New Insights & Directions for MIT First-Year Advising

New Insights & Directions for MIT First-Year Advising

Takeaways

  • In recent years, reports and other efforts to improve the advising experience at MIT have identified a networked approach where high-quality advising is seen as a responsibility of the entire Institute with roles and tasks distributed among multiple individuals.
  • The 2019-2020 First Year Advising Study was a pilot program conducted by MIT’s Office of the Vice Chancellor that experimented with one potential format for advising networks. In this pilot, the sole responsibility of advising was shifted from a single faculty member to a more distributed model where a faculty member and a professional advisor from the Office of the First Year shared advising responsibilities. The evaluation efforts and recommendations from this pilot are discussed including how differing expectations between students and mentors impacted their experience, the benefits of advising seminars, and the positive impact that undergoing implementation of these recommendations has had to date.

First-year Advising at MIT

On October 27, 2020, members from the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL), the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC), and the Office of the First Year (OFY) presented the results from the 2019-2020 First Year Advising Study, (watch the presentation from October, 2020 above and view the slides HERE) a pilot study aimed at improving the experience and quality of first-year advising at MIT.

These efforts were motivated by recommendations from the Designing the First Year class in Spring 2018, a course created to get student input on improving the first-year experience at MIT. This Designing the First Year class identified four key needs to address in the first-year experience:

  1. More support for choosing a major and encouraging intellectual exploration;
  1. Advising (vital in the first year and beyond);
  1. Feeling inspired by a topic and having a love of learning;
  1. More flexibility and fewer GIRs in the first year to enable the previous points.

This resulted in experimental changes that allowed the Class of 2023 to delay up to three General Institute Requirements (GIR) and use pass/no record grading on those GIRs beyond the first semester so that they could do more academic exploration during their first year.

The outcomes of the Designing the First Year class led members of the team who implemented and assessed the advising pilot study to research prior efforts on improving the quality of advising at MIT. Early reports from the late 1970s focused more on the role of faculty advisors, who were seen as students’ main point of contact. Recognizing the increasingly more complex set of roles that advisors need to fulfill within an advising relationship, more recent reports have proposed a networked approach for undergraduate advising at MIT. This networked approach encourages advisors to work with their advisees to identify additional potential mentors outside of the traditional advising program, such as academic departments. It also emphasizes that high-quality mentoring should be the responsibility of the whole Institute rather than only an individual advisor. To view the full reports, see the References section.

At MIT, first-year students can choose whether they would like to participate in one of the following advising options:

  • Traditional advising – students meet the faculty advisor 1:1 semi-regularly throughout the academic term and are in a group with other advisees though they do not meet regularly
  • Seminar advising – students take a weekly seminar with the other advisees in their group during Fall semester, taught by the faculty advisor on some topic of intellectual interest. During Spring semester, the advisor meets individually with the student.
  • First-year learning communities – a mix between traditional and seminar advising

Each option includes associate advisors–upper-level students who volunteer to be peer advisors for first-year students. First-year students can also have traditional advising through the Office of Minority Education (OME) and the Office of the First Year (OFY), where their primary advisor is a staff member within these offices, as well as other informal networks for support. The advising options present at MIT are different from most of our peer institutions in that students can choose which advising model they would like to participate in, and the faculty advisor continues to be the primary advisor that handles the majority of advising responsibilities in most of these options. The following are a few of the various challenges associated with the current MIT advising model:

  • Recruiting faculty advisors is challenging. The schedules of faculty advisors often change from year to year, or they might be uncertain about how much availability they will have for advising responsibilities.
  • Advising seminars are oversubscribed. A large majority of students indicate interest in the seminar advising option, but it can also be difficult to recruit advisors given faculty time constraints.
  • Demands on faculty advisors present challenges for availability and frequent communication. Faculty have competing responsibilities that sometimes make consistent communication with advisees difficult.

Common recommendations that often came up in the previous reports on MIT advising were:

  • Extend support beyond a single person with clearly outlined roles.
  • Outline clear expectations of the advisor and student engagement, providing articulated and easily accessible explanations for the advising relationship that fits student’s needs.
  • Provide proper training for the entire network, such as training for implicit bias and cultural awareness.
  • Standardize practices that are easy to navigate.

2019-2020 First Year Advising Study Pilot Program

The challenges of the current MIT advising model and the various prior recommendations detailed above led to implementing the 2019-2020 First Year Advising Study for about 100 students in the Class of 2023. Half of the students were placed in the traditional advising model, and the other half in a seminar model. This pilot aimed to leverage faculty members’ wisdom and experience and staff members’ deep knowledge of MIT’s curriculum, community, and systems in a formalized advising network. It was based on a 2011 advising pilot program which found that students with OFY staff as their primary advisors had more advising satisfaction and visited their office more frequently, since their OFY advisor had a better understanding of the GIRs, more consistent messaging, and was more accessible than some faculty advisors. These students also had fewer fifth-week flags. The intention was to build on the 2011 advising pilot program but also get a better sense of the experience of all the members of the advising network beyond the students. Prior advising efforts at MIT have mostly focused on the student experience.

