Many advisors who work on campus know a student is struggling before they say a word. After all, the student’s expression and body language can reveal their frustration and anxiety.
But online advising is different. Advisors often work with online students by phone, email, or text — formats that don’t offer the same cues as in-person advising. Therefore, online advisors must use different tactics to discern a student’s mental state or desire for help.
Even so, many colleges base online advising on their campus-based practices. This approach seems logical because the destination of online and in-person programs — a degree or certificate — is the same. But the online journey follows a different path, raising the need for tailored support.
Enter the Online Learning Advising Model (OLAM).
Julie Delich, Vice President of Retention and Student Support Services at Wiley University Services, led the development of OLAM to give online students the support they have sorely lacked. Instead of recycling tactics used on campus, it’s custom-made for the online learning experience. That includes accounting for how students think and feel about online coursework.
Within OLAM, advisors don’t wait for students to run into obstacles; they proactively remove those obstacles once classes begin. Not only does this work decrease attrition, but it helps students cross the finish line to graduation.
The Four Elements of OLAM
1. Shame resilience theory
“You can do this.” This simple message should be baked into every interaction an advisor has with an online student. It’s common for students to doubt themselves at some point during an online program, such as when they flub an assignment. That doubt has the potential to lead to shame that can make students question their prospects for academic success. By continually building their confidence, it reinforces the student’s belief that they will thrive in online classrooms.
Julie believes the shame resilience theory offers ways to build that confidence. She learned about it through Brené Brown’s research into why setbacks make people feel “trapped, powerless, and isolated.” Instead of overcoming those feelings when challenges arise, students may run from them — and their online program.
Julie said this flight behavior often follows a similar pattern. First, the student will ignore their advisor’s emails and texts, and they will let calls go to voicemail. After cutting these ties, the student may quit logging into their LMS and eventually drop out.
This silent flight doesn’t just harm that student — it impacts other at-risk students, too. That’s because these students slip away without telling their advisor what went wrong. So, advising teams fail to gather insights that would improve the overall student experience and, by extension, persistence rates across the university.
Seeing students ghost their programs is what motivated Julie to design OLAM. “We wanted to understand why they stopped responding to us. And we wanted to figure out why they never called to say they couldn’t continue in their program,” she said.
Her investigation uncovered how shame saps a student’s perseverance. “Much of their self-worth rests on their academic performance,” she said. “They may think that a bad grade reflects on more than how they did in a class — it could mean they are bad, too. These thoughts are far from the truth, of course. That’s why we help students improve their self-worth before we even consider their GPA.”
Julie began training her team to make instilling resilience second nature. Listening is central to this work. Advisors turn calls into judgment-free spaces, so each student feels comfortable about discussing the obstacles they face. From there, the student receives practical guidance to accept that, yes, online coursework is a challenge — but it’s one they can win.
“We challenge students to reframe their beliefs about what their academic work means about their value as a person. And that’s a unique aspect of the Online Learning Advising Model,” Julie said.
Challenging students in this way demands a sensitive touch. It pushes advisors to see empathy as a muscle to exercise. By building it up, they can relate to each student’s situation and tailor their support to lead them to success. When advisors deliver this support early in the learner journey, students acquire the resilience needed to power through the occasional lousy grade and persist until graduation.
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2. Proactive advising
The idea that many online students feel isolated is a tough pill to swallow. But it’s true: Many online learners believe that no one will guide them when their journey goes astray. Nor do they have someone to celebrate with when they have an academic breakthrough.
Proactive advising helps students overcome these feelings by showing that someone is always on their side. It works when advisors build strong connections with students. OLAM strengthens those connections through automation tools that advisors use to keep students on track.
Every student benefits from proactive advising. But Julie said it pays off most for students who don’t usually ask for help. Her team helps these students adjust to working with an advisor by creating a schedule for checking in with them.
“We design precise touchpoints for when to send text messages to students,” Julie said. “It’s a blip on the student’s radar that acknowledges they may feel that things are rough right now. And, if they’re thinking about calling us for help, it’s safe to do that.”
Proactive advising strategies exceed traditional advising, which is more reactive. Julie said that, when following the reactive model, “Colleges give students a phone number and say, ‘Call if you need us.’ Then students only call when there’s a fire, and by then, it may be too late.”
Colleges don’t wait for students to reach out when they commit to proactive advising. Instead, advisors build relationships with students, reinforcing they will travel together through their journey. This approach prompts students to contact advisors not just when there’s a problem; they also share their wins.
“We have students get in touch when they get an A on an exam,” Julie said.
