Faculty Advising Fellows: Lessons Learned

Mo Cuevas, Our Lady of the Lake University
Melody Loya, West Texas A&M University
Rebekah Bachman, West Texas A&M University

Abstract

This paper explores the Faculty Advising Fellows program at a small regional university. The program began in 2007 to supplement the work of professional advisers. Focus groups and interviews involved Faculty Advising Fellows, professional staff advisers, and former Fellows, all of whom gave their perceptions of the program, addressed areas of strength, and discussed ways the program could be improved. This article also presents a short history of the advising process and gives the results of the qualitative research related to each group of participants, with the themes of each group identified. The lessons learned are provided so other universities might benefit from the process, program, and experiences of this school.

Many different advising models exist at universities, with some focusing on faculty as advisers, some using professional staff advisers, and others using a combination. The model discussed in this paper was developed at a relatively small regional university, where the student enrollment varies but was approximately 6,500 undergraduates and 1,500 graduate students each fall semester of this study.

Advising Services

Many state policies impact the work of advising services in this public university. Forty-two hours of state-mandated core curriculum exist, as well as a state-required limit of 120 hours for degree plans. Students must meet with an adviser each semester prior to registration; centralized advising is used for students with up to 30 credit hours. Once students reach 30 hours, their advising depends upon their degree program. In some programs, faculty provide advising for undergraduates from 31 hours through degree completion; first-year students are introduced to a faculty member during their last centralized advising appointment and then meet with that faculty member thereafter. In other programs, students remain in the centralized advising model through 45 hours, transitioning at that point into their degree plan. Finally, there are a few programs that use a transitioning model allowing students within the 31- to 45-credit window to either meet with a faculty member or go to centralized advising each semester, transitioning completely to the department after completing a total of 45 hours.

Faculty Advising Fellows (FAF) Program

The Faculty Advising Fellows (FAF) program began in 2007 to provide support to full-time advisers as registration numbers increased on an annual basis. The advent of required “greenlighting,” or mandatory advising occurring each semester prior to registration, further increased the advising responsibilities of full-time professional staff advisers. Faculty members interested in the FAF program were interviewed by a panel and then selected based on their demonstrated levels of student-centeredness. Following program participation, Fellows were encouraged to share the knowledge and skills they gained from the program to their own departments to enhance the institution’s awareness of academic advising as it involves teaching, guiding, and building relationships.

The Faculty Advising Fellowship is a twenty-four-month position for which faculty members receive either three hours of release time or a $3,200 stipend each fall, spring, and full summer term. At the time the program began, faculty Fellows served ten hours per week in the advising services office, and the stipend was $5,000.00. Due to budget changes and revisions to the Fellows program, participants now serve eight hours per week. They are also expected to attend all New and Transfer Student orientations during the summer months.

Activities and Programs. Faculty Fellows fill a variety of roles in the advising center. Their primary activity is student advising, which can include discussing probationary requirements, majors and degree plans, required and recommended classes, transfer credits, as well as personal concerns. Alongside full-time staff advisers, they work with new first-year and transfer students as well as current students who have earned fewer than 45 credit hours. Faculty advisers also follow up on “early alert” notifications submitted by faculty when students are not attending or are performing poorly in their classes, and they provide support and skill development for students on probation. Fellows also help to advise and process reinstatements (when students are returning after a suspension) for students with fewer than 45 credit hours.

Selection Process. Faculty members interested in applying to the FAF program submit an application, which must be approved by their department chair and dean. They must include three on-campus references who can speak to their student-centered approach to working with students. Applicants additionally go through an interview process with several of the full-time professional advisers and current Faculty Fellows, and the names of those chosen are then forwarded to the provost for final approval.

Training. Once selected, Faculty Advising Fellows complete a comprehensive training program to prepare them to advise students in any major on campus. Every August a two-day training session includes department chairs sharing specifics about their programs, discussing course sequencing concerns for their majors, and anything else first-year and/or early sophomore students need to know about the major they are pursuing. This allows the Fellows the opportunity to get to know more about departments and degree plans with which they are not familiar, but also to know whom to contact with questions related to any particular program or degree plan. Twice per month, the Fellows and the professional advisers meet for continued professional development and discussions about concerns that may have arisen. Because of the sheer breadth of information that Fellows must process and the commitment required of professional staff advisers in training the Fellows, the initial faculty commitment is for two years. During this time, Fellows learn to manage a myriad of student needs and issues and gain the experience required to effectively handle them. A staff adviser is always available for consultation and support when the Fellows are working in the advising services office.

