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The Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns

Last month I wrote about helping first-year students begin to speak the “language of college,” and in that discussion I was reminded of the many things we take for granted that students must know when they arrive, but don’t. Before doctors can treat an illness, they must first diagnose it, just as before any of us can solve a problem, we must first identify it. At times this can be relatively easy: if a patient walks into a hospital with a broken leg, well, he’s probably going to need a cast. But other problems are not so easy to diagnose.

The most difficult situation, of course, is when we don’t know what we don’t know. These unknown unknowns prevent us from even understanding where to start problem-solving, and this is the reality many of my students find themselves facing when they first walk in my door. So one of the first questions I always ask is, “why do YOU think you have ended up on academic probation or warning?” The answer is usually the most obvious one: “my grades weren’t very good.” I see this response as a portal, an entryway into a discussion that can go quite deep as students explore the real, foundational causes of their academic troubles.

Take Bryce, a student I began working with after his disastrous first semester at school. Bryce had come in as a freshman business major with grades good enough not to have been immediately placed in the Success Coaching program. However, his fall semester grades had been dismal. So when we met, I asked him the question: “why do YOU think your fall grades were what they were?” Bryce punted at first, but eventually he got around to what I already knew from talking to some of his professors. “Well, he finally admitted, “I guess I missed a lot of classes.” That was an understatement. According to my informal investigation, Bryce had simply not gone to pretty much any of his classes. Ever. This, of course, got us closer to the issue, but there were still layers upon layers yet to discover. Why hadn’t he gone to class?

The reasons why students make the decisions they do, of course, are varied and complex. Sometimes they are not even fully aware of why they do what they do, for late adolescence is a veritable cornucopia of unknown unknowns. Thankfully with Bryce, we eventually got to the bottom of it. It turns out that he had decided to major in business because he thought that would be the most effective way to help his family out financially once he graduated, but once he got into business courses, he found them both painfully boring and not at all well-suited to his skill set and strengths. The fact that he hated the classes caused him to lose motivation, and in the vacuum left behind crept in the fear and the shameful thought, “what if I just can’t hack it even if I wanted to?” So he didn’t go to class. He couldn’t go. And once he had missed enough class, the reality of his failure made finding a way out seem impossible.

None of this, of course, Bryce realized consciously while it was happening. He was too consumed by bigger, scarier questions: “If not this, then what? If not the future I planned, then what kind of future will take its place, especially if I’m not cut out for college?” But once we got to the root of it, once we diagnosed the problem, we were in a position to start fixing it. Soon we were having discussions about what Bryce really liked to do. What was he good at? What interested him? It turns out he had never really considered the idea that he could match his skills and passions with a college major. By the next week, Bryce had changed his major, and seemed to waltz into my office like a great weight had been taken off of him. He liked his new courses (except for the prerequisite math class that I reminded him everyone was suffering through just as he was), and even felt like he could contribute in class. Did he still have a pretty big mountain to climb given his first semester grades? Yep. But now Bryce felt set up for success instead of failure. And better than that, he had started to learn to be self-reflective when confronted with a problem.

It is skills like these- the ability to diagnose your own problems and even start to recognize patterns of behavior- that will be essential to a student’s success during and far beyond their college days. As success coaches, our primary job is to help students’ graduate, but if we can help them cultivate the skills that will last them a lifetime…it’s not a bad day at the office.

Relationship Retention

Relationship Retention

Okay, perhaps this is my Andy Rooney moment (and perhaps that reference alone dates me), but it seems like these days everyone is falling head over heels for Big Data. Algorithms will help us all lose weight and find a mate! We count on apps to help us walk more and sleep better! And when we talk about college retention, we flock right to the numbers and conclude that we think we know everything that we need to know. Not that data isn’t very powerful, in fact, it can assist in letting us know how to direct our retention efforts most effectively.  However, if our teams don’t have the appropriate training, it can also mask the more complex, more nuanced, dare I say more human factors that can make the difference between a student graduating college and dropping or failing out.

