Sewanee innovates to improve student advising


A new academic advising system, the innovation of a group of faculty members hoping to personalize the process of registering for classes, was implemented this year for the incoming freshman class and transfer students. Improving student advising was one of the university goals laid out by the vice-chancellor last year, and the changes are part of addressing that goal. Each student is assigned an academic advisor until declaring a major in the sophomore or junior year. 

Professor of Mathematics Emily Puckette worked on the logistics of implementing the new advising system. According to Puckette, “the goal of the advising task force was to not only help students choose the classes that were right for them, but to also improve advising from a faculty perspective.” In the past, Puckette says, the relationship between advisor and advisee was not always as beneficial as it could be. “My advisees would come in at the beginning of the term for a strategizing session, and that was sometimes the extent of our relationship. Having an advisee in one of my classes changes everything.”

Preparations for the new scheduling process began in Fall 2013. Each week, a task force made up of Mishoe Brennecke, Alex Bruce, Doug Drinen, Richard O’Connor, Lauryl Tucker, and Jessica Wohl met in Woods Labs, planning the best way to go about it. Tucker and O’Connor served as co-chairs of the project, and the members represented different areas of study.

After deliberation regarding the best way to implement this new system, incoming freshmen were asked to review the course catalog over the summer. After researching all of the possibilities, they were to select 12 courses in 3 different categories: A, B, and C. The faculty also insisted that each individual take into account their “own strengths and interests,” to ensure that their schedules were challenging, exciting, and a good fit for each student.

In Category A, students were asked to pick four courses “in academic disciplines that are clearly new and intriguing.” Classes chosen in Category B reflect disciplines that present a challenge, and Category C classes represent areas of study in which the student “has confidence and experience.” The selection form ended with a disclaimer for the students: “This process will take a while—we are patient and meticulous!”

A group of faculty members sorted through the more than 450 “Academic Experience” forms for the freshman class. These academic guides—Emily Puckette, Jessica Wohl, Elizabeth Skomp, Alyssa Summers, and Jessica Siegel—were tasked with the building of freshmen schedules, keeping in close contact with the university’s registrar. They were also in charge of figuring out the logistics of a student’s schedule, hoping to ensure, for example, that a single individual was given a balanced week rather than 8 a.m. classes every day.

“The guides gave each student at least one class that student was passionate about, a course that will promote a strong sense of academic engagement, help cement their sense of belonging to a scholarly community here, and focus on their disciplinary interests,” explained Assistant Professor of English Lauryl Tucker.

In an effort to familiarize themselves with the students, as well as place them in the appropriate classes, the faculty members also asked whether or not students had previous experience with academic advisors, and if that interaction had been beneficial. For rising freshmen, a section regarding any trepidation about beginning college was added. The process allows faculty members to learn about the student as a whole, not just as a name or student ID number. “We’ve distinguished ourselves from our peer institutions who are increasingly giving advising over to professional staff, marking ourselves off as a place where faculty recognize that excellent pedagogy extends well beyond the classroom walls,” says Tucker. 

The results were impressive: out of the 1,920 course assignments made, only 17 courses were not among students’ top 12 choices. This indicates that both faculty and students will likely be pleased with their courses this semester. Another interesting result of this new advisory system was the increase in faculty members who volunteered to be first year advisors. In years past, participation has been moderate, but this year, over half of the faculty offered to advise the freshman class. For next year’s freshman class, Sewanee hopes to improve the system further, continuing the personal touch that is so indicative of Sewanee.

In September, Inside Higher Ed published a story about Sewanee’s innovative advising process, “Advising Freshmen, Empowering Faculty.” Since its appearance, Tucker has received calls from other institutions in the U.S. and abroad, asking for more information about the program.

- Maria Baker, C'18

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