Benefits. Data show how the FAF program makes the role of full-time professional adviser more manageable on this regional campus. During the 2013–2014 academic year, the advising services office (including the FAFs) provided assistance to students through 19,933 visits, phone calls, and emails while also processing 1657 early-alert notifications. In terms of adviser loads, this represented 2694 student contacts per full-time adviser (in visits/phone calls/emails) and 224 early alerts processed per adviser. Without the Faculty Fellows, this volume of student assistance would fall under the purview of five full-time advisers, reflecting much more extreme ratios. The Fellows are clearly giving much needed support to the advising staff and serving a critical role for students across majors.

Review of the Literature

Professional advising is a relatively new phenomenon. According to Cook (2009), the first steps toward the true professionalization of academic advising were taken when the National Academic Advising Association was formed in 1979. The first advisers were primarily faculty members; however, due to the growing specialization options in degree programs, responsibility for advising gradually shifted from faculty to various offices focusing on career guidance, personal counseling, and academic advice (Cook, 2009). However, advising had undergone many changes prior to the formalization of the professional advising association. By 1932, the foundational philosophy of advising as course selection had widened to include a holistic focus, taking into account how micro (individual) and macro (societal/institutional) factors could impact a student’s performance (Cook, 2009). The University of Chicago established these principles, hiring a dean of students to oversee the “counseling structure” (Cook, 2009, p. 21) that was in place. The growth in understanding the impact of outside factors on student adjustment and academic performance was but a mirror of the new understanding taking place within society. The University of Chicago’s renowned School of Sociology probably had no small part in this forward-thinking approach regarding advising holistically.

The roots of tension between professional advisers and faculty advisers run deep. By 1941, Wren (as cited in Cook, 2009, p. 21) “called for an end to the perpetual tension between faculty advisers and professional (personnel workers) advisers.” As veterans of World War II entered colleges with support from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the demand for advising grew as the needs of these students were distinctly different from those of more traditional students in higher education. By 1958, academic advising was seen as a problem, reflecting “the mutual suspicion, mistrust, and hostility that existed between faculty and professional advisors” (Cook, 2009, p.22).

Due to this changing landscape of college life, which includes the growth of specializations, degree options, and student demographics, as well as the increasing expectations placed upon faculty for research, scholarly publications, and other tenure requirements, the need for professional academic advisers grew. During the 1970s, the student population changed once again, due in large part to federal programs for financial aid, more first-generation students, and many more community colleges. These changing demographics of college students meant that students needed more support than ever before. These factors again increased the need for professional academic advisers (Cook, 2009). In 1979, 82–89 percent of advising in four-year institutions remained the responsibility of faculty; however advising was a low priority for many of them (Cook, 2009). By the 1980s, the growth of professional advising was obvious, and although most advising continued to be done by faculty members, the stage was set for professional staff advising to take off. Faculty advising duties were not considered in tenure and promotion decisions in most settings, thus reinforcing the low priority faculty placed on the process of advising (Cook, 2009).

The establishment of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) in 1979 began the transformation of advising from determining course scheduling to a broader focus harkening back to the University of Chicago’s holistic view. NACADA has played an integral role in addressing the professionalization of academic advising; however, faculty advising has not kept pace. Although some have called for the elevation of advising among faculty (Habley, 2009), and others have called for research focusing on advisers, not just advisees (McGillin, 2000), there has been little research on faculty advisers, and advising appears to be just one more duty on a professor’s plate.

The purpose of this exploratory study was to survey Faculty Advising Fellows and full-time professional advisers regarding the FAF program at one mid-sized (approximately 6,500 undergraduates)  regional public university (located in a rural setting). At the time of the survey, advising of first-year students and sophomores occurred through a centralized advising model, while juniors and seniors were advised almost exclusively by faculty advisers in their departments.

Methodology

Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was requested to permit interviews and focus groups with faculty Fellows, full-time advisers, and participants who had completed the program. IRB approval enabled investigators to explore the strengths and challenges of the advising model.

First, the five full-time advisers were asked questions about the program in an hour-long focus group, reflecting 100 percent participation. Though there was some participation by a vocal few, most of the professional staff advisers had little to say about the program. Next, the ten Faculty Fellows, representing 100 percent participation, took part in an hour-long focus group in which the same dynamic took place: A few spoke, but the majority remained quiet. It is possible there was little response because of the researchers’ close ties with the program (both serving as Fellows at the time), and the discomfort associated with saying something negative and then working with the researchers may have precluded their comments. To compensate for this, a graduate-level social-work student conducted semi-structured individual interviews with each member of the three groups (N=18) to ensure individuals felt their feedback was anonymous. Of the three former faculty advisers contacted, two participated in the interviews, resulting in 66 percent participation. A total of seventeen interviews took place with questions depicted below.

