The College Environment: Factors Influencing Student Transition and Their Impact on Academic Advising

W. J. Bruce Fleming, Kelly Howard, Elizabeth Perkins, and Michael Pesta, College of Charleston

In understanding the role played by the collegiate environment in the successful or unsuccessful transition of the incoming student, several questions must be addressed. These questions reflect the university's goals, mission statement, and its future direction. Furthermore, they provide an understanding of the college's views and vision about student learning. The development of students both academically and socially while they are members of the campus community is tantamount to the university's success. Therefore, these questions (What does the institution value? What is the institution's mission statement? What are the interactions between students and university officials?) must be investigated along with garnering a thorough understanding of the university's physical surroundings so as to best comprehend the impact a university has on its students, especially those making the transition to college. Thus, the campus environment and its effects on the student population can be addressed in three settings: peer interactions, classroom environment, and physical environment.

The questions in the previous paragraph are best answered in terms of student learning and development in both academic and social settings. However, prior to addressing them, it is important to more concisely comprehend the factors associated with student success at the university level. A variety of majors (similar across many campuses) is offered in liberal arts, sciences, business, and education as well as other recognizable departments. Academic periods begin in the fall and continue through the spring; these time parameters are typically called semesters or quarters. Classrooms, lecture halls, and laboratories provide central meeting spaces for structured faculty-student interactions. Also, learning experiences provided outside the regular classroom setting (most often residence hall programs) allow individuals to investigate their opinions and stances on issues seen in the media or experienced in their own lives. These out-of-class experiences give students the opportunity to hear other students' opinions, which may be different from their own.

Though many of these factors are universally acknowledged as being the backbone of many universities and colleges nationwide, institutions of higher education differ greatly when it comes to their size; the type of institution (for example, a public university—unlike a small, private liberal arts college—may have budgetary concerns that dictate number and skill level of incoming students); curriculum choices such as a science emphasis, a more liberal arts based education, or a technical school; and, lastly, funding sources available. Each of these factors helps in determining the university's characteristics, which, in turn, play an integral role in terms of the impact on the student with, and within, the surrounding environment.

In defining the characteristics of a university and how these traits affect enrolled students, two broad yet complementary features must be investigated. The first involves the physical aspects of the college (buildings, university grounds, and the community feeling it evokes), its organizational setting, and the demographics of the students who are enrolled in the college. Questions in this setting include, What is the size of the college? This question can be answered in relation to the college's physical surroundings as well as the student body. Is the college residentially based or more commuter-based? This question is based on the student body. What is the composition of the student body? The composition of the student body can be defined by gender, race, socioeconomic status, geographic origins, and demographics, all of which are easily understood as they are both significant and readily apparent to those investigating a college environment. By determining the values, makeup, attitudes, and personality of the individuals within the student body, one can better attest to the institution's strengths and weaknesses.

However, one does not obtain a “feel” for the campus environment by strictly looking at these specific characteristics. Therefore, the second category of the two broad groups includes the psychological or cultural feel of the campus itself. The institution's overall feel becomes extremely important in determining the relationship that develops between the college environment and its students. Feel is more easily defined as a campus's climate. In making oneself aware of the climate on campus, it is important to find the answers to questions like this one: Does the campus feel open and accessible to students? This feeling may be associated with access to university officials and the resources they provide: academic advising, career services, counseling, and faculty, for example. Is there a sense of community and pride shown by faculty, staff, and students? Is there a sense of security or safety for all cultural groups on campus?

Questions such as these provide the necessary information to show the relationship between the individual and his or her environment. In terms of the institution as a single entity, however, it is important to understand the link between its formal characteristics and the feel of its surroundings. This link determines the environmental impact that the university may have on an incoming student. Moos (1979), influential in Pace's theories of collegiate environment, determined that the university setting consists of three separate phases that interact upon one another: the physical buildings on campus and how they are arranged; the institution's size, resources, and university officials; and, importantly, the student body. Davis and Murrell (1993) call the student body the human aggregate and consider it to be the “collective norms of the institution” (p. 37). Questions asked within this human aggregate would possibly include the following: Do students actively participate in campus organizations? Do faculty members have an open-door policy with regards to students, or do students make appointments a week in advance? (Davis & Murrell, 1993, p. 37–38). These questions combine to determine the “normative aspect of the college environment” and are often reinforced through the physical surroundings and organizational setup of the university campus. In turn, all combine to create the social climate or feel that is experienced by the students going through the experience. According to Davis and Murrell, “the campus climate mediates, and is shaped by, the structural aspects of the collegiate environment” (p. 37–38).

