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Maureen R. McCoy, University of Louisville

Maureen McCoy.jpgCollege students face a variety of obstacles that can affect their retention and graduation.  Students who do not meet minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements are generally placed on an academic warning or probationary status that is often universally applied to all students and administrated by faculty or advisors (Arcand & LeBlanc, 2012).  However, each students’ reasons for missing this academic mark are unique and include non-academic issues, such as anxiety, social alienation, and low self-esteem (Isaak, Graves, and Mayers, 2006).  Probationary status can affect eligibility for federal, state, and institutional financial aid and students’ ability to graduate on time, which can further exacerbate personal and emotional issues.  Probationary students have reported feeling depressed, humiliated, shamed, unworthy or incapable of completing college, and anxious (Arcand & LeBlanc, 2011, 2012; Houle, 2013).  Such feelings may cause students to believe that they cannot change or do better, which may make it harder to motivate them to change their academic habits (Dembo, 2004; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2006).  In order to counteract these negative reactions, advising programs must be willing to address the needs of students on probation through varied strategies to help them construct more individualized academic plans, utilize resources in order to improve their performance, and address any personal issues that may be hindering their performance.

Academic Skills and Knowledge

Primarily, institutions must inform students on academic probation about the specifics of their policy, including what the student must do to return to good standing and what the consequences are if they do not.  Many colleges email or send letters to probationary students, which is an easy way to notify all students of their status and resources available to them, regardless of circumstance.  However, impersonal letters do not always prompt students to act.  Moss and Yeaton (2015) found that these communications caused no significant impact on student’s GPA in the subsequent semester.  More intrusive efforts are needed to address the issues of at-risk students.

Some institutions require frequent meetings with an advisor throughout the probationary semester.   Through frequent advising, students are able to connect with additional resources on campus and engage more in campus life, and measurable improvement in student GPA after at least three meetings with an advisor has been shown (National Survey for Student Engagement, 2007; Vander Schee, 2007).  Students can form a more personal connection to the institution through this contact, and connection can help promote engagement and self-sufficiency.  These can be effective in helping students receive individualized help, but larger institutions may have trouble meeting with the potentially high number of students on academic probation, so larger programs are needed to reach at-risk students.

Academic skills courses have been successful in helping students improve their study skills, retention, and overall GPA (Mechur Karp, Raufman, Efithimious, & Ritze, 2017; Lipsky & Ender, 1990; Renzulli, 2015).  Targeted intervention courses are also used to help students review institutional policies, explore majors and career paths, and engage on campus and can significantly increase retention and matriculation for second-semester students (McGrath & Burd, 2012).  However, not all intervention courses are mandatory, and many students are less likely to seek out assistance on their own, particularly if they are less self-confident as a result of probation (Tovar & Simon, 2007).  In order to reach all probationary students, institutions with intervention courses should consider making them mandatory and credit-bearing and should consider additional ways help students connect to resources.

Connection and Engagement

Underperforming students are less likely to be able to recognize shortfalls in their skills or goals that are counter-productive, so more engagement between these students and their college or resources may be beneficial (Astin, Cherney, Crowner, & Hill, 1997; Hsieh, Sullivan, & Guerra, 2007).  In addition to academic skills development, students need to feel that they belong on their campus, and this feeling, or lack thereof, can affect their overall persistence and commitment to an institution and higher education (Hausmann, Ye, Schofield, & Woods, 2009).  Developmental or holistic approaches can help students find meaning in what they are doing in college, which may motivate them to overcome issues that caused them to be placed on probation.

Regular connection with an advisor can be very impactful and meaningful to students because they are able to articulate their obstacles to someone in an open dialogue, which can be a relief for struggling students who may feel discouraged by dispassionate probation emails and letters (Kirk-Kuwaye & Nishida, 2001).  Institutions that may not have the personnel or resources to provide such intensive connection may look for additional ways in which to engage probationary students beyond academic skills development.  Peer advisors, mentors, and tutors can be trained to help students develop their academic skills, use campus resources, and answer questions about policies (Colvin, 2007; Ender & Newton, 2000).  Perhaps more importantly, they can provide students with a friendly face and a potential for connections with others through events and peer groups, which can contribute to probationary students’ sense of belonging, increase their likelihood of staying, and motivate them to develop productive habits.  Having a peer mentor built into orientation or college introduction classes can help students make connections to their institution and learn how to be successful in that particular college or university (Zevallos & Washburn, 2014).  Similarly, having peer mentors in intervention classes for probation students may allow students to connect with someone who can offer advice and make them feel like they are not alone.

Providing the opportunity for struggling students to develop relationships with peers, staff, or faculty in the capacity of mentorship and advising can help students increase their sense of belonging—to a major, department, peer group, or campus—while addressing academic skills.  Peers can help each other develop their own sense of identity and contribute to their social, cognitive, and emotional development, while academically related extracurricular activities, like mentoring, can help students increase their GPA (Grayson, 1996; Rhodes, Spencer, Keller, Liang, & Noam, 2006).  However, there are times when advising meetings and peer mentoring may not be enough.

Holistic Student Development

Problems that contribute to students being placed on academic probation may not always be within the student’s power to control, including financial, personal, or familial issues.  To address these, additional resources may be needed.  In one study, a school in South Korea required probationary students to attend two counseling sessions with a mental health professional before the start of the next semester (Yang, Yon, & Kim, 2013).  Much like students who attended a minimum number of advising sessions, the authors found that students who attended at least five sessions showed a greater GPA improvement over three semesters (Yang et al., 2013).  These counselors were able to “empathize with students’ emotions caused by academic probation, help students identify and address their academic needs, motivate them to study, and introduce various support services to them” (Yang et al., 2013, p. 552).  These are potential conversations that peers and advisors may have with students, but they may not always be trained to handle especially serious situations students may be facing.

While there are undoubtedly differences in how academic advisors and mental health counselors are trained in South Korea and the United States, they share many of the same goals.  Intrusive advising in particular is designed to help students recognize patterns of behavior and cognition that can affect academic performance, including personal issues (Vander Schee, 2007).  Advisors can help with adjustments to academic performance while also referring students to counselors to help them resolve and manage personal issues.  The simple acknowledgment that personal factors influence academics may help students begin to think about their current situations and goals and how they may be able to change their thinking and behaviors in order to meet these goals.  Self-reflection is a skill that can help them beyond college, and institutions can help support its development.  All of these efforts can help students become well informed, able to self-regulate, and more likely to be successful. 


It is difficult to identify one common profile for students placed on academic probation, but institutions should continue to adjust and improve their probation response policies to meet the needs of these students.  There are many options available for institutions to support students who are struggling.  Intervention courses can help students improve study skills while also teaching them to “develop relationships with peers and faculty members, to find the balance of physical and psychological energy required to persist and succeed, and to get involved on campus outside of the classroom as well as find internal motivation and manage time” (McGrath & Burd, 2012).  When done intentionally and with well-trained staff, the same results could be achieved through individual meetings with advisors, counselors, and trained peers.  Addressing non-academic factors through personal connections both on campus and in the community can support students in their holistic development.  Regardless of the intervention method or methods an institution chooses to pursue, they must be designed to help students develop academically, personally, and socially in order to be the most impactful for students on academic probation.

Maureen R. McCoy
REACH Program Coordinator
University of Louisville
[email protected]


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Cite this article using APA style as: McCoy, M.R. (2018, March). Holistic approaches to advising students on academic probation. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 March 41:1


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