Today I talked to a fellow success coach, and she reminded me just how relationships- that bonding between a student and the peers, professors, mentors, and coaches he or she finds in his or her college environment- can influence retention. Most of the time, it turns out, relationships are the whole ball of wax. Sure, there are students who cannot academically swim in college waters, but these students number far fewer than those who do not graduate for other reasons. For example, the success coach with whom I spoke today told me of a football player named Oscar, she had been working with since his freshman year. That year, he had been a star prospect but had gotten injured in the second game of the season. He was red-shirted and could start anew the next year, but for the rest of that year he found himself at sea- stripped of the structure of an athlete’s life as well as the meaning and satisfaction he found in doing something he loved. Add to that the fact that he was homesick and you can see how, amidst such circumstances, many students like Oscar would go home. Fortunately, he had his success coach to help him get through the year. Bring his grades up. Begin to see himself as more than just a football player.

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Oscar’s grades were good enough to get him off of academic warning, so he no longer needed to regularly report to a success coach. He was healthy and back on the team, and everything looked like it was coming right around…until the third football game of the season, when Oscar was injured again. The next morning, his first call was to his success coach.

Success coaches aren’t the only people who can mentor students and help them stay in school when so many factors seem to be pulling them farther away. But Oscar’s story is a reminder that retention is all about relationships. When students feel like they belong somewhere- when they encounter people on a daily basis who really see them- when they know that at least one person in this brave new world is always in their corner- they are more likely to endure the difficulties and disappointments that can accompany any great endeavor.

The Inner Critic of the Success Coaching Student

The Inner Critic of the Success Coaching Student

I’d like to make a confession. I cannot do a roll up.

A little clarification: a “roll up” is a Pilates exercise where, using only your abs, you go from lying flat on your back to sitting straight up with your legs out in front of you. And I cannot do one. I couldn’t do one a year ago, I can’t do one today, and I probably won’t be able to do one a month from now. So I shouldn’t have been surprised a few days ago in my Pilates class when I failed to do a rollup yet again. And, to be fair, I wasn’t surprised, but I was angry. Frustrated. Embarrassed. “You should be able to do this by now!” a certain voice I know well said. “This is pathetic!” it continued. “And look how much one-on-one time the teacher is giving you because of it. I bet everyone else is annoyed with you for hogging attention and slowing the class down!” Now, I don’t know if that is what the other students in the class were thinking, but I do know a thing or two about the voice speaking to me for, you see, it has lived with me a long time. It is my inner critic or, as I like to call it, simply “mean voice.” Mean voice loves to tell us that we’re not good enough or smart enough or strong enough. I’ve got one. You’ve got one. And you better believe that success coaching students have one.

My “mean voice” incident during Pilates class reminded me just how pernicious this inner critic can be, especially when a student is struggling to overcome real obstacles to their college goals. Mean voice is quick to take any small setback as proof that- “see? I was right! You can’t do it after all!” The problem comes when students are unable to see mean voice as just one of the contributors to the ever-convening city council meeting in all of our heads. When we see mean voice as simply “reality,” we don’t realize that there are other valid perspectives to consider.

I had a student a few years back whose academic struggles during her first semester at school seemed insurmountable. “I just can’t do the work,” she would tell me time and time again. And she was not wrong. But I also knew that she had come from a high school that had not prepared her very well for college.  Because few of us understand things outside our realm of experience, she didn’t realize how poorly her high school programs had served her. So when she got to college and found herself underwater, she just assumed it must be a fundamental problem with her own brain, with her mean voice always including a dangerous (and dangerously convincing) because at the end of the sentence. “You can’t do the work because you’re not smart enough,” it told her, when in reality she was fighting uphill against a lack of preparedness that was largely not her fault.

So how do any of us, including success students, deal with our mean voices? All but the few truly enlightened among us lack the power to completely eliminate them, so how do we live with these voices without giving them the power and influence they crave? The first step, I tell my students, is to recognize the voice for what it is: one perspective of many. Once you’ve recognized your mean voice, give it a good sizing up. That way, the next time you get a poor grade on a paper and that same old refrain comes along…”of course you failed! You always fail! This just confirms everything I’ve told you about how worthless you are.”…you can say, “Hey, Cool it, okay? I’ve heard this song before.”