Technology plays a big role in building these relationships. Using monitoring tools powered by AI, advisors know when a student falls behind. Then they can reach out to offer assistance.
That said, proactive advising doesn’t begin when an intervention is needed. It starts when counselors first walk online students through their program orientation process. For instance, they can head off a student’s concerns about paying for college by exploring financial aid and third-party payment plans, such as whether their employer will reimburse tuition costs.
“A student may feel like they’re on an island when their program begins. They don’t have a support network and feel isolated. It’s our advisors’ job to show students they aren’t alone. That way, they start classes knowing someone is always there for them,” Julie said.
3. Cognitive behavioral theory
Negative thinking is invasive. When it creeps into a student’s mindset, it distorts how they view themselves and diminishes what they achieve in an online program. If left unchecked, it amplifies the shame that could lead to attrition.
Julie strives to nip negative thinking before it takes root. She achieves this with cognitive behavioral theory training.
Through this training, advisors learn to help a student resist defeatist behavior when they struggle with coursework. Advisors also learn to spot warning signs that a student is losing confidence. Julie said this is important because a few subpar grades can derail a student’s progress.
“They may think, ‘My goodness, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.’ Now, is that an accurate thought? No. That’s why we train our advisors to work with students to instill a more resilient outlook,” Julie said.
Behavioral analytics make this aspect of OLAM even more impactful. For instance, we have recorded more than 4 million calls with students to identify the motivations behind statements and whether their verbal cues signal a cry for help. These cues feed into predictive modeling that helps us anticipate at-risk behavior.
Advisors can use these insights to help students see that setbacks aren’t permanent. They can also condition students to remain positive as they learn from their mistakes.
“Instead of letting students think, ‘I can’t do this,’ we help them realize, ‘I could’ve prepared more.’ It’s about reframing thoughts to be more accurate and helpful to a student’s development,” Julie said.
This type of advising is not easy. It challenges students to change how they think, which can get uncomfortable. So, extensive training is critical. Within OLAM, advisors learn to apply the cognitive behavioral theory in ways that students find supportive, not aggressive.
“Training should focus on grounding statements that advisors can employ when supporting students. We also tailor statements for each student’s needs, with consideration for their unique situations and abilities,” Julie said.
Of course, students must do more than adapt to challenges. As the next element of OLAM shows, they must also build on their strengths.
4. Appreciative advising
When students discover their strengths, they lay the groundwork for achieving their goals. And this is where they can really shine.
Appreciative advising helps students amplify their natural talents to offset their skill gaps. Advisors begin identifying these talents when they form a relationship with a student. Then they help students see how to use those strengths as they work to complete their online program.
“Appreciative advising comes out of the positive psychology movement. It encourages people to tackle situations using the skills they already have, which lets them grow and maximize those skills,” Julie said.
This advising gives each student a strategy for compensating for weaknesses. Then they can navigate the wide range of course topics they must complete to earn their degree online.
“Imagine you have a student who excels at communicating with their peers and faculty but is struggling in a math class,” Julie said. “They’re anxious because math has always been a shortcoming. In this case, an advisor could remind the student about their ability to connect with people and ask how they could use that talent to succeed in their math class.”
These conversations condition students to imagine how to use their talents to solve problems. They also equip students with the confidence and critical thinking skills needed to achieve long-term success.
“Our student engagement focuses on maximizing their talents, helping them feel great about themselves, and positioning them to succeed,” Julie said.
Implement a learner-centric strategy for online advising
Too many advising models overlook the online student’s needs. If advisors do not understand what it’s like to study online, they will leave students feeling stranded and ill-equipped for success.
Here at Wiley, we harness the Online Learning Advising Model to help our higher ed partners support the entire learner journey. This approach focuses on specialized support for online students. It also helps them develop the resilience to reach their destination, be it a degree, certificate, or certification. Using OLAM has helped our partners achieve 89% term-to-term retention.
Contact us to discuss how we can help your university tailor support for the learners on your campus and in your distance learning programs.
To preview how Wiley helps partners and learners take the smart route to success, download our free e-book, The Power of Flexible Partnership. Plus, explore our other resources that delve into retention efforts, including an infographic about personalizing services for millennials and Gen Xers in online programs.
About Julie Delich
Dr. Julie Delich is our Vice President of Retention and Student Support. Julie has 18 years of higher education experience and strives to find opportunities to increase our positive impact on students. Her team works with potential students from the moment they register for their first courses through graduation.
Watch Delivering Quality Student Experiences in Virtual Learning Environments for more of Julies’s perspective on promoting student success. This on-demand webinar presents a panel that Julie joined to share ways to improve the administration of virtual programs and strengthen student outcomes.