New Insights & Directions for MIT First-Year Advising
- Through the years, multiple stakeholders have identified and recommended improvements for first-year advising at MIT, emphasizing a need for a networked approach to advising, where high-quality advising is the whole Institute’s responsibility, thus encouraging a model of advising where roles and responsibilities are distributed across multiple individuals.
- The 2019-2020 First-Year Advising Study was a pilot program conducted by MIT’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Education that experimented with the recommendations of previous reports and shifted the responsibility of advising 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.
- Highlights of the evaluation efforts and positive impacts from the undergoing implementation recommendations of the pilot are outlined below.
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, a pilot study aimed at improving the experience and quality of first-year advising at MIT.
These efforts were motivated by recommendations from Designing the First Year, a class held in Spring of 2018 that was created to get student input on improving the first-year experience at MIT. Students from the Designing the First Year identified four key needs to address in the first-year experience:
- More support for choosing a major and encouraging intellectual exploration;
- Advising (vital in the first year and beyond);
- Feeling inspired by a topic and having a love of learning;
- 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 from the Designing the First Year class led members of the team who implemented and assessed the advising pilot to research prior efforts on improving the quality of advising at MIT. Early reports from the late 1970s focused on the role of faculty advisors as students’ primary points of contact. Recognizing the increasingly more complex set of roles 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 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 complete 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. First-year undergraduate advising at MIT differs from those of most of our peers in that students can choose the advising model that best fits their needs. Regardless of the model, the faculty advisor is currently the primary source for academic info and guidance for first-year students. 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 challenging 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 easily accessible explanations for the advising relationship that fits students’ needs.
- Provide training for the entire network, including implicit bias and cultural awareness.
- Standardize practices that are easy to navigate.
2019-2020 First-Year Advising Study
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 findings from a 2011 advising pilot program which found that students with OFY staff as their primary advisors had more satisfaction and visited their office more frequently since OFY advisors had a better understanding of the GIRs, more consistent messaging, and were 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 and get a better sense of the experience of all the members of the advising network beyond the students. Prior advising efforts at MIT have primarily focused on the student experience.
Similarly to the 2011 pilot, the 2019-2020 First-Year Advising Study 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 students and advisors often had differing expectations. 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.
The following recommendations were made based on the data collected if the pilot was implemented.
- 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)
- 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.
- Assign OFY advisors to advise logistics and faculty advisors to mentor.
- 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)
Some progress has already been made toward the recommendations above in each of the three categories:
- The placement of advising seminars within the discovery bucket https://firstyear.mit.edu/academics-exploration/credit-limits-grading/ allowed more student participation in advising seminars. In the past, credit limits 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 the 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.
- 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 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 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 class selection conversations earlier rather than waiting until orientation and registration week. This is especially helpful for students with many transfer credits so they can talk to specific departments and decide about classes before meeting their advisor.
- 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 the Academic Expo in 2020)
Though many more improvements are needed for 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 arrived on campus. It is exciting to consider the direction that advising can go at MIT.
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 email@example.com.
Reports & memos
- 1977 Report of the President and the Chancellor Issue
- 1997 CUP report
- 2005 CUP report
- 2016 MHH memo
- 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
Director of Special Projects, OVC
Associate Dean & Director, First-Year Advising & Programming, OFY
Associate Director for Research & Evaluation, TLL