Kelci Kosin, Chair, Advising First-Year Students Community
Comfort Sumida, Steering Committee Member, Advising First-Year Students Community
David Henriques, Steering Committee Member, Advising First-Year students Community
Micalena Sallavanti, Steering Committee Member, Advising First-Year students Community
Wendy Yoder, Steering Committee Member, Advising First-Year students Community
Crystal Walline, Member, Advising First-Year students Community
Megan Hurley, Member, Advising First-Year students Community
In February of 2022, over 125 members of the Advising First-Year Students (AFYS) Advising Community gathered to discuss best practices in advising first-year students. During the discussion, the needs of three different student populations were considered:
- At-risk first-year students
- Persisting first-year students
- High-achieving first-year students
For each population, several themes arose regarding student needs, and further discussion revealed exciting ideas and inspiration for how we as advisors can meet the needs of these students. It is our hope to encourage and inspire academic advisors globally to consider the needs of first-year students, develop an understanding of the three populations, and adopt best practices when seeking to meet the needs of students during their first year of college.
The AFYS community has defined the three first-year populations based on the GPA established after their first semester and subsequent academic standing. The at-risk first-year population refers to students whose GPA is below a 2.0, thus at-risk for academic probation. The persisting first-year student population refers to students whose GPA is in the range of 2.0 to 2.9, falling into a broad spectrum of varying levels of successes and challenges while being categorized as being in good academic standing. The high-achieving first-year population refers to students whose GPA is 3.0 and higher, thus indicating that the student excels academically. In this article, we, the authors, will focus on exploring the at- risk first-year student population, identifying their need, and best practices to meet those needs according to feedback gathered at the February AFYS Community Gathering guided discussion on best practices in advising first-year students.
Characteristics of At-Risk First-Year Students
The term at-risk is commonly used to depict individual students or groups of students “who are considered to have a higher probability of failing academically or dropping out of school” (Abbott, 2013). At-risk first-year students often begin college without the tools necessary to be college ready. This cohort of students lacks a foundation in knowing how to engage academically and miss out on significant academic opportunities (Horton, 2015).
The ability to be academically successful and persist in a college setting is multifaceted, and students are frequently subjected to multiple risk factors. Horton (2015) summarizes key risk factors into three categories: background, individual, and environmental. Background risk factors include identifying as a first-generation college student, coming from a low-income household, or identifying as a member of a minority population, to name a few. These background factors can impact the resources, information, and support a student has access to and is aware of, prior to setting foot on campus. Individual characteristics, both behavioral and psycho-social, influence a student’s ability to successfully recognize, interpret, and follow-through on behaviors and tasks to meet college expectations. These may include learning or physical disabilities and a lack of self-efficacy or goal-setting abilities. Environmental factors include the existence of campus support programs and services, financial costs, and the campus environment (all items that students may not be aware of, make use of, or fully understand).
In recent years, learning analytics and early alert platforms have become more prevalent, thus enabling campuses to proactively and intrusively offer support to students who are indicated by data as being at-risk of failing or dropping out (Selwyn, 2019). Such analytics generally combine academic data, background characteristics, and student/instructor submitted information to identify students experiencing multiple risk factors. It is important to remember, however, that risk is not applied evenly to all student cohorts, as risk factors can change from institution to institution and from student to student. Consequently, it can be challenging to identify at-risk first-year students before a GPA has been established. Due to these challenges, we, the AFYS community, define at-risk first-year students as individuals who earned GPAs below 2.0 after their first term in college.
Identifying and Meeting the Needs of At-Risk First-Year students
Advisors who attended the AFYS community gathering in February 2022 discussed how to best support at-risk first-year students by identifying their needs and brainstorming strategies to meet them. While the needs were diverse in nature, three overarching themes were identified:
- Advisor-initiated interactions
- Basic needs
- Success skills
By considering these themes, advisors can begin to gain a better understanding of the challenges at-risk first-year students may encounter. Such knowledge can help advisors create thoughtful, intentional, and comprehensive strategies that meet students where they are to promote their success.
Since Crookston first differentiated between prescriptive advising and developmental advising in 1972 (Crookston, 1994), there have been many proposed advising approaches based on perceived student needs. More recent approaches, such as strengths-based and appreciative advising, recommend that advisors take a proactive role in communicating with students and highlighting student strengths in advising sessions. Many of the needs identified at the AFYS community gathering related to utilizing such intentional advising approaches. Several members suggested that at-risk first-year students benefit from proactive advising via regular check-in meetings. Other named needs aligned more with an appreciative advising or academic coaching model, such as advisors facilitating discussions related to realistic goal setting, motivation, and accountability. Through utilizing an intentional advising approach, advisors can gain a better sense of students' individualized needs and make referrals to other student services on and off campus as necessary.
When considering ways to meet this need, advisors at the AFYS community gathering highlighted the importance of developing rapport with students. It can be challenging to connect with students once they are facing academic challenges, as the students may feel embarrassed, disappointed, anxious, and/or fearful, which can impact their willingness to reach out for support. Advisors can address this challenge by normalizing help-seeking behavior and educating students about advising practices through an advising syllabus that delineates expectations, expresses personal advising philosophies, and explains the benefits of developing an advising relationship. In addition, advisors can proactively schedule group or individual advising appointments. Advising meetings provide an opportunity for advisors to create a judgment-free space for students by using active listening, asking open-ended questions, checking their own personal biases, and allowing students an opportunity to share their perspectives and experiences. Creating such an environment can help students feel heard, safe, and supported, which can enable them to begin working through the emotions they experience as a result of facing academic challenges.
