Working Smarter, Not Harder: Using Academic and Advising Cohorts to Achieve Positive Change in One Small Program Area

Allen Owen Guidry, East Carolina University

Abstract

This article presents how one small program area in a state university used academic and advising cohorts to overcome limited resources resulting from budgetary restrictions. By reviewing the literature and identifying program goals, the program area was able to devise a restructuring plan that not only eased the burden on faculty members, but also assisted students in developing peer networks and in connecting academic and advising work. Furthermore, student retention numbers improved during the first cycle of implementation of the cohort model.  The article shares implementation details along with the rationale for choosing this course of action.

The Problem—A Macro View

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” These famous words by Thomas Paine in The Crisis (2009, p. 290) are words that define the state of academia in recent years. In the last two and a half years, universities have seen sharp cutbacks in operating and personnel dollars and as a result have seen declines in faculty hires. In some cases these budget cuts have led to faculty reductions. When this era of tightened budgets is compounded with increased emphasis on recruitment and retention efforts to attract and keep students to bolster budget dollars, many program directors and administrators are left wondering how to negotiate these varied and far-reaching obstacles.

Three main issues have presented themselves at institutions throughout the nation: limited resources (faculty reductions and fewer hires) (Mangan, 2008; Townsend, 2011); shrinking budgets (budget cuts made within already stifling colleges, departments, and programs) (Where do we go, 2011; Hebel, 2011; Kelderman, 2010; Sewall, 2010); and pressure to recruit new students and improve retention numbers (Hoover, 2010; Kelderman, 2010). The relationship between recruitment/retention and budget dollars is a tentative one. At institutions like East Carolina University that employ growth models in which student enrollments dictate the amount of public or subsidy dollars not only for current academic years but also for years to come, student recruitment and retention mean program success or failure. As budgets nationwide continue to fall and access to public or subsidy dollars continue to narrow, universities are charged with filling revenue gaps by (a) seeking grant dollars or (b) increasing student enrollments and maintaining those numbers. This latter charge has contributed to the current rise in recruitment and retention efforts in most universities and has added another layer to the network of support afforded students in academia.

The primary responsibility for assuring that students not only choose a certain university but also remain there through program completion is one that often falls on professional academic advisers and/or faculty advisers. Advising has long been identified as a vital element in any efforts to retain students in higher education (Crockett, 1985; King, 1993; Lau, 2003; McArthur, 2005). As a result, academic advisers are given the hefty responsibilities of helping students map out plans of study, stay on course with the chosen plan of study, provide administrative assistance with varied campus processes and procedures, formulate career and/or graduate plans that align with personal and professional goals, and make the transition from academia to the workplace or graduate school. Such responsibilities place the academic adviser at the heart of a student’s development in higher education. For faculty advisers in particular, this means fulfilling these important responsibilities in addition to teaching, research, and service. As a result, there are often two less-than-favorable outcomes—faculty who work diligently at advising to the exclusion of other duties and responsibilities or faculty who neglect their advisees.

The Problem—A Micro View

Few academic departments or program areas have been exempt from this volatile climate that has necessitated changes in the ways those departments or programs do business. The author’s program area of history education (HIED), at East Carolina University in southeastern United States, is no exception. In fall 2009, following a budget cycle that led to a, roughly, 6 percent reduction in the overall budget, the HIED faculty line was reduced from two tenure-track faculty members to one. This placed one faculty member in charge of all HIED majors and licensure-only candidates (students who hold a bachelor’s degree in a social science or related field and are returning as continuing education students to earn credit and meet requirements toward a teaching license).

Added to this issue of limited resources is the continued need to cut the university, college, and department budget in an effort to fill the gap of state funding cuts. For budget year 2010–2011, the author’s university planned to absorb an additional 10–12 percent budget reduction. This budget reduction was above and beyond the original 6 percent budget cut made just two years before, accounting for an aggregate 16–18 percent budget reduction in a three-year period.

To atone for monetary shortfalls in state funding, university, college, and department initiatives were implemented to increase the number of student credit hours generated. The approach was a two-pronged and at the same time focused on recruitment of new students and improved retention of existing students. The struggles with such an initiative were compounded when one considers that East Carolina University is situated in a rural area with a high number of first-generation college students— who historically have had a high attrition rate (Horn, 1998; Ishitani, 2006; Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998; Riehl, 1994).

