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Study Skill Tips for Students

Study Skill Tips for Students

As mentioned in last week’s blog, there are two boulders in the road that seem to come up time and again for my students regardless of age, level of maturity, or socio-economic demographics: time management and study skills. Time management might be the wilier, more amorphous concept, but a lack of good study skills can really hurt a student who, with a little guidance, might otherwise ace every class from English 101 to Super-advanced-quantum-mechanical-string-theory-what-the-heck-is-dark-matter-anyway 303 (did I mention that I am not a scientist?). I think about things in my life that once seemed as impossible as they now seem obvious, like finding the volume of a rectangular solid before I knew that V = L x W x H, or taking apart simple machines until I learned the mantra “righty tight lefty loosie.” (Maybe it’s just me, but I remember being about ten years old when I learned “righty tighty lefty loosie,” and the revelation felt like I had just broken through The Matrix for the first time. As the film The Matrix wouldn’t be made for another 35 years, it was a pretty big deal.) The point is that there are simple, concrete ways in which we can teach college-level study skills, and sometimes it’s these small tweaks and strategies that can make all the difference.

When I work with students who need help in this area, the first thing I always do is try to figure out what kind of learners they are. We’ve all heard the basic idea that certain people are more visual learners while others learn better by listening. Some people are more tactile or more kinesthetic. For many of us, it’s a mix. I, for example, am terrible at mental math but pretty darn great when I have access to a pad and a pencil and can write out or draw every single step of the problem. However, when it comes to creating a lesson plan or contemplating possible solutions to a particular dilemma, I’ve found nothing works better than taking a good, long walk while working it all out in my head. Most students already have some idea as to how they learn best, but many of them don’t know how to adjust their note-taking and study habits accordingly. Once we discuss the subject at length, they become more conscious of what works best for them, and they also learn- maybe for the first time- that there are multiple ways to do this thing called studying. There isn’t one right answer! There are some general rules, for sure, but a lot of it comes down to what works best for each, individual student.

Thus, I like to break these ideas into two camps: the universal, and the personalized. Here are two examples of each:


1. SQ3R, or: How to Read a Textbook

Maybe the most important thing I do as a success coach besides provide a space where students feel supported, listened to, and held accountable, is to teach people how to read a college-level textbook. At my university, we primarily use a popular method, invented during WWII when the U.S. military was tasked with readying tens of thousands of young men for war in a very limited time frame, called SQ3R.  In brief, SQ3R stands for “survey, question, read, recite, review,” and it is all about teaching people to know ahead of time what they should be reading for. It teaches them to separate the corn from the chaff, so to speak- highlighting main ideas as well as the most salient details of a particular chapter without getting lost in less important but often more confusing verbiage. I often ask students to pick a book from the library on a subject about which neither of has much knowledge, and then we go through it together using the SQ3R method. For some students, it’s as great a revelation for them as “righty tighty lefty loosie,” was for me.

2. Read Your Professor’s Mind! or: How to Study for an Exam

The two main questions students need to ask themselves in preparation for an quiz or exam  are A) what material is likely to be on this test? and B) how do I make sure I know that stuff? The answer to question “A” can vary wildly from professor to professor. Some professors provide students with detailed study guides, and if it isn’t on the study guide, it isn’t on the test. Others give no guidance whatsoever as to either the content or the format of an impending exam. Still others split the difference; these professors may give students a basic outline of what will the be on a given test and what it may look like (multiple choice, essay, short answer), but that outline is in no way meant to be a comprehensive study guide. So I train my students in the dark and mysterious art of mind-reading. I encourage students to seek out peers who have taken a class or had a particular professor before in order to get the skinny. Of what kinds of questions were the exams comprised? For what things was a certain professor a real stickler? Did he or she care more about the accuracy of facts or the synthesis of “big picture” concepts? Once students have a solid idea about what is likely to be tested, we talk about how to essentialize and simplify their notes. How can they winnow weeks or even months of notes and readings down to a single page if possible? It’s just like how you get to Carnegie Hall- practice, practice, practice!


1. Become Head of the Class in Class: How to Actually Remember a Lecture

One of the biggest study skill-related issues I encounter is that of not knowing how to take notes effectively in class. Students are so used to being able to find anything and everything they want on the Internet that they don’t realize that not everything a professor says in a lecture will be “findable” outside that moment. A professor may emphasize and elaborate on certain concepts in a lecture that are not on any syllabus or study guide and may not even be easy found (gasp!) online, but may still be on an exam. Many of our professors use power point in their classes, and I advise my students to print out hard copies of these power points from the class website so that they can follow along and take notes on the actual document. For my more aural learners, I recommend the tried and true technique of recording the lecture so that they can listen to it later, though this should only ever be done after receiving permission from the professor.

2. It was Professor Plum, in the Conservatory, with the Candlestick, or: The “Who, Where, How” (and When) of Studying on Your Own

Well, the “who” is pretty obvious (it’s the student), but it’s good to get students to think about the specific ways in which they work best. I ask my students questions like, “are you more focused when you work in the morning, afternoon, or at night? Do you study best in a group, alone at your desk, or alone but in a public space such as a library or coffee shop? Do you do better when you concentrate on one subject for a few hours before moving to another, or do you do better when you switch it up more frequently?” (i.e.- are you the kind of person who needs to eat all of her steak before she can move on to her potatoes, or do you follow a bite of steak with a bite of potato and maybe even a bite of asparagus before feeling ready for that next bite of steak?) Though we all eventually answer these questions for ourselves, I find that a little mindfulness can act as a catalyst for students to come up with their own solutions to study habit quandaries.

These are but a few of the tips and strategies I give to my students, but hopefully it shines a light (or a hi-light! Okay, I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress!) on one of the most common pitfalls that can befall an at-risk student.

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.

Three Easy Time Management Tips for Students

Three Easy Time Management Tips for Students

Upon re-reading the comments from my fall semester students on their success coach surveys (for a refresher, go to last week’s blog link to The Results are In!) , I realized that there was one comment which came up time and again. Many of my students, regardless of year, mentioned two particular “boulders in the road” that working with a success coach helped them to overcome: time management and study skills.

