Richard J. Light, Harvard University
Note: Richard Light, author of the book Making the Most of College, will deliver the opening keynote address, October 2, 2003 at the NACADA national conference in Dallas.
Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience as noted by evidence gathered from 1,600 one-on-one undergraduate interviews. Several of the overarching findings from these interviews are 'actionable' by advisors. I look forward to sharing details from these findings with you at the NACADA national conference. However, since June brings freshman enrollment in many areas, I thought that you might benefit from a brief summary of the findings most applicable to advising incoming students.
1. Interactive relationships organized around academic work are vital.
A common wisdom exists that the best advice for students, in addition to attending classes and doing homework, is: get involved in campus activities. This is excellent advice that I continue to share with my own advisees. Yet there is a different kind of involvement, a more subtle kind that is stressed by the happiest and academically most successful undergraduates.
Nearly without exception, these students have at least one, and often more than one, intense relationship built around academic work with other people. Some have it with a professor. Others have it with an advisor. Some build it with a group of fellow students outside of the classroom. The critical point is that this relationship is not merely social. Nearly without exception, students who feel they have yet to ‘find themselves’ report that they have not developed such relationships.
To build these relationships, advisors should encourage students to work in small study groups outside of classes. While this may be easier to implement on residential campuses than on commuter campuses, it is still important for students to meet and work collaboratively on their academic assignments especially for classes in math, engineering, the sciences, and courses requiring writing.
2. Students value strong writing skills. Many benefit enormously from specific suggestions.
Of all the skills students want to strengthen, writing is mentioned three times more than any other. Students who improve their writing describe an intense and fairly specific process working with a professor, a writing teacher, or most often with a small group of fellow students who meet regularly to critique on another's writing. The longer this work-related engagement lasts, the greater the improvement.
A key finding that differentiates students who improve their writing from those who improve little, is how they cope with requests from a faculty member to “revise” their work based upon the faculty member’s comments and suggestions. The unspoken fact is that many first year college students simply don’t know HOW to revise! If they did, they would have done a better job in the first place! Helping students learn how to revise, may seem somewhat out of an advisor's “job description,” but may turn out to be one of the most productive interactions students can have with an advisor.
3. Choose a portfolio of classes wisely - consider class size.
Many new students choose individual courses based upon the familiar or the intriguing. Yet choosing individual courses is different from putting together a group of courses that can lead to a productive term. My most thoughtful student interviewees call this process, “choosing a portfolio.” I will adopt their term.
In a review of first year students' portfolios, a striking feature emerges, the importance of class size. Although some students take class size into account when choosing a course, a significant minority don't. This could be a mistake. Students who choose at least one small course each term have, on the average, a significantly better overall experience than those who don’t. These differences carry through the students' college careers.
4. Some undergraduates are thrilled with their college experience, while others are disappointed.
This observation won’t surprise any advisor. Yet a powerful finding from the 1,600 interviews shows that nearly every graduate unhappy with their academic experience reports using a specific strategy for course selection. They describe it with regret. These students chose classes in their freshman year to “get the requirements out of the way.” As a result, they elected to take only large, basic courses that go over disciplines familiar from high school. Nearly all such classes are large, regardless of size of college. Courses such as Introductory Biology and General Psychology do not often spark the passion that comes from speaking in class or writing for a professor.
This simple observation has major implications for advisors. When talking with first year students, advise them not to just choose large, introductory courses during first and second years at college. Instead, capitalize on the strengths of each student and encourage them to “stretch” and take at least one smaller, more focused, more challenging class where they will have to talk, write, and become engaged.
These are some of the concrete and ‘actionable’ advising suggestions that I look forward to sharing at our Annual Meeting. It is important to emphasize that these suggestions come directly from undergraduates. At a time of tight budgets, nearly all cost little to implement.
What better way to honor our students, than to ask them about their college experiences? By taking what they say seriously, we can implement ideas that can help students succeed and prosper on our campuses.
Richard J. Light
Cite this article using APA style as: Light, R. (2003, June). Enhancing student's college experience with specific advising suggestions. Academic Advising Today, 26(2). [insert url here]