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The Brilliant Underachiever: Coaching Bright Students Who Struggle

The Brilliant Underachiever: Coaching Bright Students Who Struggle

Over the span of my career, I have worked with bright and/or gifted students of all ages and have found that intelligence alone is no guarantee of success. And while colleges’ struggles with retention often have more to do with students who enter the university setting academically under-prepared for the content and rigor of college-level material, I have seen more than my share of very bright, capable students on the verge of failing out of school.

Barring things like financial, family, or medical issues that can, unfortunately, hamper a student’s ability to stay enrolled; most of these bright students find themselves facing boulders of a more psychological nature. Here are 3 common manifestations of what I have come to refer to as “smart student syndrome.”

1. The “heretofore under-stimulated” student: I had one student in particular, a freshman named Eli, who suffered from this strain of “smart student syndrome.” Eli came from a very small, rural school district with few advanced level classes and little special programming for bright students. Because of this Eli felt, not surprisingly, unchallenged in school. However, this was the only reality Eli knew, so his 13 years of experience had convinced him that that’s just how school was: not challenging and thus boring. Eli brought this same mentality into the college setting, and his grades started to suffer almost immediately. During one of our meetings, I asked Eli about a particular class he was taking in International Security Studies. He told me that he was bored and that he thought the professor was dumbing down the material for the class. I asked, “Well, what interests you about this subject? What would you like to learn?” His eyes brightened and he immediately started talking animatedly about his interests. “Okay then,” I offered, “why don’t you go to your professor and bring up this very topic with him. If there’s anything professors love most, it’s when a student actually shows interest in the subject in which they have spent their careers becoming knowledgeable, and maybe you will become more invested in the class as a result!” Eli gave me the deer-in-headlights look I almost always get from students when I suggest instigating a one-on-one conversation with a professor, but he agreed to give it a shot. When Eli walked into my office later that week, he was gushing. “Did you know that Professor Carradine came here straight from a career at the Pentagon?!” Apparently, Eli and Professor Carradine had spoken for more than an hour, and from then on International Security Studies was his favorite class.

2. The “hasn’t adapted to the New World Order” student: Alright, it’s time to make a confession. I am a former “hasn’t adapted to the New World Order,” sufferer of smart student syndrome. Just like the students whose experiences in K-12 education convince them that school is not challenging and therefore a waste of time, there are others who come to different yet equally wrong conclusions. For me, it wasn’t that school was boring (in fact, I was that kid who loved school so much that she would remind teachers when they had forgotten to assign homework- a tendency for which I would like to now publicly apologize) but that school was easy and therefore often didn’t require all that much work. Yes, there were teachers who pushed me, who challenged me to achieve my full potential, and I was incredibly self-motivated when it came to subjects about whom I was passionate, but I never had to work as hard as some other students did to get good grades. Then I went to college and everything changed. After a brief but significant learning curve, I realized that in order to succeed in college I would have to work much harder than I ever had previously, but that realization didn’t happen overnight. And now, as a success coach, I see the same delayed revelation in some of the students who end up in my office. When these students find themselves on academic probation or warning, most are shocked. “How can this be?!” they ask incredulously. It’s as if they’ve been driving a car on paved roads for years, and then one day they try to drive a car on a lake. When the car starts sinking, their initial reaction is to say, “Something’s wrong with this car!” when in reality, there are different types of vehicles one needs for navigating different environments. Usually, with these students, my job is all about speeding up that learning curve by making them aware of the change that has occurred. “College is not high school,” I remind them. And since these students usually enjoy being pushed and challenged once they’ve wrapped their minds around what is expected of them, they come to thrive.

