Browsed by
Month: July 2013

Success Coaching: The Boomerang Effect

Success Coaching: The Boomerang Effect

In my career spent success coaching I have realized the painful truth that sometimes students fail out of college. Sometimes they drop out. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to help a student turn his or her college career around, nothing seems to work.

It’s a reality that has made me frustrated, sad, and, at times, even defeatist. I thought, “If they’re just going to go back to bad habits, or continue with bad attitudes, or ignore my advice completely, what’s the point?” However, I’ve been at this job long enough to know that there’s another, equally true reality, and that’s what I call the boomerang effect. Sometimes, it turns out, being dismissed from school is exactly what students need in order to finally hear what you’ve been saying all along. Sometimes it is in these moments, when students are forced to re-assess their entire plan, that all of the conversations you had with them during success coaching sessions finally make sense. And sometimes, just like a boomerang, they come flying back. And when they do, it’s often their success coach that they call first.

Success coaches are, of course, only one kind of adult mentor for college students, as many become close with a favorite professor or athletic coach. However, the rapport that success coaches build with their students is often free from the outside expectations that can exist in other types of student/mentor relationship. A student can become close with an athletic coach, but at the end of the day, that student is still trying to prove to his or her coach that he or she can compete at the level the coach desires. Likewise, students can only be so open with a person who is responsible for their grades, even if they do have a friendly rapport. The relationship of a student to his or her success coach is a much simpler one, and that can enable students to open up their coaches more fully and freely.


Abbie just didn’t do anything anyone expected her to do. Everything had to be her way or the highway, and her way turned out to be a dead end road. I worked with Abbie during the spring semester of her freshman year, and despite the best efforts of his professors, her RA, and me, Abbie was dismissed at the end of the year. A year after that, I received a letter in the mail. “I know I don’t deserve this, and I know there’s no good reason you should help me now,” Abbie began, “but I realize now that I was wrong about so many things.” Abbie went on to apologize for a variety of things before asking if she could call me to start a conversation about figuring out how she might be able to come back to school. She did, and thus began Abbie’s Second Act.


Like many college freshmen, Marcus entered school at the age of 18- a young 18. He came to campus to play basketball, and that’s pretty much what he did…until his poor grades prohibited him from playing. We worked together for two semesters, and for the first one his grades improved enough to make him eligible for the following season, but then he took another nosedive and was dismissed at the end of his sophomore year. Two years later, out of the blue, I got a call from Marcus. Shortly after, he re-enrolled. It took him almost three years to finish his degree, but on graduation day this past May, there he was, handsomely “capped” and “gowned” and smiling from ear to ear as he enveloped me in a bear hug.


I worked with Jonah not as a success coach but as a supervisor of student teachers; however, his story reminds me that sometimes students go forward even when they do not come back. Jonah was in the final, student-teaching phase of his education degree, but all was not well. Already he had been asked to repeat his student-teaching once, although I was not surprised when I heard the news, as I had seen during my observations that Jonah was anything but comfortable in front of a class. Not long into his second stint, I got a call from the cooperating teacher telling me that Jonah was in tears. When I arrived, I asked a question I’d asked Jonah a dozen times before: are you sure this is really what you want to do with your life? A dozen times before, Jonah’s answer had been the same, but this time he reversed course. “No, he said, tears still in his eyes, I really don’t want to do this. I don’t like teaching.” “That’s great news!” I replied, and then I began to explain to him how knowing for sure that a certain job is NOT for you can be just as informative as realizing what career path is. Once Jonah admitted that he no longer wanted to teach, we started an honest discussion about what he might want to do instead. A few months later, he came back to campus to tell me that he’d been accepted into one of the few programs in the country that teaches people to repair musical instruments. I had never seen him so elated, and it was immediately clear to me that he’d finally found his path…at least the next mile of it.

My interactions with Abbie, Marcus and Jonah have all made me realize that, even when I feel like my words are falling on deaf ears, and even when I feel like my best efforts have not been enough to save a student from dismissal…my students are listening, but some messages just need to incubate longer than others. And in the end, it’s always better late than never.

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.

