By Shola Adenekan
Many new lecturers, especially those who are starting a full-time teaching post after studying for a PhD, find that advising students can be confusing. While an increasing number of undergraduate students want their tutors to mentor them, many others may just want lecturers to mark the attendance sheet while they get on with learning.
In the past, many universities tended to provide general guidelines rather than specific training on this aspect of academic career. But as higher education now needs to meet the demand of fee-paying, internet-generation students, the attitude to giving advice is being rethought.
Giving advice: Past and present
Helen Cousins is a senior lecturer in English at Newman University College in Birmingham, UK. When she first started working in higher education back in the late 1990s, there was little formal training for this aspect of academia and it was carried out in a somewhat random manner. For example, if a student had a question that Helen could not answer, they would just be referred to another tutor who might have been able to help.
“I found that taking responsibility, such as Programme Leader, really helped in familiarizing myself with such aspects,” she says. “I think that now new members of staff do have an induction programme which includes information on how to advise students.”
Dr Cousins points out that since 2008, her institution has developed a centralized system where one tutor out of a team of five senior members of staff, of which she is one, is on duty each day to support students. This means that other members of staff can refer students to these senior academic advisers for a range of problems, so that the rest of the teaching team no longer need to have such wide skills in student support as in the past.
Advising on student problems
Many experts agree that advising students is one of the most important aspects of academic life, but they also warn that it can cause problems; a tutor has to watch out for flawed faculty advice while also avoiding wrong-headed advice based on personal opinion. Mistakes from either side may lead to a student failing a module and can also overwhelm tutors as this duty is in addition to classroom teaching and research publications.
Conrad James, like many academics on both sides of the Atlantic, says that many of the problems his students come to see him about are on academic themes, but he also notes that he is seeing a few students with problems of a personal nature.
“Increasingly, there are now more students with concerns to do with confidence,” says Dr James, who is a senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Birmingham. “These include intellectual ability with regard to what they are required to do as students. Some may also not know how to deal with their newly-found independence as they move from high school into university. Here, the problem for the students is thinking and producing knowledge independently.”
Advice on work and study
For others, the role of advisor is to help the student make sense of the curricula; navigating the link between their field of study and general education, thereby making a coherent whole of degree requirements and the career choice that is open to them. This is where tutors need to think beyond academia and recognise the demands of the world of work awaiting their students. These elements are more important than ticking off regulation boxes.
Mary D’Ambrosio is a professor of journalism at New York University. She says that career issues are the major problem in journalism right now.
“Since I specialize in international reporting, they tend to ask me about how to break into that area: whether to decamp from the US and freelance, or to work at an English language newspaper abroad; or whether to instead try to work their way up at a bigger organisation,” she says. “And some want to know: would it be better to just go to law school? I’ve written three law school recommendations this year.”
With the global economic downturn now leading to a shortage of jobs, increasing numbers of students are turning to their tutors rather than the careers office for advice. Prof D’Ambrosio says that unlike five years ago, her students are far more anxious about the journalism field and are trying very hard to learn a much broader range of skills.
Other tutors have also pointed out that today’s students want to see the connection between their future aspiration and the faculty’s curriculum. Therefore, advising should be a well thought-out part of the teaching plan.
“Students seem to fall into two groups,” says Dr Cousins. “There are those who come to see us to maximise the support available to them – so they can come and ask specific questions about how to improve their secondary sources. And there are those who are failing or at risk of failing because they’ve not been attending or have not completed work in time – this group seems to accept that the fault in this is theirs.”
Giving advice effectively
Experts also suggest that tutors should know more about opportunities in and outside of the campus from which students can benefit. Grants, bursaries, study abroad programmes and new media training opportunities may be of interest to undergraduates. In addition, lecturers should take an interest in each student by talking about post-university goals. They should be friendly but not friends, mentors but not parents.
“From my perspective, there are many strategies now in place at the University of Birmingham to ensure that advice and mentoring are effectively managed by each tutor,” says Dr James. “Despite the fact that student numbers have grown in recent times, universities have become more student-centred and we are letting students know that there are support facilities available to them.”
Dr Cousins suggests that in order for advice to be more effective, faculties could borrow from Newman University College’s recent approach: give the responsibility to a smaller team rather than making it the responsibility of each and every tutor. This avoids a situation where the support to students becomes patchy as some lecturers would be stronger at this aspect of the teaching role than others.
“By having a smaller team who have an interest in student support, and who can be trained more intensively, the students are provided with a more coherent service, which provides accurate information about a range of potential problems,” she says.