3. The “paralyzed by the prospect of failure” student: This might be the most virulent form of smart student syndrome and, unfortunately, there is no definitive cure. Some students are simply so terrified of the prospect of ever being wrong, of “failing” even a little bit, that they’d rather quit mid-journey or not try at all. They think, “If I can’t do this as easily or as well as I have been able to do things in the past, then I don’t want to do it!” Sometimes, this need to always be perfect has been instilled by parents or a particular school environment and sometimes it is self-imposed, but regardless of the origin, it can inch very capable students toward the edge of an academic cliff. I have seen students bomb multiple choice tests because of their inability to make a decision when not 100% sure they are correct. Or drop a class because they got a C on the midterm. Or fail a class because they were too afraid to admit to anyone that they needed help.  As with the “new world order” students, awareness is important. I remind them that they are not supposed to know everything at the age of 18 or 20 (or 30 or 40 or…), and that even if they were the smartest kid at their high school, a lot of college students were the smartest kids at their respective high schools. I tell them, “college resets the bar, and the most important thing is not that you are perfect but that you are on the path to achieving your goals. Thomas Edison once famously said that he was only able to invent the light bulb because of the thousands of times he failed at inventing the light bulb, and if failure is good enough for Thomas Edison, well….”

Recently, I read a book about the differences in traditionally “western” and “eastern” pedagogy focused, in part, on the idea that while western cultures often put the idea of “intelligence” on a pedestal, eastern cultures focus much more on the importance of perseverance and the value of struggle. By the time they get to college, some of my students who’ve spend nearly two decades being told how “smart” they are find themselves under performing, or even failing, because they have yet to hone these less “testable” but equally important life skills.  Our job as success coaches, as always, is to help these students become not only better educated but also stronger, wiser, and better able to tackle whatever challenges college life may throw at 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.

The Newspaper Editor

The Newspaper Editor

One of the many faces of a success coach is that of the “newspaper editor”. Sure, I create both short and long-term deadlines with all of my students, but there are certain students for whom this becomes my primary role. These are the students who may be academically capable with stable support networks from family and friends. They may not have to deal with the financial stresses that plague some students.  They may even have good time management and study skills, yet for some reason they falter when they lack a point person to whom they know they must be accountable. In other words, they need a cigar-chomping, old-school newspaper editor yelling, “Wilson! That article about rampant corruption in the alderman’s office better be on my desk by the time we go to print or your sorry keister’ll be pushin’ paper down in the mail room for the next six months!”

This idea of accountability is not limited to education. It’s why some people diet or try to quit smoking in pairs or teams. It is, in part, why some people see personal trainers and therapists. The older we get, the more we realize that there are some things in life we simply won’t work as hard at or stick to the program as faithfully when left to our own devices, so we seek out and gratefully embrace others to whom we must be accountable. We seek out newspaper editors of our own.

For my students who have trouble completing work or turning things in on time, I often “invite” them to work on assignments in the library, which also happens to be near my office. At first, many invariably balk. Not only are beginning college students tempted by the idea of studying in their pajamas in the comfort of their own rooms, but also many are simply unused to studying in a place like a library. Many figure: “I studied in my room in high school, and I did fine! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” However, studying in one’s room in high school rarely mirrors the distractions and temptations that can hamper one’s ability to study in a room in a college dorm. (Everybody take a second to fully remember the most distracting and/or tempting moments in your own college dorm… and we’re back.) For those who are reluctant to start working in a more focused space, I simply say, “Just take a test drive.” You’re free at this particular time on this particular day, and I’ll be near by working with other students, so give it a shot.”

Once there, we set a goal as to how much work needs to be completed before they leave, and I require that they show me the finished product before taking off. Almost immediately, they see results. They discover that they have a private place to work with fewer distractions. And most importantly, they realize that because they know they have to show me their work by the time they leave, they actually (gasp!) get it done! Often, this trial run creates true believers out of skeptics.  I find that students leave feeling proud and excited about what they have been able to accomplish- from there, it becomes easier to invite them to work in the library again because they have learned the value of it. One of my former students, a young woman who returned this fall after an internship at a government agency in Washington, D.C., was one of these students. Recently, she knocked on my door and said, “I would not be standing here right now if it weren’t for you.” I asked her what she meant by that. In the midst of a hug she replied, “You taught me how to just get it done.”

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.

