Building a community of support for remote students through academic advising

Janet Morrison details academic advising strategies that keep students feeling connected and supported throughout their educational journeys when learning online

Janet Morrison's avatar
Champlain College Online
6 Sep 2021
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Advice on providing comprehensive support for remote students through academic advising

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This past year has emphasised the value of community. In higher education, many students and instructors struggled with a sense of isolation from their peers and colleagues when institutions adopted remote and virtual settings at the start of the pandemic. While academic advisers are not often in the spotlight, they play a vital role in bridging the gap between student and institution and in helping students feel part of a broader learning community. Feeling connected – that is, being “seen” and “heard” – is critical to student success.

We have been offering fully online courses since the mid-1990s, and while this did not make the past year less traumatic, it did allow us to use our experience and skills in online education to provide students with rich learning and community-building experiences.

From my vantage point as an educator and academic adviser in an online learning environment, below are strategies, ideas and advice that cultivate that sense of connectedness.

A well-thought-out communication plan

Although learning online is largely an individual endeavour – especially if the learning environment is designed to be asynchronous – it doesn’t need to be isolating. The key to combating student isolation is to know your student population and develop a communication plan that intentionally serves their needs.

A well-thought-out communication plan should include these four steps.

  • A welcome phone call with students before they take their first class. These early phone calls establish advising relationships that continue throughout the student’s journey.
  • Celebrating “wins” and providing support and coaching when students are in academic distress. Advisers should reach out to students at different points in their journey – early in their first few semesters, around the middle of their programmes, and as they are nearing completion – to encourage, congratulate, offer information and provide support and resources when needed.
  • A commitment to responding to student emails and calls in a timely fashion. The goal should be to respond within 24 hours.
  • Good notes on conversations with students to enable continuity of support. It is validating for students when the person they are talking to has taken the time to be informed and remember things that they’ve previously discussed.

Each of these steps will help advisers support a student’s education journey. Student communication plans should include a deliberate integration of teams in the student life cycle such as admissions, transfer credit teams, career services and advising. All these teams are critical to a student feeling as if they are part of a unified community that is dedicated to their success.

Not all communication is created equal

While a communication plan is critical for student success, the way you carry out the plan is just as crucial. Be intentional and deliberate in how you communicate for connection. One example of a communicative approach to student support is an appreciative advising model, which involves getting to know your students by asking positive, open-ended questions that help them optimise their educational experiences and achieve their goals. When we ask thoughtful questions that demonstrate a genuine interest in the other person, we are fostering connection.

It also means identifying student strengths and adopting a strengths-based mindset to help students realise their talents and abilities, and build upon them throughout their academic careers.

Developing your communication techniques necessitates taking the time to know your students and committing to communication best practices, starting with listening. This means appreciating when to be quiet and striking the balance between providing information and creating space for the student to explore and develop autonomously.

Advising is largely a teaching endeavour and, as such, we need to know when to ask the “right” questions and listen patiently to the response. Also important is awareness of students’ possible email and telephone fatigue. Respecting a student’s space to not engage in deep conversation is also a sign of connection with an individual and their needs.

Every student is unique, so it’s necessary to be aware of language and styles of speaking. Especially when a student is new, as an adviser you can help them develop an awareness and understanding of the terminology that they will hear in the semesters ahead. Advisers should avoid jargon and use inclusive language that demonstrates respect for identity diversity.

Using several modes of communication can help reach every student. Keep students engaged by inviting participation in college community social media groups; use text messaging to send reminders about registration; and direct them to your student portal where they can serve themselves and access information about careers, networking, mentoring, alumni activity, learning and more.

We continue to tune in to students and pay attention to their stories so we can meet them where they are. Only then are we able to collaboratively build and maintain a learning community that will meet students’ needs and serve them well.

Janet Morrison is associate director of advising at Champlain College Online.


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