The University Record, October 2, 1995

LS&A group finds huge array of services; cites access problems

By Jane R. Elgass

A joint faculty-student LS&A committee has been “overwhelmed by the magnitude” of support services available to students and “the seeming inaccessibility and underutilization of the services.”

Any problems associated with student support services are generally not related to the number, kind or quality available; “rather the larger problem of student support services is the lack of easy accessibility and utilization of these services by students in LS&A,” states a report that will be discussed by the LS&A faculty at its meeting this afternoon.

“The strength of this report,” says committee chair David L. Schoem, LS&A assistant dean for undergraduate education, “is its attention to the importance of building student academic communities—in various forms—as a means of engaging students in the intellectual life of the College and making accessible the vast array of student support services.

“The report,” he adds, “emphasizes faculty involvement in these student academic communities and offers specific approaches to address problems of student isolation and underutilization of academic support services.”

The 10-member committee identified five areas of concern:

  • Students feel isolated.
  • Effective delivery of the services is hampered by inadequate mechanisms.
  • Underutilization of academic advising services is easy—too easy.
  • Sufficient incentives are not available to encourage interested faculty in participating in student academic communities and student support services.
  • Technology is underutilized in support services.
  • To address these concerns, the committee has made seven recommendations:

  • Establish learning communities for all first-year students.
  • Develop strong department-based clubs for concentrators.
  • Utilize a case management approach in academic advising.
  • Expand freshman interest groups.
  • Expand University Course 101 offerings through learning communities.
  • Make greater use of technology in orientation and advising.
  • Facilitate faculty involvement for those interested in participating in academic support services.
  • In commenting on the group’s reaction to the large number of services available, the report states: “The magnitude of what we found sent us reeling. We found pages upon pages of different services available for students in numerous publications. ...On the one hand, we were deeply impressed and gratified at what was available to our students. ...Committee members said that reading through these publications made them feel again like incoming students, but that feeling was a frightening one in many respects. Reading about the plethora of services, organizations and clubs had the effect of making the services seem inaccessible. Rather than feeling a sense of ‘support,’ our reaction was one of feeling lost, dazed and bewildered. We would quite easily imagine the sense of isolation and insignificance that many of our first-year students report feeling upon arriving at Michigan.”

    Learning communities for all first-year students

    The committee feels that students “need to be situated as part of an LS&A undergraduate academic community,” and learning communities are one of the ways to accomplish this.

    Learning communities provide several important functions:

    n A setting and structure in which students can become intellectually engaged.

    n Effective mechanisms for delivery of support services.

    n Opportunities for interaction between intellectual and social environments, allowing learning outside the classroom.

    n Opportunities for interactions among faculty and students.

    “The University of Michigan has been a leader in providing some entering students with learning community opportunities,” the report notes, adding that “it is crucial that these types of offerings be expanded so that all entering students have opportunities to participate.”

    The report writers agree with the Task Force on the First-Year Experience that learning communities need not be residence-based and emphasize that “existing programs should be carefully evaluated and modified or improved upon as deemed appropriate.”

    Committee members also note that they “heard of numerous failed attempts to bring support services to the attention of the student body or first-year class as a whole, which, when presented through the structure of learning communities, were well-attended and well-received by students.”

    “We recommend strong involvement of faculty and student support services staff in and with the learning communities,” the report states.

    Department-based clubs

    for concentrators

    The report recommends that the roles played by learning communities in the first two years be shifted to department-based clubs or organizations that link related disciplines once students declare their concentration.

    “It is clear that these organizations can do an excellent job of carrying out the aforementioned roles of learning communities, as well as providing individualized academic and career counseling,” the report notes.

    “This committee strongly recommends that existing departmental organizations be maintained and strengthened, with facilities being made available as necessary. Those departments, units or concentrations that do not yet have recognized undergraduate student organizations should work with the associate dean for undergraduate education to make the necessary commitments for establishing them.”

    Among the important components of these organizations identified by the committee:

    n A faculty adviser and department support.

    n Active student leadership.

    n A place for regularly scheduled and informal meetings.

    n A regularly published newsletter.

    n An e-mail group and home page on the World Wide Web.

    Case management

    approach to advising

    The recommendation to adopt a case management approach to academic advising includes assigning an adviser to each student, requiring periodic audits in the first and second years, creating advising teams and making greater use of peer advising.

    The committee sees critical times in advising during the freshman/sophomore years and the junior/senior years, after concentrations have been declared. Advising in the first two years would be centered in learning communities, then move to departments. “However,” the report notes, “establishing better links between the two is critically important in a case management approach to advising.”

    n Each student should have an academic adviser “concerned and interested in the student’s overall academic progress and to provide support, direction and counsel.” This individual would serve as the case manager, coordinating the advising team.

    n Students should be required to see an academic adviser at least five times: during orientation; during the second term to review progress and plan for the next year; during the sophomore year to review progress and, additionally, to consider concentration choices; at the time a concentration is declared; and prior to graduation to conduct a final audit.

    n Create trained advising teams that might include peer advisers, faculty and resident advisers who are part of living-learning programs and would work with the case manager.