Along with Moos, Pace (as cited in Moos, 1979) insisted that there is a connection between the collegiate environment's ability to be a shaping force and the successful or unsuccessful transition of students into the setting. Pace is noted for his ideas about students' responsibility for their own learning, but he believed that “environmental characteristics make up for the institutional context and the stimulus for the amount, scope, and quality of students' effort” (Moos, 1979, p. 128).

Another proponent of student development within the collegiate environment, Astin (1968) first wrote about the campus setting more than thirty years ago in his book, The College Environment. He postulated that individual achievement, behavior, self-esteem, and feelings of loneliness and alienation are often the result of a mismatch between the student and the environment. This idea is a preamble to work completed by Tinto (1975), who argued more formidably that the individual and the institution must be compatible and integrable so as to produce a successful, supportive relationship. This integration results in “a person's normative and structural integration into the academic and social systems,” leading to the successful career of a student at the post-secondary level (p. 96).

Building from these two premises, it is imperative to introduce Pascarella's General Causal Model of Student Development (1985), which asserts that both an institution's formal characteristics (such as size, location, and curriculum) and its environment provide the impetus for student development either successfully or unsuccessfully. This interaction between formal characteristics and the actual campus environment produces a visible and identifiable college climate that provides the structure for developing peer-to-peer relationships and student-faculty interactions, both of which require a high level of student effort and involvement.

Literature written about the college environment and its effects on student development suggests two components: formal organizational characteristics and college culture. The formal organizational characteristics such as size, faculty, and administration provide the basis for the shaping of the institution's environment. The environment, in turn, produces the basis for student behavior and, thus, the development of a college's climate or feel (Davis and Murrell, 1993, p. 38).

Webster's 9th New Collegiate Dictionary defines environment as “the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded; the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.” According to Astin (1968), “in the broadest sense, we can define the 'college environment' as including any characteristic of the college that constitutes a potential stimulus for the students” (p. 3). The task, then, is to determine and define the identifiable measures that are most likely to have some impact on the student. In the broadest possible terms, these categories are peer interactions, student-faculty relationships, and the physical environment of the college itself. These categories cause pressure upon the student and provide a stimulus effect on his or her academic and social development. With that in mind, let us turn our focus to the three previously stated characteristics that make up the college environment: peer interactions, classroom environment, and physical environment.

Peer Interactions

Peer-to-peer interactions, a major stimulant within the college environment, build the support base for success at the collegiate level. The potential impact of the peer environment multiplies with the increasing multitude of roles a student might play when interacting with others who reside and study in the same setting. These roles include roommate, classmate, boyfriend/girlfriend, study partner, competitor, and so on (Astin, 1968, p. 15). Because of the close proximity of college buildings and the small communities developed within campus residence halls, peer-to-peer interactions have the greatest influence, positive or negative, on students in the college environment. The variety of students and the frequency of contact among them—in class, at social events, while walking through residence hallways—provide a level of stimulation not seen in other settings. As Astin postulated in 1968, this level of interaction causes the college environment to be in flux and in the process of continual change.

This constantly changing and evolving environment is a testament to the variety of backgrounds brought to this setting by the students themselves. No longer are individual students surrounded by peers who are from the same neighborhoods, schools, and athletic teams. Now, in new physical surroundings (if leaving home to attend college), a student must meet and interact with new peers. Within this new setting, students must interact with people who have different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and/or differing value systems. The result, then, is an environment that challenges its inhabitants to be more exploratory in their attainment of knowledge and more reflective in their thinking while continually trying to make new acquaintances, take in the variety of offerings available on a college campus, and succeed academically in the classroom. It is no wonder that the peer environment is one of the most demanding and challenging aspects of integrating oneself into the college landscape.