Top 5 Characteristics of The Prepared Student

Top 5 Characteristics of The Prepared Student

Since I started blogging about my experience as a success coach, I have written a fair amount about the ways in which my students find themselves unprepared, in one or multiple ways, for college. However, another way to look at it is: what are the primary skills that students who are prepared for college life have that others don’t? In my experience, students who are most apt to succeed in a university environment, whether on campus or online, exhibit five common characteristics:


A student can only succeed once he or she realizes that the responsibility for an education falls solely on his or her shoulders. Without the basic maturity required to take control of one’s own decisions, students can find themselves floundering in a world where no one else is there to make sure they get up in the morning, go to class, or turn in assignments. In college, there is no longer an authority figure looking over students’ shoulders to ensure that they are staying on track or, conversely, there to ground them or send them to detention if they aren’t. With maturity comes the strength to ignore the chorus of peers imploring one to skip class just this once or put down the textbook and go out to that Thursday night party. It also gives students the confidence they will need to feel comfortable talking to professors, deans, or staff who know the answers to vital questions.


For most students, the transition from high school to college is a major one that can be simultaneously thrilling and daunting. For the first couple of semesters, especially, students can feel like strangers in a very strange land. That’s why the students who are the most prepared for this brave new world are those who have the capacity to adapt easily to new environments. This can mean ease making friends, asking questions, or being able to quickly recognize what one doesn’t know. Most students, for example, can discern how well or poorly their high schools prepared them academically for the rigor of college-level work within the first few weeks of classes. The most adaptable, and therefore the most successful, students take this information and immediately begin trying to fill the gaps in knowledge or ability. For some, that means seeking out tutoring upon realizing that they are behind the curve in core subjects. For others, it’s finding they lack experience in writing and then taking a seminar on writing research papers.


As much as we would like to think that all high schools’ “college prep” programs adequately “prep” students for “college,” this just isn’t the case. Some high schools are simply more rigorous than others, and two students can walk onto the same college campus with the same high school GPAs and even the same SAT or ACT scores, and yet their first semester work can reflect vastly disparate levels of academic preparedness. However, those students who come to campus underprepared can close that gap if they display (or learn) some or all of the other attributes common among successful students.


I’ve mentioned time management multiple times before on this blog, but I can’t stress its importance enough. Some students come to campus straight from college preparatory programs that emphasize student initiative and independence; these students may have a great deal of experience managing their own time, and completing writing-intensive or long term projects for which there is little day-by-day guidance. However, many students have not had these kinds of experiences, and even those who have can find themselves needing to become not just apprentices but masters of the craft of time management. College students need to learn how to successfully manage free time, and most college freshmen find themselves with more “free time” than ever before. I am not a mathematician, but even I know that the equation: more free time + assignments that may not be due until the end of the semester = PROCRASTINATION. Also, students often are not prepared for the amount of work they may have to do for a given assignment, and so they often give themselves far less time than they actually need to complete it.


This may seem like a no-brainer, but the students who come to college most prepared are almost always those who are the most organized. (Now, organized is in no way the same thing as “neat”- some of the most organized people I know have messy desks, but they all have a concrete system that works for them.) Organized students generally keep materials for a given class in the same place, have separate folders on their computers for different projects or courses, and work/study in a regimented fashion. For a paper, they keep checklists as well as a running knowledge of what they need to do first, second, third, etc. Organized students also find out what environments and times of day are best for them and plan their studying accordingly.

Students do not need to exhibit all five of these characteristics in order to be “prepared” for college life and work. I’ve seen students who are incredibly immature in certain ways yet are able to get work done efficiently and proficiently. I’ve seen others who are adaptable in some ways but not others, or who are academically very ready for college-level work if only they could find that darn syllabus they keep misplacing. As success coaches, we have strategies for helping students address their lack of preparedness in these areas, for the more that students learn to master these skills, the better positioned they will be for success in not just college…but life.

