Enhancing Students' College Experience with Specific Advising Suggestions
Richard J. Light, Harvard University
Note: Richard Light, author of the book Making the Most of College, will deliver the opening keynote address, October 2, 2003 at the NACADA national conference in Dallas.
Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a
successful college experience as noted by evidence gathered from 1,600
one-on-one undergraduate interviews. Several of the overarching findings
from these interviews are 'actionable' by advisors. I look forward to
sharing details from these findings with you at the NACADA national
conference. However, since June brings freshman enrollment in many
areas, I thought that you might benefit from a brief summary of the
findings most applicable to advising incoming students.
1. Interactive relationships organized around academic work are vital.
A common wisdom exists that the best advice for students,
in addition to attending classes and doing homework, is: get involved
in campus activities. This is excellent advice that I continue to share
with my own advisees. Yet there is a different kind of involvement, a
more subtle kind that is stressed by the happiest and academically most
Nearly without exception, these students have at least
one, and often more than one, intense relationship built around academic
work with other people. Some have it with a professor. Others have it
with an advisor. Some build it with a group of fellow students outside
of the classroom. The critical point is that this relationship is not
merely social. Nearly without exception, students who feel they have yet
to ‘find themselves’ report that they have not developed such
To build these relationships, advisors should encourage students to
work in small study groups outside of classes. While this may be easier
to implement on residential campuses than on commuter campuses, it is
still important for students to meet and work collaboratively on their
academic assignments especially for classes in math, engineering, the
sciences, and courses requiring writing.
2. Students value strong writing skills. Many benefit enormously from specific suggestions.
Of all the skills students want to strengthen, writing is
mentioned three times more than any other. Students who improve their
writing describe an intense and fairly specific process working with a
professor, a writing teacher, or most often with a small group of fellow
students who meet regularly to critique on another's writing. The
longer this work-related engagement lasts, the greater the improvement.
A key finding that differentiates students who improve
their writing from those who improve little, is how they cope with
requests from a faculty member to “revise” their work based upon the
faculty member’s comments and suggestions. The unspoken fact is that
many first year college students simply don’t know HOW to revise! If
they did, they would have done a better job in the first place! Helping
students learn how to revise, may seem somewhat out of an advisor's “job
description,” but may turn out to be one of the most productive
interactions students can have with an advisor.
3. Choose a portfolio of classes wisely - consider class size.
Many new students choose individual courses based upon
the familiar or the intriguing. Yet choosing individual courses is
different from putting together a group of courses that can lead to a
productive term. My most thoughtful student interviewees call this
process, “choosing a portfolio.” I will adopt their term.
In a review of first year students' portfolios, a striking feature
emerges, the importance of class size. Although some students take class
size into account when choosing a course, a significant minority don't.
This could be a mistake. Students who choose at least one small course
each term have, on the average, a significantly better overall
experience than those who don’t. These differences carry through the
students' college careers.
4. Some undergraduates are thrilled with their college experience, while others are disappointed.
This observation won’t surprise any advisor. Yet a
powerful finding from the 1,600 interviews shows that nearly every
graduate unhappy with their academic experience reports using a specific
strategy for course selection. They describe it with regret. These
students chose classes in their freshman year to “get the requirements
out of the way.” As a result, they elected to take only large, basic
courses that go over disciplines familiar from high school. Nearly all
such classes are large, regardless of size of college. Courses such as
Introductory Biology and General Psychology do not often spark the
passion that comes from speaking in class or writing for a professor.
This simple observation has major implications for
advisors. When talking with first year students, advise them not to just
choose large, introductory courses during first and second years at
college. Instead, capitalize on the strengths of each student and
encourage them to “stretch” and take at least one smaller, more focused,
more challenging class where they will have to talk, write, and become
These are some of the concrete and ‘actionable’ advising
suggestions that I look forward to sharing at our Annual Meeting. It is
important to emphasize that these suggestions come directly from
undergraduates. At a time of tight budgets, nearly all cost little to
What better way to honor our students, than to ask them about their
college experiences? By taking what they say seriously, we can implement
ideas that can help students succeed and prosper on our campuses.
Richard J. Light
From the President
NACADA President Betsy McCalla-Wriggins,
When preparing to write this, I began to reflect on this
past year. It certainly has been a year of challenges. Budget problems
seem to be widespread and the war in Iraq has had an impact on
everyone...some in very personal ways with a family member being
However, for our association, we have had many successes
and it is important to celebrate those…especially at a time like this,
when we all need some 'good news.”
In February we held our first Academic Advising
Administrators’ Institute (AI) in San Antonio. This two-day intensive
program was so well received that we added a second session of the
Institute and over 350 people participated in this new program. We are
currently making plans for a 2004 AI and that date and location will
soon be posted on the website.
Recognizing that not every administrator can attend a meeting of this
length, we also offered an Administrator's Pre-Conference Workshop at
five of our regional meetings this spring. Response has been so positive
that we plan to offer these every year at each of the regional
Another initiative that was piloted at the Region Two
Conference was a Faculty Advising Pre-Conference Workshop. Response to
this was also very positive and this will be expanded to other regions
next year as well. Participants also suggested that we offer this
workshop to campuses. We are currently discussing that as a possibility
and will keep you posted.
