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The truth that dare not speak it’s name – Failure

The truth that dare not speak it’s name – Failure

Most of my time as a success coach is spent trying (and blogging about trying) to take a student who has found him or herself in academic trouble and help turn the situation around. It’s about fixing- finding out what works. But what happens when nothing is working? What happens when the problem does not get fixed? We talk a good game about the necessity of failure, just as in the dead of a polar vortex we cling to aphorisms reminding us that without winter there would be no spring, but when it comes down to it, we hate hate hate the polar vortex, and failure…well, it’s just a big, ugly, dirty word.

While the graduation rates for students in the success coaching program at my university is only going up, every year we have students who end up being dismissed from the university. Some come back and graduate, as was the case with a former student of mine whose journey to a bachelor’s degree lasted a bumpy six years, but whose smile as he walked across the stage to receive his diploma was even larger because of it. Some leave and enroll elsewhere. Others seemingly drop off the map.

So why do these students fail, and when they do, how do we help them figure out what’s next? Most of my students who have been dismissed or have left the university are those who just never get their acts together. Most of them really want a degree, but they don’t really know why or can’t see what it’s going to do for them. Some of these students never quite grasp that college isn’t high school or, more accurately, a video game. In college, you can’t just restart every time you fall off the cloud into the river of alligators. After a certain number of falls, you’re alligator lunch. That’s what happened this past year with Paul, a student of mine who almost never went to class, did not turn in work, and then went on a cruise with his family two weeks before exams. When he returned, he asked his professor if she could give him the dates he’d missed while sunning himself in the Caribbean. “Was it so he could make up the work?” she asked. No, he replied, it was so that he could retroactively get a doctor’s note saying he’d been sick those days. And yes, this really is a true story.

For students like Paul, there’s not much else to do but give some tough love. Once they’re in a room with no doors but the exit, these students almost always realize that they’re primarily responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. Sometimes the darkness of failure itself illuminates for them both the opportunity they’ve just squandered as well as the way to turn it around. Sometimes, they still need a little outside illumination. This is when we talk about hard truths. “You can mess up for awhile, and indeed messing up is part of the process” I begin, “but at some point, the opportunity goes away, and you will find yourself regretting its loss.”

I’ve had other students, however, who ended up dropping out or being dismissed when the primary boulder in the road was not motivation at all but lack of ability. This is another discussion educators have trouble with, but it happens nonetheless. In particular, I remember a freshman I once had who was failing every class a few weeks into the term. Once we started talking about his classes, it became instantly clear that he simply could not do the work. He said as much, his professors said as much, and it was obvious that this lack of ability even to comprehend his textbooks was making him miserable. So we had a conversation about other options. I broached the subject carefully, as I knew that Sean was the first in his family to go to college and therefore was under a lot of pressure to stay and succeed. I asked him how he felt about life on campus, and then I asked him what he would do if he wasn’t here. What did he like to do? What was he passionate about? He said that he loved cars. What about going to school to become a high-level mechanic, I asked? His eyes lit up immediately, and for the next fifteen minutes he told me more than I ever wanted to know about cars. A month later, after some difficulties convincing his mother that this was the right choice, I called Sean to check in. He had started training as a mechanic at a vocational school near his home, and he was loving it. “I am doing so well here, I really love it, AND I already have a job!” he exclaimed.

Sometimes you have to know when the student is telling you, “this is not working.” When that happens, it’s not necessarily a failure on the coach’s part (though both failure and polar vortexes are necessary sometimes!); it just means that the next part of the job is opening that student up to greater truths and possibilities.

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.

Test Anxiety Part 2: The Prescription

Test Anxiety Part 2: The Prescription

In the last blog, I wrote about the different ways in which test anxiety can manifest itself in a student’s performance, so now it’s time to answer the question: what, as a success coach, can I do about it? How can I most effectively coach my students around this type of psychological boulder in the road? While there is no magic bullet, there are ways to help students overcome test anxiety.

MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR ENEMY

The biggest thing I tell students about nerves/anxiety/stress when it comes to taking exams is that you’re just not going to get rid of it. Not gonna happen. The only proven way to stop being nervous about something nerve-wracking is to do it hundreds, perhaps thousands of times until it is no longer nerve-wracking. But you’re not going to be able to take that economics final hundreds of times, so just get over it! But while you may not be able to completely shut out the voice in your head that looks at the first question on an important exam and immediately screams, “All systems down! Abort mission! We’re all gonna die!” – you can learn to prevent that voice from doing you harm. The voice of the second-guesser, always telling you that maybe you don’t know what you think you know, cannot be drowned out, for then it will only try harder to shout above the din. But it can be listened to and thoughtfully ignored. You can make friends with your enemy. With some of my students, I have practiced role playing conversations out-loud with these formerly silent voices. Together, we talk about how you can acknowledge the voice telling you to flee the scene or give up or make a careless error, all while understanding that that voice is full of crazy, bad advice you should not heed. Once students realize that these thoughts can be simultaneously A) completely normal and B) completely wrong, it makes them easier to handle in the moment.

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS

It’s a psychological phenomenon we’ve all experienced: when you believe you are winning, you are more likely to win. When you believe you are defeated, you are more likely to clench defeat from the jaws of victory. Likewise, students’ feelings of defeat or demoralization on a certain part of an exam can lead them to perform poorly even where they should excel. Therefore, I tell my students to complete exams according to their strengths. Most of the time, there’s no requirement that you answer every question of an exam in order. So if you are more confident writing essays than answering multiple choice questions, do all of the essays first or vice versa if the reverse is true. On a larger scale, this can even mean encouraging my students to let their course schedule play to their strengths. If a student is particularly anxious about test-taking, we look together at their prerequisites and course requirements to see if there isn’t a way to avoid taking courses wherein his or her entire grade is based on two tests. Of course, it’s always better to overcome your fears than to simply avoid what frightens you, but managing my fear of reptiles doesn’t mean I’ve got to throw myself into a snake pit.

HIT PAUSE

I love puzzles. Crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles- you name it. Through the years, I’ve learned that there are times when you’re just gonna be stuck. You’ve looked at every piece left and none of them fit! So often what I need in this scenario is to hit pause. When I come back and look at the puzzle with fresh eyes, I’ll make a breakthrough I never could have made if I’d just kept staring. It can be the same with exams. Sometimes students are afraid to take a moment to reset out of fear of losing time, even though that’s exactly what might help them the most.

“YOU CAN DO ANYTHING FOR 20 SECONDS”

….is something a fitness instructor once said to me in the middle of a particularly grueling workout, and I’ve taken it to heart. It’s also something I remind my students who tend to want to give up when the going gets rough. For these students, the most effective tactic is often the polar opposite of “hit pause,” for they are the ones who already have one foot out the door. It’s a mantra that can help whether the grueling task in question is scheduled to last 20 seconds or 20 minutes. The most important thing is that the student knows that, at some point, this too shall pass, but if they maximize their time and just focus for a little bit longer- they, too will pass…the class.

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.

Test Anxiety Part 1: The Diagnosis

Test Anxiety Part 1: The Diagnosis

You can be thirty years removed from your school days and still have them- the dreams. It’s the day of the test, but you’ve forgotten all about it until you’re walking to class and suddenly it hits you like a Mack truck. Or you think you’re really going to ace this one until you receive your exam and it’s about a completely different subject! Or the questions are written in ancient Greek! Whether we thought of ourselves as naturally “good” test takers or “bad,” those sweat-inducing dreams are a testament to the power of test anxiety.

I have worked with many students whose anxiety in regards to test taking has been a particular boulder in the road. Sometimes it’s the anxiety about the anxiety that’s the biggest barrier to change, as can be the case with students who walk into my office for the first time all but wearing an “I’m just a bad test taker” sign emblazoned on their t-shirts. These are the students who have so internalized the idea that they are just “bad at tests” that, to them, it’s as fixed a part of their identity as the color of their skin. In the words of Lady Gaga, they have come to believe they were just born this way.