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 Success Coaching To Connect Students With One Another

Using Success Coaching To Connect Students With One Another

Last week I wrote about some of the new strategies my success coach colleagues and I are working to implement in preparation for the coming school year. While much of it has to do with ways in which we can prevent students from falling behind in the first place, my job deals most directly and most often with those who already have.  When I look back through the years and ask myself what strategies for those students have worked best and most often, the answer is: it really depends on the student. However, one thing I have done in the past and plan to do much more of this year is to connect my students with one another in order to create small study groups led by one of our tutors, grad students, or professors.

While students can always walk over to the tutoring center and ask to be paired with a tutor, many who could benefit from these services do not seek them out. Some simply do not have the level of initiative required to take the first step. Others avoid them due to the often self-imposed stigma that comes with admitting to needing help. When I organize a small study group of my students, it addresses and redresses both of these possible roadblocks. First of all, the students themselves do not need to initiate the process, since that’s my job. Also, working in a group often removes any perceived notion that needing help in a particular class or subject makes one inadequate in any way. Students instead think: hey! I may be struggling, but at least I’m not the only one!

Last year, I realized after a few weeks that three of my students were all in the same math class, and they were all failing. The three couldn’t have been more different. One was a commuter student who, in addition to struggling with the material, was suffering from a lack of connectedness to campus life. He was on campus solely during class time, and thus he hadn’t really made many friends. The second student was a star soccer player whose problems included too much social activity. Even when not practicing or working out with the team, he spent nearly all his waking hours hanging out (and not over a textbook) with his soccer buddies. The third student was an international student who, much like the commuter, had spent most of his time on the periphery of campus life. He was from a conservative country, and because his very conservative family didn’t want him to become too “westernized,” he had been reluctant to make American friends of participate fully in American life on campus.

All three were struggling in math for academic reasons, but these environmental factors had made it difficult for them, up to this point, to help themselves improve. None of these young men would likely have gotten together on their own, but once I noticed that they were all in the exact same class, I organized a weekly study session for them. I brought in one of our very best math tutors, a woman who is as funny and friendly as she is intelligent, and they immediately started to improve. By the end of the semester, these boys had benefitted not only academically from the group sessions but socially as well. The commuter made more friends, the soccer player got to know people other than his fellow teammates and, after the international student revealed that he played soccer as well, the soccer player invited him to play in pick-up games with his friends. Soon they had organized an ongoing Friday afternoon game with American and international students alike.

Organizing this study group was not a magic bullet, obviously, but like most of the strategies that success coaches employ, it was just one more way in which I can act as a liaison between students and the resources they need. This coming year, I plan to find more opportunities to connect my student with one another, and I hope that these groups give students one more tool to help them succeed.

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.

Preventing At-Risk Students From Falling Through the Cracks

Preventing At-Risk Students From Falling Through the Cracks

It may still be early July, but I have been thinking a lot about the fall. As my colleagues and I prepare for next year’s crop of students, we have begun to implement some new ideas about which I am very excited. A big part of our strategy involves doing something I have spoken about in earlier posts: preventing at-risk students from falling through the cracks. As previously mentioned, my university assigns students a success coach only after they have gotten on academic probation or warning, and every time a freshman walks though my door the first week of Spring Semester after a disastrous Fall I think, “how could we have prevented this from happening in the first place?” Well, this summer, we are launching a pre-emptive strike. Over the course of the next six weeks, we are going through the transcripts of every incoming freshman to identify potentially at-risk students. That’s right, this summer I am no longer simply Susan Marion: success coach- I am Susan Marion: private eye.

So what, exactly, am I looking for? Well, first I look at a student’s SAT and ACT scores. Like most universities, my school does not admit students who score below a certain number on either the SAT or ACT, but some students are right on that number or perhaps 1 point higher on an ACT or ten to thirty points higher on an SAT. Any students whose scores fall into this range are potentially at risk. After I look at a student’s total score, I assess the breakdown. If either their English or math score is low, it could potentially mean that he or she will have trouble in that area. If their writing score is low, it could foreshadow trouble writing college-level papers. If a student’s GPA is high but his or her test scores are low, it could mean a few things. Perhaps this student suffers from test anxiety or has trouble performing under pressure. Perhaps his or her high school does not grade students rigorously, and therefore this high GPA could mask a fundamental deficit of comprehension in core areas.

