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Voices of the Global Community


Enhancing Students' College Experience with Specific Advising Suggestions

Richard J. Light, Harvard University

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.

Richard Light.jpgGood 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
Harvard University

From the President

Betsy McCalla-Wriggins, NACADA President

Dear Colleagues,

When preparing to write this, I began to reflect on this past year. It certainly has been a year of challenges. Budget problems seem to be widespread and the war in Iraq has had an impact on everyone...some in very personal ways with a family member being deployed.

However, for our association, we have had many successes and it is important to celebrate those…especially at a time like this, when we all need some 'good news.”

In February we held our first Academic Advising Administrators’ Institute (AI) in San Antonio. This two-day intensive program was so well received that we added a second session of the Institute and over 350 people participated in this new program. We are currently making plans for a 2004 AI and that date and location will soon be posted on the website.

Recognizing that not every administrator can attend a meeting of this length, we also offered an Administrator's Pre-Conference Workshop at five of our regional meetings this spring. Response has been so positive that we plan to offer these every year at each of the regional meetings.

Another initiative that was piloted at the Region Two Conference was a Faculty Advising Pre-Conference Workshop. Response to this was also very positive and this will be expanded to other regions next year as well. Participants also suggested that we offer this workshop to campuses. We are currently discussing that as a possibility and will keep you posted.

We are currently in the final planning stages for the 17th Annual Academic Advising Summer Institutes (SI). We had so much demand last year that we are offering two in 2003. The first SI is scheduled in San Diego in late June and the second will be held in the Chicago area the end of July.

We are also midway through our first year in the new governance structure of our association. At our mid-year meeting, the board members spent a day discussing strategic planning and the direction of our association. I think it is very significant that we reaffirmed that NACADA is an association committed to enhancing the role of advising on our campuses.

Independent of the individual positions that we each hold on our campuses, we all are seeking to create an environment where we can support each other and our students. I encourage you to seek out your colleagues…faculty, full-time advisors, administrators….and celebrate the great things you are doing in your corner of the world. Then tell others about those successes. We all enjoy hearing more 'good news'.

Betsy McCalla-Wriggins
NACADA President
Rowan University

From the Executive Office

Roberta 'Bobbie' Flaherty, NACADA Executive Director 

The Executive Office is often asked to explain the “benefits” of NACADA membership and it is easy to enumerate the various resources that the association provides – from conferences to monographs, but it is more difficult to explain the “rest of the story”.

Let’s say your institution has already purchased all of NACADA’s written resources and the videos, and you are unable to attend any of the professional development events this next year. Why should you part with $50? My response would be “Why do you buy Girl Scout cookies?” and “Why do you give to the American Cancer Society?” Could it be to support the underlying work of those organizations? After all, are the cookies alone worth what you pay and will your donation to the Cancer Society make you cancer free? So, what will your $50 NACADA dues do for you?

Would you like for advising to be more highly valued on your campus? Would you like to be recognized on your campus as a “professional” and rewarded accordingly? As a faculty member, would you like to be recognized for good advising as well as good teaching and would you like to be recognized for the time you spend advising students? Would you like for the administration to better understand the value of “effective advising”? Would you like to maintain your financial support in times of budget cuts? Would you like for there to be more research on advising issues? Then NACADA dues are how you can help. Not only does NACADA provide resources for your direct individual support, but it also works to build awareness and respect for the profession as a whole.

In addition, involvement in your profession can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your career. It provides an opportunity for you to contribute to the research and literature of the field, to impact decisions regarding the type of resources needed and to be developed in the field, to promote the growing recognition of the field, and to make lifelong friendships with those who share your values from across North America and throughout the world!

NACADA strives to provide a forum for discussion, debate, and the exchange of ideas pertaining to academic advising through a growing number of events (national conference, regional conferences, Academic Advising Summer Institute, and the Administrators’ Institute) and resources. Be sure to watch the NACADA web site for an ever growing compilation of advising information and resources.

So, the next time you are wondering what you get for that $50 (one of the lowest dues amounts among higher education associations), I encourage you to think beyond the obvious and continue to support the work of the association as it strives to impact the positive development of students through the support of academic advising. I invite you to please join us at any or all of our events and get involved with the work of the association. I promise you that the more you give to your association, the more you will receive!

Roberta 'Bobbie' Flaherty
NACADA Executive Director

Letting Up and Letting Go

Cynthia Sarver, Michigan State University

According to research conducted by Philip Gardner, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, many of today’s college students are the product of parents who have protected and sheltered their children from a dangerous world and have raised their children to see themselves as very special. These millennial students are confident and achievement-oriented, but feel pressured to succeed both academically and professionally (2003). As a result, many young adults enter college today with a sense of entitlement, a strong dependency on their parents, and the expectation that the university will hold their hand throughout their college career. What many of our academic advisers find during the Freshman Academic Orientation Program at Michigan State is that parents want to continue to hold the hand of their new college student and the student doesn’t necessarily want to let go.

Understandably, many parents would like to be involved in the academic decision-making that takes place during freshman orientation. After all, parents know their children the best. They are also accustomed to being the lead advocate for their children. However, as students make the transition from high school to college, they must learn to advocate for themselves and to take responsibility for making wise decisions with the help of academic advisers, faculty, and other campus professionals. The first step in this process occurs at orientation when academic advisers and students together create a freshman year program that meets the educational and career goals of the student.

To educate parents regarding the importance of the adviser-student relationship, the MSU Academic Orientation Program Office will distribute the following message to parents this summer:

The academic advisor/student relationship is critical to academic success. Students begin to develop this relationship at Orientation. Academic advising meetings and computer enrollment are, therefore, only for students. Note that while they are computer enrolling, students are not permitted to use cell phones to contact parents. We respectfully ask parents to wait until the entire orientation program is completed before meeting with their student.

However, the Academic Orientation Program Office recognizes the importance of keeping parents in the loop in a variety of ways. Parents are invited to attend a separate Parent’s Orientation Program that addresses the academic, social, emotional, and transitional issues their freshmen may face. They also hear from university and community speakers and have an opportunity to voice their concerns. And in the evening, academic advisers and faculty are invited to join parents for casual conversation during dinner. In addition, parents periodically receive newsletters that address freshman year issues.

Perhaps these measures will help parents to let up and let go—to trust their student with the freedom to make responsible decisions and to begin a journey of personal growth.

Cynthia Sarver
Academic Advisor
Michigan State University


Gardner, Philip, & Johnston, Kevin. “Why Don’t You Teach the Way I Want to Learn?” (2003). MSU Lilly Faculty Seminar Program.


Posted in: 2003 June 26:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.