Once you’ve quieted the mean voice, listen for the other voices in the room. In that space you might find Logic, who says, “well, we failed that one, but we’ve got to admit we didn’t study as much as we probably should have.” Or perhaps Gentle, who reminds us, “hey. This was a bad one, but this stuff is hard and we’re making progress, even if it’s slow.” You may even find Real Kindness in there somewhere, I tell them. And once Real Kindness’ voice is heard, you’re really on the road to positive change.

Transactional vs. Transformational

Transactional vs. Transformational

For many, February encompasses various important and historically significant days; for my family, February holds an additional, especially incomparable day. This particular day holds the weight of endless hours away from home, on the phone, late nights and countless conversations. It is known around the college coaching world as Signing Day. Every year on this day, future college athletes declare where they intend to spend the next few years of their life, and to which football staff they will entrust a significant amount of their college experience. This decision is often also linked to the potential opportunity to move beyond college football and play on Sundays.

When thinking about the interactions leading up to this day, it is critical that the relationship between an athlete and college coach has moved beyond “Hi, what is your name, and what would you like to major in?”.  The coach has to become an advisor, a confidant, an expert, and a friend. Often, this trusting relationship will also need to extend to other stakeholders in the athlete’s life. The buy-in from the entire support system is crucial.

These conversations must transition from a simple transaction to the idea that being with this team, this coach, and this institution will transform this athlete’s ability to be successful in whatever he/she decides to pursue after college. The same can be said for every student heading into their collegiate experience. As institutional professionals, are we simply performing transactions with our students? Are we doing everything we can to ensure that every interaction aids in transforming their future?

Our days can become overwhelming. When walking into our offices, we are immediately hit with reports, agendas, state mandates, and that same one or two students, who always seem to be waiting for us in the lobby.  Every moment can be multi-faceted. Knocks on the door are endless, and while our office’s uphold an “open-door” policy, the moments when you can close it, to take a breather (even if a breather means ensuring that reports are submitted on time) feels like a little bit of advising heaven.

We love our students and what we do. In fact, we are passionate about helping them, progress. It’s very likely that we, ourselves, had an impactful college professor or staff member who really made a difference in our college experience. That very experience is what made us want to work in higher education. When thinking about our own experiences, we can still name those staff or faculty members that made a difference. To dive deeper, when thinking about the interactions we had with these impactful people, often times, they transformed our thinking or experience. Too often, college students become accustomed to transactional communication in higher education. “Go to the registrar’s office and give them Document A. They will then send you to the business office to turn in Document A and give you Document B. Once you have Document B, go online and type in your user name and password so that you can sign-up for classes. If you have forgotten your user name or password, please call IT, and they may pick up.” During this process, do we ever ask our students anything other than their last name and student ID number?

While some of these transactions are imperative to their progress, the transformational conversations will be what leads to their success. Although those one, two (or fifteen) students who always seem to be waiting for us, can be a bit daunting, these same students are being transformed because of what their advisor, success coach, or faculty member is doing for their college experience. The same student who continued to wait outside your office to report unrelated information or change their schedule, just ONE more time, will also be transformed because of the support provided.

‘Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.’

Light, R.J. (2001) Making the most of college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

Sarah Hood is the Client Success Manager for Aviso Coaching LLC, in Columbus, Ohio. She has played and instrumental role in the successful retention efforts for multiple collegiate campuses.  This experience has guided her to provide a platform for institutions and departments to voice their retention goals, establishing the first link to the Aviso team’s ability to assist in reaching and sustaining those endeavors.

How Success Coaching Programs Can Affect Administrative Change

How Success Coaching Programs Can Affect Administrative Change

In previous blogs, I’ve written about how success coaching can benefit both students and coaches themselves. But what about the university as a whole? Besides helping our students achieve success, one of the things I’m most proud of about the success coaching program at my university is that, because of our work, we have been able to affect change campus-wide. This is partly because success coaches are nexuses of communication, acting as liaisons between our students and their professors, coaches, and administrators. Over time, that unique role has enabled us to provide valuable feedback to the administration, sometimes ending in policy changes or the creation of additional resources that benefit not only our students but all students.

