Advising: Less Is More?

Students need practical help, not deep relationships, write David C. Paris and Timothy E. Elgren.

September 29, 2006

Few would quibble with the notion that advising is an important part of undergraduate education.

And, as with most things academic, there is an association and a journal devoted to advising and different views on how good advising should be understood and practiced. There are models of advising involving terms of “development,” “praxis,” and “learning.” Whatever their differences, most of these anticipate an ideal advisor-advisee relationship that is potentially deep, much like the mentoring relationship faculty and students develop in (and out of) the classroom.

Without gainsaying the value of this kind of approach, as two former administrators who were involved in revamping an advising system, we would suggest another model -- one based on our admittedly limited experience, namely a “bureaucratic” or “less is more” model.

In 2000 the Hamilton College faculty, after considerable debate, voted to join the small number of colleges that have abolished distribution requirements. It was commonly asserted at the time that advising would need to be improved. However, an ad hoc committee charged with modifying the existing advising system either rejected, or proposed and had rejected, several ambitious changes in advising, including a required orientation course during the academic year, evaluations of advisors, summer advising, etc.

More modest changes to the system aimed to give both students and faculty members more information about advising and each other. A summer “online tour” gave a preview of course offerings for students, students were asked to express a strong interest in certain courses and area and where possible were assigned to an advisor in that area. Advisors were given a more formal manual giving them clearer information about departments and major requirements. Students and advisors were also given a one-page statement of their different responsibilities and those of the college. Finally, advisors were assigned so that a student could be guaranteed having the same advisor for two years before declaring a major. Except for the last, these changes were regarded as relatively small, “bureaucratic” adjustments to the system.

The results have been a bit surprising and very gratifying. Beginning with the Class of 2005, the first to enter under the new regime, those students “very satisfied” with pre-major advising rose from 19 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2005 and 46 percent in 2006. Those either “generally” or “very” satisfied with pre-major advising rose from 58 percent to 77 percent in the same period. This jump also put Hamilton 27 percentage points above a peer group of colleges administering the same survey. Perhaps even more important, these figures are comparable to students’ evaluations of faculty in their role as instructors.

A further indicator of advisee satisfaction is the number of advisees who ask to switch advisors during the first semester. The previous system used the “blind date” model of randomly assigning advisors for the first general advising session. One month into the semester, students were asked if they would like to change advisors. Typically, 50 percent or more asked to change. Under the new system of assigning advisors to match students course or area interests, only 5-6 percent of students asked for a change.

What explains these results? Fortunately, at the same time these changes were being made, the college received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to assess the undergraduate experience at Hamilton. Focus groups were an important aspect of the study. These revealed that students did not see advising as a mentoring relationship but rather a bureaucratic one. That is, what they wanted above all from advisors was for them to be available for assistance, to provide accurate information about course selection and college rules and to warn against obstacles that might impede their progress in the short term regarding registration and in the long term regarding plans for majors.  Although students occasionally expressed the desire for closer relationships with advisors, the assessment study found that many students reported that they actually preferred a “professional” type of student-professor relationship.

Partly by intention and partly by accident we created a system that more nearly conformed to student expectations about advising. In the abstract, students might like an idealized advising system in which they meet lifelong mentors, whether a faculty member or professional advisor, and bond over long philosophical discussions, but they expect and even demand, that concrete, “bureaucratic” expectations be met. The changes we made introduced greater clarity and consistency into our advising system and made it more likely that students could feel their basic needs were being met. Moreover, by clarifying student and faculty roles, students were encouraged to take some measure of responsibility for their relationship with their advisors. Stating and meeting these basic requirements might seem to be less but provides more of what students expect.

At the same time, the adjustments also were more congenial to faculty capacities and expectations. Instead of feeling pressed to develop some deep relationship with students they might see but a few times a year, faculty could focus on some of the more basic tasks of advising. The primary roles of the faculty advisor are now academic planning and serving as a referral resource to assist advisees who encounter difficulties. For many, these more limited roles provide significant relief from expectations that advisors ought to be able to handle discussions and situations that are well beyond their expertise (e.g. psychological counseling, interpretation of professional school admission requirements, etc.). Certainly faculty members do not regard the system as perfect, but the roles, responsibilities and support are clearer than in the past.

One might wonder whether these findings are applicable only to small, residential liberal arts colleges like Hamilton where there are many other possibilities for student-faculty interaction. Advising in a larger setting, it might be argued, is a good, and perhaps the best, opportunity for students to build a close relationship with a faculty member. However, it would seem that students’ basic expectations would be the same in any setting, and perhaps even more so in a larger, more complex environment. Likewise, faculty would welcome an emphasis on a role that, while not excluding the development of close relationships, was more manageable. In those instances where advising is handled by a specialized staff, a more expansive view of advising and advisor-advisee relationships might be appropriate -- though assuming that the basic bureaucratic requirements are met. Syracuse University’s statement puts it very well: “A system of successful advising is highly dependent upon a shared commitment of students, faculty and staff to the process and the availability of timely, accurate information.”

We are not denigrating the ideal of having significant relationships between faculty and students in advising. We know from our studies that some do form these bonds. But perhaps what this experience shows is that the first, necessary step may be assuring that basic needs and expectations are met. When one pauses to think about it, the best teaching and mentoring often begins in the same way: understanding students’ perspective on the situation, setting forth clear and consistent guidelines, being available as appropriate to help students. Indeed, it may be that meeting these basic standards is the key to getting to that deeper relationship, where it is possible. Sometimes less is more and perhaps can lead to more still.


David C. Paris is the former vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Hamilton College, where he is currently the Leonard J. Ferguson Professor of Government. Timothy E. Elgren is the former associate dean of the faculty at Hamilton, where he is currently professor of chemistry.


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