Academic Advising Resources

Students on Academic Probation



Shelly Gehrke

Director of Academic Advising

Institute of Technology

University of Minnesota


Jeanette Wong

Director of Academic Advising

Azusa Pacific University


In spring 2009, NACADA members Shelly Gehrke and Jeanette Wong shared their expertise in advising students on academic probation with NACADA members via a two podcasts. Below find a transcript of portions of those podcasts. A link to those podcasts will be provided later this spring.



1. Which Students are defined as being on Academic Probation?


Academic probation is a reality for all institutions, whether the institution is a highly selective one, or one that supports an open access. Each institution will need to define for itself what academic probation looks like. Typically, a probationary status is determined by a student’s Grade Point Average, and perhaps his or her progress in the completion of specific requirements towards the desired degree.


And advisors need to remember that there is no single type of student or student population or characteristic that makes a student destined for academic probation. No one is exempt from the possibility. All students can be affected.


2. What factors put students at risk for probation?


There are several differing factors that can place a student in jeopardy of falling onto academic probation. There may be one individual factor that causes academic probation or a student may be experiencing multiple factors all at once. And the factors that we are going to discuss are not an exhaustive list nor do they automatically result in academic probation for a student.


One common factor that places a student at risk for academic probation is beingunderprepared. These students have deficits with their academic abilities – reading, writing, critical thinking, study habits and so on. And often these students will fault their previous education for not fully preparing them for college-level work.


Students may also be considered underprepared because of their developmental skills. Insufficient developmental skills related to areas such as a student’s maturity, socialization, and acceptance of responsibility also place a student at risk for academic probation.


For the student who is underprepared, it is key that he identify and acknowledge the deficiency. Such an awareness should encourage the student to understand the extra work and effort that is may be needed for the student’s success. Of course when working with an academic advisor, the student can better recognize the areas needing improvement and identify resources and strategies to help the student overcome.


Students who do not acknowledge their underprepared status are often in denial or they are blaming others for their deficits, taking the position of victim. Unfortunately, these students can be a challenge for advisors to identify early on and often do not get help they need until they are on academic probation.


Beingoverextendedis another factor that can impact a student’s academic standing. These students have a hard time with balancing and prioritizing issues. They likely also have a hard time saying “no” and managing their time in relation to their many commitments.


Similar to students who are underprepared, the overextended student also needs to acknowledge and identify the issue before really beginning to make a plan for success. Working with an advisor or other support resource, the student who is overextended can analyze his priorities in relation to his time management. Depending on the student’s specific situation, multiple resources may need to be consulted. For example, the student who is struggling to balance a full-time work load with a full-time course load may need to consult financial aid to see what funding sources are available to help the student reduce his work hours. Also during the analysis of priorities, a student may need help to make tough decisions such as relinquishing an officer position in a student organization or enrolling in fewer course credits for the semester.


Probably what I would consider the most difficult factor that can impact a student’s academic status is related tonon-academic issues. College does not occur in a vacuum and students are forced to manage and balance multiple parts of life, including the life inside and outside of the classroom. Sometimes that life outside of the classroom begins to gain ground over the academic piece and the student faces great challenges. Nonacademic issues have no boundaries … but there are common themes such as mental health, family problems, financial struggles, and work demands. In many cases, the student is dealing with multiple nonacademic issues and the issues will become blurred and intertwined.


The student’s academic success when dealing with nonacademic issues is strongly impacted by his ability and skills to cope, work with resources, and rebound. The assistance of an academic advisor and other campus resources can be invaluable for this student; though seeking out the support may be difficult. The advisor will need to be persistent in helping the student realize and uncover the nonacademics impacting the student and create a plan for success which includes follow up with the recommended resources. 


There are other at-risk indicators for students. One common factor would be students who arefirst generation, first year, or transfer students.All of these types of students are experiencing a major transition to a new academic environment that has very specific policies and procedures to fulfill. While first generation or first year students are at risk because they are unfamiliar with the collegiate environment, transfer students could be specifically venerable because they may be over confident in their abilities to successfully function in a new academic culture. All of these students would benefit from defining and identifying appropriate support resources.


A special student population at risk for probation would be theStudent Scholars. Even the brightest students can be overconfident, bored, or mismatched to a major or institution—and all of these scenarios may land a student on academic probation. For these students, a deliberate investigation of “fit” is important. If a student’s class load, course selection or major is a good fit for the student scholar, they will have an increased probability of being successful.


Finally,students who make judgment mistakesare at risk for academic probation. These errors include ones like:

  1. Enrolling in too many classes
  2. Not repeating classes that previously earned D or F grades
  3. Missing deadlines to drop troublesome courses, or to resolve INC grades
  4. Taking classes without the appropriate prerequisites
  5. Taking courses solely based on a friend’s recommendation
  6. Not acknowledging their learning styles: for instance, taking morning classes when they are really not morning people, and
  7. Waiting too long to connect with academic resources such as tutoring services.