Interview Questions

For Former Faculty Advising Fellows:

  • How long were you in the role of Faculty Advising Fellow?
  • Faculty Advising Fellows gave you an opportunity to work with students in a different advising capacity. What was this experience like for you?
  • What did you enjoy about being a Faculty Advising Fellow?
  • What was challenging about it?
  • What did you like about being a part of the Faculty Advising Fellows community?
  • What did you not like about being a part of that community?
  • What was your most valuable experience in this role?
  • What kept you in the role of Faculty Advising Fellow for as long as you stayed?
  • What influenced your decision to leave that role?
  • Is there anything that would have kept you in the role for longer? If so, what would that be?
  • Is there anything else you would like to add?

For Administrators / Full-Time Advisers:

  • How long have you worked with the Faculty Advising Fellows program?
  • Faculty Advising Fellows gave you an opportunity to work with faculty in a different capacity. What is this experience like for you?
  • What do you enjoy about working with the Faculty Advising Fellows?
  • What is challenging about it?
  • What did you like about having faculty as a part of the advising community?
  • What did you not like about faculty being a part of that community?
  • What was your most valuable experience with a Faculty Advising Fellow?
  • What do you wish was different about the Faculty Advising Fellows program?
  • What could you do differently in your role in this program?
  • Is there anything else you would like to add?

For Current Faculty Advising Fellows:

  • How long have you worked with the Faculty Advising Fellows program?
  • Faculty Advising Fellows gives you an opportunity to work with advising in a different capacity.  What is this experience like for you?
  • What do you enjoy about working with the Faculty Advising Fellows?
  • What is challenging about it?
  • What did you like about being a part of the advising community?
  • What did you not like about being a part of this community?
  • What is your most valuable experience as a Faculty Advising Fellow?
  • What do you wish was different about the Faculty Advising Fellows program?
  • What could you do differently in your role in this program?
  • Is there anything else you would like to add?

Feedback from the focus groups and interviews was then transcribed, and the transcripts were analyzed using content analytic procedures (Patton, 2001). Following transcription, the same master’s-level social-work student analyzed the content to identify major themes in the interview and focus-group responses. Categories and subcategories were developed that reflected participant ideas and responses. The coder then examined each transcript and identified all distinct statements (any word, phrase, sentence, or response pertaining to a single concept). Statements were coded into a category/subcategory and the coded statements organized into nodes containing similar concepts and hierarchies of categories and subcategories.

These methods followed those prescribed by content analysis methodology (Berg, 2004). Though time consuming, content analysis has been widely used since the 1950s. The researcher objectively looks for words, phrases, sentences, or chunks of text that convey a specific theme. In this case the texts examined were the interviews and focus-group transcriptions. During content analysis, the text is coded into themes and then examined using a conceptual classification system (Grinnell, Williams, & Unrau, 2014).

The conceptual classification system involved choosing a concept and recording the number of times it occurred in the text. The results are used to make inferences about what the text conveys (Grinnell, Williams, & Unrau, 2014). In this case, six dominant themes emerged.

Results

Full-Time Professional Adviser Themes

Faculty as People. Full-time staff advisers had much to say about the Faculty Advising Fellows program, and several themes developed from their responses. The first simply indicated that working with faculty members in this capacity gave staff advisers more insight into faculty members as people and helped to bridge the gap between faculty and staff. This allowed the professional advisers to feel more connected to various departments and to feel they understood the workings of the university more completely due to this connection. This was evidenced by comments such as “Now we know what we don’t know about faculty; before we couldn’t even ask the right questions.”

Networking. A second theme highlighted by full-time advisers was one of networking. They felt the Faculty Advising Fellows program allowed them to learn about different departments on campus and connect students more effectively with faculty members in those departments. Also the full-time advisers regarded the Faculty Fellows as very student-centered and respected the “unique blend and diversity among faculty, but all share distinctive goals for student success.” They indicated faculty members in the advising services office helped to legitimize the role of advising across campus and gave advising efforts more credibility when reaching out for information to many of the departments.

Separation between Faculty and Staff. Frustration was evident among the full-time staff advisers, who felt that even in the Fellows role, some faculty members still distinguished faculty from staff and differentiated the tasks each group should perform. Many of the Fellows saw their respective roles as equal or lateral, but others seemed to minimize the importance of the professional staff advisers while elevating the status of faculty members.

Faculty Advising Fellows Themes

Knowledge. The first and strongest theme identified by the Faculty Advising Fellows was one of knowledge. They valued learning about different programs on campus and about the overall services available to students. Too often, because they are isolated in a department, faculty members do not learn about resources and options available to students and therefore do not encourage students to explore them. Armed with this information, Fellows felt they could more effectively advise their own majors as well as the first- and second-year students they saw in the advising services office. Some comments included: “Knowing more about the services available for students makes me a better faculty person.” “I have enjoyed gaining knowledge about degree programs and other options ….”

