Creating a Data-Driven Advising Culture: Overcoming Three Central RoadblocksCharlie Nutt | Executive Director, NACADA
The issue of student success and student persistence to degree completion has risen to the top of the agenda at higher education institutions across the globe. However, there is still a direct conflict between how institutions are facing this issue and the impact on increasing the level of student completion. What I mean is that few institutions have truly gone through comprehensive work to focus on the key issue of the institutional culture that presently exists.
Institutions still have a clear culture of compliance regarding student success instead of working to make the essential culture shift to enhancing the level of student learning and success in all areas of the undergraduate experience to drive the increase desired in degree completion numbers. This is clear by the still very powerful “silos” that exist on campuses that prohibit comprehensive conversations and decisions being made to change the undergraduate experience of students. It is also apparent by the number of campuses that continue to take the path of “adding on” student initiatives across the institution that have little relation to each other, lack any coordination, and are focused on students’ deficiencies while ignoring institutional deficiencies, challenges, and structures that are inhibiting student success.
One of the major shifts that must be made to move to this new culture and to break down the existing silos most certainly is leveraging data support by the entire campus for quality academic advising efforts. If we are going to change the cultures of our institutions, leveraging data must be an essential step in that process. We cannot provide high-quality academic advising experiences for students without clear, detailed, and focused data on which to base the academic advising process. We must also focus on academic advising as a campus wide endeavor and one that is important from the moment a student enters the institution until they complete their degree.
Leveraging data is not only about the students but also about the institution. For example, it is imperative that institutions look closely and without fear at issues such as the completion of Gateway Courses (including dropped, withdrawn and incomplete numbers in this analysis). How can an academic advisor provide the best support to students as they choose their pathways to degree completion without having extensive and detailed data on those courses that traditionally have been roadblocks to completion? This ensures advisors have those important conversations with the students about the level of expectations in those courses and assisting them in developing strategies from the start of a course to be successful, instead of waiting until an academic warning has come about the student’s progress in that course. We all know that often by the time such a warning comes students have either dug themselves a hole they can’t get out of or the student’s self-confidence and morale are significantly damaged, which impacts their continued progress in the course.
While leveraging data on the students themselves is of course essential (the more we know about students and the risk factors they may face, the better), I think leveraging data about the institution is just as important, and will continue to be the least utilized until we shift the culture of our campuses dramatically.
Identifying the Major Misconceptions Standing in the Way of Data
I think there are several very significant misconceptions held by both senior leaders and advisors when it comes to leveraging data:
1. You Don’t Need Institutional Data, Just Student Data
As stated above, senior leaders and advisors focus only on the data we have on students and don’t look at the data concerning the institution. If we don’t have clear data about the institutional policies, procedures and practices that may be inhibiting student successes and leverage that data to make significant changes in our institutional culture and structure, we will continue to do that same things we always have and getting the same results. We can’t ignore taking a hard look at the institutional culture that exists that may be hindering any true analysis of all issues impacting student success, those in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Implement outstanding data systems that increase dramatically the data we have about students as they enter, move through and exit that institution, won’t necessarily be enough to improve our advising experience very much. We must dramatically increase the data we have about all aspects of our institutions and leverage that data to make significant changes in all areas of the students’ undergraduate experiences.
2. The Latest Software Is the Silver Bullet
Senior leaders and academic advisors continue to look for the “silver bullet” to solve all their issues. Often this “silver bullet” is the purchasing of the latest software package and implementing it within our old structures and processes. Technology will not solve the problems that our institutions are facing with our changing student demographics, our changing financial environment, and our changing public expectations for accountability that higher education has not faced in the past. It is the leveraging of the data from these new technology systems that will help us solve our problems and change our institutions. This involves a major shift in how technology systems are purchased and implemented – those most impacted must be at the table throughout the process and that includes academic advisors, faculty, and many other student support staff. Technology is not the answer—leveraging data in new ways and creating new patterns of planning are the answers.
3. Training on the Software Alone is Sufficient
There is a misconception that training and development for academic advisors and faculty consists only of software training. Effectively leveraging data requires new academic advising skills, knowledge and foundations. It is imperative that professional development initiatives focus on such issues as student development and learning theory, research in the field that provides data for new academic advising initiatives and process, communication skills, and relationship building skills. There should be fewer conversations with students on course selection and planning and deeper conversations concerning student behaviors and attitudes and the skills they need to be successful. More focus must be put on building a relationship with students that follows them throughout their undergraduate experience. However, if our professional development continues to be primarily the technology system itself and on institutional policies and procedures, we will continue to have advisors who see their role as clerical or themselves as degree auditors. We cannot expect the quality of our academic advising experiences to grow if our professional development for academic advisors and faculty does not significantly change. The once-a-year advisor training program cannot continue in the higher education of the future.
Overcoming the Misconceptions
As stated above, significantly changing professional development for academic advisors and faculty is essential to getting over the misconceptions about the advising role in effectively leveraging data. However, with making significant changes in professional development comes a high need to change dramatically how we assess quality academic advising on our campuses.
We can no longer simply look at advisor ratios and student satisfaction. We must develop, and assess the achievement of, learning outcomes for the academic advising experiences of students. And last, we must dramatically change the present evaluation and reward systems for academic advising on our campuses. For primary advisors, it is essential that our institutions move into the future with clear and focused career ladders that promote high-quality academic advising, and for faculty advisors, the role that quality academic advising plays in the promotion and tenures processes on campuses is crucial
However, neither of those can happen if our institutions continue with a culture of compliance and don’t make the difficult and necessary shift to a culture of student learning and success that drives all decision making at all levels of the institution.
Author Perspective: Association