Undergraduate advising gets back to the basics.
Photo by Stephanie Gross.
As is the case at most universities across the country, the academic advising system at the University has been like an arranged marriage that often fell short of student expectations. Until recently, first-year students were assigned a faculty member who, at a minimum, would review students’ course selections before they could register for classes. Students — who were assigned advisors based on their first-year housing placements — were often matched with faculty whose academic interests were different from their own.
Recently, however, the College of Arts & Sciences has been exploring new ways to tailor advising to the individual needs of students and help them find their own best mentoring mates. This past summer, the College implemented a major new approach to academic advising that started with first-year orientation. Theodore Canaras (Anthropology ’08) helped initiate this new approach, which paired student orientation leaders with a faculty member specially trained to work with new students. “This year, we were more geared to welcoming new students to this community,” says Canaras, who served as an orientation leader. “We spent a lot more time with our group and talked about anything they were worried about or excited about. And if they need to contact me, I’m here to advise them throughout the year.”
When it came time to help first-years figure out the course registration process, participants spent several hours (rather than the 10 to 15 minutes students once spent with an advisor) reviewing the Course Offering Directory (COD) and helping a small group of new students create a class schedule. Once students arrived on Grounds, they were assigned to an advisor who will work with them until they declare a major. In making these matches, every effort was made to assign first-years to academic advisors based on the interests of individual students.
“The goal of advising,” says anthropology professor and Assistant Dean Rachel Most, “is to give students the information they need to take best advantage of what U.Va. has to offer. The best way to do that is for students to find a faculty member with whom they are aligned in their interests and share a kind of mentoring relationship. We can’t socially engineer that.”
Matching students with faculty members who have common interests can be a challenge. For fine and performing arts students, however, the portfolios they submit as part of the college admissions process provide a basis from which to identify appropriate advisors. Similarly, the College Science Scholars program — which gives outstanding applicants who might want to major in science the chance to delve more deeply into the discipline from early on in their college careers — offers a basis from which to narrow the selection of an appropriate advisor. Information provided on the Student Interest Form is also used to assign faculty advisors who teach in the general area of the student’s interest. And student-athletes are now assigned to special advisors from the Griffin Advising Fellows Program who are well versed in both the rules of the College and special NCAA rules.
“Advising is a lot more than helping a student figure out what courses they need to take next semester,” explains psychology professor Peter Brunjes, who is also associate dean for the sciences in the College. “Advising happens when I spend an hour and a half in a lab meeting with everyone in my lab and we talk about their research. It’s after class when students come down to talk. It’s when they come to my office and say, ‘This is really cool stuff. What could I do with an undergraduate degree in psychology besides become a barista?’”
That’s probably why the new College Advising Seminars, or COLA classes, have been so successful. COLAs give first-year students the chance to match themselves with a member of the faculty who is teaching something they want to know more about. These new programs also initiate advising relationships that last until a student chooses a major. “COLA is the centerpiece of a plan to broaden and enhance the range of advising experiences for students,” says politics professor and Edward L. Ayers Advising Fellow Paul Freedman, who taught a COLA seminar called Watching the Election in fall 2006. “With more regular contact [with advisors], students get more out of the advising relationship.”
The idea of increased contact with faculty advisors is also being used to help second-year students who experience added advising challenges.
“Second-years move off Grounds, and they’re looking to find a major,” Most explains. “In a lot of ways they know what they’re doing, but they suddenly find they’re more lost than they thought they would be. So advising for them is really important.”
The Second Year Seminars help students explore their options and make them more comfortable with their choice of a major. Similar to COLAs, Second Year Seminars are small classes in disciplines in which students might be thinking about majoring, taught by a faculty member whom they may eventually select as their major advisor.
“Intro classes with 500 students can be daunting,” says Rachel Fried (American Studies, Psychology ’09). “They make you feel so anonymous.” Fried was among the 18 second-year students who participated in Most’s archaeology seminar, Unearthing the Past, in the spring 2007 semester. “The small, less formal setting allows students and the professor to get to know each other better. I learned a lot without the high stress.”
“Not every student is going to want to take a COLA, not every student is going to submit a portfolio, not every student is going to be a science researcher,” Most says, “but in a variety of different places, we’re trying to provide the kind of advising that best suits the individual student. We hope to increase the scale of these programs to the point where every incoming student is afforded one of these programs so they can get the kind of advising that’s most appropriate to them.”