Action Project: UW strives to improve lagging advising services

In 2010, the University of Wisconsin-Madison set aside $1.5 million in supplemental student tuition charges to improve the quality and accessibility of academic and career advising for undergraduate students.

The funding came from the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which invests student tuition dollars in the overall undergraduate experience and provides need-based financial aid.

The resulting report, completed by an MIU advising workgroup, outlined four areas in which the university’s advising was underperforming:

‘Undergraduates’ access to advisors needs to be improved’

Between 600 and 700 academic and career advisors currently serve UW-Madison’s 29,504 undergraduate students, according to Wren Singer, director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising. However, the university does not have a system to explicitly measure usage.

“Advisors are notoriously really busy and have lots and lots of appointments,” Singer said.

To alleviate advisor workloads, the university hired 34 academic advisors and advising leaders in 2011 using MIU funding, according to a 2013 MIU accountability report. The new hires allowed the university to create the Center for Pre-Law Advising, which opened in 2012.

The staff expansion also increased accessibility in the Center for Pre-Health Advising, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the biology major, the College of Engineering, the Cross College Advising Service and transfer advising.

The College of Engineering reduced the number of pre-engineering students per advisor from from 600 to 310, according to the report. Additionally, appointment times for the biology major—the most popular undergraduate major at UW-Madison—increased in duration from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.

UW-Madison freshman Rosie Uhen, an intended biology major, said she has not experienced problems scheduling an appointment with her CCAS advisor, Amy Shannon.

“I’ve had all-around great support from both the student advisors and my CCAS advisor,” Uhen said. “They’ve been wonderful.”

‘UW-Madison lacks a campus-wide leadership and coordination of advising’

The MIU advising workgroup also recommended creating a central director of academic advising to provide coordination among advising units on campus.

The university appointed Singer to the position in 2011 when creating the Office of Undergraduate advising.

Advising at UW-Madison is decentralized, Singer said, which means each school, college and department manages its own advising. The Office of Undergraduate Advising was created to coordinate and support each of these efforts.

Residence hall peer advisor and UW-Madison junior Andre Tan said it is difficult to figure out where to seek advising as a student, because it exists in so many places and forms.

“I think the general consensus is that it’s really messy all over campus because there are so many services,” Tan said.

The report also suggested creating an advising leadership council with a representative from each of the 11 schools and colleges who has decision-making power.

The advising leadership council formed approximately a year and half ago, according to Singer, and meets every two weeks to talk about campus-wide improvements to aspects of undergraduate advising. Discussion topics include SOAR, advisor evaluation and technology.

“[The council] is where we’re going to have a lot of opportunities to improve things because these are the people that can make it happen in each of the colleges,” Singer said. “And it’s been going really well.”

‘New advising-related technologies and information systems are needed’

Students need better tools to enroll in classes, Singer said.

Advisors have to spend time teaching students how to navigate the student center and enroll in classes when they could be having more meaningful conversations about academic planning and career goals.

“The system you have to use to enroll in your classes is ridiculously complicated,” Singer said. “We have to fix that. We have to make that easier.”

Shannon, for example, said she would like students to be able to organize their course schedules and input that information in one place.

“Having multiple different enrollment tools that function mostly separately and kind of connect at points I think is very confusing to students,” Shannon said.

Singer said the information systems advisors use also need to be more accessible and searchable.

MIU funding has gone toward improving the already existing Advisor Notes System, a system that allows advisors to categorize and log interactions with students, according to the follow-up 2013 MIU accountability report.

“It’s been really helpful,” Shannon said. “Before students come in, I try to look at their picture, their preferred name and what they’ve talked about before with advisors.”

‘Comprehensive and ongoing training, professional development and assessment would improve the quality of advising at UW-Madison’

“I think we need to train people more, and we’re really off to a good start on that,” Singer said. “We need to figure out how to evaluate advisors better and provide them with good feedback about how to do their jobs better.”

Starting in 2013, every new academic advisor participates in an eight-hour group training session, where they learn about the university’s academic system and advising techniques, according to Singer.

Advisors also have a “menu” of training and professional development opportunities available to them throughout the year, and approximately 90 to 95 percent of advisors choose to participate, according to Singer.

“Advisors really want to do this, they want to be good at their jobs, they want to be trained,” Singer said. “We don’t need to require it because that’s what they want to do.”

Shannon said a three-hour CCAS staff meeting every other week is devoted to professional development, where advisors learn about new programs and tools as well as talk about strategies to engage students.

“We’re looking at … how do we create a welcoming environment, how do we learn to ask questions in a way that invites somebody into the conversation?” Shannon said.

Additionally, the university does not have a means to measure campus-wide satisfaction with advising, although many individual departments seek student feedback in surveys, Singer said.

However, the majority of the feedback the Office of Undergraduate Advising receives comes in the form of stories and anecdotes. Singer said she intends to change that.

“If you came back and interviewed me in five to 10 years from now, I hope I have a whole different story to tell you about how all this works,” Singer said. “Because that’s the purpose of what I’m doing.”

When members of the Cross College Advising Service interviewed students on Library Mall, the most common response was “go to your advisor,” according to CCAS advisor Amy Shannon.

“It sounds self-serving, but it’s not,” Shannon said. “I swear we did not plant these people.”

Many students avoid advising due to negative Student Orientation and Registration experiences, University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Ally Jagodzinski said.

To improve the process and make SOAR more encouraging than stressful, the Office of Undergraduate Advising is consolidating course enrollment tools, according to Director Wren Singer.

Singer said “don’t give up,” in the meantime. “You want to take advantage of every drop of what we have to offer you, so go back,” she added.

Many students go into advising appointments with unrealistic expectations only to come out discouraged, according to Singer.

Students, especially right out of high school, want to be told what classes to take or what to major in, for example. But Singer said advising should teach students how to make their own decisions and guide them to helpful resources.

“We want advisors to be a coach and a mentor, and someone students can talk to as you figure out—from your first day of college to your last—how you’re going to make the most of everything we have here to prepare you for the future,” Singer said.

In this sense, advising “is a two-way street,” according to UW-Madison junior and resident hall peer advisor Andre Tan.

“We view higher education as some sort of purchase, when in fact it requires work on both sides,” Tan said.

Shannon, who also works in the Exploration Center for Majors and Careers, said students can incite more meaningful conversations about individual interests and skills

by investigating their options beforehand and bringing questions to advising appointments.

The most common mistake Shannon said students make is overdrawing the connection between majors and careers.

Only a handful of majors lead directly to a highly specific career, according to Shannon. Most others lend themselves to a variety of careers.

“What you’re interested in, what you’re good at doing, the experiences you’ve had, the skills you’ve built—that’s what helps you decide and move into the working world,” Shannon said.

Students can use their DARS report and course guide to plan their schedules, Shannon said. An advisor’s unique ability is asking students the questions they did not think to ask, that could change the way they play the game of life.

“We’re waiting and eager to have these conversations with you … but it starts with you coming to that appointment,” Shannon said.

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