Katherine Gottli and Cynthia Manzo are both Academic Advisors at Niagara College in Ontario, Canada.
The new reality of post-secondary education, particularly in one and two-year institutions, is one that no longer welcomes a homogenous demographic of students every intake. Post-secondary students represent a wide spectrum of identities in every sense of the word, which can make implementing effective, responsive programming challenging for student services professionals. To find the common denominator in a flurry of inconsistency as a starting point for program development, however, we can rely on clichés: the only thing you can count on is change.
Incoming post-secondary students are all navigating a change in their life. Transitions can transcend, but also complicate a student’s identity. To address this, and establish a student-centered community of support, Niagara College has adopted a wrap-around transition program that includes pre-Orientation activities, Predictive Assessment, and 6 weeks of outreach and engagement opportunities at the beginning of a student’s program. The use of these early intervention strategies has allowed for meaningful student-centered transition programming that addresses student persistence, community, and identity.
Academic Advising Group Sessions & Kick Start
In the summer of 2016, Niagara College piloted the delivery of academic advising group sessions for new students starting classes in the fall. Academic Advisors were extremely busy during the first weeks of the term, meeting with students who had questions that could have been easily answered ahead of time in a group session. It was determined that by providing students with key information before classes started, they would be better equipped to make informed decisions at that stage of the term without the need of consulting with an Academic Advisor. Therefore, it was time to design and put into action a new early intervention strategy, one based on a more intrusive advising model to address the high volume of inquiries that a first-year student would typically have in the first couple of weeks. This programing would also ease students and their supporters into “NC Life”, including developing relationships with their advisors and peers, with a focus on academic success. The academic advising team fortunately had the institutional support to move ahead with this new initiative. Niagara College recognized the value and importance of activities like this and the impact it would have on student success. As Garing (1993) mentions: When these strategies are integrated as necessary components of the institution’s advising system, not only are the efficiency and effectiveness of advising enhanced, but the retention of students is ultimately affected in a positive way due to the solidness of this critical student-adviser link” (p. 97).
Students were invited for a two-hour group advising session in the month of August. Each individual session was delivered by the Academic Advisor assigned to a given program of study. According to Kuh (2008), the advisor plays an important role in establishing an early connection with those new students whom they will be working with throughout their time at college. He also suggests that it helps them navigate the college system to overcome barriers until they graduate. Some of the topics included in the group advising session were the key dates in the term, the progression policy, and the student services available, such as the Health, Wellness and Accessibility Office, the Test Center, and the Library. Students also learned about how their Program of Instruction (POI) is structured and they identified if there were pre-requisite courses in their programs. Academic Advisors also wanted students to be familiar with Blackboard, which is the learning management system used at Niagara College. They learned about where and how to locate information related to their courses and how to communicate with their instructors through the platform. The implementation of the academic advising sessions in the summer was very well received by the new students and their parents/supporters. However, it was decided that there would have been a better outcome if the advising sessions were part of the pre-orientation program Kick Start, which also takes place in the summer.
Since student success is Niagara College’s top priority, Academic Advisors wanted to make sure that the transition for new students was as enjoyable, smooth, and comprehensive as possible for them. We are well aware that sometimes students will be more receptive to new information if this comes from different parties that recognize that the responsibility of student success lies not only on Academic Advisors, but also on Faculty, Co-op and Career Consultants, Counselors, and other staff members. This is what Kuh (2008) describes as the “tag team approach.” Therefore, in the summer of 2017 we formally integrated the advising group sessions with NC’s Kick Start pre-orientation program. Kick Start is a 1-day transition based program offered to all incoming students to give them the opportunity to get familiar with the college environment before they start classes. This program offers campus and residence tours, a Blackboard session, and the opportunity to pick up their student ID card and program materials ahead of time. There are also some parent/supporter sessions, students are able to meet their classmates, and their Academic Advisor during the advising session. The newly designed and more fulsome Kick Start has yielded great success and positive feedback. It has served to bring resources together, has achieved improved efficiencies and mirrors NC’s integrated service approach.
Student Strengths Inventory (SSI)
With student persistence and retention as a goal, Academic Advisors utilize Early Alert strategies to best allocate time and resources. Connecting with students as early and as meaningfully as possible in their academic career at Niagara College has become the foundation for our advising philosophy. To achieve this, the Student Strengths Inventory (SSI) is facilitated within the first two weeks of each term for incoming students. Within a predominantly two-year institution, the ability to predict the possibility of retaining a student if curated supports are provided is significant given the short time advisors or other student services have to make an impact (Napoli & Wortman, 1998). The SSI allows Academic Advisors the ability to gain key insights directly from students on how they view themselves and their learning. This approach creates a common measure across all student demographics and allows for differentiation by program/program cluster. The SSI assess non-cognitive or psychosocial attitudes and behaviors that are present in successful people (Gore et. al., 2019). It measures two main indicators; academic success and retention probability through a series of 50 questions on personality and motivational habits and attitudes that facilitate functioning well within a post-secondary setting (Campus Labs, 2012).
