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Month: October 2012

The Boulder on his Shoulder: Understanding Students with Learning Disabilities

The Boulder on his Shoulder: Understanding Students with Learning Disabilities

What’s harder than trying to make friends, navigate bureaucracy, manage time well, get good grades, and become an adult all at the same time? Doing it all with a learning disability!

The good news for students with learning disabilities is that colleges have become better and better equipped to deal with students for whom the primary boulder in the road is not laziness or a lack of ability but simply a brain that’s wired a little differently than most. The bad news is that the system is still far from perfect. Not all professors are experts in learning disabilities, and even for those who are, the sheer number of disabilities that are now being diagnosed make expertise in every one of them a statistical impossibility.

Additionally, some students may arrive at college with undiagnosed learning disabilities. A student like this may have had trouble in a particular subject in high school but chalked it up to simply being “bad at math” or “a slow reader.” These students have often made up for deficiencies in one area by excelling in others, which can work beautifully once a student is employed in a career that suits his strengths but can be detrimental when it comes to something like fulfilling core requirements.

That’s exactly what happened with Andy, a student of mine who entered college with undiagnosed dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is basically the numbers version of dyslexia, a common reading disability, and while Andy was one of the best writers I have ever seen, math was incomprehensible to him. However, in order to graduate, Andy had to pass two math classes. When he came to me, he was despondent. He had already failed his first math class twice, and despite making As in all of his other courses, his math professor had told him point-blank that perhaps he was not “college material” after all and should probably just leave the University. Andy and I brainstormed possible solutions, and I told him I would talk about his problem with some of the other math professors. Professor Kalinsky, a brilliant man who had worked with students with dyscalculia before and professed to have a bit of a learning disability himself, immediately recognized Andy’s symptoms as classic signs of dyscalculia. He agreed to take Andy on for two semesters as an independent study, thereby fulfilling his graduation requirement in math. Andy graduated with a 3.65 GPA.

According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Learning Disabilities, these disabilities fall into broad categories based on the four stages of information processing used in learning: input, integration, storage, and output. (NICHY, 2004.)

A brief tutorial…

Input: This, not surprisingly, is the process by which a person receives sensory information. Students who have difficulty with visual perception may have trouble processing certain words or shapes, and those with difficulties in auditory perception may have trouble screening out competing sounds in order to focus on one of them, such as the sound of a professor’s voice.

Integration: This is how information entering the brain gets interpreted, sequenced, and labeled. Students with disabilities related to integration may have trouble understanding how a piece of information connects to a broader concept; in other words, they tend to miss the forest for the trees.

Storage:  And the layperson’s term for “storage” is…remembering things! These are the students who might write A+ papers all semester but fail the final exam, or who may thrive in courses that emphasize discussion and creative output but suffer in those in which memorization of terms or formulas is key.

Output: We send information out of our brains and back into the world through words, as when we speak, and muscle activity, as when we write. Students with disabilities related to output can be like locked treasure chests: the educational gems they’ve accumulated are all there inside, but they have trouble communicating what they know. A student like this may go blank when asked to answer a question on demand, or she may speak easily but have trouble turning her thoughts as spoken into words on a page.

Sometimes, as with Andy, the solution lies in finding a professor familiar with a specific type of learning deficiency, but there are many ways in which success coaches can help students with learning disabilities get the resources they need to succeed. And when students succeed, everybody wins. Students realize that all those times they had been judged (or had judged themselves) to lack the intellectual capacity for higher-level work or to be simply lazy are now forever behind them, and coaches remember that with a little detective work and a lot of passion, this “success coaching” thing really does change lives.

An early Apple slogan once said, “Think Different.” Many of our best students already do.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

The Telescope and Microscope of Student Motivation

The Telescope and Microscope of Student Motivation

“He’s a really smart guy, if only he’d GO TO CLASS!”

“She leaves my office full of confidence that she can ace this paper, and then a week goes by, and she STILL HASN’T STARTED IT!”

