Wendy Yoder, Southwestern Oklahoma State University
Academic advising is conducted on college campuses in a variety of ways, depending on the unique needs of the college or university. Regardless of the method of implementation, academic advisors have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic to effectively meet student needs in predominantly virtual settings. While some institutions have been learning online since March of 2020, others have since been navigating how to safely return to on-campus or face-to-face instruction. These changes in teaching modalities directly affect how academic advisors and all student-facing employees develop increasingly flexible student support programming. As a result of institutional COVID responses, advisors, like many other professionals, have been navigating Zoom-fatigue, work-life balance, and setting boundaries to avoid being perpetually accessible. However stressful these new challenges have been, they are creating opportunities for institutions of higher education to review historical practices and improve upon them as new technologies become commonplace.
Faculty Advising for Student Support
In his discussion of the 2011 National Survey of Academic Advising, Self (2013) suggested that a faculty advising model can be beneficial to students because faculty advisors may be better suited than professional advisors to address career-related or program-specific questions. On the other hand, Self addressed the possibility that faculty advisors prioritize teaching and research obligations more highly than those related to academic advising. For faculty members who have redesigned face-to-face classes to accommodate distance learning, the suggestion of adding flexibility to their advising sessions can be daunting. Colleges and universities may have already supported a faculty advising model by providing a framework with tools such as an advising communication schedule, customizable email templates, or a sample advising syllabus for faculty advisors to modify with their own information and contact preferences. Institutions that did not offer such centralized resources prior to the pandemic may choose to implement them now to equip faculty advisors with the tools necessary to proactively address student needs.
Academic Advising, One Step at a Time
In 1972, Terry O’Banion named five distinct steps occurring in the advising process, but he noted that a student could navigate these phases with more than one campus representative (Burton & Wellington, 1998). The steps include investigating life goals, examining vocational goals, choosing a degree, choosing courses, and scheduling courses. Faculty advisors may perceive they lack the time or resources to accomplish all five steps with their assigned student advisees. This perception creates an opportunity to formalize the expectations surrounding which campus representative is responsible for each task. While some steps can easily be completed in a remote setting, others require more in-depth interactions. Student information systems that facilitate asynchronous collaboration on a course schedule allow for students to select class times that faculty advisors can review and approve at their convenience, but conversations about life and career goals are more difficult to accomplish by email than face-to-face. Given that it is more challenging to get to know students remotely (Méndez & Arguello, 2020), not all steps in the advising process should necessarily persist in virtual settings when faculty advisors regain an in-person option.
Being Knowledgeable and Approachable
Yoder (2019) found that students want a faculty advisor to be knowledgeable and approachable. This can be a lofty goal in the face of virtual learning and global uncertainty. Staying informed and up to date about the many campus activities and evolving institutional policies is a challenge for campus personnel in the best of times. To disseminate information on the resources available to students stemming from COVID-19, such as federal subsidies to purchase internet services or campus resources for checking out laptop computers, many institutions have developed centralized COVID webpages. While this is a logical solution, faculty advisors may not be aware of or familiar with the new webpages. Relevant or updated information could be sent directly to faculty advisors by the chief academic affairs officer and included in professional development trainings to increase faculty familiarity with the resources. This type of coordinated update would signal the information as specifically useful for faculty advisors as opposed to the notifications they receive regarding general campus updates and events. As campuses determine how to best use CARES Act funds, new programs or resources should be disseminated to faculty advisors through the aforementioned academic channels so the updates are not overlooked as employees return to campus.
Another challenge for faculty advisors is being approachable despite possibly being less visible than ever before. As faculty have incorporated new technology for classroom instruction, the same resources can benefit advising practices and should be maintained. Faculty advisors could continue offering virtual office hours, during which students can join a personal Zoom meeting room for individual questions. Additionally, they could implement an online booking system to include more flexible appointment times than those reserved for face-to-face meetings so that advisees can select a time that works best for their schedule. Increased options for meeting times and settings may be something that faculty advisors retain once social distancing recommendations are lifted in order to sustain the flexibility their students desire.
Keeping What Works
In his book, Supporting Students in Online, Open and Distance Learning, Simpson (2018) posited practical, theoretical, and moral reasons for an institution to support students in a virtual setting. Simpson suggested these premises about distance learning in higher education: all institutions are competing for students, online settings can lead to students feeling isolated, and higher education professionals should strive to assist students in achieving their best outcomes. As restrictions are lifted for in-person interactions, maintaining some new practices may help colleges and universities improve the ways they support students and, ultimately, increase student retention.
Listing several strategies for supporting students during the coronavirus crisis, Imad (2020) suggests college instructors humanize themselves and remain mindful of the loss of community that students are experiencing. She also recommends directly asking each student about the help and support they need. This could result in meaningful dialog between a student and their faculty advisor about challenges the student faced while navigating the virtual environment. Approaching advisees as individuals with unique needs will also be useful for supporting students who prefer a virtual approach, even after campuses return to face-to-face operations.
In specifically addressing best practices in virtual advisement, Méndez and Arguello (2020) recommend that advisors maintain frequent and proactive contact with their advisees. Being the first to contact advisees not only opens the lines of communication with students who might not know where to begin, but it also ensures the students have an accurate contact method for their faculty advisor without the added task of finding it on the institution’s website. Méndez and Arguello suggest advisors interact with students using several collaborative methods and technology tools. By learning to use a variety of communication platforms, advisors will be able to reach more students, but they may also use these tools to facilitate student interaction. Since social integration is essential to student retention (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1983), allowing students a virtual time and place to communicate with each other can help mitigate that loss of community that Imad (2020) discusses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many traditional college and university functions from student orientation to graduation ceremonies. Neither academic advisors, nor any other higher education professional can be everything to every student. However, faculty advisors can use this tumultuous time to capitalize on the new technologies and resources at their disposal. By incorporating best practices from distance education models and diversifying their tools for communicating with students, faculty advisors can improve their instructional techniques as well as their ability to build meaningful relationships with student advisees.
Academic Support Center Director
Southwestern Oklahoma State University
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Imad, M. (2020). 10 Leadership strategies in times of uncertainty. Women in Higher Education, 29(5), 9–15. https://doi.org/10.1002/whe.20845
Méndez, M. G., & Arguello, G. (2020). Best practices of virtual advising: The application of an online advising portal. FDLA Journal, 5(1), 6.
Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1983). Predicting voluntary freshman year persistence/withdrawal behavior in a residential university: A path analytic validation of Tinto's model. Journal of educational psychology, 75(2), 215–226. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.124
Self, C. (2013). Implications of advising personnel of undergraduates 2011 National Survey. NACADA Clearinghouse. http://www.nacada.ksu. edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Implications-ofadvising-personnel-of-undergraduates-2011-National-Survey.aspx
Simpson, O. (2018). Supporting students in online, open and distance learning (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Yoder, W. (2019). Student perceptions of how faculty advising supports the academic persistence of students of color at one predominantly White institution. Faculty articles & research. https://dc.swosu.edu/cpgs_sbse_education_articles/2
Cite this article using APA style as: Yoder, W. (2021, December). Supporting students as faculty advisors: Lessons learned from navigating a pandemic. Academic Advising Today, 44(4). [insert url here]