Advising Online Students: Replicating Best Practices of Face-to-Face Advising
Authored by: Sue Ohrablo, Ed.D.
Students who seek to earn their degrees in an online format are at higher risk for attrition than are their campus-based counterparts (Morris & Finnegan, 2009). Because online students often experience feelings of isolation and anxiety, they can greatly benefit from a positive, supportive, ongoing relationship with an academic advisor (Ludwig-Hardman & Dunlap, 2003).
Academic advisors play a critical role in supporting and engaging students (Nutt, 2003). Students rely on advisors for academic information, assistance in navigating the university, locating and understanding policies and procedures, and problem-solving and decision-making (Smith & Allen, 2014). While a campus-based student may get lost navigating the campus the first time or two trying to find the financial aid or registrar’s office, online students may have a persistent feeling of being lost, as they do not have the opportunity to develop the contextual framework associated with buildings, faces, and in-person referrals. They are limited to hyperlinks and call centers which may keep them on hold for hours. Through the use of effective written and oral communication skills that replicate the skills used in face-to-face advising sessions, advisors can help students develop a sense of connectedness to the institution, positively impacting students’ experiences as online learners.
Perceptions and Expectations of Online Students
The culture and expectations of online students may differ from those of campus-based students (Gaines, 2014). While it is not uncommon for advising center reception areas to fill up with eager yet patient students during peak advising periods, online students’ expectations are accelerated due to the use of electronic communication (Toister, 2014). Campus-based students can see the line out the door and, when finally meeting with an advisor, may see the harried, yet friendly look on the advisor’s face and readily accept the apology for the delay. The online student who is waiting for a returned call or email does not have any visual frame of reference to understand the cause for any perceived delay, which may result in increased frustration and sense of disconnectedness. When trying to explain the source of delays to online students, advisors run the risk of sounding defensive when they add a tagline to their emails such as “due to a high volume of traffic, please expect delays from my usual response times,” sending the message that the student is just a number, one of many in an overloaded caseload. By proactively anticipating students’ frustrations with perceived delays, advisors can communicate their understanding of the student’s experience and demonstrate empathy through simple openings such as “I’m so sorry for the delay, but I’m glad to hear from you,” or “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to call you back sooner. How are you?”
Institutions may turn to using a variety of electronic resources (websites, intranet, and social media) to communicate with their students in order to provide timely, asynchronous information to online students. While these resources are useful in supplementing the advising relationship, they cannot be relied upon to substitute for it (Gaines, 2014). Continually directing students to electronic resources is the equivalent of telling a student in your office to “just go look it up.” Students seek advisement when they have a perceived need (Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon, & Hawthorne, 2013). It is an advisor’s job to determine what the student’s needs are and provide support and direction accordingly. In the student’s eyes, the advisor is the resource, while the links and catalogs are the tools.
It is important to understand that the needs of online students will vary, as online learners do not possess a homogenous set of expectations and experiences. Students may enroll in online courses for a variety of reasons. They may be adult learners who are proximal to a campus, but require a flexible learning environment due to work and family commitments. They may be students who have chosen an online program due to the lack of desired programs in their geographical area. Students enrolled in online courses may also be traditional-aged students who do not want to get up too early to go to class. Advisors will benefit from incorporating their understanding of the needs of adult students, first-generation students, distance students, and developmental advising when working with an online student population (Steele, 2005).
Online students can seek assistance from advisors in a variety of ways, with phone and email being among the top two preferred methods. Unlike face-to-face advising sessions, email and phone advising lack the visual cues that help students and advisors develop a positive advising relationship. The advisor cannot see the anxiety on the student’s face, so must infer it from the tone of voice or use of the written word. Students cannot see the advisor’s face to determine if he is genuine, caring, or competent. The advisor is limited to the strategic use of words and voice inflection to establish a trusting, productive advising relationship.
Advisors who work with a predominantly campus-based population run the risk of viewing emails as an administrative task rather than an advising session. They see appointments on their calendars, walk-ins waiting in the lobby, and emails in their inbox. It is easy to think, “Let me help these students and then I’ll get to my emails.” A better approach is to consider all of those students as students in need of advising. Advisors should take the time to respond to emails in the same thoughtful, comprehensive manner as they would an in-person advisee.
Comprehensive advising methods such as anticipating student needs, exploring options, and moving the student forward (Ohrablo, 2010) can all be integrated into an effective email communication with a student. A student may send an email with a seemingly simple question such as “when is the registration deadline?” A simple response would be to provide the student the date, or to send a link to the online academic calendar. The advisor should consider this inquiry as though the student were present in the office (Pellegrin, 2015). Would it be appropriate to provide the date and quickly usher the student out of the office? Most likely not. There would naturally be an interpersonal exchange such as, “It is good to see you again,” along with some further discussion. In person, the advisor might ask, “Do you know what you will be taking next semester?” and “Do you know where to find the schedule of classes?” This line of inquiry would generate further thought and academic planning on the part of the student.
To further replicate the natural exchange that would occur in an in-person advising session, advisors are encouraged to include a general greeting in the beginning of the response such as “It is good to hear from you,” “Congratulations on nearing the completion of your program,” or “That’s a great question!” Similarly, the conclusion of the email should include a personalized comment such as “Please let me know if you have any further questions,” or “Please touch base with me after you’ve contacted your professor to let me know how it went.” These statements can put a student at ease, provide encouragement, and communicate a sense of caring on the part of the advisor.