How many times have we rooted for students only to come up frustrated time and again with their lack of follow-through? They’ve got the intelligence, they’re working on the study skills, and yet they STILL seem to be struggling with the most basic tasks: showing up, finishing assignments, and turning things in on time. What, aside from pulling our hair out, are we to do?

It turns out that at the root of all achievement lies one frustratingly amorphous concept: motivation.

We all know what motivation is – it’s that internal force that makes us get up and do something when we could be watching another episode of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. And we know that even the most “self-starters” among us have had to deal with a lack of motivation at times. I’ve certainly had the experience when, at the end of a long day trekking back and forth across campus under a chilly, gray sky, I realize that I can either a) go home, light the fire, and crack open a good book, or b) go to the gym. At that moment, thirty minutes on a treadmill suddenly seems like a Herculean, near-impossibility!

So we all understand the psychological complexities of getting and staying motivated, but the question remains: how do you teach motivation? How do we help motivate our students to face those boulders in the road when even the simplest tasks can seem insurmountable?

I tend to favor the “telescope and microscope” approach. Get the student to understand the big picture, but also try to break down the task at hand into tiny, manageable pieces.

The Motivation Telescope

Some students, even those who struggle, get the big picture pretty easily. Jeremy, one of my former students, is a bright, capable athlete. He also comes from a poverty-stricken, inner-city neighborhood. Coming to college on an athletic scholarship was the turning point in his life; he has made great strides throughout his time in college and will soon graduate. I saw him a few days ago and I asked him, “Jeremy, what keeps you motivated?” He paused thoughtfully and then, as if the truth lived deep down in his bones, replied, “because I know where I come from, and I don’t want to go back.”

Understanding the big picture, as Jeremy does, can provide a philosophical foundation for students who may have few role models of post-college success. And while, “this assignment has to be finished on time because it could mean the difference between you achieving the American dream or not” can seem heady, the more a student is able to internalize this philosophy, the more he or she will be able to push his or her way through difficult experiences, academic or otherwise.

But we must also look through our own telescopes and continually ask ourselves why this particular student lacks motivation in this particular endeavor. There are plenty of us who are incredibly motivated when it comes to certain tasks but just as unmotivated when it comes to others. But why? Sometimes we are afraid of failure; sometimes, ironically, we are afraid of success. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the seeming magnitude of the task at hand, and sometimes, yes, we just do not want to do it. We don’t like it, it isn’t fun, and we JUST DON’T WANNA!!!!

As success coaches, it is our job to try to get to the root of the reason for a student’s lack of motivation, and to guide him or her to a solution that fits.

The Motivation Microscope

Clearly the big picture is important, but big pictures can become overwhelming. As I pulled out from the parking lot after one of those long, chilly days, aching to dive into my book while feeling the warmth of the fire on my toes, I realized it was my fixation on those thirty minutes on the treadmill that was stopping me. Then I realized that, at this moment, I didn’t have to do thirty minutes on a treadmill. At this moment, all I had to was turn left, towards the fitness center, instead of right towards home. Then all I had to do was park the car. Then all I had to do was change clothes. And before I knew it, I was at home, in front of the fireplace, with a good book…after having spent forty-five minutes on the treadmill. All efforts to jazz myself up for an evening at the gym paled in comparison to just starting to do it, for it is in the doing that we can find the motivation to finish and, eventually, to reap the rewards.

This lesson, of course, is nothing new, but it reminded me of what my students go through when the idea of writing something like a whole paper seems so daunting. I love seeing the relief wash over a student’s face when I tell her that, right now, she doesn’t have to write a single word. All she has to do right now is brainstorm topics. Then all she has to do is a little bit of research, then identify key points, write a thesis, an introductory sentence, and after a few days she will be looking at a completed paper with a sense of wonder at her own accomplishment. This, by the way, is why we don’t start a paper the night before it’s due!

Okay, I’d love to continue this conversation, but there are some dishes in my sink that are beginning to stare at me judgmentally. I’m going to start by washing the first one, and see where it goes from there.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

The Many Faces of a Success Coach

The Many Faces of a Success Coach

Being a success coach means that you often have to play many different roles with your students.  This post identifies some of the various roles a coach must play in order to help students achieve their educational objectives.