All test anxiety, of course, originates in the psyche. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves when the gun goes off and the race is on. In my experience, these psychological issues can be boiled down into three basic test taking experiences:

1. THE FREEZE

This happens most often to the kind of Type-A, perfectionistic student who is terrified of being wrong. She cannot make a decision on something like a multiple choice question unless she is 100% certain it is the correct one, and so she spends a lot of time making no decision at all. The freeze can also hinder the performance of the student who does not trust his instincts. Who, even when he as studied the material in depth, sees a potential trap in every question, always assuming that the test is smarter than he is and is therefore out to bring him down through trickery and deceit. This student can spend so much time trying to discern how a question or essay prompt is not as it seems that he can also become paralyzed with indecision as to how to proceed in answering it.

2. THE OUT OF BODY EXPERIENCE

These are the students who can walk out of a test with almost no memory of what just happened. There’s a disconnect between the part of their brain trying to take the test and the part that is worrying about how important and scary and difficult it all is. While one voice is calmly trying to complete a math problem, the other is running around with its hair on fire shouting, “this is 50% of my semester grade! If I don’t pass this I’ll flunk out of school and the rest of my life will be terrible and I’ll die broke and alone in a gutter having never found love!” These are the students who, because their anxiety is prohibiting them from truly focusing, can forget formulas they’ve known for years or make careless mistakes they are not even aware of at the time.

3. THE SYSTEM SHUT DOWN

These are the students, not dissimilar to those “freezers” who experience a crisis of confidence, who can get overwhelmed by a test and just shut down. One difficult part can lead them to doubt their ability to tackle something later on that might be much easier. This often happens to students who truly are underprepared for an exam, either because they didn’t study or because they are having trouble understanding the material. These students are probably not going to ace the exam under the circumstances, but they decide too quickly that difficulty with something about the test means it will be impossible for them to successfully complete anything– so they just give up. These students are justifiably frustrated, but what they don’t realize is that with some mental re-framing and a little persistence, they could turn a D into a C or a C into a B. And as GPAs go, every little bit counts.

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.

First Year Success Coaches Reflect

First Year Success Coaches Reflect

With this spring semester (and the daily irony of a “spring” semester full of more ice and snow than we’ve seen in years is not lost on me) coming to a close, I took some time to get feedback about our success coach program from the people who, not including our students, are the most intimately involved in it: the coaches themselves. Specifically, I spoke with our two first year success coaches regarding their experiences so far. Here’s an excerpt from those conversations:

“Megan”

Background:  Megan is a small business owner and mother of two. She became interested in success coaching because she found herself as mentor-in-chief in so many of the endeavors in which she was engaged. She is just one of those people that other people feel comfortable talking to, and that combined with her ability to show students what it takes to start a business in the real world, made her a perfect fit for our program.

On her first year of coaching:  “I learned many things this year, including that the “fix” can be as simple as changing majors or as complicated as untangling the nuanced interplay between home life, academic readiness, and the myriad psychological factors that can affect a student’s sense of his or her own identity. I also learned that even the student with the toughest exterior can light up when he gets a good grade, or when you point out something good he’s done despite the fact that all signs seem to point to failure. I learned that lack of confidence can be misinterpreted as laziness- as well as the amazing turnarounds that have been made possible by knowing the difference.”

