Transforming the Advising Process

Cedarville is restructuring its faculty advising process to encourage more of a mentoring relationship between advisors and advisees, said Dr. Pam Johnson, dean of undergraduate studies.

“Advising ‘devolved’ into getting the student registered for classes and hoping he or she meets the graduation requirements,” Johnson said. “If you ask many advisors and many students ‘What’s advising at Cedarville?’ It’s meeting with your advisor to get your code, to get your classes, to get your degree. I want to help us transform this advisor-advisee relationship to a true mentoring relationship that ends up being a rich experience for both the advisor and the advisee.”

The restructure comes as part of Cedarville’s quality initiative for its re-accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). For the re-accreditation process, Cedarville has chosen a project to improve the school in some way. This is part of its accreditation with the HLC, with the requirement of submitting a report on its progress after a specific time period.

Cedarville’s project is focusing on what Johnson said was most necessary: changing the role of academic advisors.

“Our quality initiative is bringing our whole academic advising program into the 21st century,” Johnson said. “We have never really defined for faculty what academic advising is supposed to be. (Academic advising is) the only experience common to all students at any university, and I don’t think we have utilizedthat as well as we can.”

Johnson has been overseeing this initiative since it began in June 2013 when it started as a proposal under peer review with the HLC. This proposal stated the reasons and objectives for changing the role of advisors at Cedarville and described how Cedarville would execute the plan and measure progress.

Once the HLC approved the proposal, Johnson and her team started implementing the initiative on campus. She said the proper infrastructure needed to be put in place to support advising.

Johnson pulled together faculty and staff from the arts and sciences departments, the IT department, the C0ve, admissions and the registrar to help move the quality initiative forward and implement the right steps into transforming the guidelines for advisors.

Student Planning

To start, Cedarville’s IT department and the registrar teamed up to develop an online program, Student Planning, to help minimize the time advisors and advisees spend on finding and planning the right courses. For the program to be successful, Cedarville partnered with a company called Ellucian to program all academic catalogs and records into Student Planning.

Through Student Planning, students can build four-year plans tailored to their specific major and department requirements, said university registrar Fran Campbell. Once the plan has been approved by the student’s advisor, it can be saved for future reference and easy access.

Although the ability to plan courses for students’ entire college career is important, Campbell said, one of the most important features of the program is its direct interface with the registrar’s office.

“Students can not only plan their courses once the schedule becomes available from term to term, but they can actually plan their sections and desired times,” she said. “So it can all be done from one screen, and it’s just kind of cool.”

After students and their advisors are sure that all courses are where they need to be, Campbell said, students can register for the chosen courses right on the same page.

“There is no registration code in the new system,” she said. “There is still an approval process, so the advisor and the student still do need to have some communication … but you can do it earlier.”

Myriam Shaw Ojeda, the junior pharmacy representative for the Student Academic Advisory Board (SAAB), worked closely with the registrar’s office as the head of SAAB’s registrar’s committee.

The committee, a group of seven SAAB members, helped promote the new program with leaflets and a video and worked with the registrar’s office on the program during the spring 2015 semester.

Shaw Ojeda said the main advantage to Student Planning is its simplicity, especially when compared to the old process.

“It’s just one interface where you look at the classes that you have, the classes that you need and then you can actually grab them and drop them into your schedule, so it’s very convenient,” she said. “Basically everything that is academically related to you as a student is available on one website, one page.”

Issues with the original registration program prompted the registrar’s office to begin looking in a new direction, Campbell said. The original program, CedarInfo registration, was created by the IT department in the 1990s, making Cedarville one of the first schools to use online registration.

But, after about 15 years of using the same program, Campbell said she knew there needed to be a change.

“It was getting to the place where, with all of the improvements in technology – faster speeds and more complexities – that it was kind of reaching a place where it had some challenges that were difficult for us to correct,” she said. “You could fix one piece of it and something else would start being a mess.”

During this time, some Cedarville computer science students had created a program that served as a planning module. Academic Planning Environment (APE), a program made for an academic project, allowed students to create four-year plans, but it didn’t interface with the registrar’s office. Because of the separation, students couldn’t register within the program and weren’t informed of missing courses.

The registrar’s office decided they needed a system that would address several needs in a single place and began working with the IT department in 2013 to give life to the idea.

“It was started because the registrar’s office knew it had issues and complications, not that it was their fault, it was the way the system was set up,” Shaw Ojeda said. “So they decided that, in order to help students and make it an easier and less strenuous process, they decided to roll out this new website.”

The registrar’s office began creating sample plans for each course of study in the summer of 2013 and worked with the department chairs and deans through the 2013-2014 school year. Part of this collaboration was working with course prerequisites and designing the system so that it would accurately reflect the prerequisites required for each course.

“It prompted some really good conversations,” Campbell said. “‘Is that a prerequisite that’s valid, is it needed?’ I think that prompted some really good conversation with faculty, as well.”

By the end of the 2014 school year, they were ready to move forward with the actual program and spent the summer creating the plans in the system. By fall of 2014, the program was ready to be used, Campbell said, but they wanted to test it on a pilot group first.

Faculty and students in the social work and exercise science departments were invited and trained to use the program to register for spring 2015 courses.

“It was just fascinating to watch how students picked it up very quickly,” Campbell said. “By the time they got done with their hour, hour-and-a-half training, a number of them had created these three- or four-year plans out of what they wanted to do. It was just fun to see that dynamic and we thought, OK, ‘They get it. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be too much of a challenge.’”