A Half Hour in the Life of a Success Coach

A Half Hour in the Life of a Success Coach

While I’ve blogged a lot about the various jobs a success coach has overall, it occurs to me that I haven’t put all of that into the context of a single meeting. And while every session is always in some way unique, there is, on average, a “typical” structure to a normal meeting with students.


I meet with my students twice a week for a half hour at a time, and there are certain things we do at every single session. Almost always, the first thing I do with a student is check his or her goals from our last meeting. Have the short term goals (schedule a meeting with a professor, turn in a financial aid form, catch up on the reading for a certain class) been accomplished? What progress has been made on long term goals like projects or papers? Next, we move on to their learning center hours. All students enrolled in the success coach program must log in a certain numbers of hours in either the library or learning center each week, and they are required to sign in and out each time. So, before moving on to the bigger stuff, I check to make sure they have met their required hours. Then we move onto the syllabus. We read through either a hard copy or online version of the syllabus point by point, checking to see whether anything has changed, making sure that the student is aware of all assignments past and present as well as reminding him or her of upcoming tests or papers that loom in the near future. Then we make a list of goals for our next meeting.


At least once a week, my students and I get online and check their grades. Most of our professors post grades online, but I give those who don’t a hard copy of a “scorecard” which my students can then use to keep track of how they are doing. In addition to just checking the grades, I work through the math with them so that they fully understand what is required of them either to maintain a grade or improve on one. We analyze the percentage of graded work that is already in the can and talk about what that means going forward. And that’s about the time I realize how much “checking” my job entails, because then it’s time to check…email! You’d be surprised how many students don’t check their university emails. Oh, they’ll check Facebook and Twitter and text messages and even their other email accounts, but since notices from the registrar are generally less exciting than juicy photos from last weekend’s rage-till-dawn party, university email somehow seems to get lost in the shuffle. For most students, this is also a good time to check (again with the checking!) their plans to implement certain study skills as well as their retention of reading/lecture material. For example, I require some of students to print out power points of lectures and write notes on the power point guidelines during class; for others, I ask them to take notes in a separate notebook. At least once a week, I will check these notes to make sure students are A) actually implementing the plan and B) taking notes effectively. Then, depending on the student, I may ask them to summarize what a particular professor said in the last lecture or quiz them on a chapter they were recently required to read for comprehension. I try to make these interactions less like interrogations and more like conversations, and it’s always a good meeting for me when the conversation organically goes deeper- when a question about a paragraph in a marketing text book gets a student jazzed to discuss the psychology of persuasion as used in modern advertising, or when a professor’s lecture on Crime and Punishment leads to a conversation about how time and place both do and do not affect a person’s concept of morality.


A few times a semester, it’s important to talk with students about their co-curricular credits. At my university, we require students to earn 13 hours of “co-curricular” credits in professional development (attending guest speaker events and/or workshops on resume writing, etiquette, and interview techniques) and 13 hours doing community service. Students enter freshman year knowing about these requirements, but as it is so easy to become preoccupied by the things that are due today, tomorrow, or next week, these long-term requirements often get put on the back burner. Some students intend to complete their co-curricular credits but get too busy or forget, while others consciously put them off thinking, “I’m a genius! I’ll complete all my academic credit hours and then do all of my co-curricular credits right before graduation!” Also, I always try to keep my students on track with the intricacies of registration. At the beginning of our time together, I have all my students create a four-year plan. Sure, things can change, but the very act of making a four-year plan can take a student a long way toward seeing the end-game of his or her college goals. It’s also useful because students learn that not all classes are offered every semester and that they need to plan their schedules accordingly. Maybe this core requirement is only offered in the spring every odd year, or every year but only in the fall. Students are often unaware that college courses are not necessarily A) offered every semester or B) easy to register for even when they are offered. Making a plan plants the seed in students’ minds that course registration is something that requires a bit of thought.


And sometimes I throw everything about a “typical” meeting out the window because life steps in. Sometimes I spend the entire session walking to the financial aid office with a student and translating acronyms into a language he can understand. Sometimes we simply figure out a way she can co-exist better with her roommate. Sometimes we talk about family dynamics that are making it harder for him to focus on his studies. Sometimes we console her about the death of a loved one. Sometimes we try to convince him to see a counselor because he is not psychologically healthy enough to do all the things he needs to do right now.