Here I asked Megan to go into a little more detail on that last point:   “Well,” she began, “I had a student named Jake who came to me this spring with a very  low GPA.”  I remembered him well. A few weeks into spring semester, he seemed to be following the same playbook he had in the fall: skipping classes, missing meetings with his coach. Finally, Megan and I checked with his RA to make sure he was alright (as sometimes mental health issues can also present the same surface symptoms as plain laziness). He was, and together, we sat him down for a chat. I asked him if he could help me understand what had happened fall semester. He paused, and then the flood gates opened. “I was not prepared for college work at all,” he began. “I couldn’t do the work, so I was terrified of going to class because I was afraid the professor was going to call on me.” After a few more questions, I asked him what he thought about the idea of going home and enrolling in community college. His eyes widened. “I could do that?!” Of course, I told him. Take some classes, see how it goes, and then make a decision as to whether or not it’s for you. If it is, you can always come back when you’re ready. By his change in mood I could immediately see how depressed and scared Jake had been. Paralyzed by his lack of self-confidence yet too proud to fully disclose the source of his troubles, he had simply holed up in his room, awaiting his eventual failing grades.

“Linda”

Background: Linda spent over 30 years in education, first as a teacher and later as a school principal, before retiring last year. At first, she was hesitant to get into something else right away after retirement, but after her first semester as a success coach, she was hooked.

On her first year of coaching:  “First of all, I have learned way more from them than they have from me, especially when it comes to the many skills needed to do the job. When I was  principal and students didn’t do what they were supposed to, they got detention. If I had discipline problems, I could call the parent. If a student was absent, I called the truant officer. Suddenly, as a success coach on the college level, none of those options were available. You are trying to help a student succeed based solely on the force of your personality, the motivating strategies you employ, and the quality of the bond you forge.”

Linda also talked a bit about some of her initial misconceptions.  “I guess I thought that high school graduates would be more independent, but many of them are not.” (Of course, we are working with the students who come into school already on academic probation and are therefore less likely than others to be self-motivated and independent upon enrolling as freshmen.) “Many of my students didn’t really know why they were here. If they played a sport, that could be used as a motivating factor, but if not, many only knew that college was the next step in their educational journeys but not why.”

Linda summed up her experience this way. “You have to listen to students because you truly are a bit of a detective. They are always telling you what the issue is, but it may not be in the words they say. You have to read between the lines, translate, look at body language and, often, do some digging.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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.

Answering Questions From Professors About Success Coaching – Part 3

Answering Questions From Professors About Success Coaching – Part 3

Question #3:  What’s the difference between a student having a success coach and working with professors during office hours?

A success coach’s job is not to help students with their classwork (though we’ve been known to read a chapter or two with a student or spend a session digging into some material with which he or she is particularly struggling), but to make sure they can successfully access the resources on campus that provide help. This includes seeing professors during office hours which, of course, has tremendous value, but it can also mean connecting a student with a tutor or group session. To some, this can seem like unnecessary “middle-manning.” Why can’t students just find those resources themselves? Why don’t they just make an appointment with a professor or walk into the tutoring center and ask for a tutor? Well, some students can. Some students arrive on campus with the maturity and self-assurance to walk right up to a professor after class and announce that they need a little one-on-one time, but many don’t. Some are savvy enough to seek out resources like tutoring or a study group, but some don’t even know where to begin. And for those students, it can be harder than you think to get them to actually follow through.

Success coaches have a broader, more holistic view of a student’s workload and life in general than a professor or a faculty advisor may be able to have. Because I am looking at the big picture, I may know that registering for two writing-intensive courses might be perfectly okay for Student A but potentially disastrous for Student B. I know that, because Student C is involved in a sport during a particular semester, it’s even more important that he manage his time well and stay healthy.

I have also found that, because our relationship with students exists solely in a student/coach capacity (we have no power to influence a student’s GPA, for example), students often open up to us earlier and more fully than they might a professor or even faculty advisor. As part of a recent effort to redevelop our first year experience program, we sent a questionnaire to our current upperclassmen regarding the ways in which they thought we could improve students’ experiences as freshmen. Many of these juniors and seniors noted that, despite the ways in which we tried to foster relationships between students and their freshman seminar instructors, many students were reluctant to do so. Students reported not wanting to tell these instructors- who are all professors at the university- about their personal lives or academic struggles because they felt like that information might work against them if in the future they took a course with that professor.

