Academic advising by tenure-track faculty


Based on some recent conversations, I’m realizing that an underappreciated piece of professoring is academic advising. I don’t think I’ve written about it on here yet (?), but a substantial piece of work by faculty in our department is advising our majors. Just like the unseen labor of writing recommendation letters, doing quality academic advising is very important but how much and how well we do this (or not) generally gets overlooked.

If you’re at a small liberal arts college or a smaller regional state university, then you probably are doing a lot of advising. This includes informal advising before and after class, in office hours, and in hallways, but also formal academic advising appointments, in which we meet with students to sort out the courses they will enroll in to keep them on a path towards graduation and to meet their professional goals.

For some context, our department requires that every undergraduate has an advising session every semester, before they are permitted to register for classes next semester. We enforce this by putting an advising hold on all majors, that can only be removed by logging into the (highly onerous) system to remove the hold. We really need to do this, because if we don’t, then a nontrivial fraction of our students will end up off track. There’s enough weirdness in how prerequisites are structured, when classes are offered, differences between the tracks in our major, applying to graduate or professional school, etc, that this level of advising is critical.

For additional context, my department has about 700 majors at the moment. We have about ten tenure-track faculty who conduct advising appointments. You do the math, that means on average, each of us is advising several score undergraduates per semester. We sign them up in half-hour time slots. Some of these meetings need more time, some don’t necessarily need the whole half hour, but, yeah, this is a lot.

I’ve been asked: what do we do in advising appointments? Here’s what we do. The student I’m meeting may or may not be a person who I already know. (I focus on advising ones who are going into K-12 teaching careers, so I often have repeat customers even though we don’t prescribe specific student-faculty advising pairs.) So I take a minute or two to get to know them, I try to not be perfunctory. If I have my act together, then I already will have pulled up their records and our digital advising file, and look at what they’re enrolled in and what happened in their last advising appointment.

Then I ask a few questions, in varying sequence. What courses are they planning to enroll in next semester? How many hours per week do they work? Do they have any commitments or challenges that I should be aware of? Do they have any specific goals beyond graduation (or have they changed)? Ultimately, we settle on a set of courses that they should plan to register for the next semester. And then we establish a variety of backup options, in the (not too unlikely) possibility they can’t get into the classes they are planning to take. If they’re pre-teaching, we go over the requirements for the Subject Matter Preparation Program in Biology that I direct, to make sure they’re on track and they’re making time to take the courses they need, and that they’re getting classroom experience through our center for STEM Education.

When I’m done with the meeting, I remove the advising hold and then make notes in the advising file about what they’re planning to enroll in and anything else that’s germane to their academic schedule.

Nowadays, we’re going this six times per week, for a lot of the semester. How do we make time for this? We schedule these appointments during our office hours. Which, admittedly, makes it hard for students in our courses to meet with us during our office hours. This is a problem, but since we can’t really schedule 8 hours per week for office hours and advising, I don’t see a handy solution.

I get the impression that departments bigger than ours tend to have professional advisors who fill this advising role. That definitely seems efficient, and in some ways, I would expect them to be more effective than faculty. That said, I do like the idea of having all students being able to have a conversation with their professors, especially students in lower division who might not end up taking many or any classes with tenure-track faculty.

When I was a student at a SLAC, I was assigned to a particular advisor, and they saw me on a regular basis, and that mostly worked (even if the meeting was sometimes a rubber stamp). But also, I didn’t have an issue getting to have the opportunity to talk to faculty, on field trips, in lab, in their office, around campus. Then again, the entire college had 1,600 students back then, and my campus now has 17,000 students or so. While we are not resourced to provide the same kind of experience to students as high-resourced SLACs, it’s still our job to make sure that people stay on track and recognize that we are concerned about their welfare and professional development.

And since faculty don’t seem to talk about academic advising that much outside of our own campuses, I thought I’d at least bring it up.

8 thoughts on “Academic advising by tenure-track faculty

  1. At Wash U faculty do the advising. I think we have 10 to 15 people each. I have a summary of their courses, approve everyone in advance and as much as possible use the time to deal with their issues beyond what courses they take, directions in life, academic risks, lots of interesting things. I always tell them to get into a research lab too. At Rice we had someone dedicated to do it who was non-tenure track faculty. For classes I tell them to talk to their friends who will know more than we do and to take the professor not the subject. A good professor can help you learn in any field. A poor one could make anything boring.

  2. Our department used to have faculty doing the advising, then a few years ago we switched to a professional advising. I was department head at the time, and I made that decision to free up pre-tenured faculty membes’ time for research activities. (We’re an R1). Now that I’m back in a regular faculty appointment I find that I really miss the one-on-one interaction with undergrads that I used to have when I advised 40 or so majors.

  3. At UCI, we have a Biological Sciences Student Affairs office that handles academic advising. However, as a faculty member, I sometimes wish that I had a few freshman undergraduate advisees since I had an undergraduate advisor as a student. I think that early exposure to faculty made it more comfortable for me to approach faculty when I had questions. The undergraduates in my classes have been socialized not to come to office hours.

  4. You should look into joining NACADA. They have a lot of resources and information on academic advising, both as faculty and professionally.

  5. We’ve been doing advising for each class as an experiment. It’s actually incredible. They bond more as a class, we save time with delivering similar messages to each person, they help each other. It’s a great model.

    • We’ve experimented with joint advising for sets of students early on who are all probably ending up in the same lower division classes. However, transfer students all have different circumstances based on what they’ve taken or not taken (and how it articulates), and this advising often deals with students who have failed courses and need to retake them, those who have had personal struggles separate from coursework, and stuff like that, so an individualized approach is often necessary if it’s going to be effective.

  6. At Sac State Biology, we do a fair amount of advising. We have an Advising Center that handles the incoming students but faculty do the advising for upper division. We have about 25 faculty, close to 2000 majors. I have found that while advising about courses is sometimes useful, the greatest value of advising by faculty is getting to the real issues beyond courses, namely goals, life challenges, dreams, fears, research opportunities, etc.

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