In general terms, entering first-year students are novices surrounded by unfamiliar social stratifications. They are told to get ready for the best four years of their lives, but that is not all they need to be aware of as they begin their journey. Social systems of this unique new world include values, norms, and role structures that are alien to them. Starting college requires students to reexamine their previous social roles, values, and beliefs and replace them with a new set of values formed within peer environments such as residences, classes, and social activities. With this change comes the realization that they must establish themselves within a community that is both foreign and expansive. Upon leaving high school and their parents' homes, incoming students often have feelings of anonymity and loneliness, especially when faced with the often large and foreboding first-year lecture classes that are prevalent at many post-secondary institutions. Even if the collegiate environment fits incoming students comfortably, they must still negotiate and navigate challenges that are academic, intellectual, and social in nature. Therefore, it is no wonder that the peer environment is one of the most demanding and challenging aspects of integrating oneself into the college landscape. Students are literally thrown into an environment full of the unfamiliar.

Students are expected to form a new social group but are alone in that process. During the first few months, it is hard for them to remember that every other first-year student is going through the same transition as well. They know very little about those individuals surrounding them in residence halls, sitting next to them in class, and walking by them on campus. People tend to develop friendships with similar people, whether it is cultural tradition, religion, or politics that unifies them. However, the opportunities for a more diverse friendship base as a first-year student can challenge what may have shaped a student's social group prior to college.

For many, it is the simple acquaintances that later form lasting friendships. Students are in such close proximity to one another that the woman one sits next to in a 9:00 sociology class or the man one sees at Starbucks on the way to a 10:00 class may soon become a student's closest friends. The first few months are a struggle, since one may be surrounded by peers without forming a bond with anyone. It is a strange idea: being so physically close to so many others who are experiencing the same struggle yet still being alone in making a healthy transition to this new environment. In all of the transitions to college, it is no surprise that the peer environment is one of the most difficult; it is emotionally demanding, since a student's main support throughout the process is himself or herself.

Classroom Environment

Just as peer-to-peer interactions and social environments provide the impetus for development among incoming students, the classroom setting is a close second in terms of overall affect upon students. A full-time student enrolls in fifteen semester credits on average, possibly more with the addition of laboratory credits or physical education classes. Therefore, a student with this number of credits spends at least twenty hours per school week in the classroom environment. It is here that interactions among peers and between faculty and students allow for an introduction to college-level learning and the development of new ideas, thoughts, and beliefs on issues that are academically centered.

It is the classroom environment that provides a structured and regular learning opportunity for students. The exchange of ideas, or at least the presence of different values, beliefs, and attitudes, can be easily investigated and obtained. Interactions with both faculty members and other students allow for the transmission of information and play a key role in the shaping of individual thought. However, the classroom's role is not minimized at this level; in fact, though “the undergraduate student generally spends less time attending classes than he does engaging in other campus activities, the stimuli provided by the classroom experiences are probably among the most significant sources of influence during the undergraduate years” (Astin, 1968, p. 50).

The classroom is the first place an entering college student finds a sense of continuity. Classes occur in the same place at the same times every week; this kind of monotony is welcomed in the world of a new student. Students are introduced to a large number of people who have course work in common and who they will undoubtedly notice walking around campus. Simply recognizing fellow students on campus helps to develop a sense of community, which allows a first-year student to feel more comfortable at college.

These acquaintances and friendships typically develop between students with similar interests and motivations. Primarily, two types of students enter a first-year college class: those who excel in the classroom and exhibit an insatiable appetite for learning and those who enter classrooms with an immediate aversion to being there. However, both types of students face a significant challenge in adapting to the college classroom, where the conventions differ greatly from that of a high school. The student who excelled in high school most likely received credits for some of the entry-level classes at college and now takes classes with sophomores and even juniors in some cases. Such an experience is doubly intimidating: the entire experience of being at college is new, and the student feels equally uncomfortable in his or her classes because of the classmates who outrank him or her. The other type of student faces the challenge of quickly adapting to an appropriate learning style as well as the accelerated pace of college classes.

Exactly how beneficial the classroom environment is in making a new student feel comfortable and welcomed in his or her new environment hinges on the faculty member teaching the course as well as the level of the course. Classes in which the professor establishes a class structure that actively engages students in the learning process benefit new students more than large, dry, sterile lecture classes. For example, faculty members who actively engage students might encourage classroom discussion, engage students by using their names, and regularly take roll to demonstrate that attendance and success go hand in hand. A savvy faculty member given the proper resources, primarily a small class size, has the ability to jump-start the academic careers of new students by creating a classroom environment that welcomes participation from all students, regardless of their interests. Students are more likely to develop friendships and acquaintanceships in classes in which the professor demands student participation. However, a great deal of the burden falls on the student when it comes to making first-year classes a beneficial experience.

