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Preventing At-Risk Students From Falling Through the Cracks

Preventing At-Risk Students From Falling Through the Cracks

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

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

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

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

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Navigating the Waters of Student Financial Aid

Navigating the Waters of Student Financial Aid

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Family Matters

Family Matters

Remember the summer before you went to college? I remember it vividly. In addition to time spent with friends talking about how weird it was that high school was over, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what the next four years would be like. Soon, I would tell myself when to get up and when to go to bed and how late I could stay out. I could eat nothing but cookies if I wanted to! Though I loved my family dearly, I couldn’t wait to strike out on my own, to live by my own rules under my own (well, sort of) roof.

But moving away from home for the first time can be as strange and unmooring as it is exciting, and many college students are surprised at how difficult it can be to balance campus life with the tug of home and family. I’ve worked with more than a few students for whom that tug became a major boulder in their road to success. The reasons why students can sometimes get sidetracked by family issues range from the simple, such as fear of missing out on family events, to complex situations like divorce and domestic abuse.

One of the most difficult things that can happen to any student is to be far from home when a health crisis hits the family. While there have been anecdotes about the student whose grandmother, grandfather, two uncles, a great aunt, dog, and guinea pig all died within the span of his freshman year and all required his leave of absence, it is true that many students enter college at about the age when their grandparents’ health really does start to decline. The sense of fear of and/or guilt over “not being there” is even more acute when it’s a parent or sibling who falls ill. A few years ago, I worked with a young woman whose mother learned she had cancer at the same time that doctors were trying to save her husband’s life following a heart attack. My student, understandably, wanted to go home immediately. She went back for a weekend, after which her parents practically forced her to return to school.

Of course, some events in life are more important than any lecture on macroeconomics, and some students can afford to leave school for a week or more and be just fine, but for those who are already walking a razor’s edge between success and failure, these “should I stay or should I go” decisions can carry enormous weight. For example, I worked with a student whose family decided to book a cruise during the week of final exams. I tried to tell him that, as hard as it would be to miss something like that, it was in his best interest not to go on the trip. Unfortunately, there was no one in the world who would have been able to convince him not to go. In the end, he missed all of his finals, and his grades suffered tremendously because of it.

Often, when students struggle due to separation from their families, either because they feel sad that they are missing out on the good stuff or guilty that they are not there to help with or even fix the bad, I try to tap into the root cause of their worries. “Are you worried about your mom, or grandma, or brother?” I ask. They nod. “Well,” I say, “the best thing you can do for them is to work hard and do well. If you are not fully invested in your life and studies here, you’re just adding to the worries the person you are worried about is experiencing.” Put in those terms, students are better able to see how what can feel like abandoning the family is actually contributing to its long term good. That notion alone can assuage some of the guilt these students feel and enable them to re-focus on their goals.

I also know that when a student needs something that I, as a success coach, can’t provide, it is my job to connect that student with the resources and people who can. I have referred numerous students to our on-campus counselors- like my student Joseph, who was torn apart by the knowledge that every day he stayed at school was another day his mother’s boyfriend was likely abusing her, or Jessie, whose only family consisted of an aunt and uncle who, she felt, were just happy to be rid of the burden of caring for her. Their stories serve as a constant reminder that these boulders are real and can seem intransigent at times, but that my job as a success coach is to try to budge the un-budgeable. To bridge the unbridgeable. To do whatever I can to ensure that one more student has the tools, skills, and resources he or she needs to succeed.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Talking The Talk: Teaching Students to Communicate Effectively and Professionally

Talking The Talk: Teaching Students to Communicate Effectively and Professionally

I could almost feel Amara’s nervousness grow as we made our way across campus. “Just tell your professor exactly what you told me,” I gently reminded her. She nodded, but kept her eyes forward. To witness this scene, you’d think Amara was on her way to confess that she had plagiarized or cheated on an exam- or that the professor in question was domineering or arrogant. None of this was the case. Amara was simply nervous about doing something with which she had very little experience- talking directly with a teacher about a problem she was having in class. Even in high school, she admitted, she had simply sat in the back and largely gone unnoticed. Now she was in college, and regardless of the personalities or seeming levels of approachability of her professors, their status and resumés intimidated her. Amara had been barely treading water in this particular class for awhile but had been unable to avail herself of the easiest solution: talking to her professor and asking for help.

