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On group advising (#1220)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, end-notable

This week, our chair will assign students to advisors [1]. I’m worried. If I count correctly, we’ll have about 140 CS majors next fall (about 65 in the class of 2024 and about 75 in the class of 2025). What about faculty to advise them? Significantly fewer. We have one brand-new faculty member starting in the fall; they don’t get any advisors now. We’ll have one second-year faculty member who should receive about six advisees; since they’ll gain another twelve to fourteen when they teach Tutorial in the following year. Two faculty members will be on leave away from Grinnell; they won’t take any advisees. That leaves the remaining four of us, including one person on leave, to take on those 140 students.

No, it’s not a typical year. But it’s not that atypical, either. Since the boom about eight years back, we’ve had a too-high ratio of students to regular faculty. Some colleagues think we’ll eventually be okay, but I worry.

Fortunately, we have some tricks to deal with the 140. An emeritus faculty member will take about ten. One of our amazing colleagues amongst the library faculty will take another ten [2]. Finally, a staff member will take twenty or so [3]. That leaves us with about 100 to cover between the four of us. Right now, it looks like a pre-tenure faculty member and I will each take about twenty [4], and the other two will take about thirty each.

How does that compare to College averages? It appears that advising loads vary widely [6] amongst the faculty. A few years ago, we were told that the average and median number of advisees was about twelve. Let’s do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to check: Grinnell has a student:faculty ratio of 9:1 [7]. If one-third of our students declare two majors, we’d have an average of a 12:1 advisee:advisor ratio. But some faculty give up advisees while on leave. And we may now be closer to having half of the students declare double majors [8].

Let’s see: 9/1 * 1.5 * 7/6 = 15.75. Wow; the average could be close to 16. I wonder if that’s correct. If so, 18 isn’t as far out of line as it used to be. Still, I find that 18–20 is my limit, particularly with the increased complexity of the new registration system. But the thirty-plus that two of my colleagues may be forced to take is about double the College average [10].

All of this analysis is simply preparation for the main topic of the musing: group advising.

One of the ways that we’ve been told to deal with large numbers of advisees is group advising. And I know that some of my colleagues [11] do group advising.

I don’t get it.

First of all, there are many advising activities that don’t work well in groups. For example, when one of my students is thinking about dropping a class or taking on an extra project, that must be a one-on-one discussion. In part, timing is an issue; however, privacy is often the more significant issue.

I assume when people say group advising, they primarily mean group registration advising and group major-declaration advising. And I see some good reasons to do those kinds of advising in groups. For example, students can provide feedback on each other’s plans, gain ideas from others, and share ideas with others [12]. Group sessions may also mean that we don’t need to repeat various advising instructions—such as how the new registration system works—or recommendations—such as the value of taking CSC-281.

However, when I reflect on a typical registration advising session, I find there are many things that we discuss that students might not share in front of peers. How are your classes going? I don’t think most students will want to admit to their peers that a class is going poorly. And they generally won’t reveal the more complex issues that might be happening, such as micro- and macro-aggressions they have experienced. What are your plans for (summer, break, whatever)? I worry that we’ll see students intimidated or discouraged by their peers’ plans. I got an internship at Google or whatever. I realize that may be happening outside of class, too, but it seems more problematic in an advising session. You seem to struggling with [writing, math, social implications of computing. How might we address that? If I were to say that in front of other students, I’m pretty sure I would violate some FERPA [14] provision [15].

In recent years, I’ve also tried to incorporate more Motivational Interviewing techniques in my advising practices [16,17]. Groups seem to complicate the MI process; others may be more likely to offer solutions, rather than to listen and encourage the speaker to develop their own solutions. I also worry that students in a group will be less likely to speak aloud about the self-reflective issues at the core of MI.

When I consider all that, it seems that group advising would still need preparatory or follow-up individual advising sessions for those kinds of questions. Will group advising really save me time? I’m not sure. And it does create additional scheduling problems.

That’s not to say I don’t do some ad hoc group advising. For example, when an advisee shows up right before class time and asks whether I’ll let them add a class, I have been known to ask my entire class what they think about the idea [20].

In any case, I’m sticking with individual advising for the time being, even though it will be difficult with so many advisees. However, I look forward to hearing what colleagues who employ group advising do when they group advise.

[1] Or at least attempting to assign students to advisors.

[2] Both of those are awaiting Dean’s approval.

[3] Don’t worry; they only take on double majors, so all students have their promised faculty advisor. Our staff member is also an amazing advisor.

[4] I don’t think I can handle more than twenty these days. We don’t believe pre-tenure faculty should be expected or required to take more than twenty [5].

[5] Well, 18, but twenty is good enough for estimates.

[6] wildly?

[7] Taken from I assume that 9:1 represents somewhere between 8.5:1 and 9.5:1.

[8] Is it worse than that? I see that 44 of the 74 students who filled out the CS Advisor Preference form indicated they have planned double majors. However, I am not sure that CS is representative. As Kumail suggested, there are the majors you do for yourself, and then there’s the CS major, which you do for your parents or for a job [9]. That likely increases the percentage of double majors in CS.

[9] Kumail is not necessarily representative of CS majors. I know many who study CS for the love of the discipline.

[10] I say may be forced because I remain hopeful that someone else will find a solution to keep advising loads reasonable.

[11] Both departmental colleagues and non-departmental colleagues.

[12] E.g., Everyone gets free music lessons at Grinnell. I have enjoyed them. You should consider some, too.

[14] Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, or some such.

[15] Hmmm … pretty sure. Is it time for me to retake FERPA protection training? Perhaps I shouldn’t have used pretty sure. I’m almost certain.

[16] I do, on occasion, follow the excellent advice of my colleagues in Academic Advising.

[17] The primary ways in which I apply MI to my advising are that I encourage my students to reflect on what issues they may need to address (e.g., Are there areas that seem to be missing from your education?; What kinds of things are you struggling with these days?) and that I encourage them to develop their own solutions rather than providing my own [18]. When it’s part of a I’m struggling with X advising session—rather than a course planning session—I will usually add something like Have you encountered similar issues in the past? and You’ve been successful enough to get into Grinnell, so you must have found a way to address those issues. What kinds of things have worked? [20]

[18] It’s incredibly tough not to say In the past, I’ve found that X works or I’ve never seen that work or something similar. I’ve also been known to suggest a few other options once they’ve worked through their own.

[19] I wonder what my colleagues in Academic Advising will say when they read about those practices.

[20] The student has already revealed the issue to their peers by asking me in front of others, so I think I’m okay on the FERPA front. I haven’t done that in a few years. Mayhaps I’ll check with our FERPA officer before doing it again. Better yet, I should discontinue the process altogether, even though it amuses students.

Version 1.0 of 2023-03-05.