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Sabrina Jones, Isaac Larison, Anna Rollins, and Paulus Wahjudi, Marshall University

Jones et al.jpgThe HLC Academy for Student Persistence and Completion at Marshall University created the MU EDGE mentoring program to pair experienced faculty mentors with incoming “murky middle” freshmen to find out what Marshall can do to better retain this under-served population through more intrusive advising.  Murky middle students have incoming high school GPAs ranging from 2.0 to 3.25 and, interestingly, they are retained at only marginally better rates than provisionally admitted students achieving less than 2.0.  One major difference between these populations is that provisionally admitted students receive frequent, intrusive advising sessions, whereas, prior to the implementation of EDGE during academic year 2015-2016, students in the murky middle did not.

Four mentors (Sabrina Jones, Isaac Larison, Anna Rollins, and Paulus Wahjudi) were selected from a pool of applicants of experienced faculty and spent the summer of 2015 determining what to call the program, how to interpret its goals, and how to pitch it to students to get them actively involved.  The mentors chose to call the program MU EDGE (Marshall University: Explore, Design, Graduate, Empower) and pitched it to potential mentees with the following goals:

  • to help you explore all of your opportunities at Marshall,
  • to help you design plans that will help you on your path to success,
  • to help you graduate in four years with higher grades and less debt, and
  • to empower you to reach your goals during college and beyond.

Students in the experiment agreed to meet with an assigned mentor for four 30-minute sessions per semester during their first two years of college.  The mentors developed a general list of academic topics to cover in meetings with all students, as noted in the chart below.


One key component to EDGE’s model is that the mentoring sessions are student-led and mentor-directed. Going into the academic year, mentors had a rough idea of the trajectory of mentoring sessions: they wanted to meet students consistently throughout the course of the semester; they wanted to aim for a total of four meetings; and finally, they had a basic idea of content they hoped to cover in each session.

During the initial appointment, mentors established a strong rapport with students to make EDGE’s value to the students’ lives apparent since EDGE sessions were voluntary and not tied to academic holds.  The following sessions built upon information obtained from the initial session.  Mentors logged notes and advising reports about sessions through the EAB Student Success Collaborative platform.  Then, they followed up with students via email reminding them of what was discussed during their initial session and what goals they crafted together during that session.

The following sessions, then, occurred at key points during the semester—midterms, registration, and finals—but the content of the sessions were student driven, based largely upon the information that the students conveyed during previous mentoring sessions.

Discovery of Inquisitive Advising

At the conclusion of the first year of EDGE, the four mentors had collected a range of qualitative data about approximately 120 students involved in the study.  Most importantly, the mentors learned from this data that the students’ needs and problems were varied and those needs affected the students’ overall academic success.  The mentors also discovered that they could not solve problems such as the following all alone.

  • A student has to miss the first week of school due to personal reasons.
  • A student chooses Pre-Med Biology as a major but lacks required scores to take entry level courses in the program.
  • A student’s AP classes do not show up until after school starts and the student is registered for classes they fulfill.

Thus, the mentors realized that collaboration was key, and it became an issue of constantly learning on the parts of the mentors to be able to fully help students and point them to the appropriate resources.  It was not just about advising, but asking questions to really understand student needs, who does what on campus, how resources truly function, and how resources function best when programs work together.

Because a large part of the mentoring process involved learning how to help students navigate the maze of college experiences and resources, the mentors noted that one necessary quality of an intrusive mentor/advisor is that of inquisition: they must be inquisitive about both the students’ lives (their major, classes, background, health, financial needs, housing arrangements, extracurricular interests, and family obligations), as well as the inner-workings of the university system.  Inquisitive advising (as opposed to other forms of intrusive advising) allowed the mentors to ask questions and learn about a student’s individual needs before delivering advice.  Similar to other intrusive advising models, it also requires interacting with other departments/services on campus to meet the needs of students.

Inquisitive advising examines students from a holistic view.  EDGE mentors aim to engage with the whole student and the entirety of his or her campus experience—not just the academic experience.  While they do guide students through academic four-year plans and course catalogues, they also provide advising and support regarding other issues that a student may encounter on campus.  These issues include housing and roommate issues, financial aid complications, work-life balance, psychosocial development, homesickness, major and career choice, and campus and extracurricular involvement. 

The foundation of inquisitive advising involves two tasks on the part of the mentor/advisor.

  • Listen: Let the students tell their stories, their backgrounds, their passions, etc.
  • Be inquisitive: Ask students questions, and make sure they are the right questions.

Based on a required and highly-impactful reading for mentor training, The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull (2002), the mentors are in the process of developing protocols for probing further into specific issues that individual students face, such as time management, financial difficulties, lack of motivation, study skills, getting involved in campus activities, etc. to better address individual needs.  This training will help guide future sessions by future mentors.

Inquisitive advising is meant to go beyond the EDGE program and can be beneficial for students at all academic levels and in all fields of study.  Academic advisors can incorporate the basic inquisitive advising model into their own practices by applying the following key practices.

How Academic Advisors can Apply Inquisitive Advising

  • Build rapport with students early (from the first semester).
  • Be the first point of contact for students and the first person they think of when they need help.
  • Focus more intently on the murky middle students, or those who do not receive benefits from other student success programs.
  • Get to know students by relating to their experiences and learning their backgrounds.
  • Address students’ concerns, challenges, views, plans, etc.
  • Look beyond the major, grades, and GPA of your student.
  • Keep communication open year-round (before, during, and after the semester).
  • Mentor beyond the classroom and required office meetings; a simple hi or quick chat in the student center goes a long way.

This list echoes what Jennifer Varney (2012) says in her article “Proactive (Intrusive) Advising!”

Through the use of ‘whole student advising’, or taking all of the student actions and behaviors into consideration (academics, social behaviors, level of engagement with the school, interaction with peers, family relations, etc.), proactive advisors are able to intervene early with students and build strong and lasting relationships with them.  These relationships form the foundation of a support system that will sustain the student from entry point to goal attainment. (para. 12)

The MU EDGE mentoring program has shown positive semester-to-semester increases in retention rates during its first year, and the holistic, qualitative research on this population has led to new insights on ways to improve the program as it moves toward the end of its second year.   Advisors should stay tuned for further developmental research on the inquisitive advising model and consider how to apply it in their own programs.

Sabrina Jones
Instructor and EDGE Mentor/Program Coordinator
Department of English
Marshall University
[email protected]

Isaac Larison
Associate Professor and EDGE Mentor
College of Education and Professional Development
Marshall University
[email protected]

Anna Rollins
Instructor and EDGE Mentor
Department of English
Marshall University
[email protected]

Paulus Wahjudi
Associate Professor and EDGE Mentor
Weisberg Division of Computer Science
Marshall University,
[email protected]


Varney, J. (2012, September). Proactive (intrusive) advising! Academic Advising Today, 35(3). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Proactive-Intrusive-Advising.aspx

Zull, J. (2002).  The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Cite this article using APA style as: Jones, S., Larison, I., Rollins, A., & Wahjudi, P. (2017, December). The EDGE of the murky middle: Inquisitive advising for student success. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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