It is important to recognize that, while face-to-face advising is ideal, it is not always plausible for students. In order to provide more access and connection to this population of students, advisors should consider making resources available that are easily accessible and regularly updated, as well as considering other communications platforms if students prefer texting to calls or emails. Advisors can maximize the effectiveness of communications by following an intentional schedule that coincides with semester events or by sending follow-up messages after meetings to ensure the desired outcome of the one-on-one advising sessions.
Regardless of the theory informing an advising approach, advisors at the AFYS gathering indicated that at-risk first-year students must first have their basic needs met in order to improve their academic performance. A sense of belonging in the campus community has been well-established in higher education research as positively related to student academic performance and retention (Gopalan & Brady, 2020; Strayhorn, 2018). Furthermore, Maslow (1943) suggested that basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing, are foundational to feelings of belongingness and self-esteem. In accordance with Maslow’s theory, advisors at the AFYS gathering noted that students cannot focus on their academic performance until their basic needs are addressed. In a 2021 study, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 52 percent of students at two-year colleges and 43 percent of students at four-year colleges experienced housing insecurity. Additionally, Feeding America (n.d.) reportedly operates 316 food pantries on American college campuses thus confirming the reality that many students face food and housing insecurities during their academic studies.
To help students meet their basic needs, advisors can develop partnerships with local service providers and food pantries in order to seamlessly provide referrals and promote awareness of accessible resources. Further, advisors can take time to become aware of institutional programs that are available to assist students who encounter food, housing, or financial insecurities. As institutional ambassadors, advisors are in a unique position to share their knowledge of campus resources, such as housing or textbook grants. To address the basic need of belonging, advisors can organize major-specific study groups and connect students with upperclassmen—peer mentors—who faced academic challenges during their first year. By communicating regularly, following up on referrals, and creating an environment in which students feel comfortable asking for help, advisors can potentially connect students to necessary resources that will help address their basic needs and support their academic progress.
A third theme that emerged in the AFYS community discussion of academically at-risk students was the need for students to develop metacognitive skills. Livingston (2003) defines metacognitive knowledge as “general knowledge about how human beings learn and process information, as well as individual knowledge of one’s own learning processes” (p. 3). For students who did not learn these skills in high school or did not need to exert much effort to achieve their desired results academically, advising can entail teaching them study skills, time management, note-taking skills, and how to prioritize conflicting obligations. In addition, at-risk first-year students may also need support in promoting their resiliency and self-efficacy and in learning how to ask for help.
This need can be met by providing academic coaching or connecting the student with an academic support center on campus. Furthermore, advisors can consider hosting academic workshops each semester to assist students in developing the necessary skills needed to navigate their academic path. For at-risk first-year students, these workshops could serve as training opportunities and guided discussions on topics relevant to developing metacognitive skills: time-management discussions, academic planning exercises, and group discussions on developing study habits that work best for each student, to name a few. These practices would hopefully facilitate unified campus-wide conversations on how students end up on academic probation and recommended steps for academic recovery.
Continuing the Conversation
When discussing best practices in advising first-year students, categorizing students into populations based on GPA is just one way in which advisors can focus on acknowledging students’ diverse needs. By considering each population, advisors can better understand characteristics that depict the strengths and challenges of a student’s academic profile while also creating an advising practice that is holistic, intentional, and transformative. The Advising First-Year Students community hopes that these discussions on best practices inspire future conversations on how we can best serve students in their first year of college while exploring the unique needs associated with each student on their academic journey.
Special thanks to each AFYS community member who attended and contributed to the discussion on best practices in advising at-risk first-year students.
Columbia College Chicago
Senior Academic Advisor
University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo
Associate Professor of Biology
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Chair, Department of Academic Advisement and Student Development
Penn State Hazleton
Senior Academic Advisor
College of Engineering
Dean of Students
Southwestern Oklahoma State University
Abbott, S. (Ed.). (2013, August 29). At-risk. The glossary of education reform. https://www.edglossary.org/at-risk/
Crookston, B. B. (1994). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. NACADA Journal, 14(2), 5–9. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-14.2.5
Feeding America. (n.d.). College student hunger statistics and research. https://www.feedingamerica.org/research/college-hunger-research
Gopalan, M., & Brady, S. T. (2020). College students’ sense of belonging: A national perspective. Educational Researcher, 49(2), 134–137. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X19897622
Horton, J. (2015). Identifying at-risk factors that affect college student success. International Journal of Process Education, 7(1), 83–102.
Livingston, J. A. (2003). Metacognition: An overview. Psychology, 13, 259–266.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346
Selwyn, N. (2019). What’s the problem with learning analytics? Journal of Learning Analytics, 6(3), 11–19. https://doi.org/10.18608/jla.2019.63.3
Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. (2021). #RealCollege 2021: Basic needs insecurity during the ongoing pandemic. https://doi.org/10.34944/dspace/6934
Cite this article using APA style as: Kosin, K., Sumida, C., Henriques, D., Sallavanti, M., Yoder, W., Walline, C., & Hurley, M. (2022, December). Best practices in advising first year students: Identifying and addressing the needs of the at-risk first year student population. Academic Advising Today, 45(4). [insert url here]