Karen L. Sweazea, PhD, FAHA Arizona State University
As faculty, we often find ourselves juggling multiple responsibilities at once. Although many of us are interested in adding hands-on or other activities to our classes, it can be difficult to find the time to develop them. This is where more advanced students who have already taken the class or graduate students can help.
A couple of summers ago I requested the help of an extra teaching assistant in my Animal Physiology course. The role of the position I was requesting was unique as I was not seeking a student to help with grading or proctoring exams. Rather, the role of this student was to help develop in-class activities that would enhance the learning experience of students taking the course.
For each lesson, the special graduate student TA was tasked with finding an existing (ex: https://www.lifescitrc.org/) or creating a new activity that could be implemented in the classroom during the last 10-20 minutes of each session, depending on the complexity of the activity. This enabled me to begin converting the course into a flipped classroom model as students enrolled in the course were responsible for reading the material ahead of time, completing a content comprehension quiz, and coming to class prepared to discuss the content and participate in an activity and/or case study. Special TAs can also assist with developing activities for online courses.
While the benefits of having such a TA for the faculty are clear, this type of experience is also beneficial to both the TA as well as the students enrolled in the course. For the TA, this experience provides an opportunity to develop their own teaching skills through learning to develop short lesson plans and activities as well as receiving feedback from the faculty and students. For the students, this is a great way to build cultural competence into the course as TAs are often closer in age to the students and may better reflect the demographics of the classroom. Cultural competence is defined by the National Education Association as “the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture of cultures other than our own.” Increasing our cultural competency, therefore, is critical to student success and is something that we can learn to address. Having special TAs is just one way we can build this important skill.
Karen Sweazea is an Associate Professor in the College of Heath Solutions at Arizona State University. Her research specializes in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She received her PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona in 2005 where her research focused on understanding glucose homeostasis and natural insulin resistance in birds. Her postdoctoral research was designed to explore how poor dietary habits promote the development of cardiovascular diseases.
Dr. Sweazea has over 40 publication and has chaired sessions and spoken on topics related to mentoring at a variety of national and local meetings. She has additionally given over 10 guest lectures and has developed 4 graduate courses on topics related to mentoring and professional development. She has mentored or served on the committees for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students and earned an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from the Faculty Women’s Association at Arizona State University for her dedication towards mentoring.
Educators often find themselves in the role of advisor, either formally or incidentally. If you teach or lead a research group, it is likely students or trainees arrive at your office door with a plethora of questions or issues, seeking your input. Yet, very few academics have formal training in how to advise students.
How do you become a productive advisor who supports the success of your students? For the purpose of our discussion, I am defining advisor as any person who provides guidance, information, or advice to a student or trainee, the advisee. Many productive and inclusive advising strategies align with effective teaching practices.
Inclusive advising strategies interrupt assumptions an advisor may have about the needs, issues, or questions facing an advisee. It also acknowledges and embraces the relationship between the academic, professional, and personal trajectories of each advisee. One approach to inclusive advising is to use a question-focused advising strategy. Rather than advisors serving only as a conduit for information, advisors should ask advisees thoughtful and strategic questions, within the context of a collegial and respectful conversation. When an advisor carefully and attentively listens to the responses provided by the advisee, the advisor gains important information about how to support and assist the advisee.
There are many points to consider when advising, but here are a few suggestions for advisors, followed by examples of questions advisors can ask advisees. These questions are not to be used in sequential order, but rather as needed.
1. Listen carefully. This strategy is a lot harder than it sounds. It is easy to provide information, but is the information the right information? When careful and engaged listening directs advising, advisors are much more likely to provide the information and support needed by the advisee.
Questions to ask advisees: How can I help you? What brings you to my office today? What are your goals for this project/assignment/course? Did we address the issue that brought you in today? Do you think the solutions we talked about today are attainable? Do you have any other questions for me?
2. Believe advisees when they say they are struggling. Again, much harder than it sounds. Help advisees think through productive steps forward, rather than sending them off to figure things out on their own. Check-in with them later to help address lingering questions.
Questions to ask advisees: Can you remember a time when things were going well? What worked for you at that point? What strategies are you using to navigate these issues? If those strategies are not working, can we brainstorm other strategies? Can we work together to find resources to support your success? Do you have local friends you can turn to when you are having difficulties?