The Detective

Though I have yet to practice success coaching while dressed in a trench coat and fedora, the first and most crucial job a success coach has is as detective. Within the first few meetings, you must try to figure out what is the underlying boulder in the road that is blocking this student’s success. Is it primarily procrastination, family and/or personal issues, or a lack of motivation? Are they under-prepared for college material and rigor? Do they lack the maturity or experience to manage the new freedoms and responsibilities of college life? And yes, sometimes I have to do more than a little sleuthing. I’ve had to search for clues, interview witnesses, and wade through red herrings, but it is always a great victory when my colleagues and I finally solve the mystery and are then able to begin turning around a student’s college career.

The Mentor

This title, to me, always floats somewhere along the spectrum of “the parent/older sibling/friend who has been there.” Where you find yourself on that spectrum often depends on the personal chemistry between the student and yourself.  I’m in my 60s, so I don’t think many of my students view me as an older sibling, but I do try to tap into whatever version of the “mentor” relationship will work for this particular pairing of myself and another human being.

The Therapist

While most success coaches are not licensed therapists or counselors, there are times when students do not have the desire or money to see a professional, and sometimes the situation doesn’t require it. Sometimes, they just need someone with whom to talk over an issue, and a success coach can be a great sounding board. Is this student afraid of failure? Is this student afraid of success? Is this student struggling because she is constantly thinking of home, worrying that things might not be okay and she is no longer there to fix them? Is this student letting his social life keep him away from the things he needs to accomplish academically? Does this student simply have a professor with whom she doesn’t get along, and she doesn’t know how to get past that in order to still succeed in the class? Is he insecure about his abilities? Is she deeply, deeply homesick? Is he in love for the first time and in that moment where nothing else matters? There are so many things that can keep a student from achieving, and as success coaches, our job is to figure out why. And obviously, in situations in which a student truly should see a professional psychologist or psychiatrist, we steer them towards those resources.

The Trail Guide

Think of this as your ability to give students practical knowledge with which they can more easily navigate the terrain. Some students can write a 20 page paper without breaking a sweat, but ask them to fill out a form and return it to the Dean’s office and they look at you like you’ve asked them to perform open heart surgery. How do they drop or add a class? When and how is it appropriate to contact a professor? What are office hours? Which building, which office, which person do they need to speak to if they face a problem with tuition? What forms do they need to fill out in order to apply for another loan? And where do they deliver the paperwork once they’ve completed it? Remember, most students’ dreams of what college life will be like don’t include trips to the Bursar’s office, and for many, college is their first foray into the wonderful world of bureaucracy. Just wait until they discover how magical it is to navigate an automated telephone menu when calling the insurance company!

The Boxing Coach

Why a boxing coach and not a football coach? Or a tennis coach? There’s something intimate about the relationship between a boxer and his or her coach. That person, aside from training his athlete, aside from giving him tactical advice, is literally in his athlete’s corner. He helps him stay focused every time he comes back, pumps him up, and then sends him back out there to fight another round. And for some of these students, making it through college can be a fight. It can be a fight to stay motivated, and to master material they might have never thought they could even understand. It can be a fight to block out influences in their lives that are fighting just as hard to keep them from succeeding. The boxing coach is part cheerleader and part drill sergeant, and he knows when to offer his athlete a hug and when to make him “drop and give me twenty.”

The Polygraph Machine

To be a great success coach, you’ve got to have a pretty impeccable ability to tell truth from fiction. I know that my forty plus years in education in addition to being a mother helped me greatly in this department. By the time I became a success coach, I really had heard it all, and I watched students’ best attempts at getting things by me the way a lion must watch a gazelle trying to pass itself off as a tree. It was not their fault, for they did not know they were dealing with a lie detecting ninja. If you don’t feel like you possess this particular skill, stay informed. Call the professor. Talk to the coach. Trust but verify. But first: trust. Many of these students might be in the situation in which they find themselves in part because they have done things to lose trust- with parents, with teachers. Some of them have been treated like “the bad kid” and have put walls up to protect themselves. Their alarms go off at the first sniff of suspected judgment on the part of an authority figure, and it’s hard to regain trust after a student has already pegged you as just another one of those adults.

