Academic Advising Resources


When Expectations and Reality Collide: Working with Students on Probation

by Elizabeth M. Higgins


Clearly students don't enter college with an educational plan that includes being placed on academic probation but, as professionals who work with students who find themselves having difficulty, we know it happens all the time.  While it is our hope that, with support, students will be able to repair their academic situation, become successful and persist to graduation, sometimes the situation cannot successfully be repaired and results in being placed on academic probation.

The category of probation is an academic warning for students whose academic performance falls below an institution's requirement of good standing.  If academic difficulty continues, it is possible for a student to be suspended or dismissed. In support of the student, advisors often work with them to develop a plan for success.  To do this they must work in partnership and understand the causes of the current situation, identify what needs to change, and implement the plan.

The Complexity of Student Academic Success

We know that students enter higher education with a variety of backgrounds and educational experiences.  Tinto, in Leaving College, notes that one reason students depart from higher education is due to academic difficulty.  The factors that contribute to academic difficulty are many and varied.  Pascarella and Terenzini, in How College Affects Students, cite major factors contributing to academic difficulty as peer culture, academic major, college environment, faculty contact, work, career choice, personal motivation, organization, study habits, quality of effort, self-efficacy and perceived control. The dimensions of these factors can include both positive and negative elements. For example, work can be seen as a compliment to a student's academic and career interests or it could be seen as a competitor for a student's time.  A student can have high self-efficacy (student controls the outcomes of their actions/decisions), which can support his/her academic achievements or can have low self-efficacy which can be detrimental to their success. Students could have fine tuned study skills or be challenged in this critical area.  Each factor must be examined in light of the characteristics of the individual student in order to identify the appropriate type of support and assistance required.

The transition into the institution can also affect students' academic success especially during their first semester.  Student retention literature is clear that the first six weeks of a student's first semester on campus is most critical, particularly with regard to transition (Tinto, Upcraft & Gardner). This transition can be difficult for students no matter if they are first year,or seasoned students transferring to your campus. Both student types are entering a new environment of learning that can cause transitional stress.

For first-year students the higher educational environment can be completely different from their secondary experience.  Often times these 'students find that the degree of self regulation required at the college level is frequently not what students are used to.  First year students do not necessarily know how to look at themselves as learners, to think about how they learn, to set goals, to actively apply strategies and to monitor themselves as they advance toward a goal.'  (Thompson & Geren, p. 6 - 7)   Transfer students 'have a better sense of purpose than do freshman' (Frost, 1991) but can also have difficulty with transitioning into a new environment.  Although seasoned students, they still must deal with new surroundings, policies, procedures, and academic expectations, as well as begin building relationships within their new academic setting.  The reality of transition can challenge their academic success at their new institution.

Interventions that Make a Difference
Kulik, Kulik, and Shwalb (as cited in Pascarella, Terenzini, 1991) identified three types of interventions that have positive influences on students' grade point averages.  These interventions, not surprisingly, included instruction in academic skills, advising and counseling programs, and comprehensive support programs.  With regard to advising and counseling, the literature supports intrusive, developmental advising as a significant way to promote and support student persistence and success. In an intrusive relationship, an advisor personally reaches out to students, meets with them, helps them identify the issues and situations contributing to their academic difficulty, helps them set short and long term goals, guides them through the development of a plan to accomplish their goals which includes advisor-student follow-up. Through the interactions brought on by intrusive advising the student's relationship with the advisor, institution and self grows.

Pascarella and Terenzini (p. 389) suggest that 'influences of grades are not beyond the influence of institutional intervention'. Frost (p.69) also supports this notion in her work that indicates that 'the advising relationship is a shared responsibility' and 'can be a valuable life-model for individual accountability.' If we are to embrace these beliefs advisors must work with their students and institutions to develop supportive programs that tailor student success plans to the individual student. As with life itself developing meaningful long lasting relationships with students is hard work and time intensive. Creating and implementing successful programs that help students move from probation to good standing to graduation is both challenging and rewarding. As a profession, we need to continue to work toward a more comprehensive understanding of this at-risk population and share our findings as well as our examples of good practice with each other.

Elizabeth M. Higgins
Director of Academic Advising & Enrollment Services
University of Southern Maine

[email protected]

Read More About It!  References and Additional Reading

Abelman, R. and Molina, A. (2001). Style and Substance Revisited:  A Longitudinal Analysis of Instrusive Intervention.  The NACADA Journal, 21(1,2), 32-39.

Austin, M., Cherney, E., Crowner, J. and Hill, A. (1997).   The Forum: Intrusive Group Advising for the Probationary Student.  The NACADA Journal, 17(2), 45-47.

Cruise, C. A. (2002). Advising Students on Academic Probation. The Mentor,

Danis, E. J. (2002).   Don't Give up on Academically Dismissed Students. The Mentor,

Frost, S. H. (1991). Academic Advising for Student Success: A System of Shared Responsibility. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No.3.   Washington, DC: The George Washington University.

Gordon, V. N. and Habley, W. R. (2000) Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook.   San Francisco:   Jossey Bass.

Heisserer, D. L. and Parette, P. (2002). Advising At-Risk Students in College and University Settings. College Student Journal, 36(1), 69-84.

Kelley, K. N. (1996).  Causes, Reactions, and Consequences of Academic Probation:   A Theoretical Model.  The NACADA Journal, 16(1), 28-34.

Kirk-Kuwaye, M. and Nishida, D. (2001).   Effect of Low and High Advisor Involvement on the Academic Performance of Probation Students.   The NACADA Journal, 21(1,2), 40-45.

Meadows, D. C. and Tharp, T. J. (1996).   Suspended students:   An Analysis of Suspension Length and Returning Semester GPA.   The NACADA Journal, 16(1), 35-37.

Molina, A. and Abelman, R. (2000).   Style Over Substance in Interventions for At-risk students: The Impact of Intrusiveness. The NACADA Journal, 20(2), 5-15.

Pascarella, E. T. and Terenzini, P. T. ( 1991). How College Affects Students.   San Francisco, CA, Oxford, OX3: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Thompson, B. R. and Geren, P. R. Classroom Strategies for Identifying and Helping College Students at Risk for Academic Failure.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition.   Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Upcraft, M.L., Gardner J. N., and Associates (1989) The Freshman Year Experience. San Francisco:   Jossey-Bass.

Wells, M. I. (2003).   An Epidemiologic Approach to Addressing Student Attrition in Nursing Programs. Journal of Professional Nursing, 19(3), 230-236.

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Higgins, E. M. (2003). Advising students on probation. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:


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