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2014 November 3

Advising too many students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:39
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I’m advising between 300 and 400 students this year, plus teaching two classes each quarter, meeting with 3 grad students, and being department vice chair. This makes my week a busy one—I don’t get any convenient large blocks of time for doing research, and  I probably spend about 6 hours a week in one-on-one meetings with undergraduates.

Because I have to meet with students a lot, and I have a lot of scheduled classes and meetings, I need to keep an appointment calendar. But I’m not willing to have students signing up on it directly—no one gets to put things on my calendar except me.

I’ve set up two open office hours a week, for which students can reserve a place in line by e-mail, or just show up and wait until those with reservations have all been served. I stay until all the students have had their time with me (I made the hours 4–5pm), which means I’m usually doing 4 hours a week, not 2, but I can leave as early as 5pm if there is no one waiting (which has happened, but not often).

I also allow students to make appointments at other times—but they have to send me their schedules, and I look for an opening on my calendar. Because some openings are more valuable to me than others, I try to give them a slot that will fit their openings but minimize disruption to my day (an optimization that never happens if others put appointments on my schedule). I never give the students multiple options when they are asking for times outside my allocated office hours. They tell me when they are available, and I ask them to come in the first of those slots that fits my schedule. If they don’t come then, I mark them on my calendar as a no-show, and wait for them to reschedule (but I’m less generous about giving up prime slots to no-shows).

Why do I have so many advisees this year? Simple: the bioengineering major has been growing rather rapidly recently, which has converted a reasonable load into an unmanageable one. Also we completely revamped the curriculum last year, so that it is effectively 4 different majors, with only about 30% overlap in courses. That means that there are 7 different curricula students could be following (the 3 old concentrations or the 4 new ones), and considerable confusion on the part of students about what their options are—they hear something about the new curriculum and assume it applies to the old one, or vice versa.

There is a staff adviser whom students are supposed to see before coming to me (the bioengineering advising is a full-time job for her), but I have to handle all the exceptions and all the “what-elective-should-I-take” questions.  I also have to sign the independent study requests and approve the senior thesis proposals. I like reading the thesis proposals and talking to students about what courses can help them learn what they want or need to learn—that is the rewarding part of the undergraduate director job.

One of the most useful questions I ask students is “what do you plan to do with your degree once you get it?” Somewhat surprisingly, many of them have never been asked that and never thought about it—they are so focused on the B.S. as a goal that they’ve never realized that the B.S. is not a goal: it is a means to an end, a stepping stone. Where they intend to go after that should be determining what electives they take, what concentration they choose, even what major they choose. My job is help guide them on their path, but if they don’t know where they’re going, I can’t help them get there.

Not all my interactions with students are that much fun, though. Just before the add/drop deadline and just before the declaration of major deadline, I get all the students who were too disorganized to do things in a timely fashion, who are also often those who’ve made a hash of scheduling their courses and are looking for exceptions so that they can graduate despite having missed some requirement that they should have fulfilled years ago. Dealing with these students is often a major pain—particularly since they are so late in making their requests that they often expect me to drop everything else so that they can make their deadlines.  Sorry, kids, a failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.  I’ll deal with them fairly and do what I reasonably can to help, but I’m not going to say “there, there, you don’t really have to take that tough course that you’ve been avoiding for so long that your financial aid has run out”.  Luckily, I don’t have the power to waive prerequisites—I can honestly tell the students that they have to convince the instructor to give them an add code, as only the instructor can waive the prereqs.

I avoid some of the problems with handling so many advisees by sending out e-mail to the entire list of majors and premajors occasionally, when something comes up that I think will be a common question or that may students would benefit from hearing. I also handle a lot of routine questions and approvals by e-mail.

Based on the load last year and this quarter, I can tell that I’ll be inundated in the spring quarter, when all the sophomores will have to declare their majors. My teaching load will be a lot heavier then also, as one of my two classes will have 6 or 12 hours of lab time a week (depending how many students will be taking it), with no TA. So I’ll need help. I’m going to try to get some other faculty to start advising in a couple of the concentrations, so that the load can be spread a bit.  I’ll still end up with the thesis proposals and the exceptions, but some of the major declaration and guidance for elective choosing can be done by others.

Update 2014 Nov 7: This week, I have gotten three other faculty to agreed to serve as faculty advisers for the students in Assistive Technology concentrations (the smallest part of the workload).  I will be looking to get some faculty advisers for the biomolecular concentration (the largest part of the workload).


  1. I am having the same problem! I am drowning in advisees. We set up blocks of “open advising hours” in advance, so I am able to control when I see students pretty well. But I also took on the job of CS program director, and I have been getting around 100 emails a day with advising questions – why is the such and such course closed? will it be offered next year? Can I take CSXXY without the prereqs? On and on and on.

