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Proactive Academic Advising: Bringing The Personal Touch To Online Education

Developing individual and supportive relationships with adult learners is a pillar of student success, and the proactive advising system allows for those relationships to be realized in their fullest. Photo by Watson Media.

Much has changed since Saint Joseph’s College of Maine began serving adult learners in 1976. Distance education has gone from the fringe to the mainstream, and technology has changed how we deliver our courses and interact with our students. What hasn’t changed in that time is our focus on developing individual and supportive relationships with our adult learners as a pillar of student success.

Our online students face many challenges. A typical student is a mid-career professional working full-time. He or she is often taking care of both small children and elderly parents. Many are returning to college after a hiatus of many years and are apprehensive about their ability to complete college-level work. Fitting the demands of online coursework into their lives is challenging and often requires learning new skills.

Addressing these needs in a personalized, proactive manner is the role of our academic advising team. From the time that a student enrolls in a degree program, they are assigned an academic advisor who will work with them throughout their program of study. The advisor’s role is to contact the student every 2-3 weeks to provide motivational support in completing courses; connect the student to support resources such as tutoring, financial aid, and the library; serve as a primary point of contact within the College; and advocate for the student. Along the way our advisors develop close working relationships with our students, and it is these relationships that we believe help more students succeed.

Based on our 35 years’ experience advising adult students, we have identified a number of effective practices that help us promote student success:

  • Develop meaningful relationships early – Online education can be a lonely endeavor. The personal relationships that advisors develop means that the student always knows that there is a friendly voice who can offer them good advice on how to succeed in their studies.
  • Set clear expectations about what successful online study involves – Some students expect online courses to be easier than their classroom counterparts. Early in the program, the advisor helps set clear expectations about what successful online study involves in terms of time and academic rigor.
  • Help students integrate their student life with their family life – Completing a degree is a serious time commitment. Many of our students tell us that online education is a family effort, and our advisors work with the students to share strategies for setting clear expectations with family members.
  • Identify and fix study skills issues – For students who have been away from college for many years, time management, writing habits, study skills and research approaches may be a bit rusty. We provide resources and ongoing support to help students fill any gaps in these core academic skills.
  • Develop flexible policies for students – Like the rest of us, life happens to our students. Adult students enter and leave a program of study as life circumstances permit, and we attempt to provide them with the flexibility that allows them to do so.

The impact of our advising approach can best be seen when our students are on campus for summer session coursework or for graduation. For most students, their first priority is to meet the person that they have worked closely with for months and sometimes years to thank them for their support, advice, and encouragement. It is this personal touch that we believe makes the difference for many students and creates a strong lifetime bond with the College.

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