While Amara’s case might be extreme, it’s not unusual. I have found that a huge boulder for many of my students is a lack of communication skills, especially when it comes to communicating with authority figures- from professors and coaches to deans, job recruiters, and internship advisors. Part of my job as a success coach has been to help students develop communication tools crucial for success in college but that are also transferable to the professional world. In addition to my work as a success coach, I also teach a course in business etiquette and interview skills to juniors and seniors at my university, and I often parlay the same advice to my freshmen and sophomores as it applies to their college careers. I remind them that it’s not just about being smart and working hard but about how they interact with classmates and professors.

In the real world, careers are made and lost on issues of etiquette, dress, trustworthiness, dependability, attitude, and ability to work as a member of a team. What is the umbrella that keeps all of these ideas warm and dry? Communication. So I help my students learn to communicate confidently and professionally. Sometimes we talk through a potential meeting with a professor as if I am that professor. I make sure they are specific when communicating the problem (“I need to get my grade up” or “I’m having trouble in the class” doesn’t cut it). I try to persuade them to sit in the ‘T’ or ‘Golden’ zone in class (front row and/or middle column) so they will be sitting where the professor is in a better position to make eye contact during class, something that may make initial contact easier for both the student and the professor.

Though it may come as no surprise (in the age of Facebook and twitter) that young people might need some guidance in the art of face-to-face communication, it came as a huge surprise, to me at least, that they would need help in the online arena, particularly as communication applies to the great and once-powerful use of “electronic mail.” I can’t tell you how many students of mine view email as an antiquated form of communication. The way they talk about checking their university email, you’d think they were standing on the roofs of their dorms waiting for carrier pigeons to arrive. Most students are so used to text speak that they simply don’t know that different rules apply when sending an email to a professor or anyone else who is not a peer. I ask my students, at least at first, write these emails during our meetings. We go over emails for grammar and spelling, obviously, but also for tone and clarity. How many of us have ever sent an email (either professionally or personally) that was received in a way other than we intended? It’s not a mistake you want to make more than once or twice.

In the end, communication basically boils down to knowledge and confidence. Students need to know the rules, however nuanced, regarding effective and respectful communication with professors, administrators, and eventually employers and/or employees. They also need the confidence to walk into a room with a professor and say exactly what they want to say. For my students, some of these lessons are learned across the desk from 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.

Helping Students Find Their Niche

Helping Students Find Their Niche

It’s a fact that students who are more engaged with the campus community as a whole are more likely to stay enrolled through graduation. The primary reason for this seems obvious: students who are engaged in more than academics feel a greater social and emotional connection to their schools than those who are not. Some students have to search very little or not at all (in the case of student athletes) to find the club, team, or friend group that will become their social anchor. For these students, becoming involved is simply a matter of knowing what opportunities are out there. Our student center has a one-stop-shop website where students can find a full calendar of happenings on campus, from lectures and seminars that fill their co-curricular requirements to dodge ball games, trivia nights, and movie marathons. In addition we, like most colleges, have numerous religious and cultural clubs, performing groups, volunteer and community service organizations, fraternities and sororities, and professional associations. For the self-starting student, getting involved in extra-curricular activities can be as simple as walking through the door of a meeting.

However, those are not the students who generally walk through my door. Of course, not all students on academic probation or warning suffer from a lack of engagement in campus life. Not surprisingly, many students find themselves in academic hot water because of too much time spent on extra curricular activities and not enough on academics (and for some- “got a girlfriend or boyfriend”- is the name of their primary extra curricular). But for a notable few of my students, a lack of engagement in campus life has been a major contributing factor to their struggle with staying enrolled. Some are homesick, some are socially awkward or painfully shy, while others are experiencing culture shock for cultural or geographical reasons and have yet to find other students to whom they feel they can relate.

The first thing I do in these situations is to ask and inform. I ask about what kinds of things they were involved in back home as well as their current interests. I ask, “what gets you excited?” Once we hit on one or two things, I inform them about some of the opportunities that are available (always letting them know that, hey, if we don’t have it already, you can always start it yourself!). I will also make introductions between one of my students and others on campus who are involved in something in which he or she may be interested. I’ve even gone so far as to pretend to receive an important call in the middle of a meeting so the students can talk on a student-to-student level without me in the room. (For one of my students, a freshman girl who was so shy that she rarely left her room for any reason other than to attend class, I knew that this innocent bit of trickery was the only way I would ever get her to talk to other students on her own.)

