Kelsey Bannon and Judi Brewer, University of Southern Maine
First impressions are critical. For new employees, a first impression may catalyze their decision to continue with a position and grow within a department or quickly seek employment elsewhere.
We were fortunate to begin our experience as academic advisors at the University of Southern Maine (USM) on the same day. Together, we navigated an intensive two-week long new-hire process, characterized by abundant meetings with personnel from a variety of university departments and trainings. The process was overwhelming as our schedule did not permit much time to absorb new information, actively apply that information, or confer with our supervisor and colleagues. While the process was beneficial, we were certain that it could be improved, particularly given our background in the training and development of new employees: Kelsey in the hotel management industry and Judi in the insurance and retail fields.
In order to revamp the onboarding experience at USM, we first organized our perspectives on the current system, discussing among ourselves what worked and what did not. We then surveyed other advisors to understand their perspectives, researched onboarding best practices, and familiarized ourselves with the core competencies of academic advising (NACADA, 2017).
What is Onboarding and Why is it Important?
First, it should be noted that onboarding is not training. It goes without saying that all new employees require some degree of training in order to be successful in their role. Onboarding, meanwhile, refers to the process by which new employees are integrated into an organization and its culture (Maurer, n.d.). Through this process, an employee acquires the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to be successful within that organization. While most of the relevant research refers to corporate organizations, the same theories and practices are relevant to many different industries.
“Done well, onboarding leads to higher job satisfaction and performance levels as well as lower turnover. But a bad initial experience with your organization can send your new employees running for the door” (Meinert, n.d.). This sentiment solidifies the need to develop a thoughtfully organized onboarding program, one that is informed by pertinent research and that is focused on maintaining employee satisfaction.
Incorporating NACADA’s Core Competencies of Academic Advising
In 2017, NACADA’s Professional Development Committee created the Academic Advising Core Competencies that encompass all of the concepts, information, and skills that advisors should understand, know, and be able to apply to their work. The competencies are made up of three components: conceptual, informational, and relational.
- The conceptual component provides the context for the delivery of academic advising. It covers the ideas and theories that advisors must understand to effectively advise their students.
- The informational component provides the substance of academic advising. It covers the knowledge advisors must gain to be able to guide the students at their institution.
- The relational component provides the skills that enable academic advisors to convey the concepts and information from the other two components to their advisees. (NACADA, 2017)
Since these components are essential to academic advising, they must be thoughtfully incorporated into an onboarding experience for new advisors. To cover the conceptual competency, advisors at USM learn about the history and mission of the university and the department, the advising techniques that USM values, the learning outcomes for students, and how advising fits into the broader university community. For the informational competency, advisors learn about the specific degree requirements for their majors, how to use USM’s technology, and how advising interacts with other university offices. And finally, to include the relational competency, new advisors learn techniques to foster meaningful relationships with their advisees and are given the time to create positive relationships with their team.
For onboarding purposes, we propose that another component be added to the experience: reflection. Reflection provides a new advisor time to consider newly learned material and strategies for success in their new role. In Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick’s book, Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, they describe some of the benefits of reflection. Costa and Kallick state that, “reflecting on work enhances its meaning. Reflecting on experiences encourages insight and complex learning. . . . Reflecting also means applying what we’ve learned to contexts beyond the original situations in which we learned something” (Costa & Kallick, 2008). Because of how important reflection is to one’s learning and growth, it is a crucial part of the onboarding experience. The reflection component is included by providing time at the end of each day for a new advisor to think about how they will apply what they have learned to their future work.
Using NACADA’s Core Competencies of Academic Advising, results from the USM onboarding survey, and research into best practices in training and development, we have revamped the onboarding experience for new advisors at USM. Below are our top two areas to focus on when enhancing an onboarding plan:
Updating the onboarding schedule. Based on research into effective learning strategies, the flow of the onboarding schedule for new advisors is extremely important. According to Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist and creator of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, people rapidly lose memory of learned knowledge unless they consciously make an effort to retain new information (McNamme, 2018). Since the training of new advisors costs both time and money, creating a balanced schedule can be invaluable to a department. In an article titled, “5 ways to challenge the forgetting curve,” Paula McNamme (2018) explains that there are teaching methods that allow for better absorption of knowledge (McNamme, 2018). One method is spaced learning, which involves the learning of new information in manageable blocks, then returning to that information later on, with opportunities to test one’s knowledge. This can be incorporated into an onboarding schedule in a variety of ways. First, we suggest balancing NACADA’s core competencies throughout each day. Switching from conceptual, informational, and relational learning essentially creates those manageable blocks. We also recommend short breaks in-between to allow for absorption of this information. Finally, we suggest including time for reflection or guided reflection at the end of each day, as this allows advisors to return to what they have learned and put it into the context of their work.
Revamping the advisor handbook. The original handbook for advisors at USM was in a 3-inch binder that was over 100 pages long and weighed about 3 pounds. In addition to this binder, new advisors were given important information through multiple other online resources, making it difficult for a new employee to find particular information. Although this information is helpful to new advisors, feedback from our survey told us to (1) make the handbook smaller and (2) share this information digitally in one place. This connects back to another teaching method suggested by McNamme (2018), mobile learning, which suggests providing people with convenient, online, and ever-present access to information.
Using this feedback, we created two resources. The first is a much smaller advisor reference guide, which includes information that a new employee may need at their fingertips, such as a map of each of the campuses, contact information for the office, and a copy of their onboarding schedule. The second is an online tool that is used to display information—which offers links to resources, videos, important documents, and more. Now, new advisors have access to the same information that we had during our initial training; however, they only need to look for it in one place.
While two of our suggestions are listed above, there are additional opportunities for learning and support to improve the onboarding experience and set the stage for employee satisfaction. These include welcoming a new employee on their first day, providing time to shadow other advisors, assigning them a mentor, and scheduling regular meetings with their supervisor.
Questions to ask when developing an onboarding experience:
- Are the core competencies clearly labeled and explained?
- Does the schedule cover all competencies and are they balanced?
- Have you included time for breaks and absorption of knowledge?
- Is there enough time for reflective practices? Are guided reflection questions included at the end of each day?
- Have you considered how you will disseminate information through one-on-one meetings, a physical and/or online handbook, and other trainings?
- Has a mentor been assigned?
- Have regular meetings been set up with their supervisor?
- What does the welcoming activity look like?
- Who are the crucial people or departments to include in the onboarding schedule?
A key role of an academic advisor is to build relationships with their advisees and teach them how to be successful in their collegiate lives. The same logic can be said about onboarding a new advisor. Building the initial relationship will not only make the transition to a new position feel seamless, but will also let the new hire know they are a valued part of the team.
Kelsey Bannon, M.Ed.
University of Southern Maine
Judi Brewer, M.S.
University of Southern Maine
Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2008). Learning through reflection. In A. L. Costa & B. Kallick (Eds), Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind (pp. 221–235). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx
Maurer, R. (n.d.). New employee onboarding guide. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/new-employee-onboarding-guide.aspx
McNamme, P. (2018, November 27). 5 ways to challenge the forgetting curve. Retrieved from https://www.learnupon.com/blog/ebbinghaus-forgetting-curve/
Meinert, D. (n.d.). Onboarding mistakes to avoid and some creative ideas to adopt. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/0616/pages/onboarding-mistakes-to-avoid-and-some-creative-ideas-to-adopt.aspx
Cite this article using APA style as: Bannon, K., & Brewer, J. (2019, September). Setting the stage: Onboarding using NACADA’s core competencies. Academic Advising Today, 42(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]