Angela Zhang, John F. Pfister, and Natalie Hoyt, Dartmouth College
Daniel Webster once proclaimed about Dartmouth College, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” At this small residential liberal arts school nestled in a valley along the Connecticut River, our students love Dartmouth for many things, especially the quality of our undergraduate teaching and the strong relationship between students and faculty. We pride ourselves on being consistently ranked by the US News and World Report in the top five schools for undergraduate teaching every year for the past five years. Yet we knew there were some things that could use improvement, such as our traditional pre-major advising system, which has been consistently rated unsatisfactory in student surveys.
In our traditional model, every incoming first-year student was matched with a faculty advisor who helped the student select courses throughout their first two academic terms. Many students felt that if their faculty advisor was not in their precise discipline of interest, then there was little value to be gained from advising meetings. This was a problem for at least two reasons: (1) there are some disciplines in which there are far too many students per faculty advisor (our economics department, for instance), and (2) students often change their intended major after coming to Dartmouth. Here's a fairly typical exchange that might have occurred between a faculty advisor and student during Orientation:
Faculty Advisor: So what are you thinking of taking for classes?
Student: Well, I'm pre-med, so what do you think about taking Introduction to Chemistry this quarter?
Faculty Advisor: I'm an Art Historian, so I can't help you there, sorry.
As you can imagine, neither party found much benefit to this exchange. As a result, even though they are supposed to participate in advising as a part of their duties, many faculty members wound up indifferent to or opting out of their responsibility as advisors because they felt inadequately trained, supported, or rewarded in any way. As for students, they often turned to other sources of advice, such as upper-class students, parents, or coaches, who were usually more than willing to provide informal (and sometimes incorrect) information.
In 2011, after years of low satisfaction ratings from graduating students, Cecilia Gaposchkin, Assistant Dean of Advising, and Inge-Lise Ameer, Associate Dean of the College, sought to solve this problem by creating a pilot initiative called Advising 360 that was intended to maximize the strengths of both the academic and student affairs divisions of the College. The "360" in the program's name came from the idea that every student would be surrounded by their three main advisors (their faculty advisor, undergraduate dean, and residential peer advisor), who would work together as a team and could introduce the student to additional resources. It was believed that the team approach would allow peer advisors, student affairs professionals, and faculty to interact on a regular basis, learn from each other, and approach the goal of pre-major advising through knowledge of the unique challenges of being a student, student developmental theory, and knowledge of the curriculum.
For the faculty, this meant increased logistical support and training to carry their advising sessions beyond the “transactional” feeling that characterized their traditional meetings with students. For peer advisors, this was an opportunity to work collaboratively with faculty members and professionals to understand the “out of classroom” role the faculty play in the academic setting. And for the student affairs staff, it was a chance to educate faculty and peer advisors about student developmental theory and integrate faculty advising into our larger network of resources. The hope was to encourage deeper advising that could meaningfully shape our students' liberal arts experience and make advising a professionally and personally rewarding endeavor for faculty members, students, and staff.
We (Natalie, John, and Angy) were brought together to turn this vision into a reality, and after an informative experience at NACADA’s 2012 Assessment Institute in San Diego, we were ready to launch. In the fall of that year, Advising 360 debuted with a group of 10 specially trained and recruited faculty advisors, one undergraduate dean, and four residential peer advisors who served 100 randomly selected first year students in the Choates residential cluster. Throughout the year, we disseminated weekly emails and newsletters to the students and advisors, programmed special academic advising events, and held monthly training sessions for faculty advisors. We also emphasized to the students that they were expected to take advantage of their advising resources.
We were very mindful of the experimental aspect of Advising 360. In our traditional model, we had primarily looked for satisfaction data: are you happy with your advising experience at Dartmouth? As the reader can imagine, this was a fairly coarse instrument for assessing the success of an advising initiative. Inspired by a previous NACADA Assessment Institute, we began to ask ourselves how we could tell if we were achieving the kind of holistic, transformative advising we were really hoping for. In our first year survey to students, in addition to asking, "Are you happy or not with your advising experience?", we also asked questions such as, "How often have you met your faculty advisor? Is your faculty advisor knowledgeable? Available? Helpful? Did you need advising this term? Did you make the most of your advising opportunities this term?"
We were thrilled that the students in the Advising 360 program viewed academic advising entirely differently than their peers in the rest of the first year class. Advising 360 students rated their faculty advisors much higher in terms of knowledgeability, helpfulness, and ability; discussed a far wider range of topics beyond simple course selection (e.g. long-term academic planning, academic difficulties, extracurriculars, research, career goals); and even demonstrated greater comfort talking to other faculty. They were more likely to state that they valued and needed advising and that their needs were being met. And, perhaps not surprisingly, we found that our students were twice as likely to be pleased with their advising experience as the general campus. In short, when we held both students and advisors to higher expectations for advising, students rated their advising experience satisfactorily. In the three years since we've been implementing Advising 360, we have continued to see strong evidence that our team approach is working.
Looking back now, we've come quite a long way since those early conversations about students’ dissatisfaction with the transactional nature of faculty advising. At the time, the challenge of changing a historically entrenched faculty advising system seemed nearly insurmountable. And yet, within a few short years, we've seen a huge difference in the experiences of our Advising 360 students. One of the greatest lessons we've learned from Advising 360 is that change is possible. We've seen how bringing together the student affairs and academic affairs sides of the College can produce great advising. When both sides buy in, we have a bidirectional exchange of ideas and resources that helps us learn from each other and vastly improves our quality of service.
Moreover, the very nature of Advising 360 as a focused, targeted pilot program for a small group of students has had enormous benefits over, say, trying to overhaul the advising system at Dartmouth as a whole. Advising 360 has served as a test tube for advising, so that we can experiment and tinker with our model to get it just right. It's also cost-effective—with a small amount of money and resources, we can gather evidence for the formula to produce better advising and then make a case for larger changes in our advising system as a whole. There have also been some other positive side effects too. For instance, some of our faculty advisors have brought the principles of holistic advising and team approach to other first year student initiatives. Our faculty advisors have become a focus group for other campus resources (who otherwise have little contact with faculty) to gather ideas about how to improve the student experience. In other words, our little pilot program has had even greater impacts in fostering a culture of advising on our campus, just by providing a space for dialogue about advising. So in this sense, Advising 360 has grown far beyond student advising, and has succeeded in getting our entire community talking about advising, caring about advising, and committed to making a difference.
Advising 360 Program Coordinator
John Pfister, Ph.D.
Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Psychological and Brain Sciences
Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Advising
Advising 360 Program Manager
Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students
Cite this article using APA style as: Zhang, A., Pfister, J.F., & Hoyt, N. (2015, June). Advising 360: A team approach to advising. Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]