To accommodate this charge and to meet new state licensing requirements based on the twenty-first-century teaching standards (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008), the HIED program area revised and restructured the program to include additional course work in the field of social studies education through added courses and practicum requirements in, particularly, the third (junior) year. These revisions, however, led to an increase in the number of student credit hours generated from 433 in 2008–2009 to 873 in academic year 2009–2010. With this addition of new courses and students, the author’s advising load sky-rocketed to more than 100 students, numbers of students in sections increased, and three adjunct faculty members were hired to teach new program area courses. Whereas prior to this boom the author met with students individually for advising each term prior to registration, the large numbers of students made it virtually impossible for the author to advise effectively, teach proficiently, research substantively, and provide service to the profession. An investigation sought to find options to help the author work more efficiently to meet students needs and balance the myriad duties and responsibilities of a tenure-track faculty member.

Looking to Others—Some General Themes from the Literature

Figure 1.1 – Conceptual framework for restructuring of academic course work and advising processes within HIED program area.

In preparing to confront the central problem of this paper—maximizing the effect of academic course structure and advising processes to address the needs of students and improve retention within the program area despite limited faculty resources—the author turned to the literature for ideas on how to combine or adapt existing program area processes. After a careful search of the literature, three general themes emerged. First, a vast body of literature spanning the last thirty years addressed the benefits of utilizing properly constructed peer mentoring programs or opportunities (Freedman, 1993; Johnson, 2002; Kram, 1983; McLean, 2004; Pagan & Edwards-Wilson, 2002; Rosenthal & Shinebarger, 2010; Terrion & Leonard, 2007; Topping, 1996). A second, equally historic thread centered on the implications and implied outcomes of developmental advising initiatives (Broadbridge, 1996; Crookston, 1972; Frost, 1991; Hale, Graham, & Johnston, 2009; Ivey & Morrill, 1968).  A third and final theme emerged that focused on development and perceived benefit of academic and advising cohorts (Mastrodicasa, 2001; Pascarelli & Terenzini, 1991; Schuh & Kuh, 2005). It was a combination of the ideas and suggestions from this body of literature that contributed to the conceptual framework for the restructuring of the scope and sequence of HIED program area academic course work and the advising approach within the program area. Figure 1.1 illustrates this conceptual framework.

As Figure 1.1 illustrates, the conceptual framework that guided the restructuring of the HIED program area at the author’s university united the three themes found within the literature into one comprehensive programmatic approach (represented by point A in the figure). This approach centered on: (1) building opportunities for students to engage in peer mentoring relationships, (2) generating accountability and building personal ownership of students’ programs of study through developmental advising initiatives, and (3) developing academic and advising cohorts within the program area.

According to Rosenthal & Shinebarger’s (2010) definition, peer mentoring is the “process through which qualified students provide guidance and support to vulnerable students” (p. 149).  Peer mentoring is beneficial in that its primary aim is to help retain (Terrion & Leonard, 2007) and improve the academic performance of students (Rosenthal & Shinebarger, 2010). Likewise, developmental advising initiatives, especially those that address the diverse needs of students, have been perceived to be an effective tool for helping students successfully complete academic programs. Developmental advising has been historically defined as:

… a systematic process based on a close student-advisor relationship intended to aid students in achieving educational, career, and personal goals through the utilization of the full range of institutional and community resources. It both stimulates and supports the students in their quest for an enriched quality of life. … Developmental advising relationships focus on identifying and accomplishing life goals, acquiring skills and attitudes that promote intellectual and personal growth, and sharing concerns for each other and for the academic community. (Ender, Winston, & Miller, 1984, p. 18–19)

Developmental advising has long been lauded for helping students become aware of changing attitudes during the progression of their studies (Crookston, 1972; Ivey & Morrill, 1968). Furthermore, developmental advising has been perceived as an approach that helps to build accountability among students and foster ownership of their academic work (Broadbridge, 1996; Crookston, 1972; Frost, 1991). Such an advising approach realizes that different students have different advising needs—a realization that has been widely documented as a vital component to a successful student-adviser relationship (Hester, 2008; Propp & Rhodes, 2006; Smith & Allen, 2006).