I do a lot of motivating. I do a lot of celebrating. At least once per session I ask my students, “what’s something you feel really good about this week?” Once, one of my student’s answers to that question was: “I got the highest grade in the entire class on an exam that was really difficult!” We immediately left the office, walked down to the coffee shop, and had mochas and croissants to celebrate. It was a good half hour in the life of a success coach.

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.

Welcome To The Future: Using Technology To Aid Student Achievement

Welcome To The Future: Using Technology To Aid Student Achievement

Let me guess. As you read this blog, you’ve got at least three more tabs open on your browser. Oh, did your smartphone just alert you that you have a text? It’s okay, you can check it; i’ll wait. Are you back? Great. Let me just send this tweet while I close this youtube video and…..we’re back.

Well, folks. The robots have won. We are plugged-in, online, uploaded, downloaded and, some would say, overloaded by technology. The debate continues to rage as to the cost to benefit ratio of this new world order, and I do not aim to solve this debate in the small space of this blog. However, I do want to discuss the ways in which technology has helped my students overcome obstacles to achievement as well as the ways in which it has made my job as a success coach easier and more effective.

Since the advent of the internet more than twenty years ago, technology has been revolutionizing the world of higher education. However, in the last ten years we have witnessed exponential change. First came practical changes, such as online course registration, class webpages, and Then came google, wikipedia, youtube, and myriad other resources that students now use to research, study, and acquire information. Then colleges and universities discovered that the internet could be used not just as a research tool but as the classroom itself. Now, the idea of online education has gone even further to include things like the Khan Academy and “MOOCS” (Massive Open Online Courses).

In my work as a success coach for on-campus students, there are a few key pieces of technology that I have seen change the entire direction of a student’s education. One piece of software that I frequently use is often provided to our students who are working with learning disabilities, but I have found that it can be helpful for any student. This program can upload any textbook onto a flash drive, then read the book aloud to the student. This software is not just a book on tape; it also allows students to select different languages and adjust speed. It is connected to a dictionary, so students can click on any word and learn its definition immediately. This is particularly good for our international students, who benefit from being able to hear and read American English simultaneously.

Additionally, this program helps students organize their notes by allowing them to highlight important portions of text which then are transferred to a study sheet that a student can review digitally or print out as a hard copy. Imagine you’re a student who learns best aurally, or a student athlete who must make time to study while riding on a bus to and from away games. Oh, and you are also prone to motion sickness when you read while in transit. I have seen students in both camps go from Cs and Ds to As and Bs simply because they could listen to their textbooks on their laptops, mp3 players, or phones.

Of course, this program and others like it is just the tip of the iceberg. So with all these technological resources available to students with the click of a mouse or, now, simply a swipe of a finger, you’d wonder why today’s techno-savvy students ever have any trouble at all! Many students don’t have trouble, but I work with the ones who do, and I’ve learned that some students just can’t or don’t find these resources themselves. Sometimes they don’t know that these resources exist. Sometimes they may have a vague idea that there are technological resources out there, but they simply aren’t motivated enough to find them on their own.

For many of my students, they are most likely to follow through to the finish line when a success coach like myself sits down and does it with them. I understand. At times, all of us need to be guided step-by-step through things that are difficult to understand or that we simply put off because we are not motivated to do them. Some people take to new technologies easily, but others are intimidated (me), easily frustrated (me), yet ultimately grateful to have learned something once someone shepherded us through the process of figuring it out (me, me, me).

Part of my job as a success coach, then, is not just to engage with students reactively, but to proactively look for newer and better resources that might help them succeed. I seek out new innovations not just in pedagogy, but in technology. While we may and should continue the debate about the benefits and drawbacks of technology in our colleges and universities for years to come, we should never ignore the practical, on-the-ground solutions- the little things- that can make a big difference.

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.