The SSI is administered in all first year first term classrooms. Academic Advisors typically attend the classroom themselves to facilitate the assessment, which doubles as important face time with the class, establishing the Academic Advisor as key contact on campus (O’Keefe, 2013). Immediate, curated feedback to the student is presented as ‘Next Step’ statements to students, dependent on their ranking in the following categories: Academic Engagement; Academic Self-Efficacy; Campus Engagement; Educational Commitment; Resiliency; Social Comfort (Campus Labs, 2012). This information bridges the gap between the administration of the SSI, and any initial meeting with an Academic Advisor. The hope is that students begin to access these resources within their first weeks on campus to better develop their Niagara College identity and affinity to the NC community, academically and socially. Providing this information to students recognizes the holistic nature of the role of Advising on campus – we view students as a “whole package”, understanding that partitioning student needs into ‘Academic’, ‘Health and Wellness’, ‘Social’, etc., diminishes the effectiveness of any kind of interventional strategy, and can complicate their transition.
Students are sorted into ‘Low Risk’, ‘High Risk’, and ‘Target’ groups based on their Academic Success and Retention scores, and individualized interventions are facilitated with the groups. The Target group (High Academic Success, Low Retention) receives the most aggressive interventions in the form of an individual meeting request from their Academic Advisor within the first month of the semester. Often, this meeting will result in follow up meetings over the course of the student’s academic career, as it can establish the Academic Advisor as a teacher who understanding the greater narrative of that particular student’s education (Lowenstein, 2005). Academic Advisors are able to link student concerns to supports on campus, furthering the wrap-around approach to student success Niagara College has employed.
First Six Weeks Programming
Niagara College’s approach to connecting and engaging with a diverse student population has evolved over the years. The Center for Student Engagement & Leadership has made extensive efforts to maximize the effectiveness of its programs. Working under the premise that student engagement plays an important role in student success and retention (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005), it has been necessary to re-think the delivery format of the orientation program for first year students. In the past, the orientation program was structured in a way that all welcoming activities – including campus tours, welcoming parties, program sessions, and the student services fair – were all scheduled to take place over the course of a couple of days. A more comprehensive and strategic model, however, was implemented in the fall of 2019.
Matthews (2009) suggests that the first six weeks, in college or university for new students, will contribute significantly to solidify a trusting relationship between the student and the educational institution, “It is the make-or-break period for many students regarding their academic, social and emotional engagement with their chosen institution” (para.12). Based on this idea, a group of different activities and information on college resources, programs and services was put together to address academic, financial, and personal areas to achieve student success. The Six Weeks Program was designed to provide the relevant information students need to avoid feeling overwhelmed in the early part of the semester. Details on the scheduling of activities were disseminated via email, promotional boards, and social media channels, such as Instagram. The participation received through Instagram was very positive since students felt quite comfortable connecting with staff by using a platform that they typically use to engage with their own friends. Obtaining immediate responses to their questions helped them feel connected and heard which contributes to making transition to college smoother.
Student success, academically, socially, and professionally, is the reward Student Services professionals can all hope to experience with their students. This success planning starts from the moment a student connects with any member of our student services team at Niagara College. As we guide students through their transition to post-secondary, the Niagara College tag-team approach has had a real impact on a first-year student’s affinity to the Niagara College community. First year students can rest assured that they will be connected with suitable support to navigate their new home. It is imperative for staff at Niagara College to encourage and empower students to utilize the resources available to them, which starts with pre-orientation, early intervention, and first six weeks programming.
Academic Advisors consistently revisit and adjust the program goals of transition programming, and continually collaborate with other areas to emphasize that we see our students as a whole package. Moving forward, as we assess these programs term to term, the hope is that students will continue to validate our assumptions of the impacts of these initiatives. Providing students with the tools to persist and develop resiliency are skills that are applicable throughout their lives. If Academic Advisors are a piece of that personal development, then we validate the role of Academic Advising in post-secondary institutions.
Campuslabs. (2012). “Using the Non-cognitive Factors of Beacon in Advising” [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://beaconsupport.campuslabs.com/hc/en-us/articles/203979368-Student-Strengths-Inventory-SSI-
Garing, M. T. (1993). Intrusive academic advising. New Directions for Community Colleges, 1993(82), 97-104. https://doi:10.1002/cc.36819938211
Gore, P. A., Leuwerke, W. C., Metz, A. J., Brown, S., & Kelly, A. R. (2019). Measuring Noncognitive Factors Related to College Student Outcomes: Development and Initial Construct Validation of the Student Strengths Inventory. Journal of Career Assessment, 27(1), 47–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072717727463
Kuh, G. D. (2008). Advising for Student Success In Academic Advising. A Comprehensive Handbook (pp. 68-74). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). Student Success in College. Creating Conditions that Matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lowenstein, M. (2005). If Advising is Teaching, What Do Advisors Teach?. NACADA Journal. 25(2), 65-73.
Matthews, B. (2009, November 2). Retention Matters. Retrieved November 29, 2019, from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2009/11/02/retention-matters
Napoli, A. R. & Wortman P.M. (1998). Psychosocial Factors Related to Retention and Early Departure of Two-Year Community College Students. Research in Higher Education, 39(4). 419-455.
O’Keffe, Patrick. (2013). A sense of belonging: Improving student retention. College Student Journal, 47, 605-613.