practice and make a difference to the success of our students.

Brad Molder
Academic & Career Advisor
Student Advisement
Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center
University of Arkansas - Fort Smith
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Molder, B. (2010, March). Academic diction: Using clearer language to advise effectively. Academic Advising Today, 33(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2010 March 33:1


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