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Exploring What Works in Online Advising

September 2012, Volume 15, Number 9

By Kimberly Nolan

As more colleges add online courses and fully online programs, the need to offer support to online students becomes more apparent. Schools across the country are offering a full spectrum of online services from call-in hours to formal online advising and complete financial aid services. Given the connection academic advising has to student satisfaction and success in the literature, colleges should carefully examine their advising practices for online students. The connection to an adviser is critical for all students, but for online students it can serve as the primary connection to the institution (Lorenzetti, 2004). 

Online advising has evolved from phone calls and emails to Blackboard and WebCT groups (Dahl, 2004). As students identify themselves as online learners, colleges must provide the support services to accompany this designation. Waiting for students to contact the institution for advising or help relegates remote learners to “second class students” (Smith, 2005). Good academic advising must be part of the online support package. While there has been no consensus on the regularity of contact with advisees that is optimal, some educators suggest that every six weeks is reasonable (Lorenzitti, 2004). Additionally, there is an absence of data to quantify the benefits of a consistent online adviser versus a live chat, but there seems to be consensus that the live-chat option is not a long-term solution. On-call or live-chat advising methods are for immediate and relatively simple questions; this model is limited in its ability to deliver quality information to students based on the time constraints (Haberstroh, Rowe & Cisneros, 2009). The Haberstroh et al. study (2009) found that students used the online chat advising for everything from username and password questions to job search strategies. The range of questions and inability to form relationships with students made online advising through the chat system difficult at best. 

Assigning an adviser who will work with a student throughout his or her career at an institution contributes to long-term student success. Through the use of online management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle advisers can maintain online office hours, compile advising notes, create bulletin boards, and host online chat groups (Dahl, 2004). Interactive, personalized advising is quickly becoming a best practice for working with distance students.

Pilot Study

The Community College of Vermont (CCV) has increased its online offerings significantly over the last five years. In fall 2011, CCV had 1,148 students taking only online classes; 906 were CCV students, representing approximately 14 percent of the total enrollment at CCV. Only 155 of these students chose online as their home location. Of the155 students with an online home location, 39 (25 percent) were degree seeking students (5th week report, fall 2011). Currently, CCV offers no formal advising for online students unless they contact an academic center on their own. Lack of an institutional system for advising online students leaves a gap in services which can impact retention.

In an effort to determine what would work best at CCV to serve the online student population, a pilot study was conducted to provide students an online advising experience. A random sample of degree and non-degree seeking students was chosen to approximately match CCV’s current student make up of 74 percent degree students and 26 percent non-degree students.

Students who were registered for fall classes and had chosen “Online” as their academic center were randomly divided into four sections of online advising. Each section had a Moodle classroom where there were weekly announcements, responses to questions, and check-ins with students. Additionally, attendance was monitored throughout the fall and returning students were offered assistance in selecting spring classes.

After the fall semester, the effectiveness of the pilot was measured by retention and student satisfaction. Student retention was assessed by determining the percentage of the fall group who enrolled for the spring semester. Student satisfaction was determined by analyzing the student satisfaction survey. 


CCV Population
Fall 2011

Online Advising Cohort Fall 2011













Degree Status



Non-Degree Seeking



Degree Seeking



(5th Week Report Data)

Of the 56 students in the pilot study, 41 students (73 percent) entered the course site. The number of students who entered the course site is significant since it indicates the number of students who were successfully able to find the advising course. Once the students found the course, they had the choice to come back for additional information. 


Of the 56 students in the advising cohort, 54 percent (30 students) returned to CCV in spring 2012. This can be compared to the fall 2010-to-spring-2011 collegewide retention rate of 67 percent, and an online fall–to-spring retention rate of 53 percent. It is too early in the development of an online advising strategy at CCV to suggest that the 1 percent increase in retention rate for online students is a result of online advising. Forty-six percent (26 students) of the students did not return to CCV. One of these students is enrolled at a four-year college, one student had a medical hold restricting registration, three students withdrew from fall 2011 courses, seven did not pass the classes they took in the fall, and the other 14 students cannot be accounted for. Of the 14 students who did not return and are unaccounted for, 10 are non-degree students who may not have intended to continue after one semester.