Coach Training Based on a Firm Theoretical Foundation

Coach Training Based on a Firm Theoretical Foundation

When designing our program for training coaches we turned to some traditional student development theories and learning models as a basis for our foundation. We have done this because central to our belief is that coaching must support and engage the development of each student and to help each individual achieve his or her full potential. At its heart, coaching is the proactive effort to assist in student development and to improve their situations by facing their academic, career and life challenges through a problem-solving process. When we are successful in this, we have aided in the development of a self-directed learner and have increased the probability of retention and student success as a positive outcome for the institution.

Our Model: CARMA Student Needs Theory

Students exhibit different needs as they transition into higher education, become accustomed to college and achieve their educational goals. Our CARMA Student Needs Theory provides a sound framework that is used to identify the various levels of student needs as well as the appropriate resources, referrals or interventions to meet those specific needs.

CARMA is an acronym for the first letter of each of the five major levels of the theoretical model:

  1. Collegiate Needs
  2. Academic Engagement Needs
  3. Relationships, Social Integration and Involvement Needs
  4. Meaning and Career Exploration Needs
  5. Actualization and Student Success

The CARMA model is built upon and influenced by several well known educational researchers and human and student development theorists. Let us share a few with you.

Our Foundation

Abraham Maslow, Alexander Asitin, Arthur Chickering and John Holland all provided critical insights for us. Here are some of the key concepts we have pulled into our CARMA model.

Maslow believed that every person has a strong desire to realize his or her full potential and to reach a level of “self-actualization.” He believed that helping people achieve self-actualization requires addressing specific needs.  As the base of the pyramid he identified physiological needs. Moving up the pyramid the needs progress though levels that include safety, love/belonging, and esteem. The pinnacle level is self-actualization. The take away that we incorporated into our model is that coaches must develop the ability to recognize student challenges at the lower levels prior to addressing work on higher ones. Our training is grounded on this insight.

Astin, in his theory of student involvement, believed that the quality and quantity of the student’s involvement influences the amount of student learning and development in college. In short, Astin’s Theory of Involvement states that students learn more the more they are involved in both the academic and social aspects of the collegiate experience. Coaches need to recognize that both in class and out of class experiences contribute to student success and help students succeed.

Chickering identified seven vectors of development, which contribute to the development of identity. These vectors can be thought of as a series of stages or tasks. For coaching, helping students identify barriers to development in the various vectors is the first step to success in college.   For coaching, helping students identify boulders that may be more grounded in managing emotions and establishing identity may be necessary prior to discussing academic and career goals.  Like Astin, Chickering reinforces the belief that success in college is more than academic competency and his theory provides insight to and a road map of those areas that may require attention.

John Holland’s work on career interests and vocational personality is central to our coaching efforts. Holland identified six vocational interest patterns. Most individuals have two or three that dominate. By being aware of one’s Holland Code, a bevy of career related information and resources become available for student use and consideration during career exploration process. Making a satisfying major and career decision is often critical in helping a student develop meaning in their academic program and for his or her success in it.

Other Theorists

Some other theorists we have used to help us build the CARMA model include Donald Super and his career self-concept; Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement; and Vince Tinto on retention of college students. Collectively, the theorist we have selected all recognize that the responsible actor in college success must be the student. However, with focused assistance, the path to success can be made much easier for them with coaching.


In short, we have built our coach training on firm theoretical and research grounds. So when it comes to helping students with the challenges they face, our approach is not to find a quick fix, but to contribute to the institutional and higher education mission of learning and student development.

Dr. George Steele is the former Executive Director of the Ohio Learning Network (OLN). Before his work at OLN, George directed the advising program at The Ohio State University for undecided and major-changing undergraduate students. George has written publications addressing academic and career advising theory, use of technology in advising, and assessment of the use of technology for student services and distance learning. George has been a member of the National Academic Advising Association for over 25 years, has held numerous leadership positions in that organization and has been recognized by it for his work and contributions.


