Dr. Hill and students
Fighting the sophomore slump with intentional advising at Wofford College

Wilson Peden '07
Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor
Association of American Colleges and Universities

Wofford College, a private liberal arts institution in Spartanburg, SC, is doing everything it can to engage students as soon as they enter the college.

First-year students encounter an extended orientation, a common reading program, and interdisciplinary, writing-intensive seminars focused on big questions and pressing social issues. Then, as juniors and seniors, students are guided by their majors through a series of engaging learning experiences, including undergraduate research, independent studies and capstone projects, and study abroad programs. But many students find themselves disconnected and adrift in the space between the strong support system of the first year and the structured curricular experiences of the major—they fall into the “sophomore slump.”

The primary reason for this is not an absence of opportunities for sophomores to engage in meaningful work, says Anne Rodrick, an associate professor of history and coordinator of the interdisciplinary humanities program—it’s that students don’t know about these experiences or how to access them. Rodrick, along with associate professor of philosophy Christine Dinkins, is leading an initiative to improve advising at the college in order to better guide sophomores toward high-impact educational experiences, especially in the cocurriculum. “We’ve seen how high-touch advising and structured cocurricular experiences benefit first-year students,” says Dinkins. “Now we want to bring this to sophomores.”

Identifying Student Needs

Empowering Sophomores: Advising for Increased Engagement in High-Impact Practices launched in the fall of 2013. The project, funded by a grant from the Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) project, aims to improve the psychosocial well-being of sophomores primarily by bringing more consistency and intentionality to the way advisors work with second-year students. As AAC&U’s LEAP research has demonstrated, participation in high-impact educational practices (HIPs) is crucial to students’ continued engagement and sense of well-being. The project therefore aims to provide these experiences throughout students’ curricular pathways. Dinkins and Rodrick seek to identify what sort of experiences sophomores in particular wish they could access, what experiences are already available to them, and what new practices could be implemented.

The project aligns with larger changes happening in Wofford’s advising program. Under the previous system, all first-year students were advised by the instructor of their Humanities 101 section, a required first-semester seminar, until they declared a major and chose a faculty member from that department to serve as an advisor. Next year, however, advising duties will be shared by the entire faculty. Each advisor will work with just eight students, allowing for a much more intensive, hands-on relationship. With the inclusion of many faculty members who have never advised first- and second-year students, a more detailed, deliberate program of advisor training will be especially important, and one goal of this new project is to develop a new supplement for the advising handbook and other resources focused on working with sophomores.

Early in the project, Dinkins facilitated a series of focus groups with students at different points in their academic careers to discuss their experiences with advising and their sophomore year in general. The sessions were guided by the Bringing Theory to Practice Toolkit, an assessment tool that addresses multiple dimensions of engaged learning, civic engagement, and student mental health.

Advising relationships varied widely, Dinkins found. For those students who did have close relationships with their advisors, those relationships were important and highly beneficial. These students reported consulting with their advisors about many issues related to college life, not just course and major selection, and many continued to seek their initial advisor’s advice informally even after they chose a new advisor in their major. Such responses are particularly notable given the findings from the recent Gallup-Purdue Index, which found that those students who had mentors in college and professors who cared about them as people were more likely to thrive after college. However, such close relationships were far from pervasive at Wofford—for many students, the initial advisor was simply someone to help them put together a course schedule.

Dinkins also asked students what sort of experiences would improve their well-being. She found that many first- and second-year students wanted to be involved in some kind of community engagement, a practice that can offer the sense of meaning and direct applicability that second-year students often find lacking in their college experience. But students often didn’t know what “community engagement” would actually look like in practice or where to find such experiences. There are some community engagement opportunities that sophomores might encounter. For example, Wofford is part of the Bonner Scholars program, which offers scholarships to students who volunteer in the surrounding community and reflect on their service. The Spanish Department offers courses in which students work with schools with large Latino populations. But programs like these serve only a small fraction of the student population. Most students won’t encounter similar opportunities without actively seeking them out.

Educating Faculty

Wofford is in the midst of a college-wide effort to expand civic engagement opportunities—and to broaden the notion of what “civic engagement” means, Rodrick says. She and Dinkins are in close communication with Trina Jones, associate professor of religion and associate provost for curriculum and cocurriculum, and Ron Robison, Perkins-Prothro Chaplain and professor of religion, who are working on a related BTtoP-funded project, Civic Engagement as Whole-Student Development, which focuses on creating more civic engagement opportunities on campus and using these experiences to encourage self-reflection among students. With expanded civic engagement programs come more opportunities for all students, but especially sophomores, to interact with communities beyond campus and to apply their academic learning in meaningful ways.

The problem, however, is that faculty may not be aware of these programs, or of their importance for students. “We tend to focus on academic advising—not just as major advisors, but as initial advisors, too,” Rodrick says. The best initial academic advisors help their students chart a meaningful path through their general education program and think about potential majors. “Many of these faculty members are great academic advisors, but they’re not necessarily aware of all the opportunities for their students.”

Dinkins and Rodrick have met with groups of staff from every unit on campus, including the library, athletics department, and student affairs, and with faculty from every department. The meetings were an opportunity to share information from the student focus groups, but also to hear from these groups about their experiences mentoring students, both formally and informally, and to hear about what kind of cocurricular opportunities these groups already offer and how sophomores could be more involved.

They were surprised to learn how many academic departments already sponsor cocurricular activities that are open to second-year students. The Psychology Kingdom, a student club sponsored by the psychology department, hosts volunteer opportunities and a range of other cocurricular activities for any interested students, not just those who have declared a psychology major. Similarly, the education department sponsors a club, open to students from all majors, that engages students as volunteers in local elementary and secondary schools.

Cocurricular Integration

Every department doesn’t have to offer a full slate of cocurricular activities, of course, but faculty do need to be more aware of what opportunities are available. Rodrick says she and her colleagues in the history department are just now beginning to take full advantage of the Space, the redesigned career center that helps students start businesses or social entrepreneurship projects and provides real-world experience consulting with local nonprofits. “We’re realizing it’s far more than a place to send our students to get internships,” she says. “They do all kinds of professional development and offer a lot of different ways for students to get involved in the community.”

The college also has strong study abroad participation, in part because it offers shorter programs during the January Interim term. It also offers music and theater programs that offer both credit-bearing courses and clubs that are open to all students, blurring the line between curriculum and cocurriculum.

“Wofford has an unusually strong connection between faculty and staff,” Dinkins says, but faculty could take greater advantage of that connection, making sure that their students know what cocurricular programs are available and how they might benefit from participating. “That’s a big part of this project—making even stronger connections with staff in order to serve students.”

One outcome of the project will be a web portal that gathers all these resources in one place. The portal is intended to serve both students and advisors, Dinkins says. It will be an advising tool that they can explore together to identify the kinds of experiences that will best fit students’ needs and interests. Rodrick and Dinkins will also talk about the importance of steering students toward such opportunities in faculty workshops.

In the meantime, Rodrick and Dinkins are continuing to meet with faculty and staff to share additional information they’ve gathered though their research and to report back to each department and division about what the others are doing to support sophomores and encourage cocurricular involvement. “Every group wants to know what the others are doing, what they can learn from the other departments,” Dinkins says. “If there’s resistance to this idea, we haven’t met it yet.”