The Four-Year Advising Formula

Elizabeth Wilcox, Sr. Consultant for Advising

When you help students plan, select courses, approve or monitor study lists, evaluate GPA and performance, discuss major choice, and prepare for life after Cal you (directly or indirectly) impact decision making about time-to-degree. Here’s how you can play a more active role in helping students graduate in four years (because we know they want to).

Encourage challenging course loads.

Research shows that the more units students take, the better they do (within reason, of course). A research study done by The University of California, Office of the President, “found that students who took full academic loads, even after controlling for academic preparation and demographic factors, had positive academic outcomes.” (p. 6) Encourage full (not minimum) course loads (of 15 units, if possible) per semester.

You can help students prepare for and manage academic challenges by building the “non-cognitive factors”  and “mindset skills” they need to succeed –and help mitigate the impact of Stereotype Threat on performance.

Encourage risk taking and curiosity as the key to a successful learning experience and the counterpoint to preoccupation with performance and GPA.

Encourage consistent course loads.

If you are working with students on approved reduced study lists or struggling students, help them manage and make-up small unit deficits (that can be addressed in summer, for example) through active planning.  

Guide and encourage “useful” course choices.

Ensure that students understand how exam and other credits can be applied at entry and how they may be used to “place” students in the right courses. Especially true for anyone working with transfer students or students who have, or will be be taking courses away from UCB (to avoid non-transferable courses).

Encourage “discovery” experiences early in the academic career.

Encourage long-term planning, including involvement in research, creative projects, service learning, leadership programs, study abroad and other “discovery” experiences as early as possible, even for freshman. Encourage engagement with “high impact” teaching practices as early as possible. Use a learning-centered approach to advising to help student explore their interests and options.

Help students manage their many influencers.

Students are likely to have many people (including parents, friends, peers, and mentors) influencing their choices and decision-making. Ask students about the advice they are receiving from others and take seriously its impact on their choices and decision-making (especially peers). Help them, where possible, manage their many influencers by taking an interest in the people and perspectives that are helping to shape decisions as they relate to time-to-degree. Most of us know that the late addition of an extra semester (or course overloads) will probably not be GPA, career, or life changing…no matter how strenuously they are encouraged by others.

Encourage early switching.

Students often change their minds about what they want to study. No problem - if they make an early switch. Its late stage switching that can delay degree progress (especially for transfer students). Help students choose majors (by the end of the sophomore year) in which they will succeed and stick with that choice.

Help track milestones (not just units and requirements).

There are several important pivot points in an undergraduate career. Help students track progress toward these milestones (in addition to tracking total units and requirements). Suggest involvement with and start planning for discovery experiences at entry, encourage completion of foundational and essential courses early, help students identify and declare a major before junior status, and help them work toward career and advanced study options as early as possible.

Help transfer students manage “culture shock”, adjustment and planning

Transfer students may feel challenged to plan, fully explore, engage and set and meet goals in a short period-of-time. Again, help manage this by encouraging engagement with people, programs and resources at entry (or, if possible, when they are admitted or even before admission if you have a recruiting or pre-admission advising role).

Help students resist the temptation to add-on at the end.

Late stage anxiety over GPA or readiness for career or graduate school can result in an added semester. Late stage add-ons may not help students as much as they think so encourage long-term as well as short-term planning to avoid that late stage stall (and consider working with partners such as employers, mentors, GSIs,  faculty, career specialists, etc. to manage messaging and help students plan and prepare for post baccalaureate endeavors early). As discussed by George Kuh, the type of instruction not the number of courses taken creates the most impactful learning environmen. Encourage involvement in high impact educational practices (where opportunities for integration, synthesis and meaning-making are high) for all students early in the academic career.

Encourage special post baccalaureate and other options to address new late stage interests.

New late stage interests are to be expected as these are signs of intellectual synthesis and integration though they do not have to extend the academic plan. There are a wide range of post baccalaureate programs, masters programs, certificate and other pre-professional programs that will help students explore late stage interests and prepare them for specialized career or graduate school options. You may wish to develop a resource list related to your program or discipline and add this to your website or other public resources to help students see pathways for continuous learning.

Early forward momentum helps support eventual degree completion… and expedient degree completion helps students and their families manage the cost of higher education. Maximize your power to help students succeed through the following four-year formula:

challenge + consistency + (right) major choice + resist add-ons +  (early) long range planning

Looking for additional resource materials on time-to-degree? Use the new time-to-degree dashboard in Cal Answers and check out related OPA Briefing Notes and Fact Sheets.