Candice van Loveren Geis, Northern Kentucky University
In an age where budgets are low and student numbers are increasing, advising has the opportunity to clarify curriculum and engage students in academic choices. The Department of Visual Arts at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) has a first-time, traditional student population averaging over 100 students each year. In an effort to streamline advising and propel students to take control of their education, the use of advising portfolios and an interactive department orientation were initiated in a program called A PAART of NKU or Advising Portfolio as a Retention Tool.
Nationally, 34% of college freshmen did not return to the same institution for their sophomore year (MSNBC, 2010). Richard Light, who has aided in developing the undergraduate experience at Harvard University, asserts that, “good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience” (2001, p. B11). At NKU in the Department of Visual Arts, an advising structure that utilizes a retention specialist/lecturer for all first-year students and faculty mentors for sophomore students and above, dedicated team members, active communication, and students who share responsibility in the advising process, along with a rigorous first year curriculum has led to solid improvements in retention rates and student success.
For students who began study in the Department of Visual Arts at NKU in the fall of 2002, the six-year graduation rate was 32.55%. In the summer of 2009, the department was awarded an internal grant from NKU’s Strategic Enrollment Management Office in order to provide students with an active orientation experience, personalized advising information, and an opportunity to interact with current visual arts students with the goal of improving retention rates. The first step in the project was to create advising portfolios with individualized information for each student. Considering that art students are increasingly working in the digital realm and are part of “the backpack generation” identified by James M. Curtis as “born between 1982 and about 2003” (2001, p.35), the advising portfolio was loaded onto 1GB drives with the department logo for use in a digital format. A binder was then created for each student to allow easy access to the information with or without technology. The hard copy portfolio included organizational materials such as a pocket for storage of documents, business cards, and labeled tabs for each segment of the binder. The binder included the following sections: (a) an introduction to explain how to utilize the portfolio in the advising process, (b) an advising syllabus and contract, (c) a 2-year advising calendar, (d) major and general education checklists, (e) advising and registration step-by-step instructions, (f) success tips, (g) university forms, and (h) a university catalog. During orientation, students were educated on how to use the portfolio to help them collaboratively plan a personalized education with consistent progress towards graduation.
Sloan, Jefferson, Search, and Cox out of Tallahassee Community College strongly hold that one of the integral aspects of their advising system is “providing both students and faculty with updated resources” (2005, p. 660). The Department of Visual Arts at NKU has 17 faculty members who teach and advise. Dissemination of updated information related to university resources and degree requirements is critical for faculty to feel confident in advising. As part of the initial project, faculty participated in two training sessions in order to become more familiar with the advising portfolio and how to direct students to use it effectively. Practical degree information and university regulations are available in each student’s advising portfolio, allowing faculty members to spend more time connecting with students instead of deciding a class schedule. The students bring the advising portfolios with them to advising appointments, giving shared responsibility in the experience. Updated documents and student/faculty preparation forms for advising were also posted on the department’s public website and on a private online learning environment, Blackboard.
The second aspect of the project was to alter the orientation experience for first-time freshmen in the Visual Arts, allowing students to eat lunch as a group in a private setting. Students participated in a creative icebreaker activity and received the 1-GB hard-drive loaded with the personalized advising portfolio. In addition, students were given binders along with an explanation of the grant project goals. Orientation students then had the opportunity to talk with the department chairperson and their advisor about the program and student expectations. The New Student Meeting, as it was known, gave students the opportunity to interact with each other and representatives from the Department of Visual Arts. Each student then had a scheduled appointment that day with his/her advisor or the department chairperson. During their individual appointments, students could rearrange their fall schedule, ask questions, and express concerns about their transition to college. These meetings were valuable because, as Charlie Nutt, Executive Director of NACADA, explains, “advisors offer students the personal connection to the institution that the research indicates is vital to student retention and student success” (2010, p. 1).
In order to engage students throughout orientation while waiting for individual advising meetings, continuing students offered additional activities, such as a department tour that gave access to studio spaces, discussions/viewing of student artwork, and sign-ups for student organizations. Student organizations can give students a “social and personal support” network that they may need upon leaving the secondary education environment (Light, 2001, p. B14).
The culmination of the project was to assess the changes by conducting student surveys and tracking retention rates. The initial survey, given in the second half of fall semester of their first-year experience, focused on student satisfaction with orientation and the advising portfolio. Over 58% of students found the new student meeting informative and felt more prepared to begin their education after the orientation program. Student perception of the advising portfolio showed that 83.3% of respondents found the personalized advising portfolio easy to use and 75% planned on using it in the future. The other aspects of orientation led by current students received mixed reviews, although 91.7% of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the student artwork on display.
In the second half of spring semester of their first year, students were given a second survey, which contained questions related to student perception, as well as questions related to graduation requirements. All of the students who responded to the survey understood the differences between Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts degree tracks. Over 53% of respondents knew the required number of credit hours to graduate. Almost 88% of respondents identified that they were able to register through the online registration system. In addition, approximately 41% of respondents were involved in a university student organization, with 19.51% as members of a Department of Visual Arts student organization. Charlie Nutt acknowledges that “academic advising programs cannot be solely responsible for retention rates on a campus,” but that advising is a part of what contributes to a university’s ability to provide students with a connection to campus (2003, p. 1). Giving new students an instant, intentional opportunity to become involved on campus through student groups or talking with a student who has persisted in college, are some of many techniques that surround students with a support system.
Through the second survey, the majority of respondents reported feeling stronger as a student and/or artist because of their college studies with 73.17% feeling confident that the Department of Visual Arts at NKU was the right choice for their college education. In addition to student perceptions, 85.37% of respondents had used the advising portfolio in digital or traditional format during their first year of study.
At the start of the spring 2015 semester, corresponding to the halfway point of the participants fifth year in college, 48.31% of the students in the full grant program have been retained at NKU. Of the students retained, the average GPA is 3.203, promoting continued progress towards graduation. 35.96% of those retained have graduated with a bachelor’s degree earned, a 3.41% increase for the department.
In contrast, an additional 8 students participated in part of the grant program because of their late enrollment at the university, receiving the digital and traditional personalized advising portfolios and attending a succinct group meeting with individual advising following. These students are often of significant concern to college faculty and administrators because of the late orientation date and thus rather late registration only a couple of weeks prior to classes starting. This small sampling of 8 students has a 0% retention rate as of spring 2015 semester. However, since it was such a small group of students, the results are not statistically significant.
The Department of Visual Arts, the University, individual faculty, and the chairperson of the department are dedicated to surrounding students with support in order to increase academic skills and success. Small class sizes, clarity in advising, opportunities to learn outside of the classroom, and an accessible university all contribute to the ability of an individual to persist and succeed long-term. Thus far, the Advising Portfolios as a Retention Tool program has added another piece that enables students to control their educations and keep the end goal of graduation in sight.
Candice van Loveren Geis
Department of Visual Arts
Northern Kentucky University
Commonwealth of Kentucky. (2011). Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education: Retention and Graduation Rates. Retrieved from http://cpe.ky.gov/info/retention/index.htm
Curtis, James M. (2001). The backpack generation and art history. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 35(1), 31-44.
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NACADA. (2014). NACADA executive Office. NACADA Website. Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/About-Us/Executive-Office.aspx
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Sloan, B., Jefferson, S., Search, S., Cox, T. (2005). Tallahassee Community College’s progressive advising system: An online academic planning and resource system for individualized student advising. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 29, 659-660.
Cite this article using APA style as: van Loveren Geis, C. (2015, September). Advising portfolios and orientation as a retention tool. Academic Advising Today, 38(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]