The test group revealed some issues that were quickly fixed and allowed the program to be ready for full use by February 2015, when it was introduced to the department chairs and deans. Faculty were then trained in the program by department.

“We had a really good response from the faculty, very positive encouragement,” she said. “‘Yeah, this is what we really need to do, we’re so excited.’”

With the faculty ready for the transition, Campbell said they were ready to open the program to students. However, the pilot group had shown some aspects of the new system wouldn’t work with all current students. Students who were on the 2013-2014 catalogue were activated to the new program, she said, and students who were under catalogues that preceded 2013 were kept on the CedarInfo process.

“Students that were farther along in their programs, that had substitutions already approved, that were already recorded in the current degree audit program, some of the things we do for those students don’t work so well on Student Planning, that’s what we discovered,” she said. “So it worked out really well to say, OK, this is the group we’re moving forward with.”

These students were informed of the new program and given a preview through an email sent by Campbell over spring break.

“Really, a significant number of students got into it before they even came back from break and started looking at it,” she said.

The transition has been successful so far, Campbell said, with only a few issues, such as course substitutions and prerequisites, that still need fixing. As they continue to improve the program, Campbell said she is excited to see the positive effects it will have.

“We’re really hoping that the Student Planning process really revolutionizes the advising process,” she said. “We believe that it is going to enhance the advising process in a very positive way and allow the students and faculty to be able to have a deeper kind of advising.”

Changing the relationship

Instead of just getting together to talk about the courses for the upcoming semester, students and advisors will be able to plan and approve schedules ahead of time and use the time more effectively.

“Then, when the students and faculty get together to talk about life or academic objectives or those kinds of things, then the conversation doesn’t have to necessarily be limited to, ‘What am I going to do next semester?’” Campbell said. “You can really do a whole new level of advising and personal interaction in that scenario.”

Thomas Sweigard, associate professor of education, received an award in chapel April 13 for faculty advisor of the year.

Since Sweigard has been a teacher for over 30 years, he said he has a nurturing way of advising, and it is natural for him to meet with students on a regular basis. Sweigard said he aims to get to know his advisees every year, even by having the students come to his house for dinner.

Sweigard said he doesn’t plan to avoid meeting with students even though Student Planning moves the typical advising process online.

“The temptation now would be is that all I would do as an advisor would be approve that and not meet with students,” Sweigard said. “I don’t plan on doing that. I still need to have them come in and meet with me and talk about what they want to do.”

Shaw Ojeda said the new system will help reduce the amount of work for advisors, but won’t make the advice from advisors any less needed.

“I don’t think it cuts out the need, it cuts the work load,” she said. “It eases their workload and the worry in their head that their advisees will finish well.”

Keeping students in mind

In addition to advising, the new system will also make the graduation process easier by allowing seniors to view their courses and requirements in one place. The system also works with the degree audit program, already in use, to ensure all necessary courses are completed by the time graduation arrives.

“What I love about it is that it does interface directly with the online degree audit program and so there’s a level of confidence that the student and the faculty, also, can have,” Campbell said. “If something occurred that was to the disadvantage of the student because of a Student Planning glitch, then we as a university accept responsibility for that, and I think that’s a good thing. We’ve got your back and we’ve got the faculty’s back.”

Along with planning their own schedules, students will no longer need to spend time tracking down advisors or their department chair because course substitution forms will be accessible to advisors through Student Planning.

“I just want them spending more time with students and less time with their computers and paperwork,” Johnson said. “We need to bring students in as newbies to teach them, walk with them, counsel them, and guide them along of the path of being independent, effective collegiate participants.”

Campbell said everyone in the registrar’s office is excited for what the new program will mean for students and faculty.

“I’m really excited about it for the value to both the students and the faculty,” she said. “Every time we learn about something new that it does better, we get really excited about it.”

Campbell said students have taken well to the new system, which is confirmation that the transition was a good decision.

“We’ve been excited to see how the students have just jumped into it, figured out how to use it, just really reacted to it and responded to it positively,” she said. “That encourages us too, because it’s like, OK, this is good.”

Shaw Ojeda said she hopes students realize that the system is easy and simple to use, but also that they are working hard to make sure that every student has the courses and credits they need to graduate.

“More importantly, that students will know that, don’t worry about missing a class, we’ve got you covered,” she said. “No student will be left behind.”

Phase two

As the implementation of Cedarville’s quality initiative continues, it looks toward the the assurance report. Cedarville will redefine its project and give its peers an update on how the university has progressed with its goals by showing attempts, the results of those attempts and how it plans to move forward.

In the May 2016 assurance report, just five months before a re-accreditation review from the HLC, Johnson and her team will outline what has been implemented to improve advising and the progress of the new structure. Johnson said she will also show that if Cedarville is to be successful in this initiative, it must continue to evaluate how it approaches academic advising.

“I’m just excited about what that can do in changing the paradigm for how we define advising here on this campus,” Johnson said. “We’ve got phenomenal faculty and phenomenal students that I don’t think are benefitting from the advisor-advisee relationship the way they could.”

Emily Finlay is a senior journalism major and campus news editor for Cedars. She loves writing, reading, making obscure references in normal conversation and every type of geekery.

Emily Paul is a senior journalism major and a reporter for Cedars. She plays on the women’s tennis team and dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster.

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