Advising Umbrella: Maximum Faculty Involvement for Maximum Student Success

By Sharaf Rehman, M.Ed., Ed.S., Ph.D.
Professor of Communication
The University of Texas-Brownsville

College faculty is powerless in deciding what happens in their area high schools or in setting the mission and goals of their college. Still, it has a dual obligation to students: to help students master discipline specific knowledge and acquire life-skills. To fulfill this responsibility, the aquthor developed and implemented an all-encompassing model for advising in an academic unit in a state-supported, regional university. This “Umbrella Model” involves some participation from the administration but is mainly carried out by faculty members.

The model evolved purely out of necessity, on a campus that had abandoned a model in which faculty advised students. In the previous model, all advising was carried out by a team of advisors that reported to a Director of Advising. Every semester, prior to registration, all students were required to visit one of the advisors for help in building their class schedules. This was mandatory. However, students were not required to consult with faculty from their respective areas of study in making selections. The dropout rate for this approach was close to 50 percent. Worth noting is a figure from the placement tests, which revealed that 48 percent of the entering freshmen in 2011 were not college ready.

To implement the Umbrella Model, the author, who was careful to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, offered to advise a group of 20 students in his major area. The effort would focus on planning course schedules for the coming semester. This was done after a meeting with the Director of Advising, who agreed that the author, as a faculty program advisor, would help the students develop their schedules. The students would then take the schedules to the official university advisors who would, in turn, register them in the courses. Hence, both the program-level as well as mandatory advising conditions were met.

For our advising sessions, the students were asked to bring their most recent transcripts and a degree plan with them. After a careful study of the transcripts and plans, the author recommended a set of courses that the student should take in the coming semester. This guaranteed that the students would take the necessary course and take them in the prescribed sequence.

Working with 20 students did not require posting additional office hours. A Facebook page was created where all 20 students could interact and participate. The students got other students involved through the use of other social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn. The hope was that these 20 students would develop a sense of group cohesiveness and try to take classes with their fellow advisees. It was also hoped that they would come to see their faculty advisor as their mentor and a contact person in the department. Both of these seemed to occur. As it turned out, ten additional faculty members in the department volunteered to participate in the pilot program. Thus, the department was able to service all of its 200 students.

The model offers advice to the students in seven areas. These are:

1. Discipline specific requirements of the major

A program of study is developed by the department and made available to the advisees. This one-page program lists all the courses that are required for the completion of a four-year degree. The list includes the general education courses, the departmental core for the major, the list of courses in various concentrations, and a list of available electives within the department.

2. Semester-by-semester plan of study

The department has developed a semester-by-semester plan of study for eight semesters. This lists all the courses that may be taken each semester. This plan guides the students to take the courses in a sequence that would be most beneficial to them.

3. Study skills

The department has developed nine self-study modules that cover topics such as note taking, preparing for tests, effective listening, library and research skills, time management, financial planning, and goals development.

4. Career/Internship opportunities

The faculty advisor explores internship and field experience opportunities for the students and encourages them to take advantage of such opportunities and develop professional portfolios.

5. Academic policies and procedures

All the syllabi in the department include university policies regarding attendance, grading, plagiarism, important dates for tests, and deadlines for dropping or adding courses. Every instructor in the department reviews these and other policies pertaining to their course during the first two class periods.

6. Using campus services

The students are encouraged to make use of both academic and nonacademic services provided on campus. These include writing lab, computer lab, math lab, training sessions on using the library and reference resources, advising office, financial aid office, the health center, the career planning center, and work-study program office.

7. Engagement in extracurricular activities

Students are encouraged to join various student activities and clubs. Several faculty members in the department have also initiated discipline-specific clubs. By inviting the students to join, the faculty members establish a one-on-one connection with students.

All the above efforts are primarily aimed at accomplishing two goals: To establish a mentor-mentee relationship between the faculty and students; and to steer, monitor and correct the students’ academic progress. It is hoped that by creating opportunities for interaction between students and faculty, the students are more likely to seek advice and help from the faculty and remain on their path to program completion.

The Umbrella Model was introduced as a pilot program in one small department in fall 2011. It will take several semesters before the impact and usefulness of the program can be evaluated. However, previous research seems to suggest that a greater involvement from the faculty helps improve program completion rates and helps to reduce student drop-out rates.

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