Lastly, theorists and practitioners have supported the use of cohorts because of the perceived benefits of using them. One advantage of using cohorts in advising students has been that cohorts tend to encourage the development of professional learning communities among students (Lipson, 2002; Schuh & Kuh, 2005). Furthermore, when cohorts of students are given increased contact with faculty, such contact has been found to produce more motivated students (Pascarelli & Terenzini, 1991) and persistent (Mastrodicasa, 2001). Finally, cohorts, when layered with developmental advising approaches, provide an opportunity for students to teach other students through ongoing interaction. This opportunity to engage in reciprocal learning processes has been identified as an effective advising practice (Schuh & Kuh, 2005).

The HIED Cohort Model

Based on the findings from the literature, a plan was constructed to meld the three separate themes found in the literature (see point A in Figure 1.1). At the outset of the program area revision and restructuring process, there were four primary goals:

  1. To make more efficient use of faculty time given the limited number of tenure-line faculty and the broad array of duties and responsibilities
  2. To facilitate greater student engagement through connection between program area academic and advising work (Lowenstein, 2009; Wiseman & Messitt, 2010)
  3. To foster development of support networks among program area students
  4. To improve the retention rate among current program area students

Two areas required revising and restructuring within the HIED program to accomplish the above goals. First, course offerings needed to change to move the program toward meeting projected goals. Second, revising and restructuring the advising process needed to unite advising and academic work within the program area. The first step in the process, therefore, centered on revising each semester’s course offerings in the program area. Prior to implementing this academic restructuring plan, students within the HIED program area completed an early experience course during the sophomore year and then an internship during the senior year. In the interim semesters, students completed content area and cognate course work with only marginal contact with HIED faculty. Advising sessions were held prior to registration each semester with students scheduling fifteen-minute appointments with the faculty adviser. The advising model used was a shared-supplemental model in which faculty served as the academic adviser to program-area declared majors, and the departmental advising center provided supplemental help with some administrative procedures (Kuhtmann, 2004; Swanson, 2006; Tuttle, 2000).

Program revisions were drafted and approved in academic year 2008–2009 and implemented fully in 2009–2010. They drastically changed the scope and sequence of program area courses. These revisions provided for the addition of three new courses in the program area: one first-semester junior (Junior I) course introducing teaching methods; one second-semester junior (Junior II) course focusing on curriculum and planning and requiring students to complete a practicum; and one additional first-semester senior (Senior I) course introducing students to assessment strategies and options. By adding these courses to the program of study, the intention was not only to provide more exposure and inclusion of effective teaching methods in program area course work, but also assure that students were afforded the opportunity to work continually with program area faculty during the one- to one-and-a-half years they had worked sparingly with faculty under the old program structure. These courses also opened up opportunities for students to work collaboratively and reflectively on course assignments with each other. Course assignments were likewise created and revised (in existing courses) to assure that students were provided the opportunity to engage in limited peer mentoring groups. In the Junior II practicum course, for instance, students are required to observe, critique, and conference with peers on lessons taught by those peers. This is a reciprocal relationship and each student serves as both a mentor and mentee during this process. Additional and similar peer mentoring and reflection exercises are also included in assignments and tasks in the Senior I methods and assessment courses.

The sequence of courses also changed dramatically. Whereas program area courses were offered during each semester dependent upon students’ plans for program completion in the non-cohorted model prior to 2009–2010, program revisions introduced a cohort model in which students entered the program sequence beginning with the early experiences course in the sophomore year and continued through a structured, Junior I, Junior II, Senior I, and Senior II sequence. Cohort students were informed that only certain courses were to be offered during certain semesters and that failure to follow the prescribed sequence would likely lead to a delay in graduation or failure to successfully complete the program. Table 1.1 details the prescribed course sequence for students following implementation of the cohort model.

Table 1.1 – Sequence of HIED courses and advising protocols following implementation of cohorts
Program Semester (Term) Program Area Academic Courses Program Area Advising Tasks/Protocols
Sophomore (fall or spring) Early experiences course; field observation; introduction to the program Students still within the departmental advising center
Junior I (fall) Introduction to teaching methods Students move to faculty adviser; group advising meetings to provide registration information and to introduce students to upcoming practicum course; apply for upper division
Junior II (spring) Curriculum and planning course; practicum teaching Group advising meeting to discuss upcoming senior internship; apply for internship placement
Senior I (fall) Advanced teaching methods; part-time field-based teaching Group advising meeting to plan for full-time internship; introduce program area senior portfolio; conduct senior summaries
Senior II (spring) Seminar course to support full-time teaching in the field Group advising to apply for graduation and licensure

