Advising as Active Learning

This way to commencement.

It’s now advising hell, er, season, at my university. If you are outside of the USA, you might be unfamiliar with this phenomenon — it’s when undergraduates come to faculty for advice about which courses they should register for in the upcoming semester.

Students often approach the process passively  — if I let them, they will simply ask me “What should I take?” Many are also under the misapprehension that a path they believe is “pre-med” or “pre-law” is necessary for gaining entrance into a graduate program (it isn’t). Or they are convinced that a “minor” — a small cluster of courses on some topic — is in and of itself a career credential (it isn’t). Notice that the actual learning that might or might not occur in these pre-packaged bundles of courses is not what the students are worrying about.

To be fair, the underlying purpose of the curriculum — to function as a vehicle for learning — is fairly opaque. For example, at my university sixteen distinct student learning outcomes are assigned to courses that fulfill general education requirements, courses required by academic programs might have an equal number of additional outcomes, and there is now talk about creating a third layer of outcomes at the institutional level. Yet there is no comprehensive, well-tuned effort to capture and evaluate the data necessary for determining whether these outcomes are being met. If faculty are unable to point a student to course X as a reliable means of learning Y, it’s doubtful that students can do it.

In an attempt to work around these problems, I require students to bring to a meeting a draft of a four-year plan in which they’ve listed what courses they think they’ll be taking and when. The document, which gets revised over time, serves as a tool for a much deeper conversation, for two main reasons.

First,  the process of drafting an academic schedule for which the endpoint is graduation illustrates that choices have consequences. For example, playing a sport is the highest priority for some students, and they like to avoid enrolling in courses that conflict with practice sessions or matches. But some courses are often taught only in particular semesters at particular times. With the four-year plan, students see the longer-term effects of their decisions, and that they bear ultimate responsibility for how they choose to invest their time, money, and effort.

Second, the four-year plan is an entry point for a discussion about how the title of a course, the curricular requirements that can be fulfilled by successfully completing it, and the degree to which the student will find the course interesting and challenging are frequently completely independent of each other. Given that people usually learn more when they are both interested in and challenged by what they are studying, I tell students to take people, not courses, whenever possible. While I can make suggestions about this, it is up to the student to actively perform the necessary due diligence.

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