Up Close and Very Personal: Advising at Lewis & Clark

The College’s successful advising pilot goes mainstream.

Rebecca Copenhaver, assistant professor of philosophy, looked over the proposed schedule of her advisee, Connor Garvey, a first-year student from Maine. Garvey, who is considering a biology major and a philosophy minor, was proposing an intense lineup of required courses for the first semester of his sophomore year.

Copenhaver knows Garvey well—not only because he is one of her advisees, but also because he was enrolled in her Introduction to Ethics course during his first semester on campus. Having witnessed his responses to issues in class, she’s become familiar with his values and opinions. On several occasions, they’ve had hallway or office conversations about everything from philosophical relativism to the Portland music scene.

The advising team (clockwise, from left): Dell Smith, registrar of the College, Randy Marsh ’04, Connor Garvey ’06, and Rebecca Copenhaver, assistant professor of philosophy.

Knowing more about Garvey than his proposed course schedule revealed, she asked him just one thing: “What about fun?”

Why would she ask that question?

“Connor is a typical Lewis & Clark student. He is earnest, positive, and engaged,” reflects “Becko,” as her students call her. She says that Garvey is also typical in that he feels urgency about completing his general requirements. “Connor has many interests,” she continues. “And I know that if students like Connor have some fun in their schedule, they are more likely to be happy and stay.”

What did Garvey choose to do, at his adviser’s suggestion, to lighten his learning load? “I’m interested in marine biology,” he says, “so maybe scuba diving.”

Welcome to advising, 21st-century style, at Lewis & Clark.

Pilot Program Launched

Many Lewis & Clark graduates will remember their first-year adviser as the person who met with them during the most confusing week of their life (before school started), helped them choose courses, and then signed their registration forms each semester until they chose a major adviser. Under the old model, adviser and student needed to meet only a few times each year. While that worked well for many students, there were lost opportunities.

“We had been thinking about how we could improve advising at Lewis & Clark,” says Curtis Johnson, dean of the College and Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Professor of Government. “Then NSSE confirmed that we weren’t doing everything we might do.”

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is a learning assessment tool that came on the scene in 2000. Unlike the U.S. News & World Report survey, which focuses on institutional attributes, NSSE focuses on the students’ educational experience. The survey asks students how and where they spend their time, the types of assignments they complete, and the nature and quality of their interaction with faculty and classmates. The 2002 survey included 135,000 first-year and senior students at 613 colleges nationwide.

While the results for Lewis & Clark students exceeded national norms in most areas, Jay Beaman, director of institutional research, saw a blip in the data about advising. He evaluated three additional data sources alongside the NSSE results to further understand the students’ early advising experience.

“We came away from this exercise with a sense that we could do better in the area of premajor advising,” says Beaman.

The research exercise led to action. Under the direction of Johnson, a committee began devising a new advising program in spring 2002. By fall, the College had launched a pilot program involving 85 students and 8 faculty members.

We want each new student to be surrounded by a network of faculty, staff, and older students so no matter what the question, they know someone who can help them find the answer.

The Advising Team

How does the pilot program differ from the previous advising method? The new program brings advising into the classroom so that each first-year student is counseled by a faculty member who is also his or her teacher—something Johnson had seen work well at other colleges. Johnson and committee tweaked the model by adding upper-division peer advisers as well as staff mentors to each advising group.

“We want each new student to be surrounded by a network of faculty, staff, and older students so no matter what the question, they know someone who can help them find the answer,” says Johnson. The team is first introduced to the advising group in class. Subsequent encounters happen, for the most part, outside of class and in informal settings. Johnson says the advising changes are happening within a larger context: The College is moving toward a pedagogical model that links the classroom and the residential experience.

This approach is already partially at work in the pilot program. Garvey lives in the same residence hall as his peer adviser, Randy Marsh, a junior music major from Honolulu. “We both like music so we’ve talked a bit about that,” says Garvey. 

In addition, Garvey also came to know staff mentor Dell Smith, registrar of the College. “It’s a fine balance—to be present and available but not overwhelm students with advice,” says Smith, who, in addition to the face-to-face gatherings, has invited his group of advisees via e-mail to call upon him if they have any questions.

Just knowing more people on campus was a boon to Garvey. “It’s comfortable to know that I have a connection to quite a few people,” he says. Garvey’s peer adviser concurs: “I think advisees like the idea of knowing someone older whom they can turn to if they need to,” observes Marsh. “It gives them an added level of security.”

The Student-Faculty Connection

Under the new program, faculty members and their advisees meet regularly over issues of course selection and academic planning. The real bonus is that faculty members see students in class on at least a weekly basis. 

“In the past, you’d see a student and they seemed fine on that particular Tuesday, but what you missed was that, for example, they were feeling adrift for the past four weeks,” says Copenhaver. Now, she says, the faculty member and the advisee have a relationship in place that allows them to go beyond discussions of course selection. “I like to talk with students about how their education might bear on their life goals,” she says. “A liberal arts education is the education of an entire person, a complete human being. I’d like to think that my discussions with students help them make the most of their experience here.”

Garvey says that while he’ll probably change advisers once he declares his major, his interactions with Copenhaver have been a highlight of his first year. He also enjoyed the opportunities to gather informally. “Becko made us dinner at her house and the conversation kept coming back around to ethics in current events. It was great,” he recalls.

Research Proves Program Success

Was the pilot program working? To find out, Kristi Williams, coordinator of academic advising, surveyed the entire first-year class at the end of the fall semester. While few significant variances emerged between regular students and pilot program students, researchers found enough positive evidence to expand the program.

“On several key questions the pilot group rated higher,” says Beaman. “From the perspective of both students and faculty, the program has been very successful.” In fall 2003, 160 to 200 students will join the pilot program, and students in each advising unit will live in the same residence hall, creating a setting where learning can be a 24/7 activity.

The decision to expand the program requires institutional, and especially faculty, buy-in.

“With this new method, faculty are giving a lot more time to advising,” says Johnson. “Still, the resources invested are modest given how much we’re improving the overall experience for our students.”

Administrators are looking three years into the future for tangible returns. “The real story of the program’s effectiveness will come down the road, when the first pilot group graduates,” says Smith. “While retention is influenced by many factors, our hope is that the advising program will increase the percentage of students who graduate on time.”

Jennifer Delahunty Britz is a former editor of  The Lawlor Review, a higher-education marketing journal.