Finding Great Success Coaches

Finding Great Success Coaches

We have been fortunate at my institution during the past several years, to be able to hire excellent Success Coaches. All of them are part-time employees and they like it that way. Almost all are retired from their careers and just want to work a few hours a week doing something that is rewarding and allows them to use their skills and experience to help young students. We have individuals whose careers included serving as high school counselors, teachers, human resource manager, college learning center director, adjunct professors, and men and women who have worked in business or government.

Most of our coaches have inquired about the positions because someone told them about our program. I have already had two guidance counselors from neighboring school districts who want to be part of this endeavor when they retire in the next year or so.  For teachers and guidance counselors, it is a natural fit. One of the first things we discuss in an interview with a potential coach is his or her love of young people and the patience sometimes required to see results. After all, our students are EMERGING adults.

We know that being a good and intuitive listener is vital, as well as having or being able to learn strategies for managing the many different boulders that students face. We talked about “The Many Faces of a Success Coach” in a previous post and discussed what skills and abilities are needed to be effective. I orient new coaches to our coaching methodology and introduce them to the resources available on campus for students who need help in any aspect of college life.  Speakers and workshops on various topics are provided for our coaches during the year and we share with each other tips that have worked for us in our coaching.

We have a really great coach this semester who lives about 60 miles from the University. She comes in once a week to meet with her students for a half hour each, then uses Skype from her home to meet with them the second half hour.  One of the Success Coach offices has a camera on the computer for this purpose. Students go to the office on a specific day and time to meet with the coach. It is working very well and enables us to hire good coaches from some distance away.

All of us use email, mobile phone and texting to keep in touch with students during the week. Our coaches who also happen to be grandparents love the response they get when their grandchildren learn that “Grandma can text?!” Yes, for some it has been an adventure into the world of cyberspace. We are awaiting the next new technological device that will make communicating even easier.

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.

Coaching Non-Traditional Students Part 1: International Students

Coaching Non-Traditional Students Part 1: International Students

While each and every student who arrives on a college campus comes with a unique set of experiences, just as each human being on this planet has his or her own story to tell, the majority of incoming college freshmen have similar biographies: most are between the ages of 18-20 and have graduated from an American high school of some kind within the previous six to eighteen months. However, there are a few categories of students we classify as “non-traditional” for one reason or another; for example, older students who have been out of the education system for five, ten, or maybe even thirty years before deciding to either finish a degree they started years ago or attend college for the first time. Also, over the last ten years our universities have seen more and more veterans entering college having just come back from a war zone. Some of these veterans find themselves trying to “make it” in the world of higher education while simultaneously dealing with the effects of PTSD or traumatic brain injury; others simply may find it difficult to adjust to college life after multiple deployments overseas.

International students, especially those for whom English is a second language, also face some unique challenges. Students in these “non-traditional” categories face many of the same boulders in the road as their more traditional peers, but there are a few extra boulders that students in each of these groups often face, and it is our job as success coaches to never take a one-size fits all approach which prohibits us from serving these students effectively.

Let’s start with international students. At my independent university with an on-campus, undergraduate student population of 1500, 10% of those enrolled full-time are international students. This year, we have 154 international students from 33 countries, in addition to those who are enrolled online or part-time. Over the years, my success coach colleagues and I have worked with international students who come to us on either academic probation, academic warning, or semester warning, and I’ve found that, while many of the reasons they have fallen short mirror those of their American counterparts, there are generally two categories in which International students have unique needs or issues.

1. ACADEMICS: Academically, international students who are assigned a success coach are neither generally more prepared nor less prepared than American students for college coursework; however, I have seen two things, time and again, get in the way of a student’s success: English proficiency and differences in academic structures in their home countries v. in the United States. Imagine reading a finance textbook for the first time. Now imagine doing so in a language other than your native tongue. All non-native English speaking students are required to pass tests in English proficiency before entering college (such as the TOEFL), but being able to speak, read, and write in English is not the same as begin able to fully grasp a concept like quantum physics or Jungian v. Freudian theories of psychoanalysis when taught to you in your second or even third language.