These students would be best served if they can be convinced to obtain appropriate resource information and act on them in a timely fashion.


We have highlighted some risk factors for students, but we should remember that this is not an exhaustive list. All students come to college with the potential to do very well, despite their individual circumstances.



3. What are some typical probationary policies?


Academic probation policies vary by institution but are frequently measured by a student’s GPA, grade point average. Typically, an institution places a student on academic probation when the cumulative GPA falls below a certain point, for example below a 2.0 on a 4.0 scale. In addition, an institution may also place a student on probation based on a term or semester GPA.

The GPA is probably the primary tool to define academic probation, but some institutions also look at a student’s progress towards his or her degree. A student may have a healthy GPA, but continually withdraw from classes in a major. In this case, the student is not making progress towards fulfilling specific requirements. Another scenario of an at risk student with a healthy GPA is when a student habitually withdraws or takes incompletes in a significant percentage of his or her semester classes.



4. Who are the stakeholders and what are their roles in supporting a student on academic probation?


All members of the academic community have an interest and responsibility in fostering student success. A partnership needs to be formed between the student, the advisor and the institution; and this partnership should ideally embrace the strengths and needs of each stakeholder. With those definitions, the partners can determine their responsibilities and relationships to each other. An example of this partnership could be described in a student who is doing poorly in a math class. The student has the need for additional tutoring, and the advisor would be an invaluable part of the solution if he/she were able to provide the student with information about available tutoring services. The institution’s part would be to support a tutoring center with appropriate funding, personnel, and space. To bring this example full circle, the student then has a responsibility to understand these available resources and his or her responses to them.



5. What can advisors do?


First and foremost, the academic advisor needs to create an environment where the student feels safe. It is helpful if an advisor can demonstrate a certain level of empathy; but definitely the advisor needs to be prepared to listen and understand without judgment. If there is not already a relationship established between the advisor and student, you want to nurture some connectedness. This can help facilitate a trusting environment and positive rapport which may facilitate future check-ins.


The relationship between the student and advisor should be a partnership. The advisor listens to the student and strives to understand the student’s individual situation. When appropriate, the advisor can provide anecdotal and experienced knowledge to help the student understand that he is not the only one who has ever been on academic probation.


The advisor can also help the student to identify constructive actions to proactively strive towards academic improvement and success. With every exchange, the partnership should promote encouragement, trust, and a sense of accountability and motivation.


Though working with students on academic probation can be challenging sometimes, the advisor must always be cognizant of the student’s possible embarrassment and feeling of shame. To prevent further negative energy for the student, the advisor needs to understand your own biases and stereotypes and prejudices. Advisors can not only have a positive impact on a student but you can also have anegative affect!


In helping the student on academic probation, advisors should also be aware of the myth of self-reliance. We often meet with students and provide game plans and resources in which the student is expected to follow-through. Giving the student this helpful information, we believe that the struggling student will take the initiative to utilize the recommended referrals and strategies. However, that is somewhat of a myth. A student who is on academic probation is not necessarily the most self-reliant or self-sufficient student, thus less likely to follow-through with recommendations and strategies. Advisors working with students on academic probation need to be aware of this myth. You will need to contact and follow-up with the student to help ensure success.


Not only should we be savvy in understanding student behavior, but we would be well served to recognize that each student situation is individualized and that the solutions for each student should not take a “cookie cutter” approach. Advisors need to understand that a probationary status is the result of many interrelated issues, and that identifying the causes of probation would be helpful. With the student, these root causes can be explored as possible areas to change, improve or eliminate. Possible causes include: 

  1. Being overconfident from previous educational experiences
  2. Being inexperienced with navigating college’s demands—academic and otherwise
  3. Selecting an inappropriate curriculum or major
  4. Having poor or inadequate study skills
  5. Having procrastination or time management issues
  6. Being overwhelmed with various commitments
  7. Choosing not to utilize campus resources
  8. Having non academic issues such as personal, mental and physical health problems, job or financial concerns


Advisors must also help the student to develop ownership of hisdecisions and decision-making skills. The student needs to learn and understand the consequences and repercussions of actions and decisions. Though the advisor can guide the student through a list of majors and possible goals and identify strategies and resources, it is the student who must make the decisions and take action to move forward. The advisor can help a student recognize talents and strengths but the student must make his own goals. It can be tempting for an advisor to hand-hold and coddle a student who is really struggling but it is more beneficial if the advisor can teach the student to make decisions and accept personal ownership of those decisions.


The advisor can go even further along side the student on academic probation by promoting student action. As the student develops an awareness and ownership of consequences and outcomes to his or her decisions, we could work to help students identify factors that are controllable and uncontrollable, and to help them understand their best learning and communication styles. At this point in the partnership, the advisor might consider specific intrusive actions such as contracts, mandatory meetings, adherence to specific timelines and required skills development courses. These actions would help guide the student’s development into a successful, independent learner.


