Dawn Coder, Julia Glover, and Terry Musser, The Pennsylvania State University
Academic advising is one of the few places available for students to engage in sustained discussions about their academic plans, share the broader experiences of their college education, and find support as they navigate the various challenges and opportunities of higher education. Developing strong, meaningful academic advising programs requires institutional support that acknowledges advising as central to the teaching and learning mission of higher education. It requires sufficient capacity within academic advising for students to cultivate meaningful and sustained relationships with their academic advisors. All too often, academic advising is construed as scheduling classes and checking-off graduation requirements.
Faculty members fill many roles at the institution, but while they are experts in their field of study, they typically receive little training or preparation to serve as mentor, coach, or advisor to students. According to Wallace and Wallace (2015), there are a couple of myths about academic advising that can color the perceptions faculty have about their role as academic advisor. One myth is that advising is easy, that all one needs is a caring attitude about students and an ability to dole out basic information. The second myth is that because faculty members can teach, they can also advise. Yet anyone who has faced that student across the desk who asks about their major, careers, their academic performance, or their emotional and mental health concerns knows academic advising is no easy task. Faculty engagement provides a unique and valuable opportunity for students to develop meaningful relationships with experts in their fields of interest, therefore faculty advisors are critical to positive educational journeys for students.
In the fall of 2017, a team of primary-role advisors and advising administrators at Penn State developed a foundational online course designed to help the faculty advisor understand the advising role. The goals were to develop skills, knowledge, and theoretical underpinnings to successfully guide students. A non-credit course was developed using Canvas, the Penn State Learning Management System most faculty utilize in their teaching. It is a self-paced, one-month course with a facilitator in place of an instructor; however, there is flexibility for participants who need additional time. Participants enroll in the online course through Penn State’s World Campus Faculty Development team who manages online, non-credit courses available to all stakeholders at the University.
The team developed five foundational modules, based on NACADA’s Core Competencies (2017), which incorporate the conceptual, informational, and relational components of academic advising. A technical component was also incorporated into each module to teach the use of student information systems at Penn State.
The five modules are:
Building a Solid Academic Advising Foundation, which includes Penn State’s Advising Mission and Policy, the history of academic advising, the role of the faculty advisor, and informational pieces about Penn State’s curriculum and privacy of student records. According to Cate and Miller (2015), “Advising is an intentional activity; therefore, a well-crafted advising mission statement helps advisers discern the level to which their efforts contribute to student and institutional success” (p. 43).
The Relational Component and Academic Advising Approaches, which includes an introduction to three approaches to academic advising, building relationships with students, and utilizing the student information system.
Understanding and Working With the 21st Century College Student, which discusses diversity, equity, and inclusiveness; understanding the changing student population; as well as effective communication skills. Blane Harding (2008) writes:
Over the past few decades, the make-up and diversity of students arriving on our campuses has changed drastically and requires new and innovative approaches to academic advising. All students, regardless of their preparedness and background, could be classified as special and deserve the very best our advising systems have to offer. However, there are several groups of students who present additional needs or who require advising services designed to address the specific characteristics that define them as special. (p.189)
Legal and Ethical Issues in Academic Advising discusses both ethical and legal issues to consider when advising students and provides case studies for study and discussion.
Creating A Personal Philosophy of Advising provides participants with prompts for creating their own advising philosophy based on the information provided in the course. Philosophies can be submitted for team members to critique and send the participants feedback. The advising philosophy is a great assessment tool for the team to gauge the level of learning acquired by the participant. 43 personal advising philosophies have been submitted from the three course offerings thus far.
Each module has its own learning objectives and activities. The desire of the team was to encourage as much engagement and participation as possible within the constraints of a self-paced course. Some of the learning activities offer feedback to the participant as well. An advising tool kit was designed to be a valuable future resource. It provides advising resources and learning aids to help the advisor in practicing advising skills, knowledge, and attributes introduced throughout the course. Required readings were included, as well as additional readings for the participants to dig deeper into the topic areas. It is noteworthy that the provost provided a welcome video for the course that speaks to the importance of faculty involvement in academic advising at Penn State.
During the design and development phases of this project, various faculty participated in the preliminary development and offered valuable feedback. Professional course editors assisted with the language of the content and an instructional designer put the content into Canvas and designed the look and feel of the course. Several faculty piloted the first iteration of the course in the fall of 2018 and the team made suggested improvements to the course in early 2019. Finally, the university-wide faculty/staff newsletter announced the course offering for February, March, and April 2019.
Outcomes to Date
150 individuals enrolled in the course in February. While there is no way to know how much time each participant spent in the course modules, the course evaluation revealed that 67% of the respondents strongly agreed that their knowledge about academic advising increased and 100% plan to apply what they have learned to their advising practice. Those who submitted their personal advising philosophy represented a diverse group of faculty and staff at the institution. Besides faculty advisors, there were also primary-role advisors, student affairs professionals, librarians, and others. Some revealed in their philosophies that they wanted to learn more about academic advising and how it intersects with their own role at the university, while others disclosed that they took the course as they were considering a career change. There were 137 participants enrolled in the March offering and 63 in the April offering.
One participant shared, “Thank you for a great course—your commitment is clear and appreciated. I found this quite valuable.” Another participant shared valuable constructive criticism: “I would also stress to the audience that you will get out of it what you put into it. I could have invested 3 hours skimming all five modules, or I could have invested 40 hours diving into the additional reading materials that were included in the links. I'd be up front with the audience about the optional reading that is provided that would most certainly make this a much lengthier course.”
Over 54% of participants in the February course were engaged in faculty roles at the institution with academic advising staff and unit or office directors, coordinators, or managers at 23% of the total participants. The team was pleased with this outcome.
Surprisingly, nine administrative support assistants enrolled in the course, demonstrating the desire for academic advising support and training by staff who interact with and provide information to students on a regular basis.
Participants represented 16 of the 21 campuses at the university. Perhaps most reflective of the diversity of participants, 26 administrative areas were represented. Every college at University Park, Penn State Law, the University Libraries, Schreyer Honors College, and World Campus had staff and faculty enrolled.
Due to the outstanding positive feedback and participation in this course, starting May 2019, the authors have begun to develop a second course that continues to build academic advising skills for those around the university. It is exciting to see the support and encouragement provided to continue to educate all university employees on the field of academic advising.
Director of Academic Advising & Student Disability Services
The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus
Academic Adviser & Liaison of Academic Advising & Student Disability Services
The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus
Associate Director of Division of Undergraduate Studies
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park
Cate, P., & Miller, M. A. (2015). Academic advising within the academy: History, mission, and role. In P. Folsom, F. Yoder, & J. E. Joslin (Eds.), The new advisor guidebook: Mastering the art of academic advising (pp. 39–53). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Harding, B. (2008). Students with specific advising needs. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook, pp. 189–203. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx
Wallace, S. O., & Wallace, B. A. (2015). The faculty advisor: Institutional and external information and knowledge. In P. Folsom, F. Yoder, & J. E. Joslin (Eds.), The new advisor guidebook (pp. 125–139). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Cite this article using APA style as: Coder, D., Glover, J., & Musser, T. (2019, September). An online course for faculty advisors: Promoting excellence in academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 42(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]