While I’m looking at a student’s high school grades, I pay particular attention to core academics. Sometimes a student’s A’s and B’s are primarily in “non-core” academic classes such as art, music, and other electives. While these classes are important for a well-rounded education, students who struggle in core areas may have an especially difficult time during freshman year when so many of their required courses will be fundamental prerequisites in subjects like math and English. But it’s not just how a student’s grades break down by subject that can give me clues as to his or her potential chances for success in the first year of college. The arc of a student’s high school career is also important. If a student did poorly during freshman year (or perhaps just the first semester of freshman year) of high school, it could speak to difficulty with transitions. And if transitioning from middle to high school threw him or her for a loop, going from high school to college is apt to be even more disorienting and difficult. Sometimes, the grade arc goes the opposite way. If a student did well during his or her freshman and sophomore years but then started to struggle, this could mean that this particular student has trouble staying motivated once school has lost that new car smell. Or, it could mean that he or she struggles with more difficult subjects and a larger course load, which could spell trouble in the areas of core comprehension and time management in college.

As I comb through these freshman files, I am building a list of potentially at-risk students to whom we are going to offer the option of working with a success coach in the fall. They will not be mandated to meet with a success coach, as are our students on academic probation or warning, but we will strongly recommend that they do. Some may end up meeting with their coaches biweekly just as our regular students do. Some may only need to meet once a week, or twice a month. Others, especially those for whom transitions in general are hard, may only require a few meetings until they get their sea legs. Ideally, we will simply be one more point of contact for these students during their first few months in college- one more strip of caulking, for the fewer cracks there are, the harder it is to fall through them.

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.

Navigating the Waters of Student Financial Aid

Navigating the Waters of Student Financial Aid

If there is a 500 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to obstacles to student success at the university level, it can be summed up in one word: money. At this point, we are all aware that there has been a nearly-exponential increase in the cost of a four-year degree over the course of the last 30 years. There are also obvious and systematic problems with the ways in which students fund their educations through various types of financial aid. Many of these issues don’t knock on a student’s door until after graduation, when it’s time to start paying back loans in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but others accompany a student throughout his or her college tenure, and money problems can become a seemingly insurmountable boulder in a student’s road to achievement.

I am not an expert on financial aid and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to be. Federal aid regulations change so frequently that it can be difficult even for professional financial aid officers to keep current. So of course students become confused and overwhelmed by them- the language is as foreign as the stakes are high. Since part of my job requires me to act as a liaison between students and the resources they need, I make sure my students find then stay connected with someone in our financial aid office who they trust, and who can explain things to them in an accessible, effective way.

Often, especially at first, I even walk down to the office with them. That was the case with Louie, a student whose parents had been taking care of his financial aid paperwork (or so he thought) until one day Louie received a letter casually announcing that he owed $14,000. When he arrived at my office, letter in hand, he was nearly in tears- terrified by the reality that had just landed in his lap. I walked with Louie directly to the financial aid office and stayed with him as one of our diligent financial aid personnel helped him break it all down into manageable pieces.

After that, Louie didn’t need anyone to tell him that he needed to take control of his own financial aid. However, not all students realize just how high the stakes are. When I ask my students how they are paying for their education, many simply reply, “My parents are taking care of it.” For a lot of these students, that’s truly the case and all is well. Unfortunately, sometimes parents fall through, either due to factors within their control- like missing application deadlines or basic financial responsibility- or factors over which they have little to no control- like when a parent loses a job. One thing I try to get my students to really, really understand is that they are responsible for their own education. While their minds are the primary beneficiaries of that education, their feet are where all burdens and debts associated with that education will be laid. “Loans are taken out in your name,” I tell my students, “and failure to repay them can lead to difficulties when you want to buy a car, a house, or start a business.”

As a success coach, my job is not to solve the deeper problems associated with paying for college in the 21st century (though I applaud all who are diligently working toward that end). But by helping students better navigate the waters, ever watchful for icebergs ahead, I can do my best to ensure that financial stress doesn’t prevent hard-working students from getting the education they deserve.

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.