Study skills can seem like a no-brainer to most post-collegiate adults (though we will get into the complexities of this issue at a future date), I think we can all agree that time management is a skill not easily mastered by even the most conscientious of us. Over the course of the last four decades, I’ve been a student, a teacher, a stay-at-home mom, a working mom, a working mom and graduate student, and a full-time teacher and success coach…and I’m still trying to master the art of time management! But, I can certainly testify to the fact that it’s a lot easier than it used to be because I’ve had…wait for it…practice! It takes time and experience to learn a skill like time management, and many first-time college students have had neither.

I always find it useful to remember that, upon entering college, most freshmen are not very familiar with managing their own time. Up to this point, much of their time has been managed by a confluence of parents, teachers, and coaches. Hours spent in high school are scheduled down to the minute, and an adult of some kind is almost always in charge of knowing where a student is assigned to be at all times. After school, there are practices and extra curricular activities; on the weekends, there are often family obligations and curfews. Then, a few short months after graduating from high school, students find themselves in college, entirely responsible for managing their own time and looking at a schedule that may involve only three or four hours of actual, scheduled class-time a day.

While some students can get lost in a surfeit of what appear to be free hours, others find themselves trying to fit what can seem like 25 hrs. worth of activity into 24 hr. days. Athletes, especially, can struggle because of the near full-time-job-like obligations imposed by some athletic programs. Many athletes juggle classwork and academic requirements with weightlifting sessions, early morning workouts, practices, and games – some of which may involve overnight stays or long drives to and from an away game. Thus, my athletes and I almost always have to have discussion about how to turn in assignments early or request a make-up test date prior (if possible) to a scheduled exam.

In addition, the management of coursework is often vastly different in college than in high school. Some high school teachers assign long-term projects or research papers, but more often work is done on a daily or weekly basis. In college, on the other hand, a student may enroll in a class in which there are two assignments for the entire semester, and the first of those two may be due a month or more from the start of class. As someone who can remember thinking that starting a paper at 8pm on a Sunday night seemed perfectly reasonable because it wasn’t due until 9am Monday morning (I’ll just pull an all-nighter! No big deal except…I’m only four pages in and I’m getting pretty sleepy…), I understand the learning curve. It takes time and experience to learn that writing a good ten or twenty-page paper, (and the sad truth is that some high school graduates have never been asked to write more than two pages at a time), takes more than eleven, coffee-saturated hours. It takes time to understand that starting a months-long project right away by breaking it into small, manageable pieces can save you an enormous amount of stress down the road.

And sometimes, it takes a success coach.

So how do I help my students develop this crucial skill? Here are three easy tips:


I teach my students how to use and REALLY use planners, calendars, and whiteboards above their desks. You’d be surprised how many students have never made a weekly plan, and whether they put it all into their phones or copy it down on paper, the experience of laying out tasks both big and small in a way that enables a student to constantly keep track of their progress can make an enormous difference.


Like…really really know your syllabus! You’d think students would refer to their syllabi more, but many don’t. And since so much information is now online, some live by the mantra-  “I’ll just check the site for that class when I need the information.” And while that’s a great way to find out about a exam the night before it is scheduled to take place, leading to a panicked cram session and cries of, “noooooooo! why didn’t I look at the syllabus sooooooooner?!”- it’s not a great way to plan your semester. So during our first or second meeting, my students and I always scrutinize the syllabi for each of their classes like a bootcamp drill sergeant inspecting barracks. We don’t miss an un-tucked bed sheet or even a speck of dust in the latrine, and it makes a difference.


We all experience at least a few hours’ worth of “sponge minutes” every day. We stand in line. We arrive 10 minutes early to something that ends up starting 10 minutes late. In essence, “sponge minutes” are those minutes we could squeeze a little more out of if only we were prepared for them. I encourage my students to bring work with them everywhere. If they end up waiting in line in the dining hall for 7 minutes, that’s 7 minutes they can go over notes from the class they haven’t had in a couple of days. If they know it only takes them 10 minutes to get to their next class despite having 30 to do so, that’s 20 minutes more to brainstorm possible topics for a looming research paper.

Sometimes, I get students for whom time management is the primary boulder in the road. These are students who, with just a little steering, a little push, and a few good ideas about when and how to start that term paper, are able to take the ball and start running at full speed.

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 Results Are In

The Results Are In

And…drum roll please…the results are in!

Just before I turned off my blackberry and turned on the oven in preparation for a marathon session of holiday cooking, I received the email containing the grades of my fall semester students. Just as I predicted, it was a mix of good and bad news. Some students sprinted through the finish line, a couple limped just across, and one, well…one didn’t make it. But let’s get to the good news first!

Rebecca and Tracy: Rebecca and Tracy are the homesick freshmen from my previous blog, and in that post I predicted that both would end up with a bell-curve mix of As, Bs, and Cs. Well, both girls finished strong, ending the semester with GPAs above a 3.0!

In addition to Rebecca and Tracy, both of my other freshmen did beautifully. And while this means that they will most likely not be with me next semester, I plan to keep track of their progress and help them in whatever way I can.

Jay: Jay is the sophomore who came to me on warning status. Math is the subject with which he struggles most, but I predicted that he would pass and make Bs and Cs on everything else. Well, Jay did indeed squeak by with a D in math; however, his grades in the rest of his classes were worse than I had predicted. In addition to the D in math, he received two more Ds, one C, and a B, leaving him with a GPA of 1.8 for the semester. He has worked tremendously hard and is still fighting his way through work that is, for him, exceptionally challenging, but this semester’s efforts probably won’t get him off of academic warning.