The Newspaper Editor

For some, what they really need is just someone for whom they must remain accountable. They’ve got the intelligence, they’ve even got the motivation even, but they are simply people who fare better with more structure. For these students, your main job is to be their newspaper editor. “Did you turn that paper in?” “Remember the deadline for that study abroad application!” “You said last time you were going to schedule a meeting with Professor X- what’s the status of that meeting?” Please feel free to wear suspenders and chomp on a fat cigar during these conversations.


Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.



Using Data to Help Ensure Adult Student Success

Using Data to Help Ensure Adult Student Success

With nearly a quarter of students over the age of 30, the increase in adult learners on campus is perhaps the most significant shift in American higher education in quite some time. The thought that “non-traditional students”—students over the age of 24, enrolled part-time, and financing their own education—account for 38% of all campus enrollments is as exciting as it is challenging. When you consider that such percentages are only projected to increase in the coming years, institutions are rightly asking how they should adapt to the needs of this ever-increasing population.

What, then, do institutions need to keep in mind when building an adult learner retention strategy? The extent to which this can be answered is, of course, contingent on the institutional mandate, mission, and commitment to such an endeavor. While many universities are looking for ways to expand enrollment capacity, it is haphazard to simply develop a recruitment strategy without considering how this vastly different student population will be supported inside and outside the classroom. While each student will present a different set of challenges, institutions that have established a student-centric philosophy and have implemented adult friendly policies, practices, and solutions will set students up for success and not frustration.

In-depth personal contact, informed by data analytics, however can help alleviate many of the challenges that adult students face. Adult students face a myriad of competing priorities and constantly make adjustments to achieve a responsible work-life-school balance. An optimal student experience is created when an institution seeks to create informative, meaningful student-coach relationships.  Guiding students through policies, procedures, and timelines empowers the student to make responsible, focused decisions. Further, skilled coaches learn to not only listen, but also learn to proactively follow up, anticipate next steps, and offer further assistance.

If time management wasn’t stressful enough, adult students commit their family’s limited financial resources to achieving their degree. Unexpected setbacks, misadvising, or unexpected fees can have devastating financial and time-to-degree completion implications. It is in the university’s best interest to have a proactive, coordinated student retention communication plan to intervene and assist students, especially when personal finances are impacted. Having the ability to document conversations, archive messages, and analyze trends is key to helping the institution offer the absolute best in coaching quality while also ensuring that students avoid unnecessary delays and financial snares as they achieve their goals.

What, then, is the role of data? Adult students benefit most when a combination of high touch and high tech solutions work in tandem to create the optimum retention safety net. Understanding the factors that relate to student retention at your institution empowers coaches to act earlier and enable more meaningful conversations between coach and student.  Here are three effective ways to use data to help ensure adult student success.

Task and Document Tracking

Institutions should identify and track important tasks that students need to complete in order to matriculate.  The practice of tracking which documents are required, the actions needed to be taken and when they are completed helps coaches keep students on the right path.  A case management software tool can be configured to record these data points so that automated alerts and messages can be programmed to notify students about deadlines and required actions.

Task and document tracking can be a useful way for managers to keeps coaches on task as well. The case management tool can be used to generate reports illustrating things like the percentage of a coach’s case load that has scheduled for the next term, the number of students who have yet to file their FAFSA renewal, or a comparison of monthly student contact rates.

Attendance and Activity

Some of the most effective colleges and universities utilize their learning management system as a source of important data about student attendance and activity.  Both campus-based and online programs extract participation and activity information and make it available to coaches and advisors within the case management system.

This way coaches know if a student has been absent from class, has not been submitting assignments, or has not been logging enough activity in the online class.  By configuring the case management tool to automatically alert coaches when things have gone awry, the coach is able to intervene and help get students back on track academically before it is too late.

Retention Modeling

The ability to estimate a student’s probability of success allows for coaches to customize their approach when advising students and enhances the overall student experience at your institution.  Institutions can predict the likelihood of student challenges by building a predictive model which is derived from academic, financial and behavioral information.

