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Your classrooms have moved online—but how about your advising office?

March 23, 2020

When people think of academic advising, the vision rarely includes advisors wearing headsets in a home office as they talk to students who are serving snacks to toddlers in hopes of keeping them quiet enough to hear their advisors. Yet, for colleges around the country, that’s where we currently find ourselves.

The community college advising team I led prior to joining EAB served adult learners, who juggled competing responsibilities and were rarely able to meet for in-office advising appointments. Little did I know those experiences with virtual advising would serve as training for a global pandemic, specifically COVID-19. Since this is new territory for many advisors, I’d like to share three tips for effective virtual advising.  

Tip 1: Manage your expectations

While you may be accustomed to students arriving to your appointments with few distractions, we can’t anticipate the unique circumstances our students are facing now as routines have been upended for all of us. Students may have sick family members, poor Internet connections, or mounting mental health concerns.

Your outreach to students during this time should recognize that college may not currently be their top priority. When you are fortunate enough to chat with them by phone or text, first ask how they are coping and whether it’s a good time to discuss the purpose of your communication.

While your question may derail the conversation and prevent discussion about what you had planned, you might hear about what really matters to the student right now. That rapport will invite more trust as you work to keep students on their academic paths.

Tip 2: Tighten your agenda

Typically, we’d love to spend more time with students drifting between discussions about their goals and needs. However, in a virtual environment, shorter meetings that happen closer together are more productive. This is not the time to check in about midterms, transfer planning, and fall enrollment. Not only do short appointments prevent large gaps in your calendar if students are forced to cancel unexpectedly, but they keep the focus on a few, critical items.

To maximize your limited time together, prepare in advance. Email the student an agenda of objectives to complete during the appointment. Ask for any additions that have been on the student’s mind. Limiting the length and scope of these appointments makes the short bursts become more memorable, especially in these chaotic times.

Tip 3: Advise and empower students

Briefer, more focused meetings without the additional time burden of students commuting to campus, enables more frequent interactions and collaboration. The total amount of time you’ll spend with students across the term will not change much. Schedule a series of appointments with students, as opposed to more comprehensive appointments only once or twice a term. This shift allows advisors to recommend specific tasks to empower students to self-serve with the safety net of a future appointment to tackle any emergent challenges that arise.

Between appointments, students can independently explore a career field or develop a schedule for the upcoming term. Having next steps reinforces the collaboration between you and your students and can build their confidence in navigating the higher education landscape.

Virtual advising presents the opportunity to keep students engaged when they can’t be on campus. Advisors around the country are realizing the ally they have in advising technology. We’ve heard from EAB partners like Pueblo Community College who are centering their crisis-period student support strategy on advisor engagement with students in Navigate.

The Navigate platform supports communication with students, allows virtual appointment scheduling and academic planning, while also providing insight into student performance and engagement. Advisors are using it to conduct outreach campaigns, and faculty are also able to raise alerts on students who are struggling with the unexpected transition to web-based classes. 

We are in a period of unprecedented circumstances. College across the country have pivoted from a typical spring term to fully remote staff, faculty, and students. As we begin to evaluate how to maintain or enhance service to students during this extraordinary time, technology will play a critical role in continuity of operations. More challenges lie ahead, and it has never been more important to maintain focus on what really matters: the success of our students. And who knows—we might just find that virtual advising can help us scale our support to serve more students long after this pandemic has passed.

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