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Sarah A. Forbes, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Sarah Forbes.jpgNACADA’s (2017) Core Competencies Model supports the idea that knowing students and developing advising relationships are just as important as the history and theory of advising and learning institutional and curricular information. Students are multifaceted individuals, however, and as such, knowing students will be a multifaceted endeavor as academic advisors glean personal history, interests and abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and aspirations for the future. Reviewing generational and demographic data can facilitate that process of discovery. As Kolls (2015) described, “answers to the demographic questions create the edges or framework of the jigsaw puzzle” (p. 179). While data will not complete the puzzle, it can give academic advisors early knowledge of students.

Wallace and Wallace (2015) recommended that academic advisors learn to navigate their institution’s student information system to obtain data about their advisees. While going straight to the data source is reasonable in theory, it is not always feasible in practice, especially if faculty are serving as academic advisors. Many institutions limit who has direct access into the student information system; other institutions provide indirect access through reports, which may contain limited information; and in some cases, academic advisors are left to interpret the data and translate it into practice.

At Rose-Hulman, academic advising is structured under a supplementary model (Habley, 1983), whereby all students are assigned to a faculty academic advisor, with a staff office overseeing the program and supporting faculty efforts. The main channel of support is a resource course located in the institute’s learning management system. To help academic advisors frame the puzzle, one section of the course is entitled “About Our Students” and includes information on Generation Z (Seemiller & Grace, 2016), the overall Rose-Hulman student body, and the current Rose-Hulman fall cohort, noting their associated characteristics and recommendations. A few examples for each category are provided in Tables 1–3.

Table 1

Characteristics of Generation Z and Suggestions for Advisors

Characteristics of Generation Z

Suggestions for advisors

Crave face-to-face interactions

Make sure your advisees know when you are available to meet with them in-person (the academic advising syllabus is a great place to provide this information), and explain to them that all faculty have office hours where they can stop by and have a conversation.

Motivated by earning credit or advancement

Guide your advisees towards experiences that will enable them to learn specialized skills that could either (a) give them credit towards graduation or (b) help them to advance in their future career.

Used to 24/7 access

Set boundaries and appropriate expectations with your advisees regarding when you will or will not be available. Consider adding this information to your academic advising syllabus.

Risk averse

Remind your advisees that failure is an important part of the learning process, which can help them ease into necessary risk-taking while promoting a growth mindset.

Financially conservative

Remind your advisees that they have invested a great deal in campus resources, and that they should get a return on their investment. If your advisees have low midterm grades, consider reminding them how much it costs to repeat a course.


Table 2

Academic Characteristics of Rose-Hulman Students and Suggestions for Advisors

Academic characteristics of Rose-Hulman students

Suggestions for advisors

Report studying 10 or fewer hours per week in high school

Remind your advisees that expectations for college are different from high school. As noted in the RHIT100 text, "the one who does the work does the learning" (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2018, p. 164).

Seek assistance from other students before seeking assistance from faculty

Point out to students that they have invested a great deal of money in campus resources. They should get a return on that investment.

Have not encountered significant challenges and will not have had to ask for help

Remind students that it is normal to struggle. Rose-Hulman will intentionally challenge them to help them realize their potential, but staff and faculty will support them through the process.

Have been academically successful relying on only low-level learning strategies, namely memorization

Encourage students to review the learning cycle strategies found in the RHIT100 Moodle course.

Will likely earn their first B (or lower) during their first term

Point out a couple of facts: (1) less than 10 students each year will graduate with a 4.0 GPA and (2) 98% of Rose-Hulman students get placed in a career, graduate school, or the military.  Perfect grades are not expected nor are they necessary.


Table 3

Demographic Characteristics of the Rose-Hulman Fall 2020 First-Year Cohort and Suggestions for Advisors

Demographic characteristics of the Fall 2020 first-year cohort

Suggestions for advisors

83% had a 3.75 or higher high school GPA

Remind your advisees that "what got you here won't get you there." Success in high school came very easily; that won't be the case at Rose-Hulman. They should start developing more effective learning strategies as soon as possible.

26% are female

Encourage your advisees to take advantage of specific resources on campus, such as the Society for Women Engineers or the LEAD program. You might also encourage them to talk to the female faculty in their department so that they have role models of successful STEM females. Finally, help female students understand that they do not have to conform to traditional female roles (e.g., always being the secretary for a group project).

12% are first-generation

Avoid using college jargon and acronyms with your advisees; encourage your advisees to ask lots of questions; and remind your advisees that there are several offices on campus ready and willing to support them. 

12% are from an underrepresented population

Talk with your advisees about their specific plans for success. Traditionally, underrepresented student groups have lower graduation rates. If they are lacking in specific strategies, encourage them to review the resources in their RHIT100 Moodle course.

10% are international students

Encourage international students to interact with domestic students so that they can further develop their English language skills. If they are struggling with the language, encourage them to seek ESL tutoring. 


Of course, within each table myriad other data points could be explored. For example, the average age of first-year students at Rose-Hulman is 18.1 and only 0.2% of first-year students are age 25 or older.  Given that Rose-Hulman has historically had a population of traditional-aged students, these data points are not as relevant for academic advisors, thus not included. The purpose of these tables is to highlight the most salient statistics and help academic advisors understand their importance. Again, this just frames the puzzle, and does not preclude additional methods of data collection. Once the frame is in place, academic advisors can fill in the details for each individual student through intake or interest forms as well as direct conversations. 

It should be noted that with access to data comes the responsibility to protect and use it appropriately.  Coomes and DeBard (2004) caution against overgeneralizing or stereotyping students based on generational information, but the same is also true for student population and cohort data. Academic advisors should not assume anything about their advisees but use the existing data to frame conversations and future inquiries. 

As Nutt (2015) pointed out, “planning for an advising session with an advisee involves the advisor learning as much as possible about the student” (p. 256). While getting to know advisees as unique individuals is important, especially for institutions such as Rose-Hulman whose mission focuses on individual attention and support, leveraging generational and institutional data can frame the puzzle.  Once academic advisors know their advisees, they can begin to identify and assist with student needs (Wallace & Wallace, 2015). 

Sarah A. Forbes, Ph.D.
Director of Student Academic Success
Academic Affairs
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
[email protected]


Coomes, M. D., & DeBard, R. (2004). A generational approach to understanding students. New Directions for Student Services, 2004(106), 5–15.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2018). The new science of learning (2nd ed.). Stylus Publishing.

Habley, W. R. (1983). Organizational structures for academic advising: Models and implications. Journal of College Student Personnel, 24(6), 535–540.

Kolls, S. (2015). Informational component: Learning about advisees—Putting together the puzzle. In P. Folsom, F. Yoder, & J. E. Joslin (Eds.), The new advisor guidebook: Mastering the art of academic advising (pp. 177–184). Jossey-Bass.

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

Nutt, C. L. (2015). One-to-one advising. In P. Folsom, F. Yoder, & J. E. Joslin (Eds.), The new advisor guidebook: Mastering the art of academic advising (pp. 251–266). Jossey-Bass.

Seemiller, C., & Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z goes to college. Jossey-Bass.

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: Mastering the art of academic advising (pp. 125–141). Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Forbes, S. (2021, September). Framing the puzzle: Early knowledge of students through data. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). [insert url here]


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