Sometimes, with my non-native speakers, I guide them toward resources like software programs that can read textbooks aloud, while other times we work directly on improving their English. With some students, such as a girl named Claire I worked with who was from the UK, it’s not the language but the structure of our educational system that takes a little getting used to. Claire came to me as a transfer from a university in England where nearly all of the academic heavy lifting was done in the last year of school. Because the structure is so heavily skewed towards final exams at the end of a three or four-year process, many students (Claire included) figure they can spend the first two years of school sleeping late, skipping class, and playing darts at the pub, then, in the final year, cram in preparation for these highly important projects and exams. And while I am not experienced enough in higher education in the UK to judge the wisdom of such a plan, I can tell you that it’s not going to work at most American universities. Once Claire and I worked together to adjust her work habits to the new status quo, she did beautifully, but it did take some adjustment.

2. CULTURE SHOCK: To varying degrees, most international students experience, as Claire did, some kind of culture shock when adapting to life and school in a foreign country. For these students, maybe even more than for the rest of our student body, it helps to have a success coach who they talk to on a weekly basis. I get asked questions on topics anywhere from “what am I supposed to do with a parking ticket?” to “I think I have a cold, what should I get at the chemist?” One of my new students this semester, a Kuwaiti named Hassan, is just now experiencing his first, Ohio winter and wanted advice on driving in the snow. I’ve also helped shepherd international students through cultural differences in the ways in which American students and professors interact with one another.

A few years ago, another of my Chinese students was having major problems understanding the concepts in one of her classes, and I advised her to go directly to her professor, either after class or at office hours. “Julie” (her English name) told me in meeting after meeting that she would, but each time I asked her whether she’d spoken with her professor, she demurred. I suspected that Julie may have been affected by cultural differences between the relationships of professors to students here versus in her native China. Americans generally prize egalitarianism, as evidenced by the informality and comfortability with which many of our college professors and their students interact. We expect students to treat their professors with respect, but professors are not generally thought of as so high status as to be unapproachable. Julie was so intimidated by the thought of talking to her professor directly that instead she suffered in silence, letting her grades slip into the danger zone.

Similarly, American culture generally prizes initiative. We are encouraged to voice our opinions, talk in class, and initiate conversations with strangers. These cultural attitudes can seem anywhere from awkward to anathema to students from some, more culturally reserved or socially-hierarchical countries. Some cultures have different de facto rules concerning things like punctuality, plagiarism, or bribery, all of which I have encountered during my tenure as a success coach. Whatever the cultural hurdle, I make it clear to my students that I am there for them no matter what to help them achieve success.

In the end, we are all more alike than we are different, and often international students who end up with success coaches face the same boulders in the road as their American counterparts. I’ve had international students who struggle in class due to a language barrier, but I’ve also had those who just didn’t go to class or turn in their homework on time! I’ve had some who failed a course because they were too intimidated by the professor to get help, and I’ve seen some who failed because they just didn’t study! However, even some of these common boulders can become mountains with the added realities of attending a college or university in a new country. In the next couple of blogs, I will be touching upon specific issues faced by veterans, older students, and other “non-traditional” types, but for now, I will just say Sayonara. Adios. Adieu. Shalom. Ma’a Salama. Arrivederci.

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.

Teaching Students the Art of Effective Scheduling

Teaching Students the Art of Effective Scheduling

  1. “Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time!” Brandon exclaimed as he sat down across from me. “I thought, if I can fit all my classes back to back on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then I would have five days a week to study or work at the coffee shop or…”

“Or nap or play video games or hang out with your girlfriend?” I teased. Brandon blushed.

“Yeah, okay, I guess I thought about that too. But it seemed to make perfect sense! And now, I find that I spend all day Wednesday exhausted, recouping from a marathon Tuesday, until I realize on Wednesday night that I have to do literally all my reading for every class before the next day. Then, I do my marathon Thursday and spend all day Friday exhausted and recouping. Then it’s the weekend, and I tell myself I’m going to spend it chained to my desk, but then….”