Professors, faculty advisors, counselors, athletic coaches, and success coaches are all part of the same team, though each team member has a different primary function and focus when it comes to helping students succeed. With everyone working together, we can increase retention and graduation rates in our universities and colleges. 

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.

Answering Questions From Professors About Success Coaching – Part 2

Answering Questions From Professors About Success Coaching – Part 2

Question #2:  What are the main reasons so many first year students do poorly and end up on academic warning or probation after the fall semester?

From the perspective of the success coaches who end up with these students, there are two issues that we see most often:

1. A student misses a class, then misses another one and then before they know it, they find themselves in trouble in the course.  Why do they decide not to go to class?  Answers from my students: “I can just choose not to go. No one is making me go”.  “Someone told me you can miss a class, it won’t matter”. “I am so tired that I just had to take a nap”.  “My friends were going to ________  and I wanted to go”.  Answers are many and varied.  Most of these reasons fall under the category of “no one is making me go”.  We have to be able to motivate students to see beyond this semester, this week, today, this hour.  Many students have difficulty with motivating themselves to get up, go to class, turn in assignments and stay focused.  This is decidedly NOT high school and there is no principal to call a truant officer when a student misses a class.  One of our success coaches is a former high school principal who laughs when she recalls how easy it was to just hand attendance issues over to a truant officer.  She could also use detention and calling parents as motivators. None of these are available to us at the college level. We had better have great motivating stories to tell as well as tricks up our sleeves to help students change directions.

2.  Assignments are to be done well and turned in ON TIME!  Problems arise when students get behind in just one course not to mention two or three.  I have had students working in my office to make sure they are finishing a paper or an assignment or just reading the material.  They often leave thanking me for making them do their work.  Somehow we both overlook the fact that I can’t MAKE them do anything.  At the end of each semester, students in the success coach program turn in evaluations for the coaches who guided them through the fourteen weeks.  Many times we see: “It was great to have someone who held me accountable”.

Weight Watchers found this out years ago when they started group meetings for weight loss. People do better when they are held accountable by peers, parents, professors, program evaluators, etc.  Being held accountable is exactly what students will encounter in the “real world” when they are working and reporting to someone above their pay grade. We hope that all future doctors, accountants, intelligence officers, plumbers, etc. had someone hold them accountable for learning the knowledge and skills they will need.

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.

Answering Questions From Professors About Success Coaching

Answering Questions From Professors About Success Coaching

Question 1: (Actual question from a real professor)

What do you success coaches do anyway? Your student is failing my English 152 class.

Answer: When we know a student is failing a class, we first try to see if it because the student is A) not attending class, B) not taking notes or reading the material, C) not turning in assignments on time (or not turning in assignments period), or D) unprepared for this level of class. To find out this information, we check SAT/ACT scores, high school grades, and talk with the student about previous experiences in this subject.

When a student is failing, we first want the student to see the professor to ask for help and, in the worst case scenario, to see if there are enough points left to gain in the semester to allow the student to pass the course with at least a C. We also want him or her to discuss with the professor whether it would be more advantageous to drop the course and take the same or a lower level course next semester. Some students are intimidated on visits to professors and don’t readily give out information about their past academic challenges. If students trust their success coaches (and we have found this to be true in the vast majority of cases), they will open up to disclose the real issues with their academics. And the real issues sometimes don’t have anything to do with their ability to do the work. They may be have a substance abuse problem, physical or mental health issues, issues concerning relationships with family or a significant other, financial stress, or any of a host or other stresses. Then there are the most common problems: procrastination and time management.

As success coaches, we are very up front and straight with the students. We show them what kind of grades they must make on papers, exams, and assignments in order to pass a certain class.  We discuss all options, and together come up with a game plan. Some students come to college missing skills and knowledge in one of more subject areas, so we (as well as most institutions) have remedial level courses to address these deficiencies. But if the student is missing a few skills, then perhaps tutoring or workshops offered by the academic success center would be best. If the student, the professor, and the coach believe the best option is to drop the class, however, then that is what we do. If it happens that the subject is in their major, we have a serious discussion about their interest and/or ability to complete the courses necessary for the major.