Allison: Going into finals, Allison had 2 Bs and 3 Cs, including one in English which she needed to maintain in order to pass the class. I had been so nervous thinking about Allison over the past two weeks that when I received the email containing the fates of all of my students, I made a visual bee-line straight to Allison’s results. And then I saw it, staring at me like the big, fat F that it was. Despite doing well in almost all of her other classes, Allison managed to fail the one class she needed to pass in order to retain full-time enrollment status. My heart sank and my mind raced to think of all of the things that could have possibly gone wrong. Did she not study hard enough for the final? Did she blow it off for some inexplicable reason? Did she buckle under the pressure or psych herself out? I don’t know what Allison’s status will be now. If she’s lucky, she may be allowed to return next semester just to take English. If not, she will probably be dismissed.

Marco: Unfortunately, I saw the writing on the wall with Marco weeks ago. He’d stopped going to class, stopped coming to our meetings, and did not answer texts. It seemed to me as if Marco had just given up. So I wasn’t totally surprised when I read that Marco had flunked out of school, but I was saddened. I know what a particularly tough year this has been personally as well as academically for Marco, and I feel for him. Perhaps he felt so underwater trying to deal with the other setbacks in his life that the idea of writing a paper  on the themes of guilt and the social contract in Crime and Punishment simply was unfathomable. Perhaps he used those personal disappointments to complete a self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps he’s just making bad choices right now and needs a few years to mature. I don’t know.

My Results

In addition to receiving a report of my students’ grades in the last week, I also received their feedback. As I have discussed in previous blogs, our students as well as the professors in whose classes they have been enrolled are asked to fill out surveys at the end of each semester. These surveys become my report card, as it were, and I take their thoughts and comments very seriously. I also look for patterns, and this semester I found that one comment came up in almost every survey. In their own words, almost every one of my students remarked about how much it meant to them that they had someone to whom they could come with any question or issue, big or small. Two of my freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, and these students were especially appreciative that they had a single point person with whom they could meet, who both knew them and could really spend time with them one-on-one, to ask questions about navigating this complicated, exciting, often life-changing thing we call the college experience. Of course, there are myriad resources for students at any university- from RAs to deans to mental health professionals, from orientation workshops to freshman seminars- which help students do just that. However, there is something about having a success coach that, especially for students at risk, can make a huge difference.

One of the comments I am most proud of is from Tracy, who remarked in her survey that she wasn’t sure she would have made it to the end of the semester had it not been for the support of her success coach. To quote Tracy, “she believed in me, so I believed in myself.” Tracy’s success coach just happens to have been me, but each and every one of our coaches has received comments like this one from students this past semester and over the years. That’s what I try to remember when I think about Allison or Marco or, for that matter, the next Allisons and Marcos that might walk through my door in January.  As higher education administrators, faculty, and staff, we would all like to see our students graduate from our particular universities; however, first and foremost, we want to see them graduate. If Allison decides to take English at a community college before returning to my university or any other 4-year school, I will count that as a success. If it takes Marco a year or two or ten before he gets his act together, I hope that a seed planted during our time together may give him the determination to try again.

Now the New Year is upon us, and I am reminded that nothing becomes cliché which isn’t fundamentally true. So as we close the book on the old and bring in the new, I think of my students. Some have tasted the fruits of hard work and are ready for more. Some are reveling in the knowledge that they can do far more than they ever thought they could and now, maybe for the first time, see limitless possibilities on the horizon. Some are re-assessing their choices and goals. Some are trying to wipe the slate clean and start anew. As for me, I am waiting to meet another crop of students. Some will be familiar faces and others will be brand new, but to all of them I will say, “Happy New Year. We’re not looking back because you’re not going that way. Now…let’s get crackin’.”

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 Mentor

The Mentor

As I continue to await the final grades for my students to come in, I have been thinking more and more about the specific challenges success coaches face and the particular roles we take on towards the end of the fall semester. Even outside the realm of academia, this season can bring on challenges to productivity and motivation, (let’s see…I could get a bunch of work done today, or eat another Christmas cookie and get some online shopping done from my desk….hmmm…), but especially for college students, many of whom may have spent their first weekend home all semester at the Thanksgiving table, this final stretch can be an uphill battle. Students get a taste of home and are eager to return. This mental shift is only exacerbated by the myriad holiday events- from concerts to parties to decorations- that spring up all around campus. This is the time when I am talking, calling, texting, cajoling, cheering on my students 24/7 in an effort to prevent them from losing the momentum they’ve built throughout the fall.

Then, it’s time to become the mentor. It is in this period that we celebrate small victories, like when Allison made a 98% on her last sociology paper, her best grade in college to date. I remind students how hard they have worked- how they made it through a class they didn’t particularly like or will likely move from academic probation to academic warning, or off academic probation entirely. Even something like taking a 1.0 GPA to a 2.0 can be a huge victory. But mentorship is not all cheerleading; it’s also about teaching life lessons and helping these new adults learn how to deal with reality.

At the beginning of each semester, I always ask my students what GPA they would like to have by semester’s end based on a realistic assessment of their courses and current GPA. We then make plans based on this goal (some of which need to be adjusted after mid-term), and go from there. However, since the majority of graded assignments, like big projects and exams, occur in the second half of the semester, this is the time when we really have to look at the numbers and figure out exactly what needs to happen in these last few weeks in order for a student to accomplish his or her desired GPA. If it looks like a student is going to make a D in one class, I explain that, in order to get off of probation, he’s got to make a B in this other class to offset the D. We go through best and worst case scenarios, and it almost always comforts students when I explain to them that fully understanding the worst case scenario means that any result better than that with which they came in will be a net positive.

But what if the worst case scenario actually happens? This is when my role as “success coach as mentor” is perhaps the most difficult, but also the most crucial.

Dylan is a student in our program who is most likely going to be dismissed after grades come in. Throughout the first half of the semester, he told his success coach that all his classes were going well and he was doing everything he was supposed to do, while in reality he was attending only two of his classes regularly while putting in appearances at the other three exactly once. In the classes he was actually attending he was making an A and a B respectively, but he was failing the classes in which he’d been MIA since Day 2. His success coach and I took a look at college transcript and noticed that this was a pattern. One semester he would do well and the next he would tank. Wash, rinse, and repeat. When presented with reality, he continued to lie, going so far as to tell a professor to her face that he’d been attending her class when she knew for a fact he hadn’t. For this student, the best case scenario may just be this dismissal if, as I hope, the experience shakes him up and makes him realize that the way he’s been doing things is not going to work anymore.

