Duke Reimagines Student Advising

Changes aim to promote discussions that focus on educational aspirations

Duke's Academic Advising Center is a network of support designed to help students make the most of their college experience

Amid the excitement of luncheons, convocations, class photos and networking events, orientation week was really about pointing 1,700 new students toward a strong start in their Duke education.

There’s a lot of activity during the six days, but Duke officials believe the event with perhaps the most lasting effect was one of the least heralded: Students meeting with their college advisors.

Most students, in fact, had two meetings with their advisors during the week, which marked their entrance into the Duke advising system. That system has always been critical for getting and keeping students on track for graduation, but in recent years, Duke faculty and administrators have reimagined it as something more – a way for students to think about what they want out of a Duke education and providing a team of advisors to help them achieve those goals.

Trinity College alone offers more than 48 majors, 50 minors, 20 interdisciplinary certificates and 4,000 courses each semester as well as 200 international, mentored and independent study opportunities. Navigating the many academic pathways a student might follow has become so complex that it’s difficult for one advisor and student to manage alone, said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education.

”Even the most informed and dedicated faculty or staff member finds it hard to know enough about all that Duke has to offer to be able to serve as the sole source of advice to students,” Nowicki said. “We want to encourage the essential mentorship that faculty must provide at an academic institution. At the same time, we want to support that mentorship and connect it with an advising network.”

Nowicki has been working with David Rabiner, who has been reappointed to a new three-year term as director of the Academic Advising Center, and faculty, staff and students on a new conceptual approach to advising. It’s a team approach, centered around a student’s residence on the first-year campus.

There are five key players on each student’s advising “team,” and it all begins with the college advisor.

The College Advisor: Previously called pre-major advisors, these are about 300 faculty and experienced staff members who are the first people in the advising system to welcome the student to Duke, and Nowicki said it’s an important relationship.

  • Students are assigned an advisor in their major after declaring as sophomores, but starting this year, they can also retain a formal connection with the college advisor.
  • Throughout the first year, the college advisor will have regular check-ins with the students (both in person and by email).
  • Advisors help students through “bookbagging”– the enrollment period for the next semester – and generally help students manage anxiety about classes and course decisions. 
  • Most importantly, they also help students think carefully about the overall educational goals and what they hope to get out of their time at Duke.

Directors of Academic Engagement: These six full-time staff members are professionally trained and specialize in one of three areas – the humanities, the natural and quantitative sciences, and global and civic opportunities.

  • They are the only members of the advising network not to have an assigned group of students for each advisor.
  • DAEs work with any student who walks in their doors, including those in the Pratt School of Engineering, who have their own faculty advisors in addition.
  • The role of the DAEs, Rabiner said, is to help students “define their academic ambitions and make deeper connections across the numerous curricular and co-curricular opportunities available to them.”

Academic Dean: If an issue comes up that affects a student’s transcript – such as the need to withdraw late from a class – it requires approval from one of the 13 academic deans. Most deans are assigned students based on the student’s residential hall.

  • In the past, most students switched deans when they declared their majors.
  • To promote continuity and to encourage students to also consider deans for more general mentoring advice, beginning last year incoming students are assigned the academic dean who will continue with them four years.

Peer Advisors: These are trained students selected to offer the perspective of someone who has been in the shoes of the first- and second-year students.

  • They help the younger students navigate registration.
  • They also help students identify classes that will best meet their interests and share how they have formed meaningful mentoring relationships with faculty. 

Students: At the center of advising is the student, who is expected to play an active role in their own education.  Throughout high school, students generally have few curricular decisions to make. In college, “students really need to take some initiative and connect with people in their advising network who can assist them,” Rabiner said. “There are so many wonderful experiences available to students in any direction they want to go.  While their college advisor is the only advisor that students are required to meet with, we know from our surveys that students who made greater use of their advising network felt better about their entire advising experience.”

Not long ago, advising was viewed—by faculty and students—as largely a transactional experience with little intellectual value, Nowicki said. That posed little interest to faculty, and students made limited use of it.

Now, in its new format, participation and effectiveness of the advising program is increasing. Last spring, about 80 percent of sophomores described their first advisors as good or excellent. But the changes prompted by the reimagining of advising aim even higher.

“Too many of our students still report they graduate from Duke without a significant mentorship experience,” Nowicki said. “We’re changing that. I think one of the broadest measure of success of advising is to have a good majority of Duke seniors saying ‘I found a mentor and I got great advice about getting the most out of a Duke education.’”