Depending on the institution type and size (for example, comparing a small liberal arts school with a large research institution), the classroom environment will be structured differently, and the student outcomes will also be of a different nature. A primarily teaching-based institution might have relatively small class sizes in terms of enrolled students; institutions of this type weigh teaching equally or more heavily than research in the tenure process of its faculty. On the contrary, larger research institutions view publications and grants that bring prestige to the department and university as more important than impressive teaching records and faculty-student rapport.

The classroom serves as a springboard for new relationships that will include the individual student as an integral part of the community at a college or university. Therefore, an incoming student's successful transition into the university is the result of peer environment and classroom environments as well as the physical aspects of the institution such as type, size, and location.

Physical Environment

An institution's type, size, and location play an important role in determining the campus environment in such ways as administration, proximity of residences to campus, and the overall feel of the university. Though most research has avoided this topic (much of it looking at student development both academically and socially), the physical facilities and environment of the higher education system concern many administrators. At first glance, the physical environment would be defined as “the classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and other facilities directly connected with student life or with the academic program of the institution” (Astin, 1968, p. 84). However, on a more specific level, the physical environment includes the university environment (residence halls, classrooms, and Greek Row, for example) along with the local community and the surrounding geographical location of the university. All of this information can be placed into four categories: type of college town, climate, geography of the campus and the town, and student residences.

Residence halls become an important focus within the physical environment for various reasons. First, students spend a great deal of time within them, studying, interacting, and sleeping. If the residence hall is not able to provide an environment in which such activities can take place, the result can be detrimental to the students living there. Furthermore, the distance between residences and campus buildings can be a factor of interest. For example, if free tutoring is offered but is located across campus on a cold, rainy or snowy Northeast night, chances are that the service is seldom utilized, though free. On many college campuses, buildings are being restored to include administration and faculty offices, classroom and learning space, and resident space. The goal of this movement is to promote a living-learning-leading theme through connections between faculty and students.

Though residential environments are extremely important, the surrounding geographical area and the town in which the university is situated are of equal importance. The majority of students attending a university spend approximately nine months of the year in that setting. If a student experiences extreme changes in his or her physical environment (whether it be climate or size or both), the effects can be far-reaching. The town provides an escape from the university environment and all that it entails: roommates, classes, and studies. Therefore, a town or city that provides opportunities such as museums, shopping, sports, concerts, and the like may be better all-around environments for many students. However, too many distractions can be detrimental to the student as well. A delicate balance, then, must be struck between the university setting and the environment surrounding it to ensure that students have the opportunity to succeed.

An end result of these factors—the three environmental characteristics affecting students within the university setting—is that the university's environment is shaped by several outside factors. The most important of these factors is the students themselves. Each individual brings to this setting cultural baggage that has been amended throughout their experiences prior to attending college. Twelve years of high school has ingrained into them specific learning patterns that, for the most part, need to be unlearned to succeed at the post-secondary level. Living in the same geographical location has isolated the student from other parts of the country and, subsequently, other points of view. Surrounding themselves with similar people has blocked them from differing viewpoints, races, class, and other socioeconomic factors.

Understanding Student Transition and Advising First Year Students

Obviously, there are many factors associated with the level of success each student reaches when he or she becomes a member of the university learning community for the first time. Upon leaving high school, students encounter a new educational environment and, with the skill sets developed previously, must apply the information they learn to a more expansive and intensive experience. Understanding the variety of issues present for each student or, at the very least, a notion of what is to come can help to prepare students more thoroughly and can help them to become more resilient to change, fears, and developments. The role that an academic adviser plays during this transition begins in the first meeting with a student, usually within the confines of a summer orientation program.

During the first meeting, the adviser must begin to forge a relationship with the advisee. This task can be difficult if the meeting is short—for example, if the adviser has time constraints and must meet with several students throughout a long and arduous day. Students have much more on their minds than course selection and understanding general education requirements. They are overwhelmed by the intensity of the orientation program—new buildings, new people putting information into their heads and hands at every stop, other first-year students from various locations—and often find themselves being shuffled from appointment to appointment without much time to reflect upon what they have encountered. Therefore, for this reason and many others, advisers must use their time with students creatively to ensure that a lasting impression has been indelibly printed on students' minds.