In the end, the most important thing I can do for students who feel isolated on campus or who haven’t realized how important and rewarding getting involved can be is to lay out the facts for them. 1) They are more likely to graduate if they not only have a full class schedule but also a full campus life. 2) Many college friends become lifelong friends, and many college activities can lead to lifelong passions and even careers. 3) No matter what anyone tells you, ALL college students are somewhat nervous about putting themselves out there, making new friends, and getting involved; however, while trying new things and meeting new people can be difficult and awkward at first, sooner or later people realize that, without even knowing it, they’ve gotten comfortable, confident, and connected.

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.

Deficiencies in Student Preparedness for College Coursework

Deficiencies in Student Preparedness for College Coursework

In my experience, the main deficiencies in student preparedness for college coursework include:

A) inadequate knowledge in core areas

B) little experience in proactive learning (i.e. not just following directions but taking initiative and forging one’s own educational path)

C) misguided expectations.

Many colleges and universities do a great deal to help students with the first two of these issues, but what about the third? And what do I mean when I refer to students’ “misguided expectations”? Well, take my student Samantha. Sam came to me second semester her freshman year after a dismal fall. Before we met, I looked at her high school transcript and found she had made A’s and B’s all four years. She was a model student, so why had she fallen so far in one semester of college? When we met, I realized that while I was surprised by Sam’s poor showing, Sam herself was stunned. “I don’t understand?!” she kept saying, “I did everything just like I did in high school!”

Aha! After a little digging, it became apparent that Sam had done very little rigorous work in order to earn above a C in most of the high school classes. “Attendance counted for 30% of my grade,” she said proudly, “and I never missed a day.” So I started asking Sam more specific questions. How many hours of reading and writing homework did she have in any given week? How much did her teachers grade her on exams, papers, and long-term projects and how much on worksheets, open-note quizzes, and participation? In her academic classes, were A’s and B’s difficult to come by or given out pretty freely to those who at least put some thought into the assignment and turned it in on time?

Sam’s answers to my questions were simultaneously depressing and illuminating. It made me want to shake the entire education system by its shoulders, shouting “this is not working!” It also, however, really cracked the nut of why Sam had done so poorly. She had worked moderately hard in high school in order to meet expectations, and so her experience-based conclusion seemed sound at the time she entered college. “I will work moderately hard at a moderately difficult task,” she told herself, “and I will get a good grade.” Until her seemingly sound expectation was met with a different reality…

I wanted to know more about the rigor (or lack thereof) of coursework for high school students in 2013, so I called my daughter. My daughter lives in one of the largest cities in America and has taught students in public, private, and charter schools, from the most underfunded to the most well-off, and everything in between. I asked her: in her experience, how much do “college prep” tracks really prepare students for college?

The short answer, she told me, is that it varies tremendously but that there are clear ways in which some schools get it right and others get it wrong. The schools in which students seem the least prepared, according to my daughter, are those in which time is heavily structured for them, most assignments are short-term, there is a lack of emphasis on assignments that involve writing, and grading is inconsistent (i.e.- students are either unclear on what is expected of them in order to receive a particular grade, or they find that grading does not always match up with expectations, leading them to believe that this is just another thing outside of their control). The best schools, she said, are structured more like college, or at least become more so in the students’ junior and senior years. These schools turn over a lot of the responsibility for scheduling and time management to students, expect them to complete both short and long-term assignments, many of which involve writing five to twenty pages, and grade students in a tough but consistent, fair manner.

Now we, as success coaches, cannot turn all mediocre high schools into excellent ones, but we can talk to our students more right at the beginning of their college careers about expectations. Had Samantha understood right away that she would have to work much harder than ever before to make the same grades, she might have avoided academic warning. Most students want to be pushed and challenged. Most want to be given an opportunity to show that they can achieve. Once we fully understand how high the bar has been raised, almost all of us want to prove to the world as well as ourselves that we can reach it.

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.

 

 

 

 

Student Coaching in College Produces Better Retention and Graduation Rates

Student Coaching in College Produces Better Retention and Graduation Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Leveraging the Benefits of the Tutorial Center

Leveraging the Benefits of the Tutorial Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Standing Guard at the Edge of the Cliff

Standing Guard at the Edge of the Cliff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Online Education and Online Success Coaching

Online Education and Online Success Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.