A large, budding university concentrates on the importance of advising students at all levels. From providing mentors for freshmen to surveying graduating students and alumni, this department operates with continuing feedback.
Background and Purpose
The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is a relatively young, comprehensive research university with a student body of approximately 14,000 located on two campuses. The main campus in Hattiesburg typically enrolls 90% of these students, among them a large number of community college transfer students. In fact, in fall, 1996, the main campus enrollment of first-time students consisted of 1231 freshman and 1569 transfers. While no precise data are available, a large number of students in both groups are the first members of their families to attend an institution of higher learning. Mathematics is one of nine departments housed in USM's College of Science & Technology. In the fall of 1996, the Department of Mathematics had 123 prospective majors and taught approximately 3100 students in 80 course sections. Preservice secondary teachers are a major source of enrollment, as well as students pursuing preprofessional degrees (e.g., premedicine, predentistry, preveterinary medicine). The university core mathematics course is College Algebra, and the department offers an intermediate algebra course for the most mathematically underprepared university students. Mathematics faculty have kept the degree requirements at 128 semester hours, and the number of degrees in mathematics has remained relatively constant over the last few years (52 per year since 1991). Most serious students finish in the traditional four years.
Because of the enrollments cited above, our interest in attracting mathematics majors, and the fact that many of our students are transfers or naïve about college, advising for academic success and retention became a critical issue that aroused discussion in the 80s. In response to these concerns, the University Office of Admissions determined to involve faculty from the appropriate academic unit as early in the recruitment process as is feasible, often establishing the advisor-advisee relationship even before the student arrives on campus. The University instituted General Studies 101, a fairly typical "introduction to university life" course, as well as a summer orientation and counseling session for all new students. Even more significantly the computerized degree audit and advisement tool PACE (Programmed Academic Curriculum Evaluation) became available to the department and its college starting fall 1992.
Recognizing that retention and success in mathematics courses are nationwide concerns, at this time the mathematics department, in concert with our college and university, forged an advisement partnership with the college, which fostered a variety of advising, tracking and support strategies.
The Advisement Program for mathematics majors is regarded as one of the primary responsibilities of the department (working in partnership with the college). In order to meet the needs of a student body with a mean ACT of 21.3 (19.9 in mathematics), reasonable high school mathematics preparation (at least two years of algebra and a year of geometry), and fuzzy expectations of college, our mathematics faculty believed that advising must be comprehensive, flexible, and afford a personal flavor.
Prospective majors are advised by a department faculty member in a summer orientation and counseling session. At this time, students are given the department's Guide for the Mathematics Major1. This guide has proven popular among both parents and potential majors, and serves as a resource for students after enrolling. It includes a summary of degree requirements, employment opportunities within the department, career opportunities in mathematics in general, job titles of recent graduates, course descriptions, faculty biosketches, and a five-year plan for the student regarding advanced course offerings. The students also select their fall classes in this counseling session. (For placement, the department relies on a combination of ACT scores, high school courses and grades, and self-selection based upon course catalog descriptions and discussions with the advisor.) The students are also encouraged at this time to participate with the department in its emphasis on undergraduate research.
The college also offers a Freshman Mentor Program; this program is discussed in another brochure which offers biosketches of the faculty volunteering. Mentors are volunteers drawn from the College of Science and Technology who provide freshmen support and advice. Students who do not apply for a mentor are contacted by phone so they can be personally encouraged to understand the benefits of the program. Although the mentor-mentee relationship is largely up to the individuals, students who have opted to participate in the program are matched up with their mentors in two planned group activities usually the program reception and a Halloween pumpkin carving /pizza social. The reception is welcoming and the atmosphere cheerful it includes a brief panel discussion led by a former program participant and a popular mentor, who gives some cautions about the pitfalls of freshman year.
As students progress through the years, it is important to keep information current. For this, we use the student's PACE form, which contains personal data and specific program requirements. The PACE form is automatically updated to include the results of courses taken, grade point averages in the various categories, credit completed at the various levels, remaining degree requirements, etc.
