Jessica Nicklin, James Shattuck, and Natasha Segool, University of Hartford
The search for best practices in academic advising is persistent, critical, and continuously evolving based on the needs of students. The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated this issue, forcing advisors to quickly pivot on advising strategies, processes, and modalities. In addition to COVID-19, many other factors contributed to the turbulence of the past 24 months, including, but not limited to a tempestuous presidential election, the murder of George Floyd, and increases in anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. These cultural factors coupled with the already increasing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among college students (e.g., Lee et al., 2021) has required the role of the academic advisor to evolve. Advisors may have been forced into change, but this isn’t just a moment in time due to COVID-19; this is the new normal for academic advising.
Advisors and deans alike are often looking for formal training, conferences, and best practices to inform academic advising. Perhaps however, the best advice for the future of advising is simple: practice being more human through listening, showing empathy, and compassion. When the authors surveyed our own advisors in the spring of 2021 to identify skill gaps and training needs in light of COVID-19, we discovered several humanistic themes that can help guide institutions and academic advising programs post-pandemic. We asked them how their advising has changed, what worked well in their advising approach, and how their advising will be impacted in the future. This was entirely exploratory as part of our planning for future programming—we did not survey the advisors with any specific expectations.
We sent an email to all faculty and staff advisors. We received 51 responses (60% female, mean age = 48.6, mean institutional tenure = 12.57). Although most advisors agreed that academic advising during 2020–2021 was a challenge (62%), they also indicated that they believe changes made to their academic advising approach has made them better advisors (69%). Interestingly, despite indicating that they were looking forward to more in-person advising (80%), 90% of respondents indicated that they would continue to use remote advising for students. To better understand the complexity of the advising experience we used thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) to analyze the open-ended responses. This resulted in three main themes: advising scope, technology, and training.
In their written responses, advisors consistently described an expanding advising role that involved being more proactive (requiring more outreach and check-ins) with a focus on well-being. To illustrate, advisors stated:
“I called students to follow up on concerns more commonly.”
“More time was spent making certain advisees were supported and set up for success.”
“I checked in more with my students. I would take the time to slow down and ask them how they were doing.”
It is evident that the focus, frequency, and quality of interactions with students changed, with advisors providing more support for students. They repeatedly acknowledged how their advising specifically adapted for struggling students. For example:
“I feel like I have done less with actual academic advising and more with helping students who are struggling.”
“So many conversations with students who were really struggling, academically, anxiety, depression, and general financial challenges.”
“Much of my advising centered around personal issues of stress and depression rather than academic problems.”
Many advisors also emphasized the need to be supportive and compassionate and acknowledged that their empathy for students increased. For example:
“Using empathy and trying to reassure students that they are not alone.”
“Compassion and empathy with overall guidance to assure them they can solve problems.”
Perhaps one could argue that these are skills advisors should have always demonstrated, yet certainly not all did. Advisors must find space for both the academic and humanistic sides of advising by being proactive, supportive, empathetic, and compassionate. Leadership should clarify expectations for the advising role and provide corresponding training opportunities.
Technology was a major theme in advisors’ open-ended comments and was viewed as both a positive and a negative. There was a clear tension between the desire for personal face-to-face interactions with the recognition that technology provided both accessibility and convenience. This corresponds with quantitative data that revealed advisors prefer to be in-person, but they will continue to use remote options. For example:
“Technology changed the nature of the interactions in substantial ways, both positive and negative. On one hand, it was easier to reach some students who would otherwise resist in person meetings. On the other, it was challenging to make deep connections with some students because they were less likely to be paying full attention and more likely to be distracted.”
“Zoom conferences in parking lots outside of work might help keep the relationships going with students that had difficulty coming to campus during working hours.”
“I did notice that I was able to accommodate more students[—]in the past year I was able to meet with more students beyond the 8:30–4:30pm business hours more easily.”
“The increased use of video conferencing software made my students more receptive to having virtual advising meetings. This has made for a huge improvement in connection and really discussing things like career goals and work-school-life balance while developing individualized program plans.”
Common challenges include:
“Pivoting to online advising wasn’t difficult but it lost that personal touch that I am used to having with my advisees.”
“Communicating by email was cumbersome and students tend to write short e-mails and omit some of the small talk that normally would help us form a connection.”
Moving forward, we encourage advisors to modernize their advising to include accessible options for all, while also recognizing that certain technologies are not always the best for establishing trust and rapport with students. It is a balancing act, and one size may not fit all; listening and responding to students’ needs and preferences is essential.
The first two themes already illustrate the need to invest in professional development for advisors. Advisors are not professional therapists, counselors, or IT experts; therefore, knowledge and skill development must be supported to match the scope and evolving demands of the job. Advisors indicated the need for more training around university requirements (majors, policies, finances), technology (early alert systems, degree evaluations), and supporting students’ emotional needs. One quote really sums it up:
“I think there could probably be a whole curriculum of training around advising—as you know it is a profession, its own set of skills and capabilities.”
To support the humanistic side of advising, microskill training benefits the communication and listening skills of non-professional counselors such as educators, academic advisors, physicians, and nurses (Daniels & Ivey, 2007). Along with training, institutions should ensure that their policies and procedures align. For example, if virtual advising remains, then paperless processes must be created to match this transformation in the advisor-advisee relationship. If advisors are expected to be accessible after hours, what does this mean for their work schedule and the institutional structure? Decisions around advising cannot be made in a vacuum, so considerations around training and development have broad institution-wide implications.
The COVID-19 pandemic and other distressing events over the past two years have shifted the roles of academic advisors. Although this study is based on a modest sample at one institution, it is likely that these sentiments generalize to other advisors at other schools. It would be beneficial for collegiate leadership to survey their own advisors to reveal concerns and opportunities for advising development. Likewise, a limitation of this survey was that it did not ask about advisors’ personal needs and experiences. It is impossible to ignore the toll COVID-19 and other worldwide stressors have had on academic advisors (Maller & McGill, 2021). Advisors are on the front lines daily, dealing with the myriad of student issues while handling their own personal and familial obligations. Institutions also need to adopt a humanistic lens for employees by finding ways to support advisors through training, wellness programming, and time off to decompress. Academic advisors can and will navigate these choppy waters, but we must be supportive of their needs for them to be most helpful to students.
Associate Vice President for Student Success
Division for Student Success
University of Hartford
Associate Provost of Undergraduate Studies
University of Hartford
College of Arts and Sciences
University of Hartford
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa
Daniels, T., & Ivey, A. (2007). Microskills: Making skills training work in a multicultural world. Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Lee, J., Jeong, H. J., & Kim, S. (2021). Stress, anxiety, and depression among undergraduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic and their use of mental health services. Innovative higher education, 1–20. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-021-09552-y
Maller, M., & McGill, C. M. (2021, September). Emotional labor and professional burnout: Advisor self-care in the age of COVID. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Emotional-Labor-and-Professional-Burnout-Advisor-Self-Care-in-the-Age-of-COVID.aspx
Cite this article using APA style as: Nicklin, J., Shattuck, J., Segool, N. (2022, March). Humanistic advising evolution stemming from COVID-19. Academic Advising Today, 45(1). [insert url here]