As we look at the three specific first-year transition issues affecting the incoming student, we can determine how to help these students from an advising standpoint. Developing an adviser-advisee relationship early in a student's college career can remove the barriers preventing these students from coming into the adviser's office to ask questions and learn answers. The early formation of this relationship is an important factor in retaining students.

Students who feel comfortable with the academic and social transition into the collegiate environment are more likely to persist through graduation. Advisers play a large role in this success. A student who develops an early relationship with an adviser is likely to return to the adviser later for referrals to necessary campus resources throughout the semester, academic year, and his or her college career. This communication will help the student to reach his or her goals, one of which is to create an appropriate schedule.

Creating a schedule with an informed adviser provides an opportunity for both the student and the adviser to participate in choosing courses in which the student can be successful. Understanding how students learn best, what their major and career goals are, and how additional extracurricular activities (athletics, employment, or clubs, for example) will affect class times can help in developing an appropriate class schedule. Matching students' learning abilities and types with professor instruction and assessment styles can enhance the classroom transition that occurs each semester. Again, developing a trusting relationship with advisees is important to this level of success in the advising arena. Furthermore, with the majority of the students' time being used to attend classes, complete assignments, and study for exams, it is important that academic matches occur within the framework of the classroom setting. With the important role that classroom time plays in peer development, even more importance is placed on this decision making process.

Within the classroom, students gravitate toward similar individuals, helping to build the peer-to-peer relationships that are often seen as the cornerstone to success at the college level. Advisers who have strong relationships with their advisees can place students in class settings that will enable them to develop academic interests supported by their classroom peers. In each class, students are introduced to a large selection of peers and can draw from each experience a connection to a group of individuals who can support and enhance the academic and social transition into this new learning environment.

In reality, then, the initial meeting between adviser and advisee, on a hot summer day, crowded into a small room with other advisers and advisees, helps with the transition from one learning environment to another. Advisers who understand students' learning styles and needs and who recognize the influence of the college's physical setting, the classroom setting, and peers on the academic and social development of advisees can provide the support that students need to reach their goals. Acknowledging the connection between the college environment and the factors affecting successful student transition enhances the academic advising experience, contributing positively to the retention of students from year to year.

References

Astin, A. (1968). The college environment. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Davis, T. M., & Murrell, P. H. (1993). Turning teaching into learning: The role of student responsibility in the collegiate experience (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 8). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED372703)

Moos, R. (1979). Evaluating educational environments: Procedures, measures, findings, and policy implications. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E. T. (1985). Students' affective development within the college environment. Journal of Higher Education, 56(6), 641–663.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Education Research, 45, 89–125.

Additional Resources

Astin, A. (1977). Four critical years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Astin, A. (1985). Achieving educational excellence: A critical assessment of priorities and practices in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Edison, M., Nora, A., Pascarella, E. T., Terenzini, P. T., & Whitt, E. J. (1999). Interactions with peers and objectives and self-reported cognitive outcomes across 3 years of college. Journal of College Student Development. 40(1), 61–78.

Gardner, J. N., & Jewler, J. A. (1989). College is only the beginning: A student guide to higher education (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Gardner, J. N., & Upcraft, M. L. (1989). The freshman year experience: Helping students survive and succeed in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, J. N., & Jewler, J. A. (1987). Step by step to college success. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Moffat, M. (1991). Undergraduate culture and higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 62(1), 44–61.

Moos, R. (1976). The human context: Environmental determinants of behavior. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Pascarella, E. T. (1984). College environmental influences on learning and cognitive development: A critical review and synthesis. In J. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. 3, pp. 271–326). New York: Agathon Press.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E. T., Terenzini, P. T., & Wolfle, L. M. (1991). Orientation to college and freshman year persistence/withdrawal decisions. Journal of Higher Education 5(2), 155–174.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Authors

W. J. Bruce Fleming is academic adviser/faculty at the College of Charleston. Kelly Howard, Elizabeth Perkins, and Michael Pesta are students at the College of Charleston. Dr. Fleming can be reached at flemingw@cofc.edu or 843-953-5981.

Published in The Mentor on July 13, 2005, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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