In anticipating an online student’s needs, the advisor can provide information that the student did not solicit. Using the registration date example, the advisor can check the student’s record to see if there are any holds, check for academic success and struggles through the review of the student’s transcript, registration history, and advising notes, anticipate any course sequencing issues and prerequisites for the student’s schedule, and address any other pertinent issues. After providing the student the date and/or link to the academic calendar, the advisor could add a statement such as “I see that you’re enrolled in MATH 234. I’d encourage you to register for MATH 235 in the spring, as it is only offered once a year and is a prerequisite to CHEM 122.” Another strategy is to open up a line of inquiry with the student. “How are you doing in MATH 234?” It is a prerequisite to MATH 235, so please let me know if you’re having trouble so we can discuss your options and strategies for success.”
Advisors who work with online students rely on phone discussions to engage students and to establish a relationship with students. Although there are no visual cues, advisors are able to discern the student’s emotional state, level of motivation, and areas of concern through careful listening and questioning. For instance, when discussing a student’s difficulty in a class, the advisor might ask, “Have you spoken with your professor about this?” If the student says no, then a natural line of inquiry would be regarding the student’s possible hesitation about speaking with the professor or other concerns relating to the suggestion. There may then be a long silence in response to questions such as these, which could be attributed to a disconnected call, bad reception, or lack of student response. After waiting for a response, the advisor might ask, “Are you there?” The student may simply say she was cut off and missed your question entirely or it may be an opportunity to address student concerns in regard to the question.
Just as with email, when replicating a face-to-face advising session, it is important to start the session with a positive greeting so that the student feels welcomed. When returning a student’s call, it is a good idea to start by asking, “Is this a good time for you to talk?” There is no face-to-face equivalent, as in-person advising sessions are initiated by the student; advisors are not expected to knock on a student’s dorm room door to initiate an advising session.
A simple strategy to let students know they are cared for is to use their names. When a student calls and says, “Hi, this is Mary Smith, I am one of your students,” a response such as “Oh, hi, Mary. It is good to hear from you,” or “Of course I know who you are, Mary. How have you been?” can reinforce the advising relationship. Online students who are feeling detached from the institution are often surprised to know that they are remembered. Further, they may actually perceive that they are an imposition on an advisor. Unlike in a scheduled face-to-face or walk-in appointment, students communicating via email or phone are more likely to exclaim, “I’m sorry to bother you, “or “I’m sorry to be such a pest.” Addressing those comments with a reassuring statement such as “You are never a bother, I love hearing from you!” or “You are not a pest. That’s what I’m here for,” can help let students know that you value them.
The use of humor can also positively impact the advising relationship and facilitate a connection between student and advisor (Wrench & Punyanunt-Carter, 2008). The advisor should be careful in the use of humor, since the lack of verbal cues could lead to ambiguity regarding intent and meaning. However, used carefully, humor can help students put things into perspective and help to assuage their fears.
Use of videoconferencing software, such as Zoom, Skype, or Go-to-Meeting, allows for meeting distance students in a face-to-face environment, and most effectively replicates an in-person advising session. Both advisors and students have the opportunity to become familiar with each other and can benefit from visual cues such as a welcoming office or family photos in the background. The use of videoconferencing can also facilitate the perception of the advising session as a thoughtful process in which students should invest their time and attention. By encouraging students to set up a video advising session, advisors can help students to avoid the distractions that come with phone calls made as they are dropping the kids off at school or driving on the way home from work.
As advisors explore the use of such platforms, it is important to consider accessibility and ease of use for students. Programs that do not require software downloads or specific browsers may be more appealing and readily used by students. Through the use of videoconferencing, advisors and students can collaboratively review documents such as degree audits, navigate resources, and troubleshoot problems such as registration error messages. Advisors should anticipate technical and user problems when arranging videoconferences, however, as students who have difficulty with audio or a frozen screen may perceive a barrier and experience increased frustration. By having a back-up plan, such as having the student’s phone number close by and knowing how to use the chat feature, advisors can readily adjust to any technical problems by quickly calling the student or typing in “click on the microphone icon to speak.”
It is important for advisors to approach advising online students with the same process and methodology that they would in a face-to-face setting, while keeping in mind the unique needs and limitations that online students have. Advisors are encouraged to offer students a variety of options regarding how students can receive advising, making sure to understand the needs and preferences of each individual student. Regardless of the method of delivery, each advising session should make the student feel cared for, understood, and valued, and convey the message that the advisor is competent and knowledgeable about policies, procedures, and student issues. Advisors should continually monitor the quality of their communications through mentally reviewing a checklist.
- Did I include a greeting or warm statement?
- Did I provide the information that the student requested and anticipate the student’s needs by providing additional information?
- Did I reinforce student successes and establish a sense of shared responsibility?
- Did I establish a clear outline of next steps and invite follow-up communication?
Students will appreciate and value your efforts to connect with them. Look for their feedback in their email responses, lift in their voices, or smiles on their faces. This feedback will help you to know the positive impact you are making in the lives of your online students.
Sue Ohrablo, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor, Abraham S. Fischler College of Education
Nova Southeastern University
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Cite the above resource using APA style as:
Ohrablo, S. (2016). Advising online students: Replicating best practices of face-to-face advising. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Advising-Online-Students-Replicating-Best-Practices-of-Face-to-Face-Advising.aspx