Academic advising is a critical determinant of student success

Published On: 27 August 2022|

Academic advising plays a critical role in improving the success rate of students, and in advancing social justice.

This was the message from Professor Francois Strydom (left), Senior Director: Centre for Teaching and Learning at  the University of the Free State (UFS) when addressing attendees at the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme Engage 10 event last Monday.

Academic advising is a “way to connect students to the campus and help them feel that someone is looking out for them” – George Kuh (2005)

“Student success in the South African context – and especially the sub-Saharan setting – is incredibly important. The return on investment of tertiary education in sub-Saharan Africa is higher than in any other country on the planet, including high income countries. Our degrees are literally tools of greater equality; it is a way for students to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

It positions our universities as important generators of greater equality in our country. A university degree is one of the most powerful ways to change the economic prospects of students, their families, and communities,” he expounded.

Academic advising is a high impact practice

Professor Strydom explained that while academic advising may be relatively new in South Africa, it has a long history in other countries – in the US it has been taking place for more than 50 years. In this country, a direct reference and record of academic advising can only be traced back to 2010, stemming from the work of the South African Survey on Student Engagement (SASSE).The SASSE findings highlight the importance of academic advising and underline its importance for student success (Strydom et al., 2017).

He gave an overview of what is happening in the field in the global community:

  • United States – Academic advising takes place in “situations in which an institutional representative gives insight or direction to a college student about an academic, social or personal matter. The nature of this direction may be to inform, suggest, counsel, discipline, coach, mentor or even teach. Kuhn T (2008)
  • United Kingdom – The  United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring Association (UKAT) is a society of professional practitioners and researchers interested in advancing the scholarship and practice of student advising and personal tutoring in higher education.
  • The Netherlands – Academic advisors assist students with study-related questions.
  • Australia – Academic advising is still emerging as a professional service. Wenham et al (2020)
  • Tanzania – Academic advising programmes are generally perceived as significant when it comes to enhancing students’ academic and social integration into university life.

He reiterated why academic advising is critical for South African higher education.

“Data from a 2000-2006 Undergraduate Cohort Study (DHET, 2016)  shows that South African students take too long to progress. Only 19% of students in the 2005 cohort had graduated after three years of study, 57%  after six years of study and 64% in 10 years. We know from various findings that Black and Coloured students are the most at risk. If we are truly to espouse transformation, we need to provide students entering higher education with a reasonable chance of success, to access powerful knowledge and enable them to participate in the economy and improve their lives.”

francois slide 4

He shared data from an academic advising module (see illustration above), with input from several institutions, where students were asked how often and with whom they discussed career interests and opportunities. The majority disclosed that it was with family members and other students.

Said Professor Strydom: “You may wonder why this is a problem or challenge but if I can reference UFS,  70 to 80% of our students are first-generation [that is, first in their family to attend university] students. For them to ask their families or other students for advice is not the optimal scenario. They don’t ask advisors, professional people in their field or even career services and lecturers. These lecturers may have the best intentions and truly care about their students’ success but we must realise that students – particularly these first-generation university students – might see them as threatening or unapproachable.

francois slide 5

“The positive news (see illustration above) when we asked first years and seniors where they got advice regarding their academic plans is that a higher percentage are talking to their faculties, although many still rely on friends, family and other students. This poses a very specific challenge for us. We have to think about how we can innovatively create support networks that students are comfortable using. Part of what academic advising does is to help increase the efficiency of usage of support services which the universities have put in place.

“We have to focus on who our students are – many of them in the public system are the first of their family to attend university. For them, there are significant added financial and academic performance  pressures.”

Professor Strydom said making the link between what students are studying and the career that they want to pursue is vital.

Many students enter university clueless about their career preferences

“We all know that a big challenge is the differential availability of career guidance in our schooling system. That means that many of our students will literally take any spot at a university, as long as it gives them access to higher education, believing that any university degree is key to finding employment. It is only after the first year that they start asking questions about whether what they are studying is really for them,” he explained.

“Advising has an important role in this sphere ensuring that students don’t have an unnaturally narrow view that because they study x they can only do a certain profession. Advising needs to be more than just module, course allocation or curriculum. We have to get students on the right path that is best for them.

“The help or advice they need also needs to be easily accessible, especially to first year students. We have to think in a sophisticated way about having different levels of advice and identifying very clearly, what a peer advisor can and cannot do. Peer advisors are a referral source and not a space for intervention but often students can relate to them more easily and aren’t intimidated by them.

“We also have to ensure that our students get the right advice. They may go to family and friends looking for an easy-to-pass credit so that they don’t lose National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFASfunding and the friends will give them an answer but with no context of what the implications to overall throughput or completion might be.

“We need to find ways for proactive advising rather than waiting for students to come to us. Academic advisors in faculties need to incorporate career links and need to focus on more than module allocation. The earlier students are put on the right path impacts on throughput rates.”

Available resources

He said resources to advanced Academic Advising include:

  • Academic Advising Professional Development (AAPD) Short Learning Programme
  • National Advising Association – ELETSA
  • The Journal of Student Affairs in Africa (JSAA)
  • University Capacity Development Grant (UCDG) Academic Advising Collaborative Grant

Distinct roles of advisors and counsellors and how they can work together

Advisors help students develop plans of study appropriate for their educational goals while also identifying resources for additional information and support: “However, you can’t separate academic issues from personal and career issues. We teach the advisors when it is time to refer the students (to counsellors) but there is an overlap.

“Our university counselling divisions have to prioritise emergencies and students who have serious challenges and I’m now talking on the level of suicidal ideation and gender based violence on our campuses. Prior to academic advising, the counselling divisions would just refer students to the faculties but these people were not trained on how to advise students so this was a gap in our system. The advisors and the counsellors have to talk to each other; they are not in competition. What a psychologist does is very different to what an academic advisor does. The latter can help students who are stressed about their subjects or workload before it becomes a depression or a serious psychological issue.

“We know that students overload to hedge their bets with the idea that if they fail something they can still be on track. All they do by overloading is make sure that they will fail. So one of our starting points was creating an overload analysis to identify in advance which students were at risk. We are able to reach out to them before they fail a lot of courses.”

Professor Strydom said that with higher education budgets becoming smaller, there are conversations around what academic advisors add to the university system.

“This is why data is absolutely vital because you can analyse how advising has impacted students success. We know from this data that from just one advising session, there is a 10% or more improvement in the probability of a student passing 70% of their modules than a comparable group who had not participated in advising. It does make an impact.”

The Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme is Universities South Africa’s flagship programme mainly funded from the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme. HELM offers contextual and tailored leadership and management programmes for emerging, middle, and senior managers in universities to enhance their work performance, facilitate professional development and accelerate career advancement.  The programme hosts monthly engagement events under the banner HELM Engage to dissect and lead discussions on topics of interest in the higher education sector. HELM Engage 10 was intended to demonstrate how academic advising can catalyse student success and enhance the effective use of student support services, thus improving institutional effectiveness.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.