This spring, Boston College students will have the ability to assess their academic advisors through an online evaluation system as part of the University’s efforts to renew its focus on academic advising.
For the past three years, members of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) have collaborated with administrators and faculty members to develop the evaluations, which will be made available around the time students are registering for fall courses, when advisory meetings are still fresh in mind. The surveys, which are only about 15 to 17 questions in length, seek to get students’ feedback on topics ranging from their advisor’s availability and knowledge of degree requirements to the level of concern advisors show for students’ non-academic lives.
Harry Kent, UGBC director of University Affairs and A&S ’13, emphasized that the goal of the evaluation is not only to identify departments that are doing well in advising and those that are not, but also to improve the interactions between advisors and advisees overall.
“With the evaluation form, we’re really hoping to signal what constitutes good advising to both students and advisors,” Kent said. “Hopefully this will affect students just as much as it does advisors, because advising is a two-way street: students need to be better advisees, too.”
To help students further, the UGBC is also working to rebrand student advising guides, one-page “cheat sheets” that include topics and questions tailored to students in each grade. Students can utilize this resource to do more work in preparation for meetings with their advisors, which Kent noted have increasingly become nothing but brief five-minute interactions to receive the login code for UIS course registration.
The root of the problem with academic advising lies in the inherent disconnect between advisors and students. Students may claim advisors are not available to them, Kent said, while advisors often counter that many students do not show up for meetings.
The evaluation system, a project initiated in the fall of 2009 by members of the UGBC, including Anna Rhodes and Brian Jacek, both BC ’10, went through several years of development before being finalized for launch this spring. The students collected data, conducted focus groups, and met with faculty and administrators, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Donald Hafner chief among them.
“Out of that [research] was born the need for an advisor evaluation form. We realized that without a feedback system, advisors weren’t really being held accountable for their advising, and there was no way to recognize advisors who were doing a good job,” Kent said.
“We had a vision, we knew this was a good idea, and we kept at it,” Hafner said. He underscored that the evaluation system was made possible by quality conversations with Kent and other UGBC representatives, open-mindedness, and similar goals on the part of everyone involved. By the time the plan was proposed before the Provost Advisory Council, a University-wide academic body that advises the Provost on issues of major importance to faculty and academics at BC, it was broadly accepted.
The evaluative questionnaire was successfully piloted in the Connell School of Nursing in 2011 with an 80 percent participation rate, and the Carroll School of Management followed in 2012. Kent said that the results of these pilots served as reassurance that students actually want to talk about advising, even without incentives to participate such as those that are used for course evaluations.
A key element of the evaluations, Hafner stressed, is that responses are confidential, and will only be made available to the advisors themselves, the advisor’s department chair, and school deans.
“The important thing about this evaluation form is that it’s being used only for the benefit of the advisors,” Hafner said. “Students won’t be able to see the results, because what matters is the advisor’s response to the evaluation, not the students’.
“If we have wide student participation in the advisor evaluation, even though students may not necessarily have access to that information, it will allow us as the University to look at how the advising system is functioning,” he said.
Laura Tanner, an advisor in the English department, pointed to the vital advisor-advisee relationship as one the University should work to maintain, and she believes the evaluations should help that process.
“Anything that we can do at the institutional level to support productive relationships between BC students and their faculty advisors strikes me as a positive development,” Tanner said. “If the new evaluation system serves to reinforce the value of these important conversations and emphasize for faculty members the importance of looking at each student as a whole person, I think that it will be a good thing.”
Although academic advising has not always been the biggest concern for faculty, it will be highlighted to a larger extent in faculty end-of-year reports in which professors also discuss their activities in teaching, community service, publication, and academia in general.
Hafner emphasized that advising at BC has been evolving in recent years, noting that the establishment of the Academic Advising Center “was an affirmation that Boston College cares about this, and we’re going to put some resources into it.”