Effective Academic Advising: Four Strategies to Anticipate and Address Student Needs
Recently, someone asked me what I perceived the role of an academic advisor to be. It has taken years of practice and refinement in order to come up with a relatively succinct answer to that question. We know we do a lot of important things for students, but when put on the spot, it can be difficult to articulate those things. I believe that the role of the academic advisor is to help engage students in thoughtful, proactive academic planning, decision making, goal setting, and problem resolution.
Anticipating students’ needs is a critical component of effective academic advising. By providing answers to unasked questions and offering support and direction even when the student does not perceive a need, advisors can maximize their effectiveness and add value to the role of academic advisor.
1. Go Beyond the Catalog or Student Handbook
Much of our role as advisors is to point students in the direction of policies and procedures, all of which can be found in the student catalog or handbook.
- How much will tuition be for this semester?
- How many science prerequisites do I need to enter the nursing program?
- If I fail this course, will I have to repeat it?
All of these questions have relatively simple answers. For example:
- How much will tuition be for this semester? $4,500 plus fees.
- How many science prerequisites do I need to enter the nursing program? 5.
- If I fail this course, will I have to repeat it? Yes.
If advisors limit their answers to what can be found in a catalog or student handbook, they are no more valuable than the resource itself. They’ve reduced their value to that of an information center representative who simply points people in the right direction or hands out brochures. Advisors are invaluable in supporting students by anticipating their needs and addressing issues of which the student may not even be aware.
For instance, asking the question, “How much will tuition be for this semester?” may be an indicator that something has impacted the student’s finances enough to result in asking the question. By doing some research on the student’s record, the advisor may be able to discern the origin of the inquiry. Perhaps the student was notified that they are ineligible for financial aid due to failing Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). Perhaps they owe a balance from previous semesters and are trying to plan how to pay it all off. Perhaps they need to know how many credits to register for based on limited finances. There are several ways to proactively anticipate the student’s needs and provide comprehensive information.
2. Research Student Records
Research the student’s record; advisors who have access to information within their student database are encouraged to use it in order to obtain insight as to the student’s situation. Regularly review as many screens as you can access:
- General comments
- Financial aid and bursar comments
- Financial aid status
Advisors who don’t have access to any of those screens within their student database may be able to discern some information by other means. For instance, if you know that students who receive incompletes, withdrawals or failing grades may be at risk for losing financial aid, review the student’s academic record and look for those types of grades. You can then ask the student if they’ve been notified that they’re ineligible for financial aid. Check:
- Current enrollment
- History of drops, adds, withdrawals, stop-outs
- Grades, course load history
By researching the student’s record, you can better anticipate the source of the question and therefore more comprehensively address the student’s needs. In this case, a more comprehensive answer might look like this:
“The cost of the 12 credits that you’ve registered for is $4,500 plus fees. You can find the chart that lists tuition and fees at www.college.edu/tuition. I see that you have a hold on your account. Have you developed a plan to pay off your balance? You may want to speak with someone in the bursar’s office. You can contact them at (555)-123-4567. Once you pay your balance off, you’ll be able to see your current charges by accessing the student portal: www.college.edu/studentportal/bill.
How are classes going? I see that you have a few incomplete grades from last semester. Is everything alright? Let’s discuss what’s happening and see if we can find ways to resolve any challenges you’re facing, as well as develop a plan for completing those courses. As long as the grades are changed to passing by July, you’ll be back in good standing for financial aid.”
That level of personal interaction and insight transforms an advisor’s ability to serve students.
3. Identify Issues and Potential Roadblocks
Let’s look at another relatively “simple” question and how, by anticipating the student’s needs, advisors can maximize their effectiveness in supporting the student.
“How many science prerequisites do I need to enter the nursing program?” This question could be a simple academic planning issue. However, it may not. The student may be proactively planning for a successful admission into the nursing program, or may be concerned about eligibility for admission. Draw on your experience as an advisor as a starting point. Do most students who aspire to enter the nursing program achieve their goals? Or is the program highly competitive in its selection process? Is there a minimum GPA under which the student will be excluded from being considered? Some steps to take to anticipate the student’s needs are as follows:
- Review the student’s record. Have they attempted/passed/failed any of the prerequisites?
- Consider the course sequences. Provide information about timing. Confirm that student expectations are aligned with course offerings (for example, if the student plans on taking a course in the spring but it is only offered in the fall).
- Identify areas of possible concern. Investigate sources of support including tutoring, peer mentors, and study groups.
- Discuss career choice. Is this a student who hates science but loves people? Are the science courses something that the student is able and willing to achieve?
4. Use Online Resources as a Supplement—Not a Replacement—to Advising
In the age of technology, advisors and students have become increasingly reliant on the multiple resources readily found online. Online resources, such as a website or student portal, are invaluable in making comprehensive information available for students. As a result, we are often ready to provide students with links to important websites, policies and forms. When referring students to online resources, remember to add value by anticipating students’ needs.
Let’s examine another “easy” question: “Where can I find out about commencement?” It’s easy enough to provide the link to the registrar’s page tht discusses commencement. Perhaps even adding a “congratulations” into the mix. However, ask yourself if that type of response adds value. Have you anticipated the student’s needs? Some strategies for anticipating the student’s needs and adding value are:
- Check the student’s record. Verify completion or enrollment in all coursework. Identify any problems with the record that might need to be corrected.
- Look to see if the student has applied for the degree (if your institution separates out degree conferral from commencement). The student may have asked about commencement but is actually more concerned with degree conferral.
- Provide information about commencement that may not be online. For instance, explain the review and/or invitation process and approximate timeline for future communications.
- Anticipate what other questions the student may have as the end of the program approaches. Provide information about transcripts, degree conferral and receipt of diploma.
As you review these suggestions and consider implementation, you may think, “but I don’t have time to do all that. I am swamped.” I urge you to reconsider these thoughts. Examine what type of student traffic and inquiries that are keeping you so busy. Are the same students coming back repeatedly with different questions? Are many students asking the same questions at certain times of the year?
By proactively anticipating student needs up front, you may ultimately be able to fend off future inquiries and reduce the amount of student traffic you experience. An investment in time and attention to your students will pay off in terms of their overall success and your maximizing the valuable contribution you make as an advisor.
Author Perspective: Educator