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Month: May 2013

Student Coaching in College Produces Better Retention and Graduation Rates

Student Coaching in College Produces Better Retention and Graduation Rates

In March of 2011, researchers at Stanford released a study titled, The Effects of Student Coaching in College: An Evaluation of a Randomized Experiment in Student Mentoring.  After much study, authors Eric Bettinger and Rachel Baker concluded that, according to Bettinger, “coaching not only works, but it appears to be one of the more cost effective ways to produce better retention and graduation rates.”   According to the study, students who were coached were 10-15% more likely to graduate than those who were not, and these numbers were seen across all age and gender demographics  (though the researchers found some evidence that the effect was greater for males than for females, a result which tells me that success coaching could do something to remedy the current disparity between male and female rates of college completion).

The study was a quantitative affirmation of the work in which my colleagues and I have been engaged for years, but more than being pleased that what I have come to know anecdotally has been affirmed by science, I am intrigued by the questions the study leaves unanswered. The study confirms that success coaching proved effective in the sample of students studied, but it acknowledges that there are still questions as to why. Likewise, while the study confirms that coaching can be both effective for students and cost-effective, it is hopeful that more research will be done to identify specific characteristics of coaches, types of services, and strategies that work best.

I am intrigued by these questions because they are the questions my colleagues and I discuss frequently. And just as I hope researchers continue to investigate which specific traits and practices make success coaching so effective, my colleagues and I will continue to utilize our first-hand knowledge to contribute to the conversation. For example, yesterday I finally received the results of the success coach survey we administer to our students at the end of each semester. For me, the most informative part of these surveys is always the part where students give feedback in their own words. Often, a majority of the comments echo the same themes. Students say their success coaches enable them to stay or get back “on track” by helping them plan, organize, and manage time. They appreciate our ability to help them with not only academic but also social/personal issues. They like having someone to whom they must be accountable who they also respect, trust, and feel a personal bond. Here are a few excerpts from this semester’s evaluations:

“My coach really took an interest in me even though I was not having a good semester. She was always very supportive and inviting, willing to help me with whatever I needed. I went through a rough patch this semester and she was one of two people I felt I could talk to without being judged.”

“My coach is a great person, and he did not only help me with school, but with personal issues. That, more than anything, is what kept me focused.”

“I concentrate more when I have a success coach.”

“My coach really helped me to become a student as opposed to just going to class.”

“My coach was like my mom. She treated me as her son, which gave me motivation to do my work.”

“I would like to thank my coach for his care and the time that he gave to me to succeed in my education. I learned not only how to organize my education, but I learned how to organize my life in total.”

What traits in these success coaches made them better at their jobs? Empathy? Tenacity? An ability to wear multiple hats at the same time? Simply the time and resources that a full-time success coach has as opposed to a part-time student or faculty advisor? I have my suspicions that all of these things are crucial traits for a successful coach, but I’m also happy that colleges and universities are now studying and giving credit to programs like ours as we work day-by-day to change the futures of one or six or several hundred students at a time.

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.

Leveraging the Benefits of the Tutorial Center

Leveraging the Benefits of the Tutorial Center

Most, if not all, institutions of higher learning have some kind of tutorial center where students can get help specifically in English, writing, and mathematics, but services may extend to cover science, technology, foreign language, law, or other difficult subject matter. Online institutions have tutors available also.  These vast differences really bring to mind two key questions.  How does the general student population use these services and as success coaches, how can we better motivate at-risk or academically high risk students to utilize the services that are already in existence on college campuses across the nation?  I asked one of our graduate assistants in the Tiffin University Student Success Center for her thoughts on the subject.

The first thing that college students need to understand about tutorial centers is that there is nothing wrong with seeking additional help for concepts, assignments, or papers.  The purpose of higher education is to challenge our thoughts and expectations, so it is realistic to assume that we will not always immediately understand the new ideas, theories, or models placed before us.  Offering peer mentoring can alleviate the concern of feeling overwhelmed or unworthy because the perception is that peers will traditionally have more empathy than someone who has been out of college for some time.  As success coaches, we know and understand that perceptions are not always reality and we have found that students appreciate help from numerous sources. The imagined stigma can often be minimized or eliminated by publicizing the services heavily on campus, all faculty encouraging students to frequent the tutorial center, and also by offering a wide variety of services that don’t always force students into a one-on-one situation.

Most students can feel defensive or self-conscious if they feel like they’ve been singled out.   Offering group tutoring sessions in one subject can be an effective way to encourage communication between students while still featuring a peer mentor or tutor.  Even group study sessions (like open study hours in one classroom) that are not focused in one subject can foster a sense of camaraderie if questions are encouraged by the tutor.  The Tiffin University SSC hosted several sessions like these and received good feedback from the students in attendance, especially those who were required to complete so many hours of supervised study for sports, extracurricular activities, or due to academic probation.

