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Friday, December 7, 2018

Academic Advising

The college life is very different from school life. In schools, most of the decisions are taken for you by teachers and/or parents. In any case, there are few academic decisions to be taken. Except at the beginning of 11th class, most of the courses are fixed for you. And that makes transitioning to a college harder.

Academic advising involves a trained staff or a faculty member guiding the student on the choice of courses (in case of electives), what courses can be done in any given semester (given the issue of pre-requisites, and graduation requirements of the program), etc. This becomes even more important if the student has failed a few courses and may not be satisfying the pre-requisites of many advanced courses. Besides, universities sometimes offer choice of second major, minor, dual-degree and other flexibility in the programs. Students are not just confused about the rules around them, but also whether they are consistent with the educational goals of the student. There could also be issues regarding whether to take a break and do a semester long internship, and finally what should they be doing after graduation. Should they go for higher studies or a job or something else. Which place to study. What kind of job, and so on.

As should be clear from above, the academic advising becomes important when a student has options but if left alone may not exercise those options in the best self interest. For a long time, Indian institutions did not give many options to students. You got admitted to a specific program - so you don't need help in choosing your major. You had a fixed curriculum, with fixed courses to be done every semester. So no choice there. May be you had an elective where only 2-3 courses will be offered and one had to take one course. There was no flexibility of second major, minor, etc., so no decisions to be taken. In such a system, only those students needed advise who had failed some courses and needed to restructure their programs. Academic advising in India, therefore, has traditionally been limited to handling academically deficient students.

Over the last two decades, things have changed quite a bit. With UGC and AICTE prescribing choice based credit systems for all academic programs, students have many decisions to take every semester. But the systems for providing this help have not been developed. In good colleges (like IITs), not only there are a lot of electives and they can do courses in which ever order they want, but there are options like minor, second major, dual degrees, etc. But the students are left to seek advice from their seniors alone. They can advise based on their own experiences and hence cannot really help another student with all options.

The colleges have given up on this extremely important responsibility by stating that the students are adults and ought to know what is best for them. This is quite irresponsible since even adults do not always know what is best for them, and even worse, may not even have all the information to make an informed decision. This becomes even worse in India where the websites are often not updated, and getting the information itself can become a project.

Consider an example. A student had 14 courses to do to complete the graduation requirement. He has been a somewhat academically weak student and has never performed well even with 5 courses in a semester. He planned to do 6 courses in each of the two semesters and two summer courses and thus hoped to graduate in a year. Of course, if he fails even one course in this plan, he will have to stay back for a semester necessarily. If someone had advised him properly and told him that the chance of succeeding in this plan are very slim and hence he should plan for 3 semesters and a summer to complete these. In the alternate plan, he would have done only 4 courses in each of the three semesters ad two courses in summer.  With lower academic load, he was more likely to learn better, with hopefully better grades, and likely better future options. But he registered for 6 courses and failed. So the transcript has more failures. The pass courses have poor grades and his confidence is shattered and he will have to spend that extra semester any way.

So many final year students (even those who have no backlogs) regret their decisions of doing something or not doing something. They wish someone had told them about the options early on. But with advising being so closely linked to poor academic performance, they never did approach anyone for advice.

I recall that when I was Chairman of Senate UnderGraduate Committee (SUGC) at IIT Kanpur, I had organized an advising session for 2nd semester students where faculty members from different departments told them about the excitement and opportunities in their respective disciplines. At the end of the advising session, so many students chose to change their program and unlike the normal behavior where most students apply for change to "more popular" programs, that year a lot of them applied to change to "less popular" programs since they realized that this is more in line with their interest and popularity of a program does not really matter for their career.

Most good universities (and even no so good ones) abroad invest a lot in academic advising. Happier graduates who attain their goals are more likely to be good brand ambassadors and good donors later in life. Early detection of possible academic problems can result in interventions before the problem becomes too serious and the student's program is terminated. I hope we too can invest some more resources into this extremely important service in our universities.


Rahul Agrawal said...

Dear Sir, academic advising is indeed needed. Earlier we had fixed course structure, so there was nothing much to deliberate. But now our students surely need guidance in choosing correct subjects. Almost every year, I meet many graduates who say, they should have taken xyz subject. I feel even recent alumni should be involved in this process, as they can understand recent requirement better.

Pardeep Kumar Gupta said...

The academic advising is extremely important for education system and it's success potential is most likely to increase with decrease in student teacher ratio. Lower student ratio may also increase the cost of effective knowledge transfer. As such web based free national interface could be an affordable and viable option.

Priyam776 said...

Talking about advising, I would love to hear about future of CSE, the industry people tell what we are taught doesn't matters and the professors more or less speak against the previous idea. Again how to choose between the subject trend itself and the future trends in industry. Please do write something because this is grave concern.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Priyam776, The only thing that matters is whether you have learnt how to learn, whether you have skills like critical thinking, problem solving, etc. What we teach in terms of skills will be obsolete soon, but what industry often asks us to teach will get obsolete even faster. The problem of industry is that they don't know how to articulate their needs in language that academics can understand, and the problem of academicians is that even if they can understand the need, in most colleges, they have no clue as to how to solve that problem. In particular, typical industry person who comes for placement in the campus will tell me a list of skills that our students should have. Suppose I can magically train a whole bunch of people in those skills. Will they lap them up and not complain. Of course, not. What they really need are students who can learn any new technology in a few days. But they can't articulate that, and they can't tell us how to train, in what to train so that for the next 10-20 years, our graduates will keep on learning new skills with very little training effort. On the other hand, if they indeed could articulate that and even told us how to go about it, will faculty of most colleges understand that. And hence the progress will continue to be slow.