PSU’s New Approach to Advising: ‘Siri, Where is my Degree Map?’

Each student takes their own unique path towards their degree and each path is marked by a series of decisions: What should I major in? How long will it take to earn a degree? What courses should I enroll in? Can I afford it? What is a good work/school balance?

These are complicated questions that can be very stressful for students. Making the wrong decision about registration can set students back months and cost them a significant amount of money. When students are faced with an unanticipated change to their plan, whether that is a change in course availability, or a change of major, students are forced to revisit many of the same questions.

Our PSU students have told us they want to understand the full implications of a degree choice and know that their decisions align with their academic, career, and financial goals. As part of our reTHINK PSU efforts we are looking at ways to integrate our planning and advisement tools with student- and advisor-facing systems.

PSU at APLU National Competition
PSU was one of six universities selected to pitch an innovative idea to reform advising at the national Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) meeting. Each institution had five minutes to convince a panel of judges that their pitch was worthy of a $100,000 prize funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation and the Lumina Foundation.

And, guess what?

PSU won! Not only the $100,000 first-place prize, but also a $5,000 Audience Choice Award.

PSU’s pitch: “Siri, where is my degree map?”

We made the case that although we have developed degree maps for majors, we learned that our students were hacking them–pulling apart the navigation and changing functionality to fit their needs. It was a wake-up call for us– what we found helpful was not necessarily what students needed to make informed decisions.

Students wonder why they cannot ask Siri for the answers, as they do for so many other problems. But Siri’s answer to these PSU questions would probably be, “Interesting question, I am not sure I understand.”

We learned that students want a Siri-like advising experience.

In other words, students need more than a paper-based road map. They need a GPS that not only shows them when a turn is coming, but how to reroute if they miss the turn, or perhaps, want to choose another path.

This was precisely our pitch to the judges.

At a university of 29,000 students, we need to scale up our advising effectiveness. We asked for money toward the cost of building “Super Awesome Degree Maps”– a dynamic, mobile- friendly, self-service tool that supports students in making routine, informed and proactive decisions that reduces the achievement gap and can be accessed 24/7.

We conveyed how our Super Awesome Degree Maps would work for a student:

  • They can compare course loads for the two majors they prefer, side by side.
  • Filters help find out more about costs, number of quarters needed, and career prospects.
  • Students can apply and even be admitted to PSU, directly from the tool
  • They can see transferred courses, get a suggested course sequence, and make decisions on what courses to take.
  • If students’ work hours’ change and they are not sure how to manage their course load, they can save the map and schedule an advising appointment.

aplu-3Our pitch showed how it will support academic planning; quality and consistency of advising interactions; and rely on our sophisticated student analytics for proactive, critically-timed student interventions. We will be able to serve every student and measure effectiveness by tracking how students access information and better understand the decisions they make.

Next steps
We are currently in the process of implementing Super Awesome Degree Maps. We have built static Degree Maps for all PSU majors and now intend to build the next generation mobile-friendly tool for students. Immediate next steps are to more fully develop the design specifications for a RFP by engaging students, faculty, and staff. Funding received from our pitch provides the initial resources necessary to build a tool envisioned by our students. Our approach for redesigning how students access advising and the tool itself could be adapted at other institutions. We will make our code and support material available by using a Creative Commons license.

Our award led to notoriety in the Portland Business Journal. Check out the article, “Portland State – developed app will put a price on getting a degree.”

We could ask Siri what it thinks of this plan, but are more interested in your thoughts.


4 thoughts on “PSU’s New Approach to Advising: ‘Siri, Where is my Degree Map?’

    • Congratulations to PSU (and to Sona) for winning the competition and enabling this exciting initiative to be developed for our students!

      “Super Awesome Degree Maps” might not have been the name I personally would’ve gone with – “Highly Interactive”, or “Dude, where’s my Degree Map?” (half kidding) perhaps? – but as someone who has witnessed first hand our students struggling to navigate PSU’s current system with everything else they’ve got going on in their lives, this initiative sounds like it has the potential to really help reach our students, increase accessibility, and build their unique pathways to success.


  1. Pingback: Educators Are Pitch Perfect in $165,000 Advising Innovation Competition | Urban University

  2. Pingback: Siri, Help Advise Portland State University’s Students | Urban University

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