In the end, it is the responsibility of the student to do the work necessary to not only pass the class but genuinely retain the information. Because the ultimate goal, of course, is not to simply pass classes but to develop the skills and knowledge for students to be successful at the college level so that they can graduate and go on to bigger and better things in their field. As I tell my students, “when you get out of college- you’re supposed to actually know something.”

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.

Boys to Men – Success Coaching Young Men

Boys to Men – Success Coaching Young Men

It has been well documented in recent years that women’s college graduation rates have started to outpace those of their male counterparts. In addition, more women than men are now going on to earn masters and post-doctoral degrees. There is a lot of debate about why this is and what we can do to close the disparity, but part of the solution certainly involves giving extra aid to struggling male undergraduates, especially in their first years of college.

Of the 80 students in our success coaching program this semester, more than 60 are male. Perhaps it’s that some of these students are a little less mature when they arrive, perhaps it takes male students a little longer to settle in socially than females, or perhaps, as can be the case of some of the student athletes I’ve worked with, it takes them awhile to see a college degree as a pathway to success rather than a burdensome prerequisite to NCAA eligibility. (While our female athletes can also get stuck in this mindset, most of them realize that, due to the reduced number of opportunities in professional women’s sports, they can’t necessarily count on “going pro” as Plan A.)

So how do we most effectively serve male students who are struggling? The good news is that, of all demographics, male students have been found to respond particularly well to success coaching. A study published in 2011 by Rachel Baker and Dr. Eric Bettinger of Stanford University found that while success coaching can benefit both male and female students, there is evidence to suggest that its effect is even larger for males.

One thing that has been interesting in our own program is that, while most of our students are male, most of our success coaches are female. We have and have had male coaches, but in general, it seems the job itself as well as its part-time employment status attracts a primarily female pool of former teachers and social workers. This, of course, is not the only model of a great success coach, but we find that most of our male students relate very well to our largely female staff. Who knows to what extent, but it also seems that age may be a factor, as many of our success coaches are the age of the mothers and/or grandmothers of our students. I always smile when I see a student burst into his success coach’s office to announce that he’s gotten an A on an exam with the “walls down” exuberance reserved only for certain people in his life.

I have noticed that my male students respond particularly well to a mix of maternal care and hard-nosed pushing. You’ve got to prove to a student that you care about him as a person before you can lay down the law, but once you have established mutual trust and respect, male students seem to really rise to the occasion the tougher you are on them. In fact, I’ve had a number of former students stop in my office or contact me to thank for me for “not letting them get away with anything.” It may seem cliché, but male students really do seem to excel when you outline what’s expected of them in clear terms and then push them hard to get it done.

Recently, a group of Navy Seals did a team-building workshop with our football team. One of my students, a defensive lineman who has a particularly difficult course load this semester, told me beforehand that the training was likely to be brutal. “You’re alive!” I exclaimed when he walked into my office for our next meeting. “Barely,” he replied smiling. I asked him what he had learned that might apply to his academic work. “I learned that I have the ability to ‘gut out’ just about anything,” he said. “There will be an end to this semester; until then, I just have to access that ability to be strong, keep going, and get it done.”

Yes Grasshopper, I thought, now you are catching on.

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.

Success Coaching – Willpower

Success Coaching – Willpower

All of us have, at one time or another, struggled with that unfortunate necessity: willpower. At times we have succeeded in avoiding temptation (I ordered the side salad instead of the fries!) or doing the thing we hate the most (Hello, TurboTax!). At other times, however, we have fallen short (I’m just going to open up TurboTax here and…wait…did my sister just post new, adorable pics of my nephew on facebook? I’m gonna check those out for just a sec…)

For college students, especially those who find themselves on academic probation or warning, a lack of will power and self-control is often a major if not the primary cause of their struggles in school. Academically, my students often have difficulty sticking to a study schedule, starting long term assignments early, turning in assignments on time, and even going to class. But as anyone who has been to college can attest, students need willpower outside the classroom too; after all, pizzerias don’t flock within delivery distance of every university in America because of the astronomically high earning power of college students. Many of my students have difficulty eating healthfully and exercising, which can negatively affect not just their physical and mental health but also their ability to focus and perform well academically.

