Investing in academic advising

A recent funding decision by the Provost’s Committee on Integrated Planning (PCIP) confirms for Gordon DesBrisay the institution’s commitment to providing its students with the best academic advising possible.

By Colleen MacPherson

DesBrisay, associate dean of student affairs in the College of Arts and Science, said the $500,000 per year dedicated to advising for the remaining two years of the current integrated plan plus a commitment to add $500,000 permanently to the college budget after that acknowledges "the change that had to happen in arts and science if the university as a whole was to see the benefit. It had to happen and the data demonstrating (the value of) that change reflects the actual human work going on backstage."

Addressing issues around undergraduate academic advising has been a priority for the U of S for some time, particularly since a 2010 review of the situation by three American consultants from the National Academic Advising Association. When that review was done, "we were at an all-time low with three-and-a-half full-time advisors for the entire college of about 8,500 students," said DesBrisay. As a result, additional resources committed by PCIP for two years starting in 2011 saw the number of advisors climb to 8.5, close to historic norms. Included are two Aboriginal advisors who work from the college's Aboriginal Student Achievement Centre.

The 2013 PCIP grant, he explained, made the advising positions permanent and created an additional position this year to support the reforms made to Open Studies. The grant, supplemented by funding from Shell Oil, has also enabled the college to hire and train student peer advisors.

"Pinched resources make for pinched policies and before the investments by PCIP, we were simply not able to meet the advising needs of our students. Now we're probably approaching national pre-eminence in terms of protocols, procedures and training."

The most significant change relates to access to advising. "We had a terrible reputation for delays and wait times," he said, "and advising delayed is advising denied." A triage process to deal with critical situations plus the additional staff means arts and science students can now see an advisor within a day or two rather than a week or two, and there is particular focus on connecting with firstyear and Aboriginal students.

Another big change has been going paperless in the advising, a process overseen by Gloria Brandon, director of student academic services in the college. DesBrisay said that in addition, student advising Director Sheryl Prouse spent about six months studying the existing system before altering training and various processes that created "a change of practice and of mindset to put students first, paperwork second."

There has also been a case management system instituted to build relationships with students throughout their time at university, he said.

"We've tried to move away from the model where advising is only a registration activity," and DegreeWorks, the online self-help advising system for progress toward a degree, has made a big difference, he said. "It's helping raise higher-level questions that drive students from the software to our human advisors. It's exactly what we expected and hoped for."

DegreeWorks and other advising reforms has also re-engaged faculty members "in the kinds of advising they like and are best suited to because it takes the technical stuff out of the way. Faculty can talk to students as academic, professional and career mentors without having to navigate them through the most complicated curriculum ever devised."

DesBrisay said student retention numbers are the number one indicator of advising success, and the numbers are good. In the first eight months of 2012 with a full complement of advisors in place, he said student retention in the college and the university climbed 2.5 per cent.

"Ultimately though, it's the people you help who matter. The numbers and the human dimension are related. It's the retention stories, the students who find their feet, who are reassured they're on the right path or who realize they don't have to stay on the same path. We open them up to possibilities they might not have considered."

The university's investment has been critical to improving advising, said DesBrisay. Moving advisors from term to permanent positions has also created a viable career path, he said, and concrete plans can be made for continued improvements like addressing the advising needs of upper-year students.

Following the 2010 advising review, a campus-wide advising council was established that will soon bring forward an advising charter. DesBrisay said the charter will define academic advising and explain the relationships between advising and other ancillary services. The council, he said, "is proving to be really useful at getting advisors advising each other."