Relationships. The next theme encompassed community and relationships. Comments included: “Working in advising allows me to develop relationships with other faculty and with the full-time professional advisors, adding a ‘human element’ to the sometimes isolating job of teaching;” “I felt isolated in my department, wanted to get out and know more about other faculty and programs.” Faculty felt the sense of community in the advising services office helped them to connect with other faculty members as well as with the staff in the area, which in turn was passed on to the students who received assistance. Other responses included: “It has become my ‘home away from home’ … I came for various reasons; I stay because of the culture/climate of the center.”

Student Centeredness. Faculty Fellows indicated the program helped them become more student centered, allowing them to assist students in the process to “… get better services at our smaller, regional institution. I can help them not get lost in the shuffle.” Ultimately, Fellows felt they were more adept and comfortable serving the “whole student” and able to address more of the needs students presented.

Discussion and Lessons Learned

The first lesson learned was the incredible value both Faculty Fellows and staff advisers placed on their relationship with each other. This allowed each group to regard the other more fully and to understand their roles at the university more completely. Through these relationships, a deeper level of mutual respect developed. This lesson suggests more interaction between faculty and staff should take place so that all may benefit and build more of a community.

Next, the crossover and collegiality that developed among faculty members across colleges and departments appeared to have great value and benefit. Too often faculty members in different colleges and departments rarely see one another and even more infrequently interact at a level leading to a sense of commonality and allowing the faculty to give and receive additional support. Knowing how important this interaction is can help departments intentionally plan meetings and activities where their faculty members come together in a collegial setting.

The relationship between students and departmental faculty is critical and becomes, as students progress, like a professional mentoring of sorts. As degree plans move forward and students have fewer options for electives or choices within certain degree programs, keeping undergraduates on an appropriate academic track can help with retention. This lesson reminded all advisers to connect students with faculty members in their departments early on so that those relationships have time to grow and develop.

Finally, the advising services staff learned their program should be as much of a resource for faculty as it is for students and help departmental faculty become more comfortable in the advising role they play and teach them the skills needed to do this effectively. Often departmental faculty members are asked to advise with little or no training or familiarity with best practices. Sometimes these requirements can be complex and faculty often avoid advising because they don’t want to put the student’s degree completion in jeopardy. Providing ongoing training about the advising process and the “nuts and bolts” of general education requirements would serve a dual purpose for the advising services office. First, it would allow departmental faculty to feel more confident in their ability to advise students, thus lessening the burden of responsibility on the professional staff advisers who see students who feel their needs are not being met in the department. Additionally, it would create an environment in which faculty and staff could interact more regularly, encouraging those relationships to foster and each group to understand the roles the other plays at the university.

Limitations of the Study and Future Research

One limitation of the study was that the researchers were very involved in the program and staff advisers and Fellows might not have felt comfortable expressing their perspectives even to the graduate student working on the project. Both faculty members involved in this project served in the Master’s of Science in Social Work program, and it was their student working on the project. Another limitation was that, though the level of participation was high, the sample number was still small, based on the size of the program and the university. A similar program at a larger university, where more faculty are involved, might render different or more varied results. Finally, additional research needs to be done to learn the students’ perspective of Faculty Advising Fellows and address how they view the Fellows’ role, if they believe it is beneficial to them, and whether they like the opportunity to connect with faculty from different parts of campus through their advising experience. Gathering more information about the Fellows’, professional advisers’, and students’ experiences of the program would help administrators fine tune the specifics of the program and make it more beneficial to all involved.

References

Berg, B. L. (2004). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Cook, S. (2009). Important events in the development of academic advising in the United States. NACADA Journal, 29(2), 18–40.

Grinnell, R. M., Williams, M., & Unrau, Y. A. (2014). Research methods for social workers: An introduction (10th ed.). Kalamazoo, MI: Pair Bond Publications.

Habley, W. (2009). Academic advising as a field of inquiry. NACADA Journal, 29(2), 76–83.

McGillin, V. A. (2000). Current issues in advising research. In V. N. Gordon & W. R. Habley (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook. (pp. 365–380). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Patton, M. Q. (2001) Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Los Angelos, CA: Sage.

About the Author(s)

Mo Cuevas, Our Lady of the Lake University

Mo Cuevas, Ph.D., LCSW, is the director of the Worden School of Social Science at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX. She can be reached at mccuevas@lake.ollusa.edu.

Melody Loya, West Texas A&M University

Melody Loya, Ph.D., LMSW is the director of the MSSW Program at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, TX. She can be reached at mloya@wtamu.edu.

Rebekah Bachman, West Texas A&M University

Rebekah Bachman, M.A., is the director of Advising Services at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, TX. She can be reached at rbachman@wtamu.edu.

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