CRAFTS for Talking to Transitioning Students

A student’s transition to a large public university from a high school, a community college or other kind of educational institution is sometimes difficult.  I want to write a few thoughts on fairly short visits with students focused on helping them successfully transition from high school or a community college to this campus. They’re not visits aimed at academic planning, course scheduling or career counseling or other kinds of things that advisors talk to students about; they’re quite focused visits on this transition.

My experience working with students transitioning or struggling at a large public university has prompted me to think about six different struggles that students have. They’re struggles that I’ve routinely seen in students on academic probation visit – and frankly, my list comes from an internal study of students on academic probation that I did with a colleague years ago plus some reading.  From working with other students, I think that they’re things that affect all college students.  From my perspective, they boil down to one issue, and I’ll explain that in a minute.  The six issues are: Classes, Roommates, Activities, Family, Time management and Sleep.  If you put that list of topics together, it ends up as “CRAFTS,” and I’ve dubbed these visits “CRAFTS with Joe.”

Origins

A few years ago, I was asked to meet early in the semester – after registration – but before being in the semester too long – with all of our transfer students.  My advising discussions are usually student problem driven, and so I asked myself, “What I am going to talk about with these students in these mandated visits?”  I wondered, “What can I do to make these visits productive?” I started thinking about the sorts of issues that freshman and students new to the campus routinely have.   I started to make a list of topics – classes, roommates, activities, family problems, time management , and I played with the words a little bit, and I came up with CRAFT. Later, after reading an article on the importance of sleep to college students [cited below], I added SLEEP as a topic. Hence, CRAFTS.

After the first semester of these discussions, I thought the visits were pretty successful. I thought that I had helped students stop a couple of problems early enough in the semester that the students ended-up well.  I can’t remember whether I was asked us to start meeting with freshman in the same way as I had met with transfer students or those meetings were something that I took the initiative to do.  I made those happen, and now, I encourage other advisors to do them.

Procedure

Typically, these visits are scheduled like any other meeting – the students call and set up an appointment.  When I see students at orientation, I tell them that I want to see them between weeks three and five; if I am worried about the student for one reason or another, I’ll ask to see them between weeks two and four.  And, I tell them that I want to see whether things are going POORLY or WELL.

To make that point with them – about coming to see me – I really lard it up. I tell them to come and see me even if they HATE all their classes, FIGHT with their roommate, and cry themselves to sleep at night because they miss their family. One student interrupted me and said that sounds pretty bad; I agreed. But, I tell them come and see me and tell me that things are good: That they LOVE their classes – that their professors are so good and interesting; that their roommate is great guy or girl; that they never knew they could know so many wonderful people. And, I add, that a beam of sunshine lights up their path wherever they go – and the bluebird of happiness sings sweet songs of joy in their ear. I tell them, come tell me of that joy, and we’ll celebrate together.  I tell them, triumph or tragedy – or something in between – come and see to let me know how things are going.

My goal here is to invite them to come and see me without their making a judgment about whether things are going well and poorly.  First, early in a semester, inexperienced students may not even have a good perception about how well or poorly things are going, and second, I don’t want to create a perception that students should come and see me only when they’re having problems.

I use the mnemonic, CRAFTS, because I have very focused things that I want to hear about in this interview, and it helps remember the topics that I want to cover.

Classes

Obviously, talking about classes and professors with students is a day in the life for academic advisors. In this discussion, however, my interests are more focused.   I am most interested in hearing about the start students are getting in their classes.  I’ll just ask something open and non-directive such as, “How are your classes,” but I am listening for some specific things. If they don’t come out in conservation easily, I’ll probe for them.  I want to hear:

  • That students are generally enjoying their classes. If students are complaining early on that a class is too easy or too hard – especially a math or foreign language class – I’ll want to check on the correctness of the placement. I’ll want to make sure that they’re taking what they’re supposed to be taking. If a student is complaining about the material being familiar, I want to explore the possibility of a course duplicate of some kind.
  • That students are doing the readings. If a student mentions not doing the reading or not having the book – say for financial reasons – I will want to probe that matter a bit more with a view to working out a strategy for getting the texts or at least access to the texts. If they’re not reading for another reason, I’ll want to address that with the student.
  • That students are getting along with their professors or teaching assistants. No one needs drama in a semester.  If an instructor is having problems, that needs to be brought to the attention of the appropriate folks.  If a student doesn’t believe he or she is getting a fair shake, then, it’s far easier to make changes early in a schedule than later on, and strong dislike is not something that will be easily fixed.
  • That the student is going to class. If a class is too early in the day – and the student is having trouble getting up – or if it conflicts with a work schedule, then we should address that issue directly and right now rather than wait for bad grade reports or other problems to emerge.
  • That the student is using the course management system. Many instructors use WebCT or Moodle or other electronic course management systems; if a student has not begun to log on and begun to use the system by week two, probably, they’re missing required assignments. Freshman and transfer students may not even know to ask.  For on-line course, they may be waiting for something from the instructor rather than proactively searching out what they need to do.  In those cases, students need to be encouraged to begin work.
  • That students are having their needs met by a class. By this, I mean that students with disabilities – of one sort or another – are being accommodated by the university. If not, then we need to make a referral or take some other kind of action.