“Weekend stuff happens?” I asked, knowingly. Brandon nodded. “Yup,” he replied. “If I want one of my buddies to knock on my door with an invitation to fun-town, all I have to do is try to get some work done. It’s like the universe can hear the sound of a textbook being cracked open and immediately sends in something or someone to thwart me.”

So much of my job is about the little things a student just can’t know unless either A) he or she has been there, done that, or B) been given the skinny by someone who has been there. A lot of these little things have to do with structuring your own time, a skill at which most college students are relatively inexperienced. I’ve mentioned it in previous blogs, but I know that I always benefit from reminding myself how different my own life was in high school vs. college. For most of us, we spend our first eighteen or nineteen years having our entire lives structured for us, then we enter into a university setting or the world of work and suddenly all these decisions are largely or solely our own.

Now that I have indeed “been there done that,” I can pass some of these pearls of scheduling wisdom on to my students. And the key word, as in many of life’s big challenges is: balance. I’ve seen a lot of my students, especially freshmen, go down Brandon’s road. Brandon thought he could have his cake and eat it too by over-scheduling two days of his week so that the other five would be relatively free, but he soon found himself completely out of balance. He was exhausted, over-exerted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while the lack of structure on his Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays left him feeling less free than at sea. He hadn’t yet learned the careful art of structuring one’s free time to be both balanced and productive, and it was making him feel stressed and like he was always playing catch-up on sleep, on work, on everything.

So at the beginning of a new semester, in addition to going over a student’s various syllabi, we look at his or her schedule together. I’ve seen some students who’ve gone even further than Brandon, trying to cram all of their classes into one day, sometimes not even leaving themselves time for lunch. I try to play out the likeliest outcome of this plan. “Okay,” I say, “your first class is at 9 a.m., and you haven’t given yourself a break until 1:30. So, knowing that you won’t be able to get lunch until almost 2 p.m., you tell yourself you’re going to get up early and make sure you have a good breakfast. But you stayed up late studying the night before, and come morning that snooze button is really calling your name. So you give in to the sweet indulgence of five or, well, twenty-five (it’s so cozy in here and so cold out there!) minutes in bed, and now you’re lucky if you have time to grab a cup of coffee and a banana before frantically diving into the last available desk of your 9 a.m. class at 8:59.” Once students can see the realistic trajectory of a particular plan of action, they better understand its drawbacks.

We also talk about how long things actually take. A student may think it only takes him twenty minutes to get dressed, eat breakfast, and walk to class when it actually takes him forty. Another may really, truly believe that it will only take her an hour or two to write a ten-page paper only to find herself, four hours after she’s begun and one hour until her submission deadline, typing the last sentence of a now rushed, somewhat sloppy introduction.

In addition, my students and I talk about balancing their course loads. I try to bring up the questions that students don’t even know to ask such as, “how many of your courses are writing intensive? Is it too many to confidently complete the amount of writing you will be assigned? Where are your academic weak spots? If it’s math, are you taking more than one math class at a time? If so, will you be spending so much time trying to slog through these classes that your performance in other areas will suffer? I also have more and more students who are taking courses either fully or partially online.

While online courses are, in my opinion, changing the face of higher education for the better, some students may just see them as a shortcut (I’ll never have to give a presentation in front of a roomful of people! I can go to class in my pajamas while simultaneously watching funny cat videos on Youtube!). However, acing an online course actually requires a great deal of self-discipline, and I don’t think I’m the only human in history who has gone down the rabbit hole that always begins with, “okay, but this time I’m going to be really really self-disciplined.” (diets, New Years’ resolutions, promises to totally keep it to just two Youtube cat videos a day- I’m lookin’ at you!)

Now, some students do have experience with creating daily, weekly, and semester-long schedules which set them up for the greatest possible success. Some people are naturally disciplined, punctual, always on task. Sure, and some people never have a bad hair day! Life isn’t fair! But for many of the students who end up walking into either my office or that of one of my success coach colleagues, scheduling is just another piece of the learning curve- a piece that I am happy to help them fit into the puzzle of collegiate success.

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.

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.