We are crucial in functioning as the link between the student and the university; and we facilitate a relationship between the individual and the institution. The student has specific needs, and the academy has resources to provide for needs. The advisor functions as a means of connecting the two.


Though we’ve identified several things an independent advisor can actively do to help a student on academic probation, the advisor also needs to thinkinstitutionallyand identify what others can do. We want to support the student through a holistic approach, thus campus-wide policies and procedures should be periodically reviewed and unnecessary hurdles should be rectified.

University departments and programs should also be frequently assessed to identify possible barriers or gaps. The questions need to be asked: Is there a campus-wide culture that promotes student success and provides support for students on academic probation? Or are there stereotypes and prejudices that students on academic probation endure? It is not just the academic advisor who helps the student on probation, it is the entire campus environment that is needed to help these student’s succeed. 


6. What are some institutional programs that are supportive of the student on academic probation?


The infrastructure of university support is so important to the success of the student on academic probation. This support is shown through resources such as offices of student success, study skills centers, career services, counseling resources and so forth. The infrastructure should support an institution’s efforts to balance retention and resources, provide intrusive programs and practices, communicate effectively with the students regarding their responsibilities, and provide means by which assessment can be deliberately measured.


The various academic policies that an institution develops are also a means of support to the student. While on probation, policies that deal with unit load, required GPAs, and specific class registrations are very helpful. In addition, it might be worth implementing policies that deal with warnings of possible probation, and on the other end, devising policies that allow students to have ways to “catch up” on the units that they have lost during a probationary period. If procedures can be put into place for this, then the student will not only improve his/her GPA but be on track to make appropriate academic progress towards graduation.


Certainly there should also be institutional curricula related toAcademic Skillsfor the student on probation. This programming can be offered as a specific credit-bearing course or with no credit such as a seminar class. Workshops and discussion groups should be offered periodically with curricula covering the basics such as study skills, time management, test anxiety, stress relief and how to prepare for mid-terms and final exams.

Depending on the policies at your institution, the courses or workshops could be required but if that is not possible, then definitely they should be strongly recommended. As much as possible, the programs and classes should be flexible so that they can address a student’s specific situation. The more effective programs will also understand the individual student’s motivation.


And it may be difficult to measure or assess but the institutional structure must be a supportive and positive campus atmosphere and culture. The campus environment needs to provide an ease of entering and moving within the infrastructure, through a network of supportive personnel in complementary offices. The student on academic probation is usually hyper-sensitive to judgment and criticism. Additional hurdles and negative innuendos can have a significant impact on the student’s morale and persistence. With this consideration, personnel biases need to be identified and eradicated. 


8. What are your final thoughts for advisors working with students on probation?


We’ve both mentioned many times that students are individuals. Each one comes to us with a unique set of circumstances. As advisors, we should understand the various emotions and feelings that the student is experiencing—and we should be prepared for the likelihood that the student will be feeling embarrassed, disappointed, vulnerable and judged. In addition to all of these mixed emotions, the student will be cognizant of being behind, and the advisor should work to help students find options to understand and maximize their future resources of time and money in the achievement of their dreams. Our roles are to be holistic, and not just focused on the recovery of the student’s academic status. Being truthful about and strategizing with a student is the best way we can partner with him or her.


In this partnership, the advisor needs to remember that the student is more than just a subject of her job. This student is a human being needing guidance and support. Advisors must be cognizant of any perceived judgment or stereotyping that the student may internalize. The student on academic probation is already self-conscious and possibly embarrassed. We don’t want the advising experience to have a negative impact because the student does not feel safe and supported.


The student on academic probation will respond best when working with an advisor who treats him as an individual in a caring, judgment-free environment that encourages a trusting partnership.


9. Where can an academic advisor find more resources?

 Of course, you can Google academic probation and see the policies for several institutions. But NACADA is really the main great source for information.


There is a NACADA monograph about Advising Special Student Populations with a chapter devoted to students on probation. And it even highlights a few exemplary practices already implemented at institutions.


On the NACADA website, the Clearinghouse  of Academic Advising Resources offers numerous advising resources and articles.


The NACADA Journal frequently has articles about academic probation research and programs.

Advising Students on Academic Probation Webcast on CD

And of course, there are several conferences and institutes through NACADA for additional professional development and networking. And speaking of networking, I really find the NACADA interest group call probation/dismissal/reinstatement (PDR for short) to be an exceptional help. There are many knowledgeable people involved with this interest group. And the listserv is an excellent way to gain fast information from a multitude of institutions. 



A significant amount of information in this transcript and podcast is directly from the Advising Special Student Populations, Students on Academic Probation(chapter 5) published by NACADA as Monograph #17, 2007.

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