As someone who both teaches introductory philosophy courses and works as an Academic Advisor in the UConn School of Business, I have always felt that there is a strong connection between teaching and advising. Early on, I realized that my experiences advising and teaching were informing each other. For example, from advising, I came to see students as humans first and recognized the personal challenges that may interfere with their performance in the course. As I considered this further, I wondered if other advisors and teachers had similar realizations about how their two roles were influencing each other. To find out, I decided to talk to Carolyn Ginsberg, an Academic Advisor in the UConn Academic Center for Exploratory Students (ACES) and former instructor in the Art and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) departments, and Matthew Longcore, an Academic Advisor in the UConn School of Business and an instructor of Anthropology.
Lessons from advising
For Carolyn, her role as an advisor led her to start including low-stakes grading and constant feedback into the courses she taught. “I could see in my advising meetings that there was this human tendency to believe that you are doing OK,” when in reality this might not be the case. “Taking that attitude forward in life, in general, is good, but there should be check-ins early on when it comes to your academics; feedback during the first half of the semester is crucial developmentally. I would see students go weeks or months through a class without being given a grade, and then be shocked when they received a poor result. Once UConn instituted their midterm policy this became less frequent, but students still get surprised over their grades.” Carolyn began having detailed reviews with each student of their work even before the midterm exam. This made the process clear and students “knew where they were standing in the class, and how the criteria were being applied.” Carolyn says that her deep commitment to being clear and returning feedback early “was developed by advising, by seeing how students suffer” from their academic setbacks.
Matthew explained that his advising gave him an urgency to find a way, even in a larger class, to individualize and ensure that students have multiple ways to demonstrate learning. In advising, he saw that some students appeared to be more comfortable processing information through group advising over one-on-one advising, and vice versa, so he decided to adjust his teaching to account for students’ different preferences. Consequently, Matthew’s Anthropology courses now have various opportunities to demonstrate learning such as: group projects, exams, quizzes, and different participation opportunities.
From advising Matthew also learned the importance of listening to students and nudging them to see that they are teaching you something too. “When you work with an advisee you want to learn about them; they are educating you about themselves. They will explain why they are in college, what their goals, interests, and struggles are.” This is crucial information for advisors to have when assisting a student as they navigate through college. Matthew added, “Traditionally, teachers have been lecturers, and it has been about them being the experts, something that I think can be intimidating to students. They feel they are just there to receive information.” Rather, “as teachers we should help students realize that their contributions are crucial to everyone’s learning experience. This will make them more comfortable in the classroom, and in my experience, leads to more participation overall.”
I, too, have thought how, as an advisor, I am encouraged to get to know the students I work with so I can support them better while in my teaching this has not necessarily been emphasized. After seeing how students shared information about themselves in the School of Business Freshman Orientation (e.g., they are asked on a form to state their preferred name(s) and pronouns, and what their goals for the future are), I was inspired to try something similar in my classes. Now on the first day, I have students fill out a survey where I ask them to share their preferred name(s) and pronouns (this is voluntary and I ask if I can use the information in class, or if it is just between us). I also encourage them to briefly describe topics within their major they find particularly interesting. I then try to use this information to tie topics we discuss in class to what they are studying more broadly. I find that this not only challenges me to continue to develop as a teacher, but it also increases student engagement.
Lessons from the classroom
For Carolyn, her experiences teaching in the arts led her to recognize the power of metaphor and vocabulary. She now uses metaphorical language to explain information to her advisees. She explained that “It can be helpful to pull out an example that expresses the idea without being so didactic.” Further, from teaching drawing, especially studio courses, she has brought with her an appreciation for the role of practice.“Advising is not just about giving out information. It has a coaching aspect to it and an encouragement to keep practicing in your academic efforts.” She also says that teaching art has shown her the importance of learning experientially and of creating structures that help one make sense of information. Hence, she sometimes diagrams with her advisees to explain information.
Advising has helped Matthew develop more empathy for students and appreciate that students have lives outside of the classroom. Consequently, he has been more receptive to students’ circumstances such as occasionally having to leave class early to make it to work. “Of course it is a slippery slope. You do not want to be taken advantage of, but, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. As an advisor I hear about students’ struggles often; they are juggling school, commuting, work, and family obligations. Knowing all of this has made me more sensitive to their concerns.” Having had realizations similar to Matthew’s, I began being more lenient with due dates in my classes. My syllabus now states that I understand that sometimes life intervenes, and thus that I have a two-day grace period on each assignment—no questions asked. I believe that by recognizing students’ life obligations, I can meet them where they are and push them to move forward.
Based on the above conversations and my own experiences, I have observed the value in drawing comparisons between teaching and advising. Implementing changes learned from one into the other has proved critical for me in understanding students’ needs in and outside the classroom.