Student Satisfaction

At the conclusion of the fall semester, students were sent an online survey to gauge their satisfaction with the online advising. Of the 56 total students, 22 students  (39 percent) completed the survey. A 40 percent response rate to a survey that was administered via email is considered average and a 30 percent response rate to a survey that was administered online is considered average (Instructional Assessment Resources, 2012)

Survey respondents were predominantly female (77 percent). In fall 2011, 69 percent of the CCV population were female and 68 percent of the online advising study cohort were female. Only five male students of the total 18 male students in the study (23 percent) participated in the survey. Fifteen students reported being degree seeking while seven reported being non-degree seeking; the actual online advising cohort consisted of 39 degree seeking students (70 percent) and 17 non-degree seeking students (30 percent).

The data show that half of the respondents did not report contact with their adviser. This response from half of the students raises the question regarding what students consider contact. Each student was emailed a welcometoonlineadvising message at the beginning of the semester and received push emails during the semester from the Moodle site. Students were also emailed or called when they were reported absent from class during the semester. It appears evident that students do not consider the Moodle classroom dedicated to advising to be contact, since 73 percent of students entered the online advising sites.

The majority of the students (77 percent) reported that they knew how to access the class. Of the remaining respondents, 18 percent reported being unsure of how to access the class and 5 percent reported that they did not know how to access the class. When asked what was helpful about the online advising experience, nine students reported that announcements were helpful, two reported that talking to other students was helpful, eight reported that having a specific adviser was helpful, and seven reported that additional resources were helpful. 

Students were asked to identify additional resources that would be useful. Sixty percent reported library resources and 46 percent chose study tips and time management tips. Only 18 percent-% of the students reported that they wanted more discussion in the classrooms. One student  listed  tutoring resources in the advising Moodle site.

When students were asked if online students could do without an adviser, 15 of the 16 respondents  indicated that online students need an adviser.

Implications for Practice and Research

Although this was a small online advising cohort, there are implications for practice and research. The pilot study was conducted over the course of one semester, limiting any longitudinal data collection or impacts. Only one adviser participated in the online advising pilot, thereby restricting the findings of the study to the effectiveness of that one adviser. However, the advising cohort showed a slightly higher retention rate than the overall online population. Based on survey results, students reported a strong desire for an adviser who stays with them throughout their educational career at the college. Since the literature identifies best practice as connecting students with advisers for long-term student success, institutions need to develop formalized online advising practices to create relationships between students and advisers. This study indicates that institutions offering online programs need comprehensive online advising services.

The benefits of this online advising model include an adviser of record who receives attendance and checks in with students, serves as a point of contact for students, and acts as an administrator for faculty to contact when there is a concern with an online student. Students reported that having a specific adviser and receiving regular communication were important, indicating that future research needs to determine  the best method of communication with students for long-term advising relationships. As the online advising process is refined, we may find that the retention rate will increase for online students.


Dahl, J. (2004, June). Trends in online advising. Distance Education Report, 4-5.

Harberstrogh, S., Rowe, S., & Cisneros, S. (2009). Implementing virtual career counseling and advising at a major university. Journal of Cases on Information Technology, 11(3), 31-44

Lorenzetti, J. (2004, October). Proactive academic advising for distance students. Distance Education Report, 4-6.

Smith, B. (2005, October/November). Online student support services. Community College Journal, 26-29.

University of Texas at Austin. (2011). Instructional assessment resources: Data gathering methods. Retrieved from  http://www.utexas.edu/academic/ctl/assessment/iar/teaching/gather/method/survey-Response.php


Kimberly Nolan is an Academic Coordinator at the Community College of Vermont.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 08/30/2012 at 9:17 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -