Gap Advising: Maintaining a Presence in Common Areas of the College During the Semester
July 2014, Volume 17, Number 7
By D. Brent Barnard
Many who serve in higher education have heard inspirational stories of groundskeepers and maintenance personnel befriending students, thereby forming strong relationships which boost retention and encourage students to persist. Why do these employees succeed in an area so at odds with their job descriptions? They succeed because they care, andbecause they work in public areas among the students. The rest of the staff care as well, but spend less time in campus common areas.
Academic advisors belong to this latter group. They are typically stationed in offices rather than at open desks in the hallways and dining areas of the college, so students rarely come across them by chance. During the semester, they often frequent common areas only when they are on their way to a meeting or running some other errand. When they do appear in these locations, they may be swarmed by students at the very moment when there are other activities on their minds. Advisors, then, can tend to avoid these chance encounters, particularly when they are perceived as interruptions.
Of course, advisors should be eager to engage students at anytime, anywhere. However, the situation surely calls for a more intentional approach. The solution? Gap advising, or intentionally placing advisors at tables set in spots where contact with students is inevitable at a time when exposure is maximized, such as during lunch or in the intervals—gaps—between classes.
Gap Advising vs. Intrusive Advising
A high percentage of students register for classes at the last minute. Thus, they see advisors at their busiest when they have very little time to delve deeply into student concerns. Of course, a common corrective has been intrusive advising. Advisors can call or email students during the semester to guide and inspire. Some schools even obligate students to visit advisors at this time. This approach definitely has its advantages, and normally students don’t do optional, but by its nature, intrusive advising involves contacting students when there is no felt need on the students’ part. This can lead to a less-than-ideal advising session, and the advisor-student relationship is not necessarily strengthened. Gap advising, on the other hand, provides students with a lighthearted advisor interface involving zero obligation. They approach advisors for fun or with felt needs, and if the advisors are good, a relationship is forged around the exchange. Thus, gap advising can round out advising offices which use intrusive advising.
Lowering the Threshold for Seeking Help
All students have a particular threshold which must be reached before they take the trouble to visit the advising office, sign in, and wait to bring a problem or question to the attention of a professional. With gap advising, this threshold drops precipitously because students can approach advisors on a whim, with no effort. As they pass by an advisor’s table in the hallway, they simply stop and talk. This is invaluable because many concerns which seem slight to them can, in actuality, be critical. At El Centro College’s West Campus, students have casually mentioned the classes they are taking and their intended major, and gap advisors have perceived that the two do not match. Other important questions are posed: “Oh I’ve been meaning to ask you…when is the last day to apply for graduation?” Another: “You know, it’s too late for me to pass two of the classes I’m taking. When is the last day to drop them?” Critical, time-sensitive questions are spontaneously brought to the attention to advisors only because they have purposefully made themselves visible and instantly accessible.
Gap advising also shows students how sincere the institution is in its desire to ensure the quality of the collegiate experience. It says to the student body that staff and administrators are not merely doing their duty—the bare minimum—and then hiding away in various departments behind closed doors; instead, college personnel are actively seeking contact with students and want to know how they are faring day by day. This is a message institutions cannot send too often.
Additionally, gap advising helps the staff keep its collective finger on the pulse of the semester. If students primarily sit alone, never congregating or conversing with fellow students, this can indicate that the student body as a whole is isolated, needing more opportunities to interact. (Perhaps the Office of Student Life should be notified.) Conversely, gregarious students forming groups and interacting with each other can signify a college’s success in fostering relationships. Furthermore, if the hallways become steadily emptier as the semester progresses, this can convey the haunting absence of student engagement long before final grades are due. For these reasons, administrators may wish to join advisors at the tables to get a grounded sense of the state of the institution.
Most advisors who are stationed at a public table will not have the same resources, such as forms and manuals, they have when stationed in their offices. Moreover, they will not have the same privacy should sensitive subjects arise. However, another strength of gap advising is that it boosts office visits. Again and again, West Campus staff members have seen gap advising motivate students to immediately schedule advising appointments. These appointments might never have been made without the advisor-student relationships that were bolstered through gap advising.
Instituting such a policy is straightforward and requires no budget whatsoever. However, there are a few factors to bear in mind. Advisors selected for this role should be exceptional—friendly, with high energy and at the top of their game. Their role will be to engage passersby, greeting most of them, and conversing with those who stop. Good advisors can even introduce advisees to other students the advisors may know, particularly if the gap advising takes place in a dining area or other locale where students gather. This requires an interpersonal skill set that not everyone possesses, so gap advisors should be chosen with care.
Choose gap advisors with care. Advisors at such posts should absolutely not allow themselves to be distracted by cell phones, laptops, books, etc. Eye contact with passing students is fundamental. There should also be signs at the advisors’ tables which say something like, “Got questions about college? Please ask!” Naturally, this will encourage students to ask questions outside the advisors’ realm of expertise, such as issues pertaining to the finer points of financial aid, but the session is still a success if advisors connect students to the resources they need.
Keep sessions short. Gap advising should ideally take place in short bursts of about fifteen minutes. This allows advisors to maintain high energy for the entire time period. If the advisor is stationed at a post for a much longer period of time, the law of diminishing returns comes into play because few people can remain enthusiastic, happily greeting dozens of people, for hours at a time. One exception to this brief scheduling might be the lunch hour, but this should probably constitute the only exception.
Be attentive to gap-advising times and locations. An advisor who is preparing to leave the office for a gap advising session may wish to forego the activity temporarily if a student stops by and asks for a one-on-advising session. High-quality, relational one-on-one advising sessions are always priority. It is also helpful to schedule gap advising during those particular intervals between classes when consequential numbers of students actually appear. If the schedule indicates that classes dismiss at a set time, but there never seem to be students around as expected, the gap-advising assignment should be altered so that advisors are not simply staring at walls in abandoned corridors. Assignments should also be modified if there is a marked decrease in attendance as the semester proceeds; halls which were bustling with students in September or February can become relatively abandoned in late November or April.
Create awareness of gap advising among other college personnel. One unexpected challenge that can arise is that the advisors’ time can be monopolized by faculty and other staff members who stop by to chat. This is understandable; faculty members—particularly adjuncts—often work in a social vacuum and need to connect with the few colleagues they encounter. However, a gentle college memo might suggest to all personnel that conversations with on-duty gap advisors be kept relatively brief.
Be prepared to respond to a variety of student concerns. Because gap advising makes advisors so accessible, they will hear students expressing dissatisfaction with instructors as well as college policies and procedures more often than they otherwise would. Opening lines of communication is an excellent practice, but advising offices should have a clear policy on how to handle such concerns so that advisors will know how to respond.
Maintaining a Presence
Students’ exposure to advising can often swing on a pendulum—from high exposure prior to the semester to almost total obscurity during the semester. Intrusive advising may help, but it can lack the spontaneity which is characteristic of great relationships. Gap advising complements the intrusive approach, a cogent argument that institutions are 100 percent invested in students’ welfare. It is absolutely free, it further disseminates information that students need, and it strengthens the relationship between advisors and students. It can be administered spontaneously or with regimented organization. All in all, it constitutes an excellent addition to any administrator’s tool kit.
D. Brent Barnard is an Enrollment Specialist at El Centro College in Dallas, Texas.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.