Environmental Conditions and Their Influence on Academic Advising Offices

Melanie Marshall, Mercer University

The Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS) reported that academic “advising programs must identify environmental conditions that may positively or negatively influence student academic achievement” (CAS, 2009, p. 39). Academic advising practitioners must recognize the environmental implications of their offices and understand how they influence student learning. Examples include the chairs on which students may sit for a period of time; the characteristics of staff members working in the office; the reputation of the office among members of the campus community; and the policies that are in place. Academic advisers serve an important role regarding students’ current and future plans in college. To ensure continued learning and growth, it is crucial that academic advising programs maximize efforts to assist students by evaluating their office environments.

Office professionals may choose to rearrange their furniture or purchase new items, but few realize the impact that the environment of an office can have on student learning. Upcraft & Schuh (1996) stated “environmental assessment determines and evaluates how various elements and conditions of the college campus milieu affect student learning and growth” (p. 167). Oblinger (2006) added that we are increasingly seeing an impact on built pedagogy (the ability of space to define how individuals teach). This built pedagogy influences our students in positive and negative ways every day, and it is our responsibility to become intentional about building a pedagogy that will maximize our intended efforts.

As professionals acquire more knowledge about the study of environments, they will be able to eliminate problematic constructions in their offices and create new ones to improve student learning and growth. There are four facets of the environmental assessment model that can be applied: physical, aggregate, constructed, and organizational (Strange & Banning, 2001). These facets, when combined, create the perceived environment for each and every student who may walk through the door. It is important to understand and individually assess these facets to create an improved environment for student learning.

The physical environment is one of the easiest to understand. The influences are obvious in nature and comprise such things as the lighting, flooring, furniture, and architecture and can also encompass layout and spaces, accessibility and cleanliness, as well as interior color schemes (Strange & Banning, 2001). In addition to the look of the material items, advising professionals should consider the feelings these items provoke. These physical spaces can convey nonverbal messages sometimes stronger than verbal by either welcoming or discouraging and valuing or disrespecting (Strange & Banning, 2001).

The physical environment of an academic advising office influences students the moment they arrive. The furniture, lighting, signage, comfort, and layout of the space impact how students perceive the environment. For example, Graetz and Goliber (2003) summarized research that links lighting to psychological arousal, overheated spaces to hostility, and density with low student achievement. Therefore it is crucial to evaluate the usage of space to eliminate negative factors. Advisers should also be aware of the physical aspects of their office. Eckerty (2011) researched the layout of an academic adviser’s desk placement. Through qualitative responses he identified office layout as a variable in creating the mood for the advising session and in students’ first impression of the adviser (whether more relaxing and friendly or more formal and professional). By assessing the physical spaces in which advisers meet with students, strides can be made to enhance each student’s learning.

The aggregate facet is founded on the fact that environments are transmitted through people and reflect the collective characteristics of the people who are influenced by them. These human characteristics influence the degree to which people are pleased or dissatisfied with their environment (Strange & Banning, 2001). These characteristics are made up of demographics (such as gender, age, or racial-ethnic composition) and psychological traits (personality types, interests, and styles). The collective aggregate facet is composed of the staff and students that interact with the space.

The aggregate facet in an academic advising office should also consider the professionals working in the office. Each advising office must include professionals who have been trained to work with many types of students. Academic advisers do more than course scheduling and helping students understand graduation requirements. Therefore, it is important for each student to gain the information needed from someone with whom they relate. Strange & Banning (2001) suggest that students flock to individuals who are most like them. Offices should be conscious of the advising staff demographics, which include people from multiple backgrounds, religious affiliations, views, and personality types in order to assist their students most effectively.

The constructed environment consists of individuals’ “collective perceptions or constructions of the context and culture of the setting” (Strange & Banning, 2001, p. 5). Thus, individuals’ subjective views, opinions, and experiences create the reality for the environment in which they inhabit. This environment is entirely dependent on each inhabitant of the environment. Therefore, other than asking for this information there is no way to obtain it.

This is one of the hardest aspects of the environment to improve, simply because students must be assessed in order to obtain information. Without assessment, each office professional can only guess about the interpretations and perceptions of the office. For example, many practitioners feel it is the responsibility of the student to keep track of his or her academic record. However, the constructed perception on campus might be that students feel it is the adviser’s job. As another example, Oblinger (2003) observed that the new generation of students coming to higher education feels “customer service is an expectation, not an exception. Yet it is rare that students and institutions have the same expectations for service” (p. 42). Without assessment, office professionals would not be able to determine their constructed environment and thus improve its utility and impact for students.

The organization and processes of an environment make up the organizational facet. The policies and procedures in place, the distribution of resources, protocols, and how goals are achieved construct the organizational dimensions of any environment. These characteristics influence “performances of the environment, such as degrees of innovation, efficiency, production, and morale experiences in the setting” (Strange & Banning, 2001, p. 7).

The policies and procedures in place at many institutions exist to assist students develop meaningful educational plans. These and the mission, vision, and values of the office make up the organizational environment. CAS (2009) reported that the organization of an academic advising office should focus on promoting student learning and developmental outcomes. Advising professionals should purposefully structure and manage offices to appropriately achieve their stated goals. As such, academic advisers should be aware of the impact a policy or organizational system will have on their students. To be more responsive to students’ individual needs, academic advising offices must be flexible, encourage innovation, and engage students as meaningful participants (Strange & Banning, 2001). 

Environmental assessment is one of the most neglected forms of assessment (Upcraft & Schuh, 1996). It is crucial that academic advising offices begin assessing all the environmental facets that impact the learning of the institution’s students. Looking at all of these aspects will ensure that students feel comfortable in the office’s physical space; they will be greeted and helped by someone with whom they can identify; have a positive experience because their perspective and ideas were taken into consideration; and understand all office policies and procedures due to their ease of access and comprehension. Due to the responsibility of academic advisers to assist students, each office should be evaluating its physical, aggregate, constructed, and organizational environments on a continual basis to stay current on students’ environmental needs. It is evident that assessing and utilizing the study of environments will help to eliminate problematic constructions and improve student learning in academic advising.

References

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS). (2009). Academic advising programs: CAS standards and guidelines. Retrieved from http://www.cas.edu/getpdf.cfm?PDF=E864D2C4-D655-8F74-2E647CDECD29B7D0

Eckerty, J. (2011). “Approachable” “Intimidating” “Unprofessional” “Credible”: What do our offices say about us? NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/office-study.htm

Graetz, K. A., Goliber. M. J. (2003). Designing collaborative learning places: Psychological foundations and new frontiers. In N. Van Note Chism & D. J. Bickford (Eds.), The importance of physical space in creating supportive learning environments: New directions in teaching and learning, 92 (pp. 13–22). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.   Oblinger, D. G. (July/August 2003). Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials: Understanding the new students. EDUCAUSE Review, 38(4), 37–47. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erm0342.pdf

Oblinger, D. G. (2006). Space as a change agent. In D. G. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning spaces (pp. 8–10). Washington, DC: EDUCAUSE.

Strange, C. C., & Banning, J. H. (2001). Educating by design: Creating campus learning environments that work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Upcraft, M. L., & Schuh, J. H. (1996). Assessing campus environments. In M. L. Upcraft & J. H. Schuh (Eds.), Assessment in student affairs (pp. 166–188). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Author(s)

Melanie Marshall, Mercer University

Melanie Marshall is an area coordinator for Mercer University in Macon, GA. She can be reached at marshall_me@mercer.edu.

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