Similarly to the 2011 pilot, the 2019-2020 advising network pilot assigned students a:

  • Primary advisor: an OFY staff member who was responsible for course requirements and selection, registration, and connecting them with academic departments that might be of interest
  • Faculty mentor: who shared their expertise and advice on research, academics, and other professional concerns
  • Associate advisor: an upper-level students peer mentor

To evaluate the program, the participants of the pilot advising network–except associate advisors–were randomly selected to be interviewed. First-year students were also surveyed. Below are some highlights of the results from the pilot.

Survey data (first-year students)

From the survey data, students reported that the seminar experience was the biggest strength of the advising program, perhaps because seminar advisees see their advisor on a more regular basis, instead of just need-based, and may also be more exposed to other potential advising network members more frequently.

Interview data (students’, OFY advisors’ and faculty mentors’ experience)

The interview data found that there were often differing expectations between students and advisors.For many (though not all) students, advising was a more transactional experience centered around class registration or dropping classes. At the same time, advisors often thought students would want to interact outside class registration. Differing expectations also played a role in the satisfaction of the mentor-advisor matching in terms of common interest or anticipated major.

Based on the data collected, the following recommendations were made if the pilot was implemented for the entire first-year class:

Matching

  • Assign advisors and associate advisors based on first-year students’ anticipated major, if possible, and expectations of mentorship styles. Matching by major alone can be challenging given the high interest among students in majoring in Course 6 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)

Messaging

  • Emphasize the value of advising, and remind faculty mentors that first-year students may need more outreach than other students
  • Provide incentives for faculty participation
  • Communicate clear guidelines and expectations to each network member

Structure

  • Assign OFY advisors to advising logistics and faculty advisors to mentoring
  • Front-load meetings at the beginning of the first semester
  • Enhanced support for students in GIRs through increased involvement of selected departments that offer the GIRs (e.g. math, physics)

Current implementations

Some progress has already been made towards the recommendations above in each of the three categories:

Matching

  • The placement of advising seminars within the discovery bucket allowed for more student participation in advising seminars. In the past, credits limit posed a challenge to students who had to choose between a seminar or another class they wanted
  • Removal of early sophomore standing allowed students to stay with their first-year advisor the whole year before moving to their new academic department. (In the past, early sophomore standing was offered to students who had completed 96 units of credit by the end of first semester. This credit was usually obtained through prior transfer credit, such as AP/IB classes, or by passing Advanced Standing Exams (ASEs). Students who accepted early sophomore standing would be assigned a departmental advisor earlier and also be subject to sophomore-level grading and credit limits starting in the Spring semester of their first year)
  • Encouraged faculty to increase enrollment in advising seminars slightly by including other primary advisors, so that the seminar was larger than the traditional 10-12 students. This allows more students to explore other areas they might be interested in and to take advantage of the benefits of being in an advising seminar

Messaging

  • Updated advisor guidebook and Canvas course with meeting frequency guidance and conversation guides, such as how to talk to first-generation/low-income students, or how to discuss mental health and imposter syndrome. This Canvas page originally started for first-year advisors but is relevant for all advisors to convey to upper-level students as well across departments
  • Increased communication over the summer with incoming students through OFY, starting in the second week of May after they enroll at MIT. OFY also sent out a weekly newsletter to students that included key dates and important information from different departments, resulting in around a 70% open rate
  • Started the conversations around class selection earlier rather than during orientation and registration week. This is especially helpful for students who come in with a lot of transfer credits so that they can talk to certain departments and make decisions about classes before meeting their advisor

Structure

  • Created a summer Slack community available 24/7 for incoming student questions with orientation leaders and OFY staff
  • Have OFY staff learn about each academic department to better advise first-year students and act as liaisons
  • Department orientations and open houses (in lieu of Academic Expo in 2020)

Though there are many more improvements to make to first-year advising at MIT, there have already been great strides toward improving the advising experience. The pandemic provided an opportunity to experiment with refinements such as the first-year newsletter from OFY and engaging students from the start before they arrive on campus. It is exciting to consider the direction that advising can go at MIT.


Speakers

Lauren Pouchak

Lauren Pouchak

Director of Special Projects, OVC

Elizabeth Young

Elizabeth Young

Associate Dean & Director, First-Year Advising & Programming, OFY

Melissa Barnett

Melissa Barnett

Associate Director for Research & Evaluation, TLL

Resources

If you are a member of the MIT community interested in seeing any of the reports, memos and assessments mentioned in the post, please email TLL at MIT dot edu

Reports & memos

  • 1977 Report of the President and the Chancellor Issue
  • 1997 CUP report
  • 2005 CUP report
  • 2016 MHH memo

Student recommendations

  • UA Advising subcommittee and 2018 FYE class

Pilots & assessments

  • –2011 Advising Pilot (CUP supported)
  • –2015-2018 analysis (UAAP survey)
  • –2017 IR meta analysis
  • –2019-2020 Advising Pilot