SUES calls for changes to advising

Feb. 16, 2012, 2:55 a.m.
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Academic advising has been recognized as an important part of undergraduate education at Stanford for over a century and has been delivered poorly for just as long, according to the recent Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report. But changes may be on the way.

 

The report identified student dissatisfaction and low faculty participation as major problems in the current advising system, while praising advising reforms that resulted from the 1993-94 Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE) report, including the establishment of the office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) and the 2007-09 reorganization of the office of Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR).

 

SUES recommendations focused on improving the delivery of advising services and the “culture of advising.” According to Ravi Vakil, professor of mathematics and chair of the SUES subcommittee on Beyond the Freshman Year, the evaluations were based on data from student surveys, extensive anecdotal data and discussions with UAR.

 

“What struck me most was that these concerns have been there for a century,” Vakil wrote in an email to The Daily. “This is a huge challenge, and there is no silver bullet. But there are ‘best practices’ that we can try to apply.”

 

The current advising system assigns each incoming freshman an academic director (AD) and a pre-major advisor (PMA) until students declare a major. UAR also employs an additional set of advisors to provide specialized advice on fellowships and pre-professional interests. Varsity athletes receive separate advisors through the Athletic Academic Resources Center (AARC).

 

These advisors form what UAR calls the “multiple mentor model.”

 

“The term … reflects our philosophy that no one person at Stanford can or should be expected to answer every question a student may have,” reads the 2011 UAR Annual Report.

 

Academic Directors

 

SUES praised the Academic Directors program run by UAR since 2004 and recommended expanding the number of academic directors.

 

“We have fewer academic directors per student than our peers,” Vakil said. “The evidence suggests that academic directors provide good value. Hiring more people is always expensive but this is an important issue.”

 

ADs are professional, Ph.D.-level advisors placed with offices in freshman residential complexes, geographically close to the residences they serve. According to the UAR student surveys cited in the SUES report, more than 90 percent of freshmen and sophomores consulted with their ADs at least once during the last academic year. Eight ADs currently serve as advisors to approximately 400 undeclared students each, according to the UAR Annual Report.

 

The UAR report stressed high demand for AD advising as a problem.

 

“Our concern now is with their workload — at a ratio of 400:1 they exceed the national guidelines for 1:1 advising at a research university and their increased visibility suggests demand for their time will only continue to increase.”

 

Pre-major advisors

 

According to SUES, the pre-major advisor program’s main problems include low faculty participation and lack of incentive. UAR also noted advisor-advisee matching issues and a misunderstanding of the role of the PMA as current problems.

 

Currently, 310 volunteer faculty and staff advisors serve as PMAs, an increase from 240 last year, according to Julie Lythcott-Haims ‘89, dean of freshman and undergraduate advising. Each PMA advises anywhere from six to 16 undeclared students. The class of 2014 was the first to experience “enrollments holds,” which prevent students from enrolling in courses unless they meet with their PMA advisors.

 

While the SUES report described it as a “useful reform,” some students have expression frustration over the hold.

 

“I feel like I am a responsible enough student that I can sign up for classes without having to get permission from an advisor,” said Lindsey Wilder ‘14.

 

Vakil described encouraging faculty to advise more undeclared students as a “crucial issue.”

 

The SUES report was skeptical about requiring all faculty members to serve as freshman advisors, as some peer institutions have done, and instead considered making individual departments responsible for providing pre-major advisors. Providing inducements for pre-major advising was suggested as a last resort.

 

“Faculty have so many competing demands on their time; in UAR we’re trying to strengthen the message about why pre-major advising is rewarding for advisors and even beneficial to departments,” Lythcott-Haims said.

 

SUES also endorsed recognition and reward for the academic and nonacademic staff members who serve as PMAs to the remaining majority of undeclared students.

 

“I want to guide [advisees] through the school year, through their majors,” said Citlalli Del Carpio, a Spanish lecturer who serves as PMA to eight students. “School can be very stressful … so they can have a person that they can just sit down and talk and ventilate their frustrations and depression of not knowing what to do.”

 

This conception of a PMA’s job, however, differs from what some students expect from their advisor.

 

“Students are often frustrated when PMAs don’t know all of the answers about the curriculum or how to find the answers. What we want every student to know is that they shouldn’t expect the PMA to know all of these details,” said Kirsti Copeland, director of residentially based advising. “We intend to do a better job at communicating to students what we expect PMAs to do.”

 

Janani Ramachandran ‘14, chair of the academic affairs committee of the ASSU Senate, echoed this problem.

 

“Students don’t always necessarily know when they should go to a PMA,

an AD, faculty member, peer advisor. … Sometimes students have expectations that are too much for a PMA,” Ramachandran said.

 

Peer advising

 

SUES further recommended exploring possibilities for re-introducing peer advising, a program UAR discontinued and replaced with the AD program.

 

Ramachandran and the academic affairs committee of the ASSU Senate have been working with UAR to expand and promote peer advising. The committee intends to create a web portal that lists contact information for peer advisors and student service representatives in every department for student use.

 

With regards to formally reinstating a peer-advising program, Lythcott-Haims stated that UAR is now “in a position to think about bringing peer advisors back.”

 

“We know that strong recruitment efforts and robust training and ongoing support will be essential if peer advisors are to be successful,” she said.

 

The student role

 

The SUES report’s final recommendation was to encourage students to “take ownership” of their education and to use effective advising to “make considered, reflective choices” on their own.

 

UAR hopes the new “Stanford 101” program is the first step toward this end.

 

Stanford 101 piloted one of its two programs — the Stanford Reflections Seminar — this week, according to Copeland. The seminar will create a space for students to engage in small, group discussions about their Stanford experience.

 

“Ultimately, we hope that the structured environment for these reflections will increase students’ awareness of their agency in the choices that will shape their time here and beyond,” wrote Koren Bakkegard, UAR associate dean in an email to The Daily.

 

Stanford 101’s second program, the Stanford Navigations pilot, will introduce students to the resources available to them at Stanford. Discussion on the program is in preliminary phases.

 

“I believe that [student ownership of their education] is part and parcel of the unique nature of Undergraduate Advising and Research, in that its mission includes not only advising but also undergraduate research grants and helping students belong to Stanford,” Copeland said.

Marwa Farag is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she was the managing editor of news, managing editor of the former features section, a features desk editor and a news writer.

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