MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
The Contribution of the Faculty
to the Commons
The State of Undergraduate Advising
The Journey, Not the Arrival
A Global Education for MIT Students
The Broader Education
Flexible Majors in Engineering
On the Pursuit of Beauty at MIT
Welcome to the Machine:
First-Year Advising, Choice, and Credit Limits
A Proposal for an Alternative Framework
The Knowledge Debate
A Twenty-First Century Undergraduate Education for MIT Students
Igniting Passion in Our Students
Getting There From Here
The Challenge of Multidisciplinary Education for Undergraduates
Printable Version

The Commons, the Major, and the First Year

The State of Undergraduate Advising

Daniel Hastings and Julie Norman

Over the past several years, a number of reports have been produced that address advising and mentoring of undergraduate students: The Report to the Faculty on Advising and Mentoring of Undergraduates (CUP/CSL, March 2005), Report on the Advising Policy at MIT (SCEP, December 2005), and the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons (October 2006). The matter of quality advising and mentoring is a perennial issue not only for MIT, but also for our peer institutions. Perhaps it is a recurrent theme because the matter has not been resolved and the responsibility of advising is not uniformly treated as an element of the teaching responsibility of faculty. Even as we continue to wrestle with this issue, the Task Forcehas issued recommendations that call for more flexibility in the educational path that a student may take through MIT. In addition, with creation of an undergraduate dormitory in W1, we will be increasing the size of the undergraduate student body. These changes emphasize the necessity for us to improve the quality of our advising and mentoring.

All of these reports describe the importance students place on faculty for advice and mentorship. Faculty members are expected to provide advice on departmental requirements and guidance on available opportunities. But students have a strong desire to know faculty outside of the classroom; to develop personal relationships; and to have the opportunity to discuss complex, difficult issues with faculty. Students want to interact with faculty who will challenge their analyses, question their logic and provoke reflection, thus developing self-knowledge. Undergraduates expect faculty to play a role in their career counseling and to provide direction in their review of and preparation for graduate school options. We have not been doing well. The most recent senior survey (2006 indicates that between 30-40% of our seniors say that they were generally dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied with their advising experience. At the same time, 84% of them say that they were very satisfied or generally satisfied with their undergraduate education.

While the advising experience of undergraduates is reported to vary from advisor to advisor and department to department, overall, through a best practices review presently being completed by the Office for Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming in DUE, it is evident that advisors generally are dedicated, have good intentions, provide adequate advice and ensure that our students graduate with minimal complications. The extent to which advisors contribute to the intellectual development of our students, participate in informal engagements, and seek to develop their individual knowledge and skills is not consistent. It is particularly around these themes of access, informal interaction and personal relationships that students recognize differences across departments and by individual.

As the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons has recognized in their report and as the detailed best practices review is confirming, existing advising resources must be strengthened; undergraduate offices adequately supported; advising must be recognized as a faculty role; and opportunities to develop advising and mentoring skills must be available for faculty.

Part of the challenge is that no one individual has complete information. While the term advising implies providing advice on subjects and the curriculum, mentoring tends to be defined as guidance beyond the academic realm. As the Task Force described, MIT must create a network of individuals who can provide the needed advice and guidance to assist students plotting a course through their MIT journey. In the DUE we stand ready to support the faculty in this networked role as advisors and mentors.

As MIT moves forward in addressing the Task Force recommendations for the common core, regardless of the final outcome of the foundational requirements, the critical role of faculty advisors quickly becomes apparent. Faculty members have the deepest understanding of an MIT education and best comprehend the subtle distinctions of the foundational requirements. Anticipating that the new common requirements will be more complex and flexible, faculty must play an even greater role in advising students. Advising and mentoring students provides a meaningful way for faculty to effect the education and experience of young scholars and influence their transition into the community of MIT scholars.

The Task Force, in their recommendations, was clear that faculty have a responsibility and obligation to advise students, but that this service to the Commons and the departments must be recognized. Advising and mentoring of undergraduates must be acknowledged in the annual faculty review and in the promotion and tenure process.

The Office for Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming in the DUE will be working with the Departments to promulgate best practices in advising and mentoring of undergraduates. The Dean for Undergraduate Education will be working with the School Deans to develop procedures for acknowledging faculty involvement in advising and mentoring of undergraduates.

Daniel Hastings is Dean for Undergraduate Education; Julie Norman is Senior Associate Dean for Resources and Programming.

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