    Training would cover such areas as referral of students to individuals, organizations, concentrations, graduate school, crisis counseling, student development needs and career counseling.

    The committee recommends giving thought to training the teams to have expertise in divisional areas based on student interest and/or potential major. Students who are “undecided” would be assigned to teams trained to work with students who have broad interests.

    —Expand peer advising, with appropriate training and support, using existing successful programs as models.

    “Training and supervision by faculty are critically important,” the report notes. “Without a commitment to providing quality training and supervision in areas of advising content and information as well as advising skills, peer advising would not be an appropriate route to follow.”

    —Develop academic advising outreach activities in living-learning programs and learning communities.

    —Expand concentration advising to include not only degree audits, but also advising on such things as graduate school, career decision-making, research opportunities and summer internships.

    Freshman interest groups

    Freshman interest groups (FIGs)—created by offering enrollment in two or three of the same courses (or sections of lecture courses) to a single group of new students—“provide students with a built-in system of support and community directly connected with their academic pursuits,” the report notes.

    FIGs “provide a feeling of security and belonging to students who might otherwise feel lost in a sea of unfamiliar and frequently changing faces.”

    FIGs can be approached in several ways:

    n Selected groups of students (by learning community) are offered enrollment in reserved sections of two or three large introductory courses, with emphasis placed on building student communities among common academic practices.

    n Two or three first-year-level courses with some common themes are pre-selected and reserved for groups of students identified by learning community.

    n Students with an interest in a specific course of study would be able to enroll in a cluster of thematically related courses that address prerequisites for law, medicine and other professional areas.

    “FIGs,” the report notes, “would facilitate collaborative learning and give first-year students a feeling that they are not alone in facing new types of academic challenges.” In addition, students “get an early start on making intellectual connections between areas of coursework, a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their academic careers.”

    The report also notes that if a peer adviser is assigned to FIGs, “students would enjoy even greater access to information about a variety of available student services, activities and organizations, making the group even more valuable.”

    University Course 101

    University Course 101, common at many campuses nationwide, introduces students to the university community and college thinking. The Pilot Program has had such a course since the 1970s and the 21st Century Program offers a similar course.

    “Some of these courses,” the report notes, “emphasize academic content, others serve as an extended orientation, introducing students to academic support services, and others attempt to balance both of these emphases. There is evidence that students who participate in these courses are more engaged with their academic experience and have higher retention rates.”

    The committee encourages existing learning communities that do not have such a course to consider implementing one, and asks the College “to consider piloting some topically-based courses that may include activities designed to help students, among other things, explore campus resources, gain skills in library research, explore the Internet and identify relevant campus organizations.

    Utilization of technology

    “Thousands of incoming students each year are deluged by a bewildering array of ‘things they should know’ to help them through their first encounter with the University,” the report states. “Compounding the sheer volume of information is the problem of timing,” with the information generally presented to students “at a time when they are least likely to have either the opportunity or the inclination to absorb it. The inevitable result is information overload. Brochures and booklets, flyers and pamphlets carefully prepared by a myriad of student support offices around campus are often shelved to collect dust or simply discarded.

    “The problem then is not lack of information, but one of convenient access to useful information.”

    Noting that the U-M “has one of the most thoroughly connected electronic data communications systems in the world,” the committee recommends that much of the information given to students on paper now be placed on network services such as the World Wide Web. Technical help will be needed in most cases to accomplish this goal. ITD has a great deal of expertise in this area and some mechanism should be established, if it doesn’t already exist, to provide assistance to individual units with substantial needs in information dissemination.”

    The group also recommended more use of e-mail by faculty and student services staff, and that as students are given e-mail access they be instructed in its use.

    Faculty involvement in academic support services

    “Faculty involvement is essential for the success of many of the academic support services,” the report states, adding that “faculty receive different messages from their departments about whether their participation in these undergraduate support services is desirable.”

    “This committee recommends that where disincentives exist for those faculty who seek to become involved in student academic support that they be removed. In some cases, incentives might be appropriate or necessary, but in other cases what is needed is simple permission to participate, without the concern of being penalized.”

    Joint Faculty-Student

    Policy Committee 1994–95

    David Schoem, chair, LS&A assistant dean for undergraduate education; Renee Anspach, Department of Sociology; Roy Clarke, Department of Physics; Brian Gitlin, undergraduate student;

    Sandy Gregerman, director, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program; Sherry Hatcher, Department of Psychology; Susan Levin, undergraduate student;

    Gordon MacAlpine, Department of Astronomy; Sarah May, undergraduate student; Tami Reinglass, undergraduate student, fall 1994.