Table 1.1 also details the advising initiatives for cohort students that address the various programmatic issues associated with each semester in the program. Group advising is used in conjunction with courses in the junior and senior years to attend to term registration and to introduce students to upcoming milestones in the program area. These group advising meetings, led by program area faculty advisers, are also opportunities for students to share questions and concerns about upcoming program work and for program area faculty to converse with students about their perceptions of the program up to that point. Students receive e-mail communications with program reminders and details about what they should consider and how to prepare for registration and procedural meetings. At the meetings, program area faculty advisers review program scope and sequence information, provide information about upcoming courses within the students’ program of study (e.g., dates, times, and logistical concerns for practicum or internship courses), and answer specific questions about application procedures for various programmatic gateways and clinical internships. At these group-advising meetings, faculty advisers also often assist students in conducting self-assessments of dispositional considerations or problem areas (i.e., increasingly stringent expectations of student professional behaviors by program area faculty and field-based clinical or practicum partners) as they progress through the program. This provides an opportunity for advisees to prepare themselves to enter the professional components of the overall program. This group-advising model took the place of the one-on-one fifteen-minute appointments with students that were part of the pre-cohort model. This approach aimed to link academic and advising work and help students become more engaged and thoughtful in approaching their academic course of study within the program.

Findings

Program area faculty’s initial perception of the move to a cohorted academic and advising model indicated the initiative has been effective in meeting program area goals. When viewed against the goals established in the initial program revisioning and restructuring process, the move to academic and advising cohorts has met all goals. First, program area faculty members have found that the time spent on advising has decreased significantly despite the dramatic increase in the number of advisees. Recurrent questions have been almost completely eliminated as students now present them in an open forum where all benefit from program faculty responses during group advising sessions. The time saved through increased efficiency has allowed program area faculty to focus more on teaching, providing service to the profession, conducting research, and meeting individually with students who ask for or require more attention in planning their educational programs of study. This latter benefit has allowed the program area faculty to focus on the quality of the discussion arising from individual student meetings rather than hurrying the student away to meet with droves of others with subsequent appointments during “advising week.” This focus on individual career and developmental needs echoes the processes forwarded by developmental advising models. Although the prescribed and rigid nature of program area courses seems to, on the surface, contradict traditional views of developmental advising, the dialogue that arises in both large group and individual advising meetings about content course work in history and social science parallels developmental advising models. For instance, in group meetings during Junior I, students are instructed to determine their primary areas of weakness with regard to content that they will be teaching in the public schools. They are then encouraged to register for content courses in history and social science that help them meet these personal content gaps. This pursuit of personal and professional growth is a hallmark of the developmental advising approach (Ender et al., 1984).

Another perceived benefit has been the connection between academic and advising work. Many programmatic issues arise not solely in one context or another, but rather cross over between advising issues and academic course work issues. Through use of the cohort model, students display an understanding of the program area requirements and the rationale behind the scope and sequence of courses. In a Senior I class session in fall 2010 a student commented,

When we started this whole process two semesters ago, I had no idea why we needed to take the courses that we took in the prescribed order that we took them. I didn’t think it made a difference when and how we took them. Just last night it hit me while I was doing some work for this class, I realized the rationale— it all made sense to me. What we were talking about in our advising meetings and our classes all came together and I now know that there was no other way to take these classes. (personal communication, December 7, 2010)

Research has shown this linkage between academic and advising work is crucial to a student’s development within a program of study (Lowenstein, 2009; Wiseman & Messitt, 2010). From a faculty standpoint as well, this linkage of advising and academic work has been beneficial. Breaks before, within, and after classes are opportune times to discuss programmatic issues with students. Program area faculty members have found that many advising issues can be resolved expeditiously and easily in brief conversations during class breaks. This saves time that would otherwise occur during office hours in formal appointments, and it saves students trips to campus.

Additionally, program area faculty members perceive and students have demonstrated that peer support networks have developed. As Schuh and Kuh (2005) have noted, developing professional learning communities is vital to students’ success in academic programs and departments, and programs should foster opportunities for students to develop such relationships. Program area faculty have found that students have networked not only to assist each other in completing program area course assignments, but also work through issues related to internship placements—issues typically addressed in advising sessions. Two students demonstrated this when they were placed at the same internship site one-and-a-half hours away from campus and from their campus residence. Of their own accord, they collaboratively planned and secured lodging at a hotel nearer to their internship site in order to prevent costly and time-consuming daily drives to and from the internship. The internship supervisor reported that the two students reflected daily and nightly and even developed the habit of reviewing and critiquing each other’s work prior to teaching the next day. In other cases students have developed portfolio development work groups on their own in which they share and critique each other’s work in completing portfolio requirements or provide technical support to classmates completing electronic portfolio components. These behaviors were rarely observed in preceding groups of internship students within the HIED program area.

