When asked about what had the most impact on her time at Bennington College, Friederike immediately recalled a letter she had received before she even arrived on campus. The letter was from Ron, a long-time psychology professor, discussing opportunities for studying social psychology at Bennington.
The letter, she said, “helped me decide to attend Bennington. I loved the way that my future mentor understood psychology in interdisciplinary ways. The letter also showed me the care that he put into students, to prepare us for the educational journey at Bennington and to ask us to engage even before coming to campus. I didn’t know Ron would become my mentor then, but I knew that I had to meet him and learn with him.”
Through their advising relationship, Friederike ended up “learning how to learn,” with a consistent focus on self-reflection that helped her “develop as a person.” Now, 10 years after receiving that letter, Friederike is a graduate student in psychology, and she feels that the mentoring she received as an undergraduate prepared her to attend graduate school, especially in terms of her ability to self-reflect. This impactful experience highlights the value of good advising in supporting students through their development in a liberal arts college.
These are the same practices that have served Bennington students well during the current pandemic: while delivering classes remotely was often challenging for faculty at first, connecting with advisees over Zoom and by phone was more natural and these approaches helped maintain connections and community that we might have otherwise lost with students being remote.
Of course, for administrators, promoting good advising also raises all sorts of questions about how these meaningful connections are made. And how do we ensure that students have equitable access to these experiences? How do faculty — many of whom begin these positions with scant training in pedagogy, let alone training in effective advising — learn to create meaningful connections and mentorship for their students? And finally, how do we encourage strong cultures of advisorship, particularly in a pandemic world where social distancing and remote learning make such relationships challenging?
Much of this connection between advisors and advisees has long developed through conversations in the welcoming spaces of faculty offices, like Friederike’s advisor’s, but even when our campus shut during the pandemic, we found good advising mattered as much as ever. While Bennington, like other schools, has academic services, mental health support, and many other support offices, during this time, students have been more likely to talk to faculty than almost anyone else (22) about the big issues they’re struggling with.
In other words, advising matters, but it also doesn’t just happen by itself. This is not a skill that is taught explicitly in graduate schools, and institutions — even the AAC&U — do not always recognize it as a high impact practice. As we have known, at least since Daniel Chambliss’s and Christopher Takacs’s How College Works highlighted the importance of mentorship on student outcomes, students who feel a connection with their faculty are more likely to succeed in the liberal arts setting than those that don’t, and they’re even more likely to find well-being and deep engagement in their lives post-graduation. Through concrete programming, and through cultivating and modeling a culture supportive of meaningful advisor-advisee relationships, we can prioritize institutional resources to improve student outcomes.
At Bennington, this has meant encouraging advising relationships to develop between faculty and students, through an academic culture where faculty are encouraged to be accessible, but also through a series of more formal structures, particularly the development of First-Year Forum, a weekly advisory meeting with a group of first year students, a senior co-leader, and a loosely structured curriculum, that, in part, aims to promoting good advising.
Particularly in small liberal arts settings, advising provides a personal connection for students and helps model reflections on learning and engagement. Bennington College, for example, has a highly individualized educational model that depends on deep and collaborative reflection, a practice cultivated through close and developmental advising. At Bennington, instead of majors, we have individual student “Plans,” in which students, with the help of an advisor, map out their learning over the course of their undergraduate time. This arrangement necessitates regular conversations that pave the way for productive advising from the student’s first moments at Bennington. In some ways this makes Bennington an outlier, as a place where expectations around advising are built into our educational structures, but we believe that the way students develop confidence in and ownership of their educations in these structures is transferable to other institutions.
Elliot (they/them), a current sophomore, highlighted both the challenges and the opportunities of transitioning to college for the first time in the midst of a pandemic and how advisor meetings and other structures assisted them: They note that “last year, the 1-on-1 advising meetings with my faculty advisor were really helpful. He was always pointing me to resources and telling me when I was overly worrying about something.” This relationship was key during the “very strange and isolating” experience of joining a new and close-knit community during a pandemic. Through the formal structure of First-Year forum, Elliot had regular opportunities to hear about community resources from their advisor throughout their first year.
Teaching Faculty Good Advising
Of course, institutions have to invest in faculty and invest in support for them, but advising is often missed when it comes to faculty support. Many schools seem to assume that faculty will naturally somehow be good advisors, but we are advocating for more explicit training for advising; not all advising is meaningful. In particular, it’s the “learning centered advising” that Marc Lowenstein differentiates from “prescriptive advising” (checking boxes and understanding major requirements) that makes a real impact by envisioning the advisor as teacher who helps students “find/create the logic of one’s education.” This echoes what Friederike gained from her advising relationship.
