Advising Freshmen, Empowering Faculty

It's hard to offer meaningful advising to new students before they arrive on campus. But Sewanee says it can be done, with professors making key decisions.


September 3, 2014
Sewanee: The University of the South
Ruth Sánchez-Imizcoz, professor of Spanish, meets with students in her office.

Freshmen all over the country met with advisers last week, trying to decide which courses, in which order, they’d cross their fingers and hope to get into during a cruel game of “Refresh” with their internet browsers.

But not at the University of the South (although that's the way first-year course registration used to work there). The Tennessee institution known as Sewanee this year introduced a new system of freshman advising aimed at helping students start the year with set – and ultimately better – schedules. Rather than blindly picking courses out of a catalog and hoping there was still room, or that they were eligible, incoming freshmen over the summer gave Sewanee faculty “guides” an idea of what they wanted to study. They also named 12 courses they were interested in taking, including some they were passionate about, some they knew would challenge them and some in unfamiliar disciplines.

Working together in what they called a “war room,” these faculty guides hand-selected four out of those 12 courses for each student to pursue in his or her first semester. They did so using a low-tech mix of horse-trading, number-crunching, intuition and direct communication with students and parents.

It's a model they don't think could be scaled for larger institutions, but the result is a “win-win,” for faculty, students and Sewanee, said Lauryl Tucker, an assistant professor of English who helped plan and execute the new advising model: Students have better schedules, professors have more students who are genuinely happy to be in their courses, and Sewanee can better plan section offerings. The advising that students receive once they arrive is more directed and productive, too, she said.

“It is just a case of everyone’s needs being met on campus,” Tucker added. “It’s a truer version of who we say we are.”

The model depended on a clear timeline for input from incoming freshmen. By the end of May, students had to read up on Sewanee’s curriculum and take a foreign language placement exam online; Tucker said this was crucial, since language courses can complicate scheduling (a student taking an upper-level Italian course, for example, will have few section options).

By July 15, incoming freshmen had to review Sewanee’s course selection process and complete a “Your Academic Experience” form. The worksheet asked students to indicate whether they were pursuing any pre-professional programs, such as engineering, pre-medical, or pre-health. They were also asked to identify their primary academic interests, and 12 courses they would enjoy taking (selected from a catalog containing only courses for which freshmen were eligible). Freshmen had to divide those 12 courses into the following discipline categories: “clearly new and intriguing,” those “you recognize may challenge you,” and those “in which you have confidence and experience.” One course had to be a foreign language.

Students were asked to note which courses most excited them and to identify their top concerns about entering college. The worksheet also asked students to indicate any Advanced Placement exams they’d taken, along with their grades, and any plans to continue on in those subjects.

Finally, the worksheet asked students to describe what made any previous relationship with an academic adviser or “intellectual mentor” successful.

Five faculty members from different disciplines sorted through students’ worksheets throughout the summer. They volunteered for the duty, but were paid extra for their efforts. After they assigned language courses to most students (Sewanee has a foreign language requirement that many students fulfill in the first year), they looked at students’ pre-professional interests and assigned any related foundational courses.

Sometimes that was challenging, said Emily Puckette, a professor of mathematics who served as a “guide,” since it wasn’t always clear exactly what students’ intentions were; one student said she wanted to pursue all pre-professional programs, for example.

“We hope, but we don’t know for certain, that students are filling this out with complete thoughtfulness,” she said.

But many students provided helpful information, including about their academic passions. That was the next area of focus for the guides, who divvied up the pile – about 480 total – and tried to match students’ remaining preferred courses to their indicated interests. Sometimes, it meant “trading” seats assigned to other students, and sometimes it meant calling or emailing freshmen (or their parents who reached out) to explain what courses might be better “fits” than the ones initially indicated.

Tucker said there was some pushback from parents and students who wanted a certain course with a certain professor, particularly since Sewanee has a large “legacy” population, with immediate family members who also attended the college. But a conversation about what Sewanee was trying to accomplish – a more meaningful first semester – usually cleared up any concerns and perceptions about diminished student agency, she said.

And students retained a good deal of agency; in the end, just 17 courses out of some 2,000 course assignments didn’t originally appear on students’ lists of desired courses. That means that the overwhelming majority of freshman had a full course load – four courses – drawn from their original list, even if the winnowing from 12 to four was done by faculty members. Most students also ended up with a course taught by their academic adviser – an important feature of the new model, said Puckette.

“I didn’t enjoy being an adviser when my students were not in my classes,” the professor said of previous advising experiences (she is not a freshman adviser this year). “I saw students two or three times a semester, and I’d invite them over for lunch or out, but connection with those students was still very tenuous.” By contrast, she said, having her advisees in class creates a closer bond and allows her to monitor students’ academic standing and well-being.

Terry Papillon, Sewanee’s new dean, said there’s growing evidence to suggest that close bonds with professors during students’ first year of college contribute to long-term academic success. Beyond that, he said, academic advisers no longer have to spend valuable time with their first-year advisees talking about the more technical aspects of registration – they can immediately begin discussing long-term academic goals. That’s made for a more relaxed start to the academic year for everyone – including for administrators who have had more time to plan course sections.

But most striking of all, Papillon said, is the way faculty members have responded to the new advising program. The program has “invigorated” faculty, he said, so much so that more faculty members – nearly half of full-time professors – have signed up to become freshman advisers. Previously, he said, it wasn’t as popular a service option.

“The faculty feel like they are controlling the curriculum and controlling the academic growth of the students, and only good things can come from that,” he said. “That invigoration is going to be an additional plus for our students."


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