Program area faculty have realized the added benefit of a deep and meaningful familiarity forged with students within this first cohort. This was not a goal identified at the outset of the revisioning and restructuring process but has become a perceived advantage of the cohort approach. With previous groups of students in the HIED program there was a one- to one-and-a-half year lag in working with students in program course work. Faculty were not afforded the opportunity to work with students in multiple capacities that would illuminate student strengths, challenges, and personalities. Since revising and restructuring the program by aligning academic course work and advising, program area faculty better know who the students are and understand how best to meet their individual and group needs. This familiarity has been documented as a vital component in retaining students and helping them succeed academically and professionally (Lotkowskie, Robbins, & Noeth, 2004; Tinto, 2006) and represents an unanticipated benefit of the cohort model.

Finally, program area faculty have seen an encouraging level of progress toward meeting retention goals. Table 1.2 details the retention percentages of students within the program area from Sophomore to Senior I and II in the academic year preceding the implementation of the academic and advising cohorts and the retention percentages of students from Sophomore to Senior I and II in the academic year following introduction of the HIED cohort model. The retention rates during Junior I and II are not included in the table because prior to 2010–2011 there were no specified Junior I and II semesters within the program.

Table 1.2 – Retention percentages before and after implementation of cohorts
Academic Year Sophomore to Senior I Sophomore to Senior II Senior I to Senior II
Year prior to implementation of cohorts (2009–2010) 70% 60% 85.7%
Year following implementation of cohorts (2010–2011) 81.6% 76.3% 93.6%

As Table 1.2 indicates, retention among HIED program area students at each subsequent stage within the program increased for students involved in the cohort model. Although there is no way to connect which elements of the program revisioning and restructuring have been instrumental in promoting student retention, nor is there any longitudinal data to demonstrate maintenance of increased retention, there is some preliminary evidence that the combination of program changes have had a positive effect on promoting student retention from one academic year to the next.

Conclusions

When small university program areas are confronted with resource challenges, they often must find ways to be creative and efficient. Looking to existing research and revisiting desired program outcomes are effective ways to assure that program area personnel are working smarter and not harder. When confronted with limited resources, the history education program at East Carolina University sought opportunities to structure program courses and advising processes in a way that would not only ease the overwhelming burden on limited program faculty but also improve conditions for success and create opportunities for students.  Using structured academic and advising cohorts within the program area for a period of two academic years elicited positive results, as perceived by program area faculty. These advances toward programmatic goals included more efficient use of faculty time for teaching, research, and service as well as administrative advising duties; merging academic and advising work among students with anecdotal evidence that students more fully understand program scope and sequence and how it relates to their development as pre-service teachers; development of meaningful peer networks and relationships among cohort students; development of more meaningful relationships between program area faculty and students; and finally, improved retention compared to that of preceding non-cohorted program area groups. After completing the first  full cohort cycle, there was ample evidence to support the program area continuing this model.

Beyond the positive effects found by this one small program area, the benefits of such academic and advising cohorts are sufficient to warrant attention by other similar university program areas. Certainly this one case study is limited, and much more analysis of program data and evaluation of the benefits or possible detriments of these academic and advising cohorts will need to take place in coming academic years with additional cohorts. Yet there is evidence enough after just the first cycle with this one program area to suggest that carefully structured and sequenced academic and advising cohorts might be worthy of a second look. With a sound theoretical background (Mastrodicasa, 2001; Pascarelli & Terenzini, 1991; Schuh & Kuh, 2005) and with practical support for the types of interactions that such cohorts foster (Lotkowskie et al., 2004; Schuh & Kuh, 2005; Tinto, 2006), programs looking to assist faculty work smarter and not harder might be well served to see how such an approach might be integrated into the current program structure.

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About the Author(s)

Allen Owen Guidry, East Carolina University

Allen Owen Guidry is an assistant professor of history education at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. He can be reached at guidrya@ecu.edu.

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