    The problem is we don’t have enough fulltimers to handle the advising load. Adjuncts don’t advise…

    Comment by Bonnie — 2014 November 4 @ 07:17 | Reply

    • Why not hire an adjunct to advise? You must have one that you would trust with the basic level of advising that consists mostly of saying “No” and “Probably” while keeping them on the curricular flow chart. That can be done without giving them the keys to the kingdom of overrides.

      Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 November 7 @ 17:50 | Reply

      • We can’t hire contingent faculty to do advising. Lecturers can’t be hired to do advising (union rules).

        We already have a staff adviser (who handles about 400 students)—they are supposed to see her before coming to me, and she does a lot of the jigsaw puzzle work of trying to fit the student’s required courses into the time they have left. She also does the graduation checks when they declare their intent to graduate. She can’t answer the “should I take X or Y?” questions, the “which concentration should I do?”, or other questions that require knowledge of the content of the courses, as she isn’t in the field at all.

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 November 7 @ 22:16 | Reply

      • A lot of our departments let administrators do the advising, but we were having problems with mistakes being made – prerequisites ignored, credits incorrectly transferred – so we pulled the advising load back into the department. I think using an adjunct would present problems similar to the ones we saw with the administrators

        Comment by Bonnie — 2014 November 9 @ 06:38 | Reply

        • Most of the majors on our campus rely almost entirely on staff advising for the students, because the load has gotten too high (biology has 2000 majors with 20 faculty, for example). In those departments, the undergrad director (a faculty position that gets no extra stipend and no course relief) is called on to handle all the exceptions that the staff can’t just apply policy to, but policies get set up for almost everything. For general education and students who don’t have a major, advising is done by the “colleges”, which once was faculty advising (I was an adviser for Cowell College for several years), but changed to all staff advising over a decade ago.

          The staff adviser for the bioengineering program is good at putting schedules together honoring prereqs and when courses are offered, at checking GPA and courses taken for admission to the major, and at doing graduation checks that the curriculum chosen by the student has been completed, but the program was set up so that students are supposed to get faculty approval for their electives when they declare the major. So even after the staff adviser has done everything right in helping the student put together a feasible program, it generally still takes half an hour with a faculty adviser to select appropriate electives and rearrange the schedule to accommodate them.

          Other programs have given up on faculty advising, and just put together a rigid program that has no electives, or made the electives have specific constraints that can be checked by someone who has no idea what is in the courses. I’m not willing to give up on the faculty guiding the students, though, so I’m trying to spread the load out enough that no one (especially me) gets burned out.

          I think that the increased use of contingent faculty and the increased emphasis on how much funding ladder-rank faculty raise through grants has resulted in large shifts in the culture of our campus, in a direction that makes the undergraduate experience worse than it was 20 years ago. Restoring state funds that have been cut would help, but it may take a long time for the culture to swing back (if it ever does, since the new campus culture is closer to the norm at research universities).

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 November 9 @ 10:04 | Reply

  2. At first your comments reminded me of the old saw about how your computer’s way of kicking you is to do things that make you want to kick the computer. That curriculum transition is a nightmare! Whose idea was that? ;-) Maybe you need to write a program that decides the optimal track for someone in a current concentration who might be closer to graduation (or have more classes available) if they shifted to one of the new concentrations. [I was once, many moons ago, involved in writing the policy for grandfathering curricula when that university was planning for the term-to-semester transition that was about 5 years in the future, so I know there is no way to make that kind of transition as seamless as one would wish.]

    I can also sympathize because we are going to change our gen ed requirements in a non-trivial way next fall and I can already see how confused continuing students will probably be. They are already confused by our present set of options!

    A suggestion for one of your problems. I know of some schools that build “gateways” at various points, defined by accumulated credits, where future registration is blocked until they take that challenging class everyone wants to put off until they forget all of the prerequisite skills they need to pass it.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 November 7 @ 17:45 | Reply

    • The curricular changes were essentially all my ideas (except for some help I got from other members of the curriculum committee last year).

      I think that maintaining a program that does scheduling would be as much work as scheduling 100s of students—things change every quarter, students bring in odd forms of transfer credit, students request substitutions and exceptions, … .

      It is in answering student questions that I learn about changes, since no one bothers to tell me when they change things. For example, I just found out that the Functional Anatomy course, which 5 years ago was in Anthropology and last year in Biology is this year listed in the Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology department. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea.

      As for “gateways”, the bioengineers have so many prerequisite chains that the problem is getting far enough along on all of them to get to the interesting courses. There is no single “gateway” that would be meaningful. We do require that they have taken 50 credits (about a third of the required courses or a little over a quarter of the total undergrad requirements) before they can declare the major.

      We can’t block registration—even if we could, doing so would make things worse, not better, since a lot of required courses are only once a year and difficult for students to schedule.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 November 7 @ 22:12 | Reply

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