It all boils down to a few different factors.  How easy is it for students to make an appointment or get help with their questions?  How convenient are the times or hours for sponsored study sessions?  How effective are peer tutors when they haven’t completed their own degrees?  If students feel inconvenienced at all in making an appointment, chances are that they will not take the time and effort to do so.  Each tutorial center should offer several different methods for scheduling appointments, such as email, phone, or walk-in, but should also have a wide variety of hours throughout the entire day and include time on the weekends.  Tutor training is vital in making sure that tutors are capable of answering any questions that are posed to them during tutoring sessions.  Being familiar with the subject material is often not enough; tutors need to be able to break down the theories and ideas in several different ways to ensure that comprehension is maximized. Every student will learn in his or her own way, so it is important that the tutor can offer several different teaching styles.

Tutors should also be placed in positions to share knowledge about subjects that they are passionate about. A student is far more likely to learn from someone who is excited about, or enjoys talking about, say- forensic psychology, law, statistics, or research.  Here at Tiffin University, we had seven of our graduating tutors receive an Excellence in Field of Study (which is awarded to the top candidate in each major of the graduating class).  It is also important that tutors continue to train throughout their time at the tutorial center.  Training sessions covering teamwork, teaching, or even specific software programs or issues should be offered at least once or twice a month in order to be most effective.  Students who utilize the tutorial center should also be asked for feedback to see how and where improvements could be made.

As success coaches, we strongly encourage our students to make use of the services provided at our SSC.  We have students call to set up appointments while they are meeting with us and we are able to follow up with a call to the center to see if the student showed up for the appointment, how the appointment went, and also get basic feedback about the student’s performance.  We continually search for new and better strategies to encourage and entice students to use the many resources already in place on college campuses.  Basically, we need to know how to get them 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.

Standing Guard at the Edge of the Cliff

Standing Guard at the Edge of the Cliff

I may have mentioned in previous blogs that one task I want to complete this summer is that of scanning every high school transcript and scrutinizing ACT or SAT scores for all of our incoming freshman.  I want to see if there are red flags that might indicate a student’s need for a Success Coach before that individual enters the first class.  Is there a particular subject that constantly shows low achievement?  Are grades fine in ninth grade but slide downward until the end of senior year, or vice versa? Are grades or scores all over the place?  How is the student’s attendance record for every year of high school?  Did the student try AP courses or do the minimum needed to apply for college?

I know this task is easier with 400 new freshmen than with 4,000, but perhaps it is information that our success coach program needs to help new students avoid a scary first semester GPA.  Having a low GPA first semester is just too close to the cliff.  If we could assign a coach to a freshman student who has one, two or more red flags, for one-on-one meetings twice a week, could we help that student start off strong academically and get into a pattern of good time management and study habits?  First semester freshman year retention rate is something every institution strives to increase.  It is critical for graduation rates.

About three years ago during fall freshman orientation, I was asked to speak to parents about our student success program.  At the end of my talk, a couple came up to tell me that their daughter would most definitely benefit from having a success coach.  She was an excellent softball player and had applied to college basically to continue playing her sport.  During her high school years she had done only the minimum amount of work necessary to apply to play sports in college.  Her motivation for achieving academically was low.  She had no idea what she wanted to do in life and no desire to think about it.

I explained to the parents that we only assign coaches to students who are already on academic warning or probation and that we had many resources for all freshmen including a semester of classes with other freshmen about adjustment to college and the rigor of college academics.  The mother seemed satisfied with my answer but the father said to me quietly as he walked away. “You’ll see my daughter second semester.”  He was exactly right.  I was assigned this young lady for spring semester and saw in our first meeting her lack of motivation for college studies.  Her interest in taking more math and English, history and science after having just taken those same classes in high school was nil.

All of our professional degrees have a strong underpinning in the liberal arts.  These courses are prerequisites for upper level courses.  A typical freshman takes math, English, sociology, psychology, etc. along with an introductory class in a field of their choice during their first year.  My student (Miss A) needed a jolt or coursework in something that she had never studied before.  She needed a class to be excited about and happy to be attending each week.  So after getting permission from several deans, the registrar and other people in authority on campus, we changed Miss A’s schedule to include not one but three introductory classes in three different fields of study leading to professional degrees, with the stipulation that she take two core knowledge classes during the summer.

I definitely saw a tiny spark in Miss A’s eyes as we changed her schedule and quickly enrolled her in the new classes.  That spark continued to grow into a small fire and then a blaze in tow subjects as the semester progressed.  She got off academic warning that spring, did well in summer school, and long story short, will graduate next May.  She wants to be a Federal Marshall.  She and I text now and then to talk by phone but when I see her now, it is usually on the softball field – her true passion.