We are currently in the final planning stages for the
17th Annual Academic Advising Summer Institutes (SI). We had so much
demand last year that we are offering two in 2003. The first SI is
scheduled in San Diego in late June and the second will be held in the
Chicago area the end of July.
We are also midway through our first year in the new
governance structure of our association. At our mid-year meeting, the
board members spent a day discussing strategic planning and the
direction of our association. I think it is very significant that we
reaffirmed that NACADA is an association committed to enhancing the role
of advising on our campuses.
Independent of the individual positions that we each hold on our
campuses, we all are seeking to create an environment where we can
support each other and our students. I encourage you to seek out your
colleagues…faculty, full-time advisors, administrators….and celebrate
the great things you are doing in your corner of the world. Then tell
others about those successes. We all enjoy hearing more 'good news'.
From the Executive Office
Roberta 'Bobbie' Flaherty, NACADA Executive Director
The Executive Office is often asked to explain the “benefits” of NACADA
membership and it is easy to enumerate the various resources that the
association provides – from conferences to monographs, but it is more
difficult to explain the “rest of the story”.
Let’s say your institution has already purchased all of
NACADA’s written resources and the videos, and you are unable to attend
any of the professional development events this next year. Why should
you part with $50? My response would be “Why do you buy Girl Scout
cookies?” and “Why do you give to the American Cancer Society?” Could it
be to support the underlying work of those organizations? After all,
are the cookies alone worth what you pay and will your donation to the
Cancer Society make you cancer free? So, what will your $50 NACADA dues
do for you?
Would you like for advising to be more highly valued on your campus?
Would you like to be recognized on your campus as a “professional” and
rewarded accordingly? As a faculty member, would you like to be
recognized for good advising as well as good teaching and would you like
to be recognized for the time you spend advising students? Would you
like for the administration to better understand the value of “effective
advising”? Would you like to maintain your financial support in times
of budget cuts? Would you like for there to be more research on advising
issues? Then NACADA dues are how you can help. Not only does NACADA
provide resources for your direct individual support, but it also works
to build awareness and respect for the profession as a whole.
In addition, involvement in your profession can be one of
the most rewarding aspects of your career. It provides an opportunity
for you to contribute to the research and literature of the field, to
impact decisions regarding the type of resources needed and to be
developed in the field, to promote the growing recognition of the field,
and to make lifelong friendships with those who share your values from
across North America and throughout the world!
NACADA strives to provide a forum for discussion, debate, and the
exchange of ideas pertaining to academic advising through a growing
number of events (national conference, regional conferences, Academic
Advising Summer Institute, and the Administrators’ Institute) and
resources. Be sure to watch the NACADA web site for an ever growing
compilation of advising information and resources.
So, the next time you are wondering what you get for that
$50 (one of the lowest dues amounts among higher education
associations), I encourage you to think beyond the obvious and continue
to support the work of the association as it strives to impact the
positive development of students through the support of academic
advising. I invite you to please join us at any or all of our events and
get involved with the work of the association. I promise you that the
more you give to your association, the more you will receive!
Roberta “Bobbie” Flaherty
NACADA Executive Director
Letting Up and Letting Go
Cynthia Sarver, Michigan State University
According to research conducted
by Philip Gardner, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research
Institute at Michigan State University, many of today’s college students
are the product of parents who have protected and sheltered their
children from a dangerous world and have raised their children to see
themselves as very special. These millennial students are confident and
achievement-oriented, but feel pressured to succeed both academically
and professionally (2003). As a result, many young adults enter college
today with a sense of entitlement, a strong dependency on their parents,
and the expectation that the university will hold their hand throughout
their college career. What many of our academic advisers find during
the Freshman Academic Orientation Program at Michigan State is that
parents want to continue to hold the hand of their new college student
and the student doesn’t necessarily want to let go.
Understandably, many parents would like to be involved in the
academic decision-making that takes place during freshman orientation.
After all, parents know their children the best. They are also
accustomed to being the lead advocate for their children. However, as
students make the transition from high school to college, they must
learn to advocate for themselves and to take responsibility for making
wise decisions with the help of academic advisers, faculty, and other
campus professionals. The first step in this process occurs at
orientation when academic advisers and students together create a
freshman year program that meets the educational and career goals of the
To educate parents regarding the importance of the
adviser-student relationship, the MSU Academic Orientation Program
Office will distribute the following message to parents this summer:
The academic advisor/student relationship is critical to
academic success. Students begin to develop this relationship at
Orientation. Academic advising meetings and computer enrollment are,
therefore, only for students. Note that while they are computer
enrolling, students are not permitted to use cell phones to contact
parents. We respectfully ask parents to wait until the entire
orientation program is completed before meeting with their student.
However, the Academic Orientation Program Office recognizes the
importance of keeping parents in the loop in a variety of ways. Parents
are invited to attend a separate Parent’s Orientation Program that
addresses the academic, social, emotional, and transitional issues their
freshmen may face. They also hear from university and community
speakers and have an opportunity to voice their concerns. And in the
evening, academic advisers and faculty are invited to join parents for
casual conversation during dinner. In addition, parents periodically
receive newsletters that address freshman year issues.
Perhaps these measures will help parents to let up and
let go—to trust their student with the freedom to make responsible
decisions and to begin a journey of personal growth.
Michigan State University
Gardner, Philip, & Johnston, Kevin. “Why Don’t You
Teach the Way I Want to Learn?” (2003). MSU Lilly Faculty Seminar