Roommates

After the discussion about classes runs out, I’ll abruptly change topics, and ask, “How are you getting along with your roommate.”   For students from small families or with “helicopter parents,” a roommate issue is a nightmare.  Because they need to interact – at some level – with a roommate, if students are having problems with their roommate, their life is miserable.

Normally, the response to my question is something like “She’s a great girl,” or “We’re good.” Or, we worked through some things, but we’re fine.”  With that response, I’ll move on. If I get a different response, I’ll want to hear more, and I will want to suggest that the student get the assistance of his or her resident advisor or someone else or simply ask to change roommates.

Activities

Students do need to study, but they need to relax too.  Also, they need to think about building a portfolio of skills that they can offer to an employee. Activities fill these different voids. So, I always ask, “What are you doing besides studying?” Things to listen for include:

  • Too many activities. If a student is too busy, then that will affect time for school work. An advisor should make students aware of this issue.
  • Too few activities. Too few activities is a worry.  Relaxation and friends are necessary for good use of study time.
  • Unhealthy activities. If a student is doing any of the many things that are unhealthy for students to do, encourage them to make better choices.
  • A diversity of activities. Of course, students can’t do everything in their first semester, but I would like to hear that they are doing some things for fun and some things to enhance their skills and opportunities.

Family

Roommate talk is about relationships on campus; family questions are about a student’s life at home.  I’ll simply ask, “How’s your family?”  Or, “have you been in touch with your parents?” Or, something similar.  Usually, if something is up or there’s a problem, the student will rush to share what’s going on.  General expressions that “I miss my family” are probably not too much of a concern and are pretty common.  Things I would pay particular attention to are:

  • More specific statements about loneliness or missing friends or families. Or expressions of worry about what’s happening at home. I would be particularly alert to reports about major family crises: deaths or illnesses of close family members; financial problems of parents; marital status issues of family members (both divorces and weddings); problems of brothers or sisters or close friends. Parental expressions about missing the student or demands that the student come home are worrisome.  None of these matters can I, as an academic advisor fix, but I can refer the student to other resources on campus for varying kinds of assistance.
  • Statements about frequent trips home – especially during the week – but even more than one or two week-end trips per semester. Or statements about “excessive” phone calling from home. Of course, how much students should talk with their parents while away at college is a matter that has changed greatly over time, but if a student reports an abrupt change or worry on the matter, than that is an issue that the student may need to address (and which I refer to another unit).

Trips home take a good deal of time.  Problems at home will consume an enormous amount of emotional energy. Both of these will cut into a student’s ability to concentrate on school work.

Time

Time management is a major theme in this discussion.  It’s an old saw that much of freshman year is learning time management. In a way, it is the single issue.  Poor class choices, roommate problems, family drama and other matters boil down – for the purpose of this kind of chat – to one issue: Time.  There is just not enough time to catch-up and learn what is required for too high or demanding of a class placement or to stay interested in too low or too elementary of a class placement or to learn to become interested or find something interesting about the wrong class.  There are enough classes with good and interesting things to learn that we should concentrate on those. And, there’s not enough time to to deal with all of the joys and follies of life — while still keeping the pace and academic attention and focus required of an active, full-time college student.  Quite directly, I ask:

  •  How many hours per week are you studying? Have you set aside hours in your schedule for studying?  Do you keep those hours on your cell phone or schedule book or the like. (If I have doubts, I ask to see it.)
  • When students tell me how much they’re studying, I take the total number of credit hours times two or three and subtract their answer, and tell them – at least it’s usually the case – “That’s not enough. You need to be studying more.”   I repeat the two to three hours per class rule of thumb, and then I ask, “Where is that time going to come from?”
  • I ask about budgeting in time for activities, for jobs and for other matters, and I ask them how much it will all take. (If the total exceeds 168 [7 x 24], I observe for them that the result is impossible.)

Usually, I get an admission that for the student that the student needs to study more. That’s okay with me. If I don’t get it, I have still given them an awareness of about the importance of managing their time.

Sleep

The last thing I’ll ask is this: “How many hours a night do you sleep?”  I’ll follow it up with a question, “And, how is that working for you?” And, then, “Are you feeling well rested.”

I think that most students are surprised by this last set of questions. To a certain extent, it follows on the time management question, but it also offers a second swipe at the other questions that I’ve asked.  If there’s a roommate problem stemming from differing habits or a family problem causing worries or an over-indulgence in unhealthy activities – or some lingering illness – it may well show up as a sleep problem.  The task is to point out the relation of the answer here to the earlier answers, highlight the need for action and making an appropriate referral.

[The article on sleep that I referenced is, Hannah G. Lund et al., “Sleep Patterns and Predictors of Disturbed Sleep in a Large Population of College Students,” Journal of Adolescent Health 2009:1-9. As I don’t read that journal on a regular basis, I am sure that I saw a reference to it elsewhere and looked it up. The key points are (1) college students don’t sleep enough or very well and (2) academic or emotional distress are important reported causes of poor sleep.]

Conclusion

After we’ve gotten through the list – CRAFTS – I’ll thank the student for coming in, make sure they’re aware of contact information for any appropriate referrals that I made, and wish them well for the rest of the semester. I’ll ask to see them again for scheduling or whenever they’d like to visit.  I’ll write an note on the highlights, and we’re done.  I’ll begin the process anew with the next student.