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.

Online Education and Online Success Coaching

Online Education and Online Success Coaching

Over the last ten years, online education has become an integral part of the higher education landscape. While there are unique benefits to an on-campus college experience, online education has opened the doors of higher education to millions of people worldwide who might otherwise, for one reason or another, have been unable to earn college a degree.

Earlier this week I met with a group of success coaches who work with online students to compare and contrast our jobs as well as to share strategies and advice. There are, of course, many similarities. First of all, we all share a universal goal: to help students successfully navigate the college landscape in order to achieve their goals. It is just as important, if not more so, for an online success coach as it is for an on-campus coach to establish a good rapport with students as well as a bond of trust that can facilitate open and honest communication between a student and his or her coach. I also discovered that online coaches teach many of the same skills time and time again as we do- skills ranging from time management and studying techniques to tenacity and perseverance.

Some of the major differences between on-campus and online success coaching are, of course, logistical. While I primarily meet with my students in person, most online coaches communicate exclusively through the use of technology (email, phone, Skype). While my biweekly sessions last thirty minutes each, the amount of contact these online coaches have with their students varies. I learned from our discussions that one of the first things online success coaches ask their students is, “how often would you like me to contact you?” The coaches I spoke with are required to contact their students by email or phone twice a week, but many students, it turns out, desire more. One coach told me that she had a student who requested that her coach contact her every day at the beginning. The coach obliged, and the two communicated at least once a day for four months before the student decided she felt she was doing well enough to reduce to twice a week.

Logistical differences between the jobs of online and on-campus coaches are in many ways about numbers. Because the number of students a typical on-campus coach can work with at any given time is limited by the number of thirty minute blocs in a day, my university currently only provides success coaches for students on either academic probation or academic warning. However, the school at which these coaches worked assigns each incoming student a success coach with whom they work for the duration of their enrollment. That means that, while I may have six to nine students at any given time, the average online coach’s caseload can be more like 125.  The thought of working with that many students at the same time seemed almost Herculean to me, but I was amazed at the way these coaches used state-of-the-art software programs to help them keep track of each student effectively.

This software enables coaches to keep up with students’ grades, know which assignments a student has or has not turned in, and whether that student has logged-in to class or participated in a threaded discussion. It tells a coach if a student needs to register for next semester or if he or she is on financial hold. It even allows professors to contact coaches directly about their students. Another difference is the average age of our respective students. The average age of an on-campus student at my university is twenty, but the average age of an online student is thirty-four. Many of these students are attending college while simultaneously working full-time jobs, raising children, or both.

While the mentorship part of my job sometimes involves trying to get an immature 19-year old to see that sleeping through class and then copying the notes from a classmate is not going to fly, online success coaches have many more conversations about how to juggle school and a full-time, off-line life. They have more conversations with older students who might be apprehensive about attending school in this unfamiliar format…or about going back to school at all after years away. They have all kinds of questions about getting a college education hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their professors or closest classmate, and their success coach is their number one source for answers.

As I talked more and more with success coaches from the online world, I became almost envious of their seeming ability to bend space and time. While all of the success coaches with which I spoke are based in the midwest, the students they serve are literally all over the country. I learned that these coaches often work from early morning, when their east coast students are beginning their days, to late at night when their west coast students are getting to that discussion thread after a long day at the office or having just put the kids to bed. However, these success coach ninjas did discuss some unique challenges to the job. For example, I know (as do my students because I don’t let them forget) that I have multiple ways to contact them. If a student who is supposed to meet me doesn’t show, I can not only call, text, or email him but also I can contact all my other resources (professors, coaches, student affairs) in order to locate him and then physically walk over. (And as I tell my students: “I won’t be trying to embarrass you in front of your friends/girlfriend/roommate but…”)

Online success coaches do not have this luxury, so it becomes even more important, as one of the coaches said during our meeting to “forge a real-life bond in a virtual world.” This task requires more art than science, as online success coaches must forge this bond without the benefit of face to face contact. As anyone who has sent a text or email with one intended tone only to have had it interpreted completely differently can attest, it turns out that facial cues and body language do more heavy lifting in the communication department than many of us previously thought. That’s why online coaches have to be even more clear and precise in their tone of voice on a phone call or in the language they choose to use in an email. “That’s why,” according to one coach with whom I spoke, “we try even harder to communicate things in a positive way and to focus on solutions.”

Ultimately, as I said at the beginning of this blog, there are more similarities than differences in the work that on-campus and online success coaches do. At the end of the day we are facilitators, cheerleaders, mentors, and trail guides. But as online education expands its reach as well as its influence on the higher education landscape, we will need more and more good coaches to ensure that these students are just as successful in achieving their goals as all the rest.

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.