Megumi I. Makino-Kanehiro, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
Brett McFarlane’s recent (2017) Academic Advising Today article, “Mandatory Advising, Yes or No?,” outlines research and rationale that support the use of mandatory advising but emphasizes the idea that using mandatory advising on one’s campus is a complex question that does not allow a simple answer. The Mānoa Advising Center (MAC) was established in Fall 2008, and our first directive as academic advisors was to enforce mandatory advising for our students. When we started with three advisors and 4,500 students, there was no way we could offer mandatory advising to everyone. As a result, we started off with a more realistic goal—requiring that all incoming freshmen come in for mandatory advising for their first four semesters, enforcing the requirement through registration holds. Over the past 10 years in MAC, we have made a number of very small but significant changes in the way that we offer mandatory advising—namely in format and tone—that have had a big impact in helping us to more efficiently and proactively assist our students.
Why Mandatory Advising?
I did not start off with strong feelings for or against mandatory advising. Over time, I have experienced first-hand, in student appointments, how vital mandatory advising can be for certain students.
I did not know what to think. She had retaken pre-med track chemistry and biology four times, flunking each time and withdrawing from multiple courses each semester. Experience has taught me that nine out of ten students with this type of record have external issues impacting their studies. She seemed to do well in the non-science courses, so I wondered whether the science courses were too difficult for her. She had missed her registration time and waited until the end of the first week of school to get her mandatory advising hold resolved, so I suspected that she may be one of those students who insists that medical school is the only path for them.
Her story broke my heart.
As expected, she stated that family issues had impacted her studies. I asked her if the issues had been resolved, and she replied, “Well, she passed away yesterday, so yes, I guess they have been resolved.” I found out that she had been taking care of her grandmother who had been hospitalized, then needed 24/7 care, which fell to her since her single mother worked three jobs in order to provide for the family. Due to this vicious cycle, she was also forced to work full time. She explained that she loved science, and she tried her best every semester thinking she could do it, but sheer exhaustion would prevent her from attending class, and she would gradually fall behind and end up failing.
She seemed very guarded when the appointment started, but I asked her about her goals and as the appointment went on, she opened up, visibly relaxed, and even smiled. When I explained that there were options, such as leave of absence, she was surprised. She took ownership, stating that she knew she should come in but explained that once she had started doing badly, she was scared to make an appointment. She said that the only reason she had come in was that she had a registration hold on her record. I explained that in Fall 2017, MAC was finally able to reach its goal of instituting mandatory advising with registration holds for all of our students.
Lesson learned: I went home, feeling devastated at her lost opportunity. At the same time, it also reaffirmed that we are doing the right thing by requiring students—through registration holds—to come in to talk to us. Each campus is different, but clearly, enforcing mandatory advising was the mechanism by which this student was able to connect with us.
Which Format of Communication Works Best?
I have heard a lot of discussion about email versus text. Students do not like us to invade their texts (plus, some are charged and others need to sign a release), but they get tons of email and do not tend to read any of them. I have also heard of the slang “TL; DR” (too long; didn’t read) that points to the necessity of keeping things brief. One day, in watching the peer advisors in my office glance at their emails and texts during a break, I hit on an idea—why can’t we use text-like emails?
Lesson learned: I asked the advisor who coordinates mandatory advising for MAC if we could shorten our messages to just the bare essential information. Also, could we make the email subject line sound like a Macy’s or Starbucks ad, pejoratively called click bait (Pre-sale exclusive: order now!)? We came up with subject lines that would hopefully encourage them to open their email, such as “Be an Early Bird—Complete Mandatory Advising Now.” Anecdotally, we have found this format to be more effective, and we try to stick to one screen of information with a link to further details.
Why is Tone Important?
As advisors we care, but do students know that? Appreciative Advising (n.d.) focuses on the importance of utilizing the first phase of interactions with students, Disarm, by encouraging advisors to “make a positive first impression with the student, build rapport, and create a safe, welcoming space” (para. 4). It can be argued that an advisor’s message to a student starts with the first email contact with that student. In MAC, I tend to soften wording to emphasize that, while we expect students to take responsibility of their academic journey, we will support them and provide them with all of their options. Advisors are not adversaries, but rather guides to help them explore.
As MAC advisors, we work with many students whose GPA is below 2.0. We require these students to do assignments and then come in to see an advisor. In a previous versions of the assignments, we provided information on academic actions, taught the student about campus resources, had the student articulate their goals, and helped the student think through some of the strategies they may need to raise their GPA. I felt as though the assignments were not positive enough.
A colleague had passed along a New York Times Magazine article, “Who Gets to Graduate.” This article featured a number of students that demonstrated higher achievement outcomes linked to positive messaging. Inspired by this article, I asked to add a positive statement (or affirmation) and a short required response at the beginning of each assignment.
Lesson learned: We received feedback (both positive and negative) that let us know that students were actually reading these positive statements. Students often commented that they felt supported and encouraged. It could be that they were simply writing what they thought we wanted to hear, but I would like to think that they may have taken a bit of what they wrote to heart and perhaps it encouraged them to come in to see us earlier.
However, it was the negative comments that were more instructive. The negative responses came from a handful of students who had different situations—they had flunked their freshman year courses, then transferred to another institution and had begun anew with the strong grades to prove it. Unfortunately, when they ultimately returned to our institution, their low GPA at our campus remained on their record. These students were indignant – they certainly did not want a generic email about how we believed in their potential. They felt that our affirmations did not apply to them; they were already doing well and they did not understand why they needed mandatory advising since they had already figured everything out at their previous institution. I met with these students and realized that they were operating from a sense of self-directed frustration and shame. I further realized that they actually may need to come in the most so that we can welcome them back, reassure them, and provide them with the additional resources that would help them to continue doing well at our institution. Based on their feedback, we were able to identify these students and send them a different message, specifically tailored to them, to let them know that they are not cookie-cutter students to us.
These are all small changes, yet they may have a huge impact on students’ perspectives of advising and willingness to receive advising.
Megumi I. Makino-Kanehiro, PhD
Mānoa Advising Center
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
Appreciative Advising. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.appreciativeadvising.net/
McFarlane, B. (2017, December). Mandatory advising, yes or no? Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Mandatory-Advising-Yes-or-No.aspx
Tough, P. (2014, May 18). Who gets to graduate? The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html
Cite this article using APA style as: Makino-Kanehiro, M.I. (2018, June). Lessons learned on mandatory advising: It’s all in the way you say it. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]