In the fall of the student's first year the student is assigned a permanent advisor and a mentor (if he/she opts for the latter); the advisor of a mathematics major comes from the mathematics department. During the first semester the student meets with the advisor to preregister for spring classes, discusses summer employment /undergraduate research opportunities, the department's undergraduate research program; and the student academic goals. Since the PACE program frees the advisor from bookkeeping responsibilities, important issues about the students' immediate and long-range prospects can be discussed during these sessions.
During the year, students are kept on track by graduate students, undergraduate majors, and some faculty who provide tutorial assistance in a departmentally sponsored Mathematics Learning Center and new Calculus Lab.
Complementing these department initiatives, the College of Science & Technology Scholars Program recognizes the college's most outstanding sophomores and juniors by hosting a banquet at which attendees are provided certificates of achievement and information about local and national scholarships and awards, summer research opportunities, and requirements for admission to professional and graduate schools.
During the early fall of each year, the college also sponsors a Senior Workshop, primarily for students who plan to enter the world of work upon graduation. Conducted by USM's Director of Career Planning and Placement, the workshop provides tips on the job search identifying career options, applying, interviewing, etc.
Advising of the Faculty: All department advisors are given a copy of the college's Academic Advisor's Handbook (, also available on our World Wide Web home page), and each fall personnel from the Dean's Office conduct an advisement workshop for new faculty.
Ongoing Assessment of the Program: Trying to incorporate all factors which impact on students' ability to achieve, we have opted for an approach which also assesses the effectiveness of our advisement initiatives. Hence, we:
The University has seen increased success in earning national recognition for scholarship and service, improvement in academic records, and higher graduation rates for College of Science and Technology majors, and we feel that this is in part due to the success of our comprehensive approach to advisement and support and our continuing assessment of our efforts. For example, the information gleaned from these various mechanisms are discussed in appropriate forums (e.g., faculty meetings, chair's yearly performance reviews with faculty, dean's annual evaluation of departmental performance with chair), and has been used in modifying program components as well as in changing the recognition and reward structure for faculty at the department level and departments at the college level.
We believe that the advisement and support program which is currently in place effectively assists many of our students to persevere toward a degree and motivates our best students to establish enviable undergraduate records. The success of our program, we feel, is founded on some basic points:
Use of Findings
With these observations in mind, here are some of the issues which we plan to address in the near future:
1. We are pleased that the vast majority of mentor program participants earn freshman-year grade point averages exceeding 2.0 and enroll for the sophomore year. However, many of the students who opt not to participate in the advice and support programs we offer are precisely those who need these programs most. We are seeking better ways of attracting the attention of these students.
2. Transfer students, who make up the largest portion of our new students each year, require extra effort in advising. While one could make the case that freshmen need the support far more than junior transfers, our observation is that there is little difference between these two groups, especially when the juniors transferred from a small, home-town community college.
3. Every senior who files an application for degree is required to complete the college's exit questionnaire. We are pleased that even though this form is submitted anonymously, the vast majority of students take the time to provide thoughtful and often provocative responses. On the other hand, the response rate to the department's mail-out survey to graduates is quite low (20-25%) (probably a common characteristic of mailing attempts, but below our expectations). A departmental advisory committee, consisting of current students and/or relatively recent graduates, could possibly provide perspective on this that the department now lacks.
In our experience, advisement is an important factor in student success and retention. University policy must be explicit; it is essential that faculty members from the academic unit be involved in an advisor-advisee relationship with their unit's majors. The university must be willing to pay for programs like PACE and for the increased staff who aid the faculty in their advisement and support role. The dean must actively cooperate in the student advisement and support process with broad-based imaginative initiatives that will complement and support the departments within the college. Most importantly, faculty must believe that their advisement and student support role does make a difference, and that it is duly valued by their department, college, and institution.
1 Copies of the various survey forms and brochures, the college's Academic Advisor's Handbook, and the Guide for the
Mathematics Major are available from the authors.