3. Guide advisees to identify what they need to achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals. After careful listening, assign advisees homework. Assignments could include visiting a resource on campus or doing directed online research to find the information they need to design a plan to accomplish their goals. Schedule future appointments for the advisee to report back what they found.
Questions to ask advisees: What information do you need to achieve your goals? What information do you have? What resources do you need to find? Is there anyone you know who would be a good resource?
4. Recognize the power dynamic between advisors and advisees. Even the most friendly and welcoming advisors can be intimidating to advisees. It takes courage to talk to an advisor. Given the power dynamic, advisees may be too intimidated to speak-up when they do not understand their advisor’s suggestions or advice.
Questions to ask advisees: Can you explain to me what your next steps should be to address this issue? Is there anything I said that I need to explain in a different way for you to be better prepared to address this issue?
5. Advisors are at a different point in their career than their advisees. It is likely the life priorities of any given advisee and advisor are different. Ask advisees about their priorities, listen carefully, and believe what they say.
Questions to ask advisees: Where do you see yourself in ten years? What is your ideal lifestyle? What is essential to this lifestyle for you to feel successful? How do you like to spend your time?
While these concepts may take time to incorporate into your advising, here are a few quick tips:
1. Really good advising takes time. Make sure to reserve enough time and energy to have productive advising meetings.
2. Successful advising is a continuous process. Expect numerous interactions in the classrooms, hallways, over e-mail, and during private meetings. This multiple check-in approach allows for investigation and reflection.
3. Articulate the expectations and responsibilities of advisees and advisors. It is possible you are your advisee’s first advisor. Advisees may not know the reason or meaning for an advisor or appropriate boundaries. As an advisor, determine your expectations and communicate these expectations to your advisees.
4. Offer options to schedule meetings. While walk-in office hours have some benefits, a dedicated time and space allows both advisee and advisor to focus on the task at hand. Offer designated advising timeslots for advisees. Signing-up for timeslots could occur either on a sheet of paper or using a free online tool that automatically syncs to online calendars.
5. If you expect advisees to meet at your office, make sure you tell your advisees where your office is located. Advisees should also know how to contact you if they must change or miss a meeting.
6. Schedule group advising to work with advisees who have similar academic or professional (NOT personal) issues. This will save the advisor time, and the advisees benefit from conversations with students or trainees asking similar questions.
7. Recruit a more advanced student or trainee to meet with advisees about standard advising issues, such as program requirements or course registration. It is effective if this meeting occurs prior to the advisor-advisee meeting, so unanswered questions and clarifications can be provided by the advisor.
8. You do not need to know the answer to everything. Know your limits and your resources. Institutions often have services and professionals trained in handling various student situations. Have their phone numbers or emails readily available so you can connect advisees directly to the assistance they need. Know your responsibilities around state and federally mandated reporting.
Productive and inclusive advising is an opportunity to help and to support students and trainees as they develop their own paths to success. What an amazing perk of being an educator! Happy Advising!
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Cooper KM, Gin LE, Akeeh B, Clark CE, Hunter JS, Roderick TB, Elliott DB, Gutierrez LA, Mello RM, Pfeiffer LD, Scott RA, Arellano D, Ramirez D, Valdez EM, Vargas C, Velarde K, Zheng Y, Brownell SE. Factors that predict life sciences student persistence in undergraduate research experiences. PLOS ONE 14: e0220186, 2019.
Johnson KMS, Briggs A, Hawn C, Mantina N, Woods BC. Inclusive practices for diverse student populations: Experimental Biology 2017. Adv Physiol Educ 43: 365–372, 2019.
Katie Johnson, Ph.D., is an experienced practitioner and evaluator of inclusive teaching and mentoring practices. Dr. Johnson advises and serves on national STEM education initiatives and committees, working with a diverse network of collaborators. As a Programmatic Improvement Consultant, Dr. Johnson assists institutions and organizations to develop innovative solutions to curricular and assessment challenges. Prior to becoming an independent consultant for Trail Build, LLC, Dr. Johnson was Chair and Associate Professor of Biology at Beloit College. She earned her Ph.D. in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University and her B.S. from Beloit College. Disclosure: Dr. Johnson serves as an external consultant for the American Physiological Society.