Although an outside reaccreditation team deemed Bowdoin's academic advising program in need of serious improvement last fall, the preliminary results from a survey of the first-year class may suggest otherwise.
"I don't think the results support that advising is entirely broken," said Dean of First Year Students Mary Pat McMahon, who released raw numbers to the Orient on Thursday afternoon.
According to the data, which was collected through a voluntary online survey, 95.3 percent of first years found their pre-academic advisers to be very or fairly approachable, and 54 percent said they planned to check in with their advisers again over the course of the semester, beyond the obligatory signing of the second semester course card. Of the 476 students in the first-year class, 236, or just under 50 percent, had responded to the survey at the time the Orient received the results.
Choosing to focus the first-year questionnaire around the issue of pre-academic advising is part of the College's effort to generate feedback on the state of the current system.
In addition to the survey, student and faculty discussion groups led by McMahon and Associate Dean for Curriculum Steven Cornish have met simultaneously over the past two weeks to share their positive and negative experiences with advising.
"It's a game plan to sort of figure out where we are," McMahon said. "We're trying to understand what experiences people have now and what we want to change."
According to Cornish, faculty members have pinpointed a number of areas where academic advising could be improved.
"One point was certainly that advising is very front-loaded and intense during Orientation and then there seems to be quite a drop-off after that point," Cornish said.
"The second, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this paralleled in student responses, is the matching of advisers with advisees," he said, noting that despite efforts to pair incoming first years with faculty who share their interests, some professors still find that they have very little in common academically with the new students.
"Some faculty seem to feel the relationship develops better if the academic interests were similar," Cornish said. "The perception among faculty is we ought to pay more attention to that."
One issue on the minds of both faculty and administrators at the advising forums was that of peer advising.
"I think everyone on campus recognizes that there is peer-to-peer advising through many informal ways," said Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd.
"One of the questions is whether a more formalized way of peer advising makes sense?probably 'yes.' But we don't know what it will look like," she said.
For Cornish, one of the biggest challenges surrounding peer advising is convincing faculty of its merit.
"We must overcome a certain amount of skepticism on peer advising from the faculty that students can advise other students," he said.
According to the results of the survey, the majority of first years did, in fact, turn to other students in addition to faculty and staff resources when selecting their courses for the fall semester, despite there being no official mechanism for peer advising in place at that time. While 87.7 percent of first years did consult their advisers before making choices about their schedules, 58.5 percent turned to their proctors, 27.1 percent looked to upperclassmen teammates, and 47.9 percent spoke with other upperclassmen students as well.
According to McMahon, the informal peer advising that currently takes place may not be as constructive as students think.
"Sometimes students get advised on what's 'easy' or 'hard,'" McMahon said, noting that one student's experience is never going to be same as another's. First-year students may take the advice of an upperclassman and sign up for an "easy" class, she said, but if the student does not do well in the class, he ends up "feeling worse about [himself] because it's supposed to be 'easy.'"
For this reason, Cornish suggests "providing an alternative to uneducated, uninformed [peer] advising."
"I never think of peer advising as a form of stand-alone structure," said Cornish, adding that one possible model for peer advising might be for a faculty adviser and a student adviser to team up to form an "advising partnership." Another solution would be to formally train proctors to field questions about changing distribution requirements so that they are well-prepared to field questions, said Judd.
The College is also considering putting first years in contact with their pre-academic advisers before arriving on campus for Orientation.
"Maybe we could think about having some contact with advisees over the summer, begin to sort of start a conversation, maybe even focus around a first-year seminar," Cornish said. "You're creating awareness certainly of the existence of an adviser."
Another question that arose during the faculty and student discussions was whether faculty advisers should serve as the "mouthpiece of the registrar," according to McMahon. In other words, some students seem to expect their advisers to be familiar with all of the information available in the course book, including requirements and suggested course sequence for departments other than their own.
The results of the survey show that while 67.7 percent of incoming students considered their adviser to be very knowledgeable regarding his or her own department, only 10.7 percent found their advisers very knowledgeable when answering questions about other departments.
While there is no official timetable for revamping the current advising system, the rest of the fall semester will be used to gather more information on the quality of the current process, according to Judd. Judd said that she expects recommendations for improvement to be made during the spring semester and that students might expect to see tangible changes to the pre-academic advising system by as early as the 2008-2009 academic year.
"I am certain that there will be changes to the ways we think about advising," Judd said.
"Whether they are small or large is something I cannot predict right now. There might be some major overhaul, it might be some small tweaking," she said.
Cornish agreed, saying, "My view of advising is it's never finished. It's always a work in progress."