So how do you teach willpower? How can a success coach help create an environment in which students can more easily build up their ability to resist temptation and accomplish difficult or undesirable tasks?

1. HOW DO YOU GET TO CARNEGIE HALL?

Practice Practice Practice! Willpower, like any other skill from mental math to shooting a free throw to meditation, takes practice. And the good news is: practicing willpower in any situation can help you be better at it when it when it really counts! Studies have shown that regularly making small decisions that require self-control (taking the stairs instead of the elevator, making one’s bed every morning, forswearing swearing when someone cuts you off in traffic) grows one’s capacity for self-control in all situations. Anything that causes you to override an impulse to either indulge (that second piece of pie) or avoid (that looming email inbox) can be good practice for when you are confronted with the situations that are really hard.

2. TARGET YOUR TRIGGERS

I always ask my students to list the things they find it most difficult to either do or avoid, and I think it’s important to make the distinction between the two. It may be difficult for me to avoid turning on the TV when I really should be studying, but succeeding in not turning on the TV doesn’t necessarily mean I have opened a textbook. There are some things we really really want to do but shouldn’t, and others we should do but really really don’t want to. Therefore, I ask my students to write down both types of trigger situations as well as to note any overlap or interrelation between the two. If I always seem to avoid working on a paper by futzing around on the internet, then perhaps I should work on the paper somewhere that doesn’t have Wifi (if I can find one in 2014) or at least turn off all notifications during the set period I have allotted for work.

3. MEASURE YOURSELF FOR A CAP AND GOWN

Many of my students are the first in their families to go to college, and so one of the things I ask them to do in situations in which they need to use a little willpower is to literally visualize the end goal: graduation day. Who is there watching you walk across the stage? Those people who are in your corner- maybe your mom or dad or grandma or that little brother who will see your success and realize that his dreams might just be achievable too- are they there? How do they look? How do you feel in your cap and gown as you wave to them from your seat among all the other graduates? Now, every time you are tempted to go to that impromptu dorm party when you really should be studying, even if you tell yourself you’ll only go for an hour before getting back to the books (a hilarious lie we have all told ourselves at some point in out lives), remind yourself of that image. You are closer to it every minute you stay above water. This doesn’t mean, of course, that any time spent partying or relaxing with friends is wrong or wasted. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and probably a pretty sad human being. It just means that, if spending two hours right now on macroeconomics will get you closer to the exhilaration of walking across the stage at graduation, the shouts from all those who have supported you and cheered you on ringing through the air, open that economics book and remind yourself that there will be another party tomorrow.

4. CARROTS AND STICKS: CARROTS ARE ACTUALLY PRETTY HEALTHY, AND STICKS SHOULDN’T KILL

We can all be pretty hard on ourselves. We fail, and instead of getting back in the game we tell ourselves, “you are so stupid for failing! No one else is failing, and if you were worth a darn you wouldn’t either!” Each of us has a different mantra that our inner critic repeats to us over and over, but we all have some version of it. With my students, I remind them that it doesn’t do much good to beat yourself up when you fall off the horse. They all have failed to some degree already, and too much self-criticism can become demoralizing and eventually defeatist. On the other hand, if you not only acknowledge your mistake but also give yourself a kindly lift back into the saddle, you will be more apt to commit to continuing the ride. Likewise, rewarding yourself for small victories can be healthy and motivating as long as you don’t let a little reward send you into full temptation gratification. “If I finish three pages, I’ll go get a mocha at the coffee shop,” can do a lot to boost energy and morale…as long as the mocha doesn’t lead you to, Augustus Gloop-style, fall headfirst into a river of chocolate.

