Proactive Advising: A Retention-Based Student Success Intervention

student looking at the laptop

CSSIC’s ambitious Proactive Advising initiative increases college retention rates by "helping students before they realize they need help."

For Lobzang Choden, Mohawk College was a long way from home - literally and figuratively. The now-32-year-old teacher came to study early childhood education at Mohawk in 2019 from her native Bhutan, a country of about 900,000 in the Himalayas. "It was my first time abroad," Choden recalls. "Everything was fascinating for me." It was not just the distance from home, the absence of soaring peaks (no offence to Hamilton’s famous Mountain) and the colder climate that were unfamiliar; it was also the college environment. "The system we have at home and the system at Mohawk are totally different," she says. "In my country, we have all our classes in one room, and the professors come to us. Here at Mohawk, the hardest part for the first few weeks was to figure out the locations of things." Eventually, Choden got the lay of college life, but she did it largely on her own. "I didn’t know there were so many different supports and services at Mohawk," she says. "I was self-discovering everything."

Like most new students, wherever they arrive from, Choden overcame the many small and big hurdles presented by college life, and she is on track to graduate in spring 2021. Yet the reality is that for many other students across Canada, the story does not end that way. About a quarter of Ontario’s incoming college students do not graduate from their programs, for a broad range of reasons. Withdrawing might be a financial decision, or it might be a personal one, as when family demands make attending school unfeasible; for others, it can be a professional choice, for instance when a student secures employment and feels college is no longer necessary. Yet for many who do not complete their studies, the decision boils down to those barriers to success that college can present. They can be both incredibly complex and deeply personal. Some might seem minor to an outsider, but they can linger and grow, becoming ever more daunting.

There is a well-recognized solution: the support of an academic advisor who can reach out early, before challenges start, and help students navigate any circumstances that are getting in the way of success. Such services are widely available at Canadian postsecondary institutions. So why do many students still fall through the cracks, and how can colleges and universities do a better job of ensuring they don’t?

That was the big challenge Mohawk’s College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC) decided to tackle six years ago, with the launch of ambitious - and expanding - research project on proactive advising. The idea is simple, explains Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk and head of CSSIC: "Help students before they realize they need help." Among academic advisors, enthusiasm for proactive advising has been growing for more than a decade, but what hasn’t been clear is whether it worked in practice. As Fricker puts it: "How do you know that just picking up the phone and calling a student in for a meeting is going to make a difference? And do you have any evidence to validate that?"

Answering those questions is a task for which CSSIC is uniquely positioned. As the only research centre in Canada focused directly and exclusively on student success, it fulfills its mission by using scientific methods of evaluation. Importantly, it also publishes the results, and it partners with other postsecondary institutions to both conduct research and share best practices. "CSSIC has really broken through by conducting systematic research and publications, and it has successfully engaged the postsecondary education community," says Dr. Peter Dietsche, a member of the centre’s Expert Advisory Council and a pioneer in the field of student success research. "Having spent 40 years doing this kind of work, I can tell you that that is something brand new."

In some ways, CSSIC’s proactive advising project was a kind of test case for its evidence-based, collaborative approach. First, the team defined a new design for advising service delivery. Previously, innovators in student support focused on proactive advising during the first term of study, but the CSSIC project, which began in 2015, went further - to conduct direct, targeted outreach to students prior to their first day of classes. Then, CSSIC tested different delivery models. Incoming first-year students were assigned to one of three cohorts: a control group (no special intervention), a group invited to participate in one-on-one advisory sessions, and another invited to group advising sessions. All students received an outreach email that told them about available support services and encouraged them to book an appointment with an advisor; those in the treatment groups who did not book right away also got email reminders and then a follow-up phone call from student mentors. Meanwhile, the advisors for all the groups were equipped with a standardized script, which included questions like "What is the one thing you’re worried about today, and how can we help?"

The initial phase of the study began at Mohawk in 2015; since then, Centennial, Humber and Fleming Colleges have joined a replication study funded by the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities. The results have produced remarkable insights into how - and how well - proactive advising can work. Proactively advised students reported feeling more connected and supported, and felt that their needs were met before entering college. Importantly, even the offer of support had a positive effect, especially among at-risk groups (such as male students). Group advising worked particularly well: in the initial study, retention rates for students who attended group sessions increased by 2.5 percentage points through the first term. "The thinking is that a group setting normalizes new experiences," says Fricker. "It gives students a chance to hear others’ concerns that might validate their own."

The findings also strongly suggest that pairing proactive advising with the ability to identify at-risk students can be a powerful approach, leading to a more effective and efficient way to deliver advisory services. That was one of the things that convinced Neil Buddel, Vice-President of Student Success at Centennial College, to participate. About 40-50% of Centennial’s students are the first in their families to pursue a post-secondary education, while half are international students and one in five has exceptional learning needs. "As much as possible, we want to set these students up for success," Buddel says.

During its first year in the project, in summer 2019, Centennial used a resource toolkit provided by CSSIC and followed its established research protocols. In all, 470 domestic students (out of an incoming cohort of about 2,000) participated in the study, and those participants reported a 95% satisfaction rate. Last year, Centennial expanded the program to include international students, since the COVID-19 environment meant that all advising had to take place virtually and only in group sessions; 673 students took part. As well, the team recorded the group sessions and made them available online - reaching another 300 students. "As a college, we are working towards providing 24/7 resources, knowing our incoming students are around the world and learning at certain times," says Paula Greenwood, Manager, Student Advising at Centennial. With the videos, students "can go back and watch certain parts again if they need to."

The results at Centennial have been similar to those at Mohawk: in terms of retention, proactive advising led to improvements, and they were greater for group sessions. Yet other impacts have also been positive. Not only students, but advisors as well, have found the program to be "such an enriching opportunity to connect - the relational piece is very strong," Buddel says. "What better way to build community and a sense of belonging, one that is associated with positive outcomes like graduation and retention?" Fricker agrees. He says that while retention is an important metric, other factors point to why proactive advising works. "Student and staff feedback and institutional interest have been overwhelmingly positive," he explains. "People are just thrilled to be part of it."

For her part, Choden decided in her second year to be part of the solution. "I missed a lot of opportunities," she says, "and I don’t want that to happen to people who come here for the first time like me." She became a student mentor, and in December 2020 she cohosted a proactive group advising session for incoming Mohawk students dubbed "Get Set." And now that she knows all the support that the college - thanks in large measure to the work of CSSIC - has to offer students, she is impressed. "They are doing an awesome job," Choden says, who adds that participating as a mentor has been a rewarding experience. "I need something to do to be involved," she explains. "It’s my way to get engaged and help people."