By doing so, students who are at the greatest risk of attrition can be easily identified, monitored more closely and can be provided with more frequent outreach. Other resources such as tutoring, institutional financial aid and additional mentoring can also be directed towards those at risk students.

Simply put, a high touch-high tech experience that utilizes important information about student behavior creates the academic environment that today’s adult students desire. The Aviso Coaching software platform can help create such an environment and empower your teams to reach adult students.  To learn more about document tracking, retention modeling and how you can use the Aviso Coaching software to help improve student success at your institution, give us a call or email us to learn more.

Reentry: Maintaining Contact With Students Who Have Stopped Out

Reentry: Maintaining Contact With Students Who Have Stopped Out

Retaining and graduating students is the ultimate goal for any institution.  However, many times students have to leave an institution for one or more of a myriad of reasons. For some, life gets in the way and the student loses a job, has a child, or has to relocate.  Others stop out because of a gap in funding from employers or Title IV resources.  Sometimes, the student just needs a break from school.

Obviously, the ideal situation would be to provide proactive interventions which prevent students from leaving in the first place.  However, that is not always feasible and many institutions do not attempt to intervene until it is too late.  To help get the students back on track who have stopped; and to help improve institutional completion rates, cohort default rates, and overall student success institutions should consider a comprehensive communication strategy with the intent of re-enrolling them back to the college.  In other words, institutions should implement a reentry campaign.

Show That You Care

Students often leave an institution without notifying anyone as to why they had to discontinue their education, or when they might return.  Institutions are left to wonder what might be the reasons as to why the student is no longer enrolled: Was there a personal or life circumstance that got in the way?  Is the student attending another institution?  Was there something the institution could have done to help the student remain enrolled?

Institutions that really care about the outcomes of their students will be concerned with why students are leaving and how they can help students come back.  For example, surveys and scripted questions on what went wrong when they were at the institution, how the institution could improve the student experience, and what obstacles need to be overcome in order for the student to return could be themed messages in the re-entry process.  Colleges should demonstrate to students that they know the student left, that they care about the student and that they want to help the student re-enroll.

Hopes and Dreams

Often, a student that has stopped out still desires to earn a degree and needs to be reminded that there is still hope of achieving their educational objectives. Communications from the institution can help remind students about their initial goals and aspirations. Messages could also include information on the available student resources which may be utilized in order to overcome any ongoing concerns about returning to college.  Many times a phone call from a familiar voice or a postcard in the mail is all the student needs to reassess where they are at in their life and be reminded of where they would like to be.  A simple motivational message may be just enough to get a student back on track to achieving their educational goals and life dreams.

Dollars and Sense

Institutions spend thousands of dollars trying to recruit a new student.  The investment typically includes a multi-faceted communication strategy with colorful brochures, multiple phone calls and campus visits.  In addition, there are human resource expenses associated with the time required to perform these tasks. When students make the decision to stop taking classes, institutions must account for attrition and make up for lost tuition revenue by enrolling other students.  While institutions are always recruiting new students, it makes great sense to execute a re-entry campaign with students who have stopped out.

What we see in our practice is that colleges and universities who commit time and effort towards re-enrolling students who have stopped out of their program see great rewards.  That is because the majority of the time the conversion rates with interested re-entry students are higher than those with new prospective students.  This means that is less expensive to re-enroll a student who has stopped out than it is to enroll a new student.

Have a Communication Plan

Implementing a comprehensive communication plan and engaging with the stopped-out student can be a critical component to institutional success. Retention professionals should take a few pages out of the recruiters’ playbook by implementing a re-entry communication campaign which is well-designed and consists of print, email and telephone calls.  Messages should be spread out over the entire calendar year with key messages going out in anticipation of new enrollment terms, financial aid deadlines and the release of class schedules.  If an institution is committed to helping students re-enroll it needs to have a communication plan.

The Aviso Coaching software platform can help automate and track communications with students who have stopped out.  To learn more about the other features and tools available in the Aviso Coaching software and how you can help improve student success at your institution, give us a call or email us to learn more.