Take the example of a new major that was created a few years ago. Almost immediately, success coaches started to notice that an unusually high percentage of students entering as freshman with that particular major were being admitted on academic warning or probation. Those students, consequently, were enrolled in the success coach program automatically, and so it was success coaches who first noticed the trend. For reasons we do not yet completely understand, it seems that the kind of students who gravitated toward that major were more likely to enter school underprepared than were students with different majors. Once we realized this, we were able to take our findings to the faculty members recruiting students for this major and then the admissions office, which led to a discussion of how best to tighten up our admissions standards in this area.

Success coaches have also been able to contribute toward change on a university-wide level as it affects our policies toward international students. As we are working one-on-one with many of these students on the ground, we have, at times, been able to notice cultural issues that may provide challenges for entire groups of students. For example, we have a high number of students from a particular region of the world in which the idea of punctuality is not the same as it is in the U.S. Many of these students were perpetually late to class, and most did not realize that this lax attitude toward an on-time ETA came across as disruptive and disrespectful. Because so many of them were working with success coaches, we were able to notice the trend and connect it to problems with cultural translation. Thus, we were able to bring the issue to the attention of both the head of career development and the point person for international students, adding to a list of things we want to make sure to address with our international students as soon as they arrive on campus.

Finally, our experiences working with students on the low end of the GPA scale have helped professors understand and tweak their curricula, and it has led to the addition of resources for students struggling in certain core subjects. Students may need help in these areas for many reasons, but it is often success coaches who are able to make the initial prognosis. I once had a student who was failing math. He had come directly from community college where he had not needed to take any math courses, and before that he had not been required to take math as a senior in high school. His math grades from freshman through junior of high school were good enough to place him out of remedial math, but by the time he got to my university it had been three years since he’d done more than add tip to a restaurant check. He simply needed a refresher course, and working together with the math department, we were able to get him up to speed before the dark mark of a failing grade was forever on his transcript. 

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

Coaching Adult, Online Students

Coaching Adult, Online Students

Online programs are here to stay. These programs have revolutionized how students can access a college education and the population of people who are doing so is booming. That is an unequivocally good thing!

Older students who have taken time away from education to work or start families are coming back in droves to begin, finish, or extend their educations. During a conversation with one of my colleagues who works with many of these students, I asked him what the biggest takeaways have been in his work so far. The best thing, he said, is that older students are (no shockers here) more mature. Having decided to go back to school voluntarily, they generally have both the clarity of purpose and experienced work ethic that students fresh out of high school so often lack. Also, while much of what I do early on with my younger, more traditional students involves detective work- sometimes I can’t tell if a student just isn’t telling me what the problem is or if he or she genuinely doesn’t know that herself- older students arrive with a pretty good idea where their deficiencies lie. “I haven’t taken a math class in over 20 years!” Or “I haven’t written anything longer than an email since I started working!” Likewise, they are more comfortable admitting when they need help. Younger students, especially those who have ended up in academic hot water, are often reluctant to speak out when they don’t know something or need help for fear of looking stupid. They’re terrified of anyone finding out that they might not know something, so they keep mum even if it means falling further and further in the hole. Older students are much more comfortable asking for help, and they generally are very willing to use the resources available to them.

At my university, our online programs are chock full of great resources for students, from individual online tutoring to streaming video review sessions. Since many of these resources, much like online education itself, revolve around technology, it’s important to make sure older students know not only where to access help but how to actually use the technology. Not everyone over 40, of course, is a hunt-and-peck typer unable to do so much as cut and paste, but according to my colleague…”since there is such a wide spectrum of technological experience and ability with older students, it’s best not to assume that anyone knows anything.” He spends much of his time with online students helping them gain a facility with the technology that will enable them to make the most