At Bennington, new faculty are onboarded through a series of training sessions that highlight advising. Beyond this, however, participation in First-Year Forum (FYF) is a big factor in teaching faculty to be better advisors. Some of the sessions highlight resources on campus, while others develop self-reflective practices. Faculty participating in First-Year Forum gain a shared understanding of purpose and staff support and are asked to take more seriously the educational arc of each student than they would in other more typical academic courses. While leading these forums, faculty are given teaching credits and students learning credits in recognition of the education that happens in these sessions.
Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion also means that we work to prepare faculty to engage with a range of students from backgrounds that may be very different from their own. While there is more work to be done in this area, the emphasis on each individual student developing their own educational path helps strengthen our commitment to meeting students where they are and helping them chart their own course. Similarly, several assessment initiatives work towards norming conversations faculty are having with students and guiding them to be better advisors.
Teaching Students Good Advisorship
The other thing Bennington realized in the creation and evolution of First-Year Forum is that students need time and space to practice good habits of being advised. This can range from making sure students know how to take advantage of office hours and encouraging them to advocate for themselves in various campus offices. Students that might be more reluctant to “bother” faculty, such as first-generation college students, particularly benefit from explicit discussion and practice of advising with a faculty member.
FYF has a focus on reflective practices. It forces students to discuss their own interests, passions, and priorities and how to use the Bennington curriculum to realize the education they envision. Some of these are rather simple practices, like assignments that ask students to reflect upon a piece of work that they developed for another class, while others are more ambitious, such as asking students to envision the skills they would like to develop over the next four years. These conversations within the context of FYF then continue on a more individualized level with their advisor over the next three years.
Culture and Relationships
As well as more formal structures, a culture that emphasizes advising around campus has been a hallmark of Bennington. Since its founding, student committees have had key roles in formulating and implementing educational policy, emphasizing the role that students, in conversations with advisors, have in shaping the curriculum and creating classroom culture.
A culture to support faculty advising, and student advisorship, must also be layered into all sorts of structures. Faculty advisors are the nexus but there are other forms of mentorship to be emphasized. In recent years, Bennington has expanded our peer mentoring programs in both academic disciplines (e.g. writing) and affinity groups (e.g. international students). Students appreciate the accessibility of these peer leaders and their ability to relate to the student experience. As Elliot described, “What was great was having the co-leader talk about how things work on campus. I appreciated having someone to ask whatever I was wondering, and the co-leader gave amazing advice about how to read the curriculum to choose courses, for example.”
Similarly, while peer mentorship does not replace the role of the faculty as the primary advisors, faculty appreciate the support they get as just one part of a web of support to which a student has access. As faculty member and FYF instructor Noëlle reflected, “We’re modeling a developmental model through peer leadership when we use these more horizontal advising structures. For instance, in our collaborative work with co-leaders the first-year students see us trusting the co-leaders and giving them responsibilities for things we know they do better than we do, such as understanding the stresses of student life.”
It became particularly evident how important all of this was during the COVID pandemic, when Bennington went fully remote in Spring 2020 and then provided a hybrid curriculum over the next three terms. Over these terms our retention numbers remained strong, in part because while remote students or students in quarantine might have felt isolated from some parts of the campus community, their peer mentoring networks remained strong and faculty remained engaged with advisees and continued to have important conversations about next steps in their educational paths.
Investing in Good Advising
Returning to our original point, Ron’s mentorship of Friederike was important, not just because he helped her select classes, but because he helped her “make sense of her education.” Her senior thesis pulled together skills she had developed in her social psychology classes and her own experiences, to understand how international students transition into Bennington.
While all institutions in higher ed face economic challenges, and while administrators try to deliver more and more with less and less, it’s important to keep in mind the value of individual relationships on campus, particularly between advisors and advisees. We cannot undervalue good academic advising by reducing it to a practice of checking boxes or outsourcing it to non-faculty members.
It’s also important to keep in mind that faculty are not simply born good advisors. Ron had thirty years of experience with this. At the same time, training, faculty mentorship for new faculty, peer mentoring support, and making sure faculty have the time and space to work with students can go a long way into building good relationships. In the long run, this helps not just learning, but also retention and creates stronger campus communities, even in the face of unprecedented challenges like a pandemic.