As with everything, it’s a process. Willpower is a lifetime sport. As a success coach, I teach my students that every setback is one small step for man (or woman), and every victory…one giant leap toward achieving a worthwhile goal.

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.

Be Bad At Something…Until You’re Not

Be Bad At Something…Until You’re Not

Recently, I’ve been reading the book Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Social Psychologist and Associate Director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation and Science Center Heidi Grant Halvorson. The book is full of interesting thoughts and sage advice, but I’ve been focusing on one chapter in particular as it relates to my current crop of second semester students.

The chapter is titled, “Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good,” and it speaks to the thoroughly debunked yet pervasive notion that our aptitudes, personalities, and personal strengths and weakness are fixed. How many times have you heard someone say (and perhaps this someone is you): “I’m just bad at math.” Or, “I’m a slow reader.” I do this all the time even as an adult. “I’m good with faces,” I say to the person whose name I’ve forgotten again, “but so bad with names.”

While of course people’s brains think in different ways, and while we are usually “naturally” better at some things than others, this is no way means that we cannot get better at the things at which we struggle. A large and growing body of research has shown that abilities are, in fact, profoundly malleable. In the words of Halvorson: “embracing the fact that you can change can lead you to make better choices and reach your full potential.” While I agree with almost all of this statement, I’d like to take a moment to disagree with the idea of “full potential.” The phrase “full potential” insinuates an end point, a point at which we could not get better or go further if we tried for a million years. It seems to indicate a finite universe in which limits of time, space, and energy exist. For better or worse, I do not believe in such limits. It’s the blessing and the curse of being human. We cannot possibly achieve it all (a reality that can frustrate us and at times make it seem as if all of our striving is for naught), and we cannot possibly achieve it all (the absolute best thing there is, for it leaves another adventure always beyond the next horizon!). However, Halvorson’s main point is that we can change even the things about ourselves we believe to be fixed, and that the first step to enacting change is understanding that it is possible.

With my students, I first try to take them back in time. “When you were two years old,” I ask some of my athletes, “were you good at basketball?” They laugh. The question is absurd. “Of course not!” Then I ask, “when you were in 7th grade, were you better at basketball than you were when you were two years old?” Now it’s starting to make sense. “But when you were in 7th grade, did you think that you were the best you would ever be at basketball just because you were better than you were when you were two?” The answer to this question is a universal no.

I also remind them of something they already know because they are experiencing it: when you are inexperienced or new at something, the odds of making mistakes are naturally higher. Learning something new- whether it’s a killer jumpshot or string theory or the art of time management- can be hard. It doesn’t feel good to be bad at something. It feels bad! It can be frustrating and intimidating and at times overwhelming. But you have a choice. You can take those feelings for what they feel like– a sign that a certain skill or concept is unlearnable or simply not for you- or you can take them for what they are- the natural but temporary discomfort that comes with being a rookie.

I’ve had students who find themselves in a course that is much more difficult than anything they ever experienced in high school. They don’t understand the lectures. They don’t understand the reading. They’re scared and intimidated and they feel like giving up. So we talk about “getting better rather than being good.” Perhaps next class they get a handle on one of the concepts being discussed. Better! Perhaps they schedule a meeting with the professor or a tutor to go over the material. Better! The pressure to get it right the first time often results in many more mistakes and a far inferior performance than allowing yourself to be bad at something until, well, you’re not so bad at it anymore.

And you know what? The message is being received. Since 2007, the success coach program at my university has seen over 700 students walk through our doors. And every year, more and more former students and upperclassmen spread the word to freshman as well as older students who find themselves struggling. All of my students this semester knew about the program before our first meeting. They knew friends, classmates, or teammates who had worked with a success coach in the past, and this kind of word-of-mouth support for the program has basically erased any and all stigma that could be attached to needing academic help. Students entering the program now see it for the tool that it is: a headlamp, a compass, a rope thrown down to the bottom of the well.

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.