One of my current students, Chelsea, has the opposite problem. Chelsea works harder than almost any student I’ve seen walk through my door, but college level work is extremely difficult for her. She badly wants to succeed, but her ability in core academic subjects such as reading and math are simply very low. As a mentor, I have been trying to help Chelsea think about the big picture of her life. Would it help her to attend community college for a couple of years, do some remedial work, and then try again at a 4-year institution? Is there a career path in which she is interested that might not require a 4-year degree? I know that, while I would love for Chelsea to graduate from my university, in the end it’s her whole life that she’s got to think about, and the best thing that I can do is to steer her in a direction that gives her every possible chance to succeed.

I have mentioned previously that, while most of my students are freshmen and sophomores, I have a few students who keep coming to me throughout their college years regardless of their academic status. I have found that, in these cases, it is usually my role as mentor that keeps them coming back. I think about the conversations I have been having recently with one of my seniors, a football player named Thomas. While Thomas is going through many of the uncertainties brought on by senior year and that scary first look into the future, he is also coming to terms with the end of his football career. Football has been such a part of his life- part of his identity- for almost his entire life, and though there is a small chance that he might be drafted into the NFL, in all likelihood he has played his last game. Over these last few weeks, Thomas and I have spent a lot of time talking about how, while this feels like an end- and while it is an end in some regards- it’s really the beginning of a whole new chapter in his life.

It is in conversations like these that I know unequivocally what my favorite role as a success coach is; it is as a mentor. It is when I get to step out of the trees with a student and help him or her look at the forest- at the whole, complicated, mysterious, frustrating, beautiful life they have in front of them- that I really love my job.

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.

Finals Week

Finals Week

Well, it’s that time of year again, but you can put down the eggnog because I’m not talking about the Holidays. While most people out there are trimming trees, lighting menorahs, and wondering why that hard-to-shop-for person on the list won’t ever just tell people what she wants, those of us in academia are going through a different December tradition: final exams.

This can be a stressful time for everyone, including success coaches, who have to anxiously await results that they no longer have any hand in shaping. This is the time when we cross our fingers, ask ourselves if we did everything we could have for our students, and hope for the best. Last week, at our final success coach meeting before the end of the semester, one of our newest success coaches raised a tentative hand. “This may be a silly question,” she began, “but I am feeling unsure about how things are going to turn out for a few of my students, and it’s making me really anxious. Do any of you feel that way too?” Heads bobbed up and down in unison.

To give you a little window into this experience of waiting, watching, and hoping, here’s a brief summary of the journeys a few of my students have been on this fall, and where I think they might end up when the grades come in.*

Rebecca and Tracy: Rebecca and Tracy are both freshmen who came to school already on academic probation. (My university admits 10-15 of these students a year, and they are all paired with success coaches for fall semester.) They also both found themselves paralyzingly homesick as of their second day on campus. During the first few weeks, not a meeting went by entirely tear-free. Rebecca was having roommate drama, Tracy wasn’t making friends, and both of them were beginning to think that this whole “college” idea had all been a big mistake. Rebecca, who had been recruited for the softball team, knew that she had to get off academic probation in order to play, but sports were her only true passion. Tracy simply had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, and she switched majors three times in two months. As of our meetings last week, both girls have adjusted beautifully, and I predict they will both end up with a few As, more Bs, and one or two Cs. But it’s not only their grades that are important. Before Tracy walked out of my office after our final meeting, she gave me a huge hug and said, “I would not be here at the end of this semester if you hadn’t talked me through my homesickness and anxiety.” I asked her what she had learned about herself in these past few months. “I learned that I can handle harder work that I thought I could,” she replied before adding, “and…I learned not to be so afraid of new things.” With that, she walked out the door and into finals week. Now I wait.

Jay: Jay came to me spring semester of last year after ending the fall semester of his freshman year with a GPA of 0.5. He is also an athlete, and due to his dismal showing that semester, he became ineligible to play. During spring semester, he made a 2.5, which brought him from academic probation to academic “warning” status. This fall, Jay has done everything that has been asked of him. Math is the subject with which he struggles most, but I think he is going to pass and will probably get Bs and Cs on everything else. Unless he doesn’t. Now I wait.

Allison: Remember Allison? If not, you can check out Five Keys to the First Meeting. Well, Allison is a sophomore now, and she’s another semester closer to graduating. I think she’s going to make it, but she still struggles. I don’t doubt how much she wants it or the depth of her understanding of what this opportunity is costing other people in her life. During one of our meetings she told me, “I want to do this. I have to do this; my mom is mopping floors just so I can even be here.” However, while she made a 96% on her last paper, she apparently didn’t attend her math class at all last week. I know that, at this point, she has an A in math; nevertheless, missing classes is not acceptable. I think there is a very good chance that she will have over a 3.0 for the semester, but one thing I’ve learned is never to assume. So I wait.

Marco: Marco is a junior who has been meeting with me off and on for three years. He came to school on probation, went from probation to warning after his first fall semester, and by the end of the school year he was doing very well. His sophomore year went pretty smoothly (he was doing well enough not to have to see me anymore), but by October of this semester, it was clear that something had gone very wrong. Marco had three Fs by midterm. He didn’t show up to class. He didn’t show up to our meetings, and when he did, it was clear that he didn’t want to be there. He seems to have given up, and I still can’t figure out exactly why. I know that there have been some recent disappointments in his personal life, as well as a few bad choices on his part, and my best guess is that he has come to the conclusion that none of the things he’s been working toward are worth it anymore. I don’t know. But he is one of the students for whom I am most concerned as this semester ends. I wait.

I nodded my head with every other success coach in the room when our “success coach rookie” asked if the uncertainty of not knowing how it’s all going to turn out can get to us because I’ve seen it “turn out” in so many different ways. Sometimes a student turns around his or her whole life/attitude/GPA in one semester, but with others success comes in fits and starts. Some students leave the university, and I never hear from them again, while others are dismissed and return a year or two later more mature and determined than ever before. I think about one student, a senior who most likely will graduate with honors in the spring, who as a freshman, when asked about his goals replied, “My goals? What goals? I’m just eighteen!” His journey has been rocky at times but he has stuck with it and is now reaping the rewards.

So as finals week goes into full swing, I will be thinking about those students at my university (the vast majority) who are doing just fine, as well as those I will meet for the first time in January when they walk in my door. But mostly, I will be thinking about Rebecca, Tracy, Jay, Allison, Marco, and my four other students- waiting, hoping, cheering on. So stay tuned! As soon as I know, I will be blogging about how it all “turned out.”

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of students.
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 Trail Guide

The Trail Guide

“It couldn’t be simpler!” chirped James’ college advisor. “You just fill out your FAFSA form with your SSN, DLN, any W-2s you may have, your FITC (IRS 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ), FTR, or TR for PR, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, or Palau (if applicable!). Also make sure to include your parents’ FITR (if a dependent student), their current bank statements, business and investment mortgage information, business and farm records, stocks, bonds, and other investment records. Oh! And remember that the AY and the FFY begin at different times of the year. (Obviously!) Then, take your FAFSA to the Bursar’s Office, and the Bursar will send it off to the CPS!” Suddenly, James’ advisor’s face started to become twisted, morphing before his eyes into some kind of half-serpent, half-alien monster. “As I said, it couldn’t be sssssimpler!” hissed the monster. “Muhahaha! Muhahahhaha!!!” Suddenly James shot up, his eyes bulging, sweat pouring down his face. He looked around his bedroom, inhaled, and gave a sigh of relief. It was just a nightmare, he told himself. Although, he had to admit that, without the snake-alien-monster, the nightmare did contain some unsettling parallels to his first week at college.

When students arrive at college, they not only enter a world of exams, all-nighters, roommate drama, and (gasp!) laundry but also one of Registrar’s Offices, insurance paperwork, loan applications, and yes…acronyms. (And BTWs, while most freshmen are intimately familiar with acronyms, they’re generally more of the TTYL variety. (LOL!) And just as it is for many of us in the adult world, most of the time, it’s not the big things that overwhelm us but the minutiae. These are the insidious details that are the paper cuts of life- small, but always frustrating, often confounding, and at times painful. It is with these issues that success coaches best serve the students with whom they work by acting as trail guides. Just as a trail guide can decode symbols on a map, point out where to find potable water, or demonstrate how to build a fire, so a success coach can provide the small, practical explanations that can make the big, important things (like graduating or, to continue the metaphor, not getting eaten by a bear) that much easier.

Some things students know they are supposed to do but don’t know how and are often reluctant to ask for fear of looking dumb. When someone tells them to “go to the Bursar’s Office,” they mechanically nod their heads without asking what’s really on their minds: “Uh…is ‘Bursar’ actually a word? If so, what is a Bursar? And where is that office? And, oh yeah, what do I need to ask the ‘Bursar’ once I get to his or her office? And, um….do you think I’ll be okay if I just ignore the whole issue because it scares me and I’m hoping that by not addressing it, it will simply go away? ‘Cuz that’s my Plan A right now.”

Again, just like many of us (show me a person who hasn’t put off calling their insurance company/bank/doctor for at least a week because they were intimidated by the bureaucratic headache that just dealing with the automated menu was sure to create), young people entering into the adult world sometimes shy away from these unfamiliar experiences. For most, it’s the first time they’ve had to do everything for themselves, and it takes time to get used to the idea. One of the first things I say to my students is, “Get over the fear of looking dumb and ask the questions you need to ask!” A) The benefit of getting the information you need far outweighs the risk of looking dumb, and B) you actually won’t look dumb because nobody can be expected to magically know this stuff right away!

Often, however, it’s the “unknown unknowns” that trip students up. It’s the questions they don’t even know should be asked. Students might know that they need to apply for aid, but they have no idea that they have to “accept the award” before the aid goes through. Athletes may know that they have to maintain a certain GPA in order to remain NCAA eligible but may not know that they must go through the NCAA Clearing House before being able to play.

A few years ago, I had a student named Brenton. Brenton was a sophomore business major, but he was really struggling in his math classes. I talked to Brenton about why he had chosen business as a major, and he admitted that he hadn’t really known what he wanted to do with his life at the time he chose the major, so he just went with something that seemed popular and respectable. I showed Brenton how many math-related courses he would need to complete in order to graduate, and he turned pale. Then I asked, “Have you ever thought about changing your major?” Brenton looked stunned. “You can do that?!” By the time he left my office, Brenton had the biggest smile on his face I’d ever seen. He had settled on a major he was excited about (and one that required less math), and he was heading toward the Registrar’s Office to file the paperwork.

As a “trail guide,” I regularly explain all the things we at the University have come to take for granted as common knowledge. Students are provided with much of this information by RAs or during orientation, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily retain it all. As success coaches, we try to fill in the blanks such as, “How do I Add/Drop a class? How do I activate my student account card? Wait a minute, did you say that I can download movies from a university database directly to my computer?”

I certainly did.

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 Detective

The Detective

As discussed in one of my previous blogs, “The Many Faces of the Success Coach“, the first and most crucial job a success coach has is as detective. Just as a doctor cannot proscribe a course of treatment until he or she has diagnosed the patient’s particular malady, I, as a success coach, cannot begin to help a student turn his or her college career around until I have figured out what is really going on. In some situations, this can be a relatively simple task. Some students come in as open books. They both know and are willing to talk candidly about the issue/s holding them back; some may have even brainstormed a few possible solutions on their own. But these, of course, are the easy cases. More often, a success coach will have to do at least a little digging before hearing the clang of shovel upon rock- ah, the satisfying sound of finally hitting that boulder in the road. To better illustrate this point, I’ve opened up a few of my most interesting case files. (Warning: Top secret success coach intel! This message will self-destruct in 3….2….1….)

Case #2317
Name: Owen Doyle
Age: 18
Status: Freshman entering college on academic probation

Clue 1: Owen’s High School Transcript- When I examined Owen’s high school transcript, I discovered that he had made straight As for the first two years, but then his grades dipped in his junior year and plummeted in his senior year. Hmm…I thought. So Owen clearly has the ability to do well, as evidenced by his first two years in high school. What could have happened during those last two years? Family problems? A girl? Did he start hanging out with a bad crowd? Clearly this wasn’t enough evidence to make a confident assessment.

Clue 2: The Human Brain BookThe day Owen first walked into my office, I was in the middle of reading the book, The Human Brain Book. I put the book aside when I heard the knock on my door, but it was still visible on my desk. Almost immediately, Owen remarked, “Oh! I’ve read that book! I loved it!” Now, The Brain is a fairly academic, non-fiction book explaining in-depth the many functions of…well…the brain, so the fact that he had read it for pleasure told me that Owen was intellectually curious. So why was he struggling?

It wasn’t until our third meeting that I was able to put clue 1 and clue 2 together in a way that led me to a key question. “You come from a pretty small town, right?” Owen nodded and rolled his eyes. “Verrrrrrrry small.” I continued, “So I’m assuming you’re high school was pretty small, too.” Again, Owen nodded.” I paused then asked, “Did you feel challenged in high school?” Then, Owen’s eyes lit up and the flood gates opened. “No! I was so bored! I was so bored all the time and….I guess…it made me feel like school was just a waste of time. It made me hate school.”

After that, Owen and I looked at every course in which he was enrolled as well as every professor and worked out a schedule that provided him with the greatest level of challenge and intellectual stimulation. Eventually, Owen decided that he wanted to become an engineer and transferred to a school with an engineering program (ours does not have one), but he may never have gotten to that point without the fundamental change in perspective he underwent in my office.

CASE #1145
Name: Meredith Biddle
Age: 20
Status: Sophomore soccer player put on probation after fall semester 

Clue 1: Interview with Meredith’s professors- By talking to Meredith’s professors, I learned that her biggest problem during the fall term had been turning in incomplete or late assignments. Okay, I thought, this could be an issue of time management, study skills, or simple immaturity, so I had Meredith experiment with different study techniques, and we created detailed, weekly schedules to aid in time management. Still, Meredith’s grades did not improve. Then, one day when Meredith had a make-up assignment to complete, I told her she could work on it in the empty office just next to mine. I checked in on her every ten minutes or so, and soon I noticed that half of the time she would be looking at her phone, doodling, or simply staring into space. So, she was having trouble focusing?

Clue 2: Interview with Meredith’s soccer coach- I went to Meredith’s soccer coach and asked if he had noticed any difficulty with Meredith’s ability to focus. “She’s all over the place,” he acknowledged. Aha! Meredith was an absolute soccer fanatic, so if she was also having trouble focusing on an activity she loved, the problem wasn’t just about interest in the material.

After the conversation with the coach, I felt confident enough to broach the subject with Meredith. When I asked if she’d ever thought she might have ADHD, she answered, “since 7th grade, but my parents don’t want me to go on medication.” I didn’t try to push her in one direction or another regarding the issue of medication, but I did connect her directly with our point person for students with special needs.

CASE # 3172
Name: Gina Zappala
Age: 19
Status: Freshman cheerleader put on probation after fall semester

Gina, on paper, should have been thriving. She seemed happy and well-adjusted; she was a cheerleader, said she loved school, and didn’t seem to have any obvious academic weak spots, having made average to above-average grades throughout high school. But Gina’s first semester grades were dismal, and thus she ended up in my office.

Clue 1: Attendance- Gina was missing classes. And during our first few meetings, all I got were plausible excuses cheerfully executed. She had missed class because she was sick, she would say with a smile, but she was feeling much better now. Or she had been up late the night before and had slept through her alarm. I could tell that Gina wasn’t trying to be deceptive, but I could also feel that there were things she wasn’t telling me.

Clue 2: Gina’s high school transcript- Once I learned that Gina had an attendance problem in college, I went back to her high school record. Sure, her grades were fine, but I discovered that Gina had missed 28 days of school in her senior year alone. Something didn’t add up, and I knew that only Gina knew the real story.

Most of the time, students know the real story, but they’ve also got to trust their success coaches enough to actually talk about it. I could never have gotten to the bottom of Gina’s issues had I not been able to forge a relationship with her based on mutual trust. Once I did, this is what I learned: Gina came from a family of nine children- eight boys and Gina, who was in the middle. In high school, her parents started fighting. Gina became the sounding board for her mother, and at times Gina would feel obligated to miss school in order to say home and console her. By the fall that Gina started college, one of her brothers was showing signs of deep mental illness, another was addicted to drugs, her parents were in the middle of divorce proceedings, and Gina’s mother was using Gina, once again, as her only source of emotional support. She would call Gina at all hours, crying, begging Gina to come home. Basically, while trying to navigate her first year as an independent adult, Gina was simultaneously parenting her own mother.  I convinced Gina to talk to a counselor, and after a few weeks I could tell that she was starting to realize that trying to “fix” her family was impeding her ability to live her own life. By the end of the semester, Gina had moved up from probation to warning status, and she is now half-way through her junior year.

Finally, the best success coach detectives are those who realize when the best way to solve a mystery is by removing themselves from the equation. Just as in Gina’s case, it was only once she knew she could trust me with these vulnerable truths about her life that she revealed them to me. And she was only able to trust me once she felt confident about three things: 1) that I was really there for her no matter what, 2) that I wasn’t judging her, and 3) that I truly “got” her. However, I have had students with whom I knew, despite my best efforts, that I was never going to pass that threshold of trust, and in those situations I have tried to set them up with a success coach who might be a better fit. I had a student for a few weeks named Brenna who, with her blue hair, piercings, and sleeve tattoos, took one look at me- a 62-year old woman with a southern accent and a fresh manicure- and simply did not believe that I could ever understand where she was coming from. Even though I know that I’m as hip as all get out (at least in my own mind), I thought Brenna might open up more easily to a coach with whom she felt she had more in common. As the coordinator of the success coach program, I find it imperative to know the strengths, personalities, and coaching styles of all the coaches, and I try to match students with coaches accordingly.

Alright, gumshoes, that’s all the top secret intel I’m willing to show you today. Now put on your fedoras and trench coats, and get out there and change some lives!

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 Success Coach Skeptic

The Success Coach Skeptic

Remember the good old days? You know, simpler times when men wore hats to work, no one cursed on television, and children always obeyed their parents? Those were the days when people talked to their friends in person instead of responding to their texts by Instagramming their Facebook posts. And yes, those were the days when all college students were responsible, mature self-starters who achieved academic success purely through individual effort and drive.


Though the success coach program at my university has grown in popularity and esteem every year since its inception, I still occasionally come across a professor or administrator who remembers history this way and thus remains dubious of the whole idea of success coaching. Conversations with these “Success Coach Skeptics” usually begin with the phrase, “In my day…” and end with the word “coddling,” such as, “In my day, we had to sink or swim on our own. We didn’t have any of this ‘success coach’ hand-holding. It’s just plain coddling!”

Times Have Changed

In some ways, they’re right. Times have changed. For one thing, fifty or even thirty years ago, fewer career paths required a college degree. In 1960, fewer than one in ten adults had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, and that was okay- many high school graduates found gainful employment in careers that didn’t require one. Today, however, college educated workers make on average 40% more than those who only have a high school diploma.  Our 21st century economy requires more highly educated workers, and as of 2012, fully one in three adults aged 25-29 is attending or has attended college (NYTimes, 11/5/12).

Since today’s pool of college students is larger, it just makes sense that some of these students will struggle harder to achieve academic success than the more self-selecting, smaller pool of yesterday. Should we tell those students who arrive at college lacking a skill like time management to drop out and find a good job that doesn’t require a college degree, such as the manufacturing job that left town for China ten years ago and isn’t coming back? Or do we provide these students with an extra resource to help better prepare them for the economic opportunities of the 21st century?

Cultural Changes Too

In addition, changes in family size as well as cultural attitudes toward parenting have changed the way many children are raised. When you grow up as one of five, as I did, you learn from an early age how to do many things yourself. But the majority of kids today come from families of one or two kids instead of four or five, and that means children get all the benefits as well as all the drawbacks of greater parental attention. You know what I’m talking about, that’s right… if you ever want to win the award for scariest costume at a student affairs Halloween party, come dressed as a “helicopter parent.” However, while we should have a serious, culture-wide discussion about whether parents are doing too much for their kids these days, it’s certainly not the fault of the student who shows up freshman year with a deficit of perfectly-honed life skills. At the other extreme lay students who come to college having had next to no parental or family support system. These students have, in some cases, basically raised themselves, and they come lacking life skills for an entirely different reason.

Coaches Are Teachers First

I know that these skeptics just want, as do I, to best serve our students’ long-term interests. They feel that if students are hand-held or “coddled” through college, they will fail to gain the self-sufficiency necessary for achieving success in the real world. Fortunately, that’s not what we do! Success coaches, much like athletic coaches, are first and foremost teachers. A tennis coach doesn’t play the game for the athlete, but he does do his best to make sure that, when that player walks onto the court, she has all the tools she needs to win the match. And if her skills are lacking in one area or another, he teaches her how to improve.

An Open Door

But let’s say the skeptic (or skeptics) at your institution are still shaking their heads. For those skeptics, I’ll walk out of this philosophy class and into a science lab. (Oooh…Bunsen burners, nice touch!) Let’s talk evidence. Every year since our success coaching program was instituted, the faculty has been asked to fill out progress reports on students in their classes who are also in the success coach program. We know that we are asking already busy professors to do even more paperwork, so we focus on six questions we feel are the most important (another blog, another day.)  The first year, we received a few responses, the next year a few more, and now, the vast majority of professors regularly give us their feedback. Professors routinely call me to request that one of their students be given a coach. Many want to know from Day 1 if any of their students are working with success coaches already so that they can give that student all the help he or she needs. Word has gotten around the student body as well. While, initially, some students thought needing a success coach meant getting singled out for being behind, now students contact us directly asking to get in on the action. Most of the success coaches in our program are women, and just this past September, two athletes went in to their coach and asked, “can we have one of those ladies? You know, those ladies that help you get your GPA up?” I’ve even had multiple students ask me if they can keep coming in even after they’re no longer mandated to do so. The answer is always the same: my door is always open.

And if any Success Coach Skeptics out there want to continue the discussion, I can’t pay for the plane ticket but…my door is always open.

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.

Paying Attention to Retention

Paying Attention to Retention

Not long ago we met with a prospective client whose enrollment management team was nimble at recruiting students, but these efforts were akin to plugging the Titanic with a wad of chewed-up Trident: a breathtaking 48% of freshmen hadn’t returned for their sophomore year. The advice we gave to this university, and the crux of this post, addresses the dividends, both for institutions and for students, of paying attention to retention.

While academe loathes comparisons with the business world, a company with built-in repeat business opportunities that lost nearly half of its customers would not have a sophomore year. According to the National Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis, the national freshman-to-sophomore retention rate for the class of 2010 was 77.1%. This means that 23%, nearly a quarter, of students drop out. What happens to the students who leave? Do they immediately transfer to another institution? Or do they take time off, decreasing the likelihood of ultimately earning a degree? What about the money they borrowed to finance their education? They now have to repay borrowed funds with little or nothing to show for it, which may lead to defaulting and years of financial hardship. Common wisdom, not to mention common sense, suggests that everyone benefits from keeping students enrolled and engaged.

Colleges and universities, especially tuition-dependent private, non-profits, have a laser-like focus on incoming students. A 2011 Noel-Levitz report suggests that private universities spend $2,185 to recruit an undergraduate student, which may include printing glossy brochures, buying advertising airtime, improving the web site, and the like. To attain a solid return on this investment, not to mention improve students’ lives, paying attention to retention is a win-win situation.

But how can we ensure their initial and long-term success so that we’re recruiting future alumni instead of one-termers? The research suggests numerous, cost-effective ways to better serve students with the goal of keeping them engaged, satisfied, and enrolled. Examples include improving academic advising; implementing early-warning systems to detect and reach at-risk students; teaching them about time-management and study skills; and letting them know what services are available, such as tutoring in the Writing Center or assistance from the Counseling Center.

Institutions can take other steps to protect both their $2,185 investment and their students by monitoring and reporting on important retention-related tasks.  Tracking which students have registered for the upcoming semester and identifying those with outstanding financial aid issues are just a couple of examples.  Leveraging technology to identify students in these situations and to communicate with them effectively can help institutions keep students enrolled.

Aviso Coaching helps institutions deploy both technology and people—a captivating combination that helps retain the students in whom you’ve invested so heavily. Ensuring that students have a success plan is paramount, and colleges and universities, likewise, should have a plan in place to protect the investment they’ve made in each enrolled student. In the end, both the institution and the student will benefit greatly from paying attention—not lip service—to retention.

To learn more about how you can use the Aviso Coaching software to help pay attention to retention at your institution, give us a call or email us to learn more.

Five Keys to the First Meeting

Five Keys to the First Meeting

Allison’s Last Chance premiered in August of 2011, and by early October the reviews were in. Here’s what the critics had to say:

“Allison has a terrible attitude in class.” – Allison’s Math professor

“Allison failed my class because she plagiarized.” – Allison’s English professor

“Allison doesn’t just have a ‘problem with truthiness,’ she down right lies.” – Allison’s Psychology professor

By the time I scheduled my first meeting with Allison, I knew a lot about her, and none of it was good. It was little more than a month into the school year and already she’d had multiple problems, in multiple classes, with multiple professors. Not only that, but she’d already been dismissed from and then let back into the University twice, and one more dismissal would mean the unequivocal end to Allison’s tenure at the school. Three strikes, and Allison would be out.

I knew I had two choices as to how to proceed with our first meeting. I could let her know right away that I knew everything, lay it all out in front of her, and try to get her to understand the reality of her situation. I could sit down across from her and say, “Okay, Allison. This is what I’ve heard, this is what I know, and we both know this is your last chance. I could give her the “this is your reputation on the line” speech, or the old classic: “I think we can both see that your way of doing things hasn’t gotten you where you want to be.” I knew I could conduct the meeting like a no-nonsense cop (with a great moustache) trying to get a suspect to roll on his accomplice by pointing out the bleak alternative to cooperation. “Look kid, I wanna help ya, I really do, but you’re looking at twenty-five to life here.” Or, I could pretend to be ignorant of everything that I had heard about Allison up until the moment she walked in the door. I could simply smile, introduce myself, and see what happened.

I have seen both versions of this kind of first meeting work, so the answer wasn’t entirely self-evident. Not all students who meet with success coaches are in such make-or-break moments in their college careers, of course, but for those who are, it’s even more important to get the first meeting right. I contemplated my choice until five minutes before Allison walked into my office.

She came in looking like she could kill. She looked suspicious and defensive, until I smiled and said, “I think this is going to be the best semester you’ve ever had.” For a moment, she looked utterly confounded, like someone who has been vigilantly scanning the ground for hidden traps only to be caught in a net thrown from above. Then, she softened…a little.

Looking back, I see that there were five key things I did with Allison that are key to making the first meeting with any student a success:

1. I made it crystal clear that I would be there for her, no matter what, and that we would do whatever it took to turn her ship around…together.

I use “you” but also a lot of “we” with students, especially at the beginning. Of course “you” are going to sit at that desk in the classroom, but “we” are going to make sure “you” are ready for the final. Though I didn’t make it all about me, I made it clear that Allison was not alone, that that this would be a team effort. It’s amazing how rapport with a student can flourish once they know- really know- that you actually care. And although this kind of trust is almost impossible to accomplish in the first meeting you can, at least, lay the foundation.

2. I asked questions.

What do you think has gotten you to where you are right now? What do you see as the primary boulder in your road? What do you think might be good goals to set for the future? Students usually know the answer to these questions, though some can be reluctant to admit that they do.

3. I highlighted her past successes.

Allison had made good grades in high school, and I brought out her transcript as evidence. We both knew she had the ability to do well because she’d done so previously- the evidence was right there in front of both of our faces!

4. We made an action plan.

When my students walk out the door after the first meeting, I want them to feel confident that they have clear, actionable goals. Whether it’s: “complete one assignment and turn it in, talk with someone at the financial aid center about the bill you’ve been worrying about, or write one page of the research paper that’s due at the end of the semester” (AND bring it to the next meeting), students are more likely to accomplish short and long-term goals if they feel that those goals are manageable and that there is someone to whom they must be accountable.

5. I showed interest in something in which she was interested.

Allison revealed to me in the first few minutes of our conversation that she was currently obsessed with her new iPad. I decided to forgo the usual warm-up questions and instead start asking her about it. I also professed to be a bit of an ignoramus when it came to my own iPad and asked if, later, she could help me figure out a thing or two. She readily agreed.

Allison and I finished our meeting by laying out easy, concrete goals for the next few days, and she was packing up to leave when she remembered something that I had actually forgotten. “Hey!” she exclaimed, eyes bright, “you want me to show you something about the iPad?!” I certainly did.

Just after the midterm, Allison ran into my office beaming. “I got four Bs, one A, and a C! Now I can surprise my mom with my grades!” I remembered what one of my former students had done for his mother and whispered conspiratorially, “what if you don’t tell your mom how you’re doing…keep it all a big secret until the end of the semester…then wrap those good grades up in a box and put it under the Christmas tree.”  Now, not only did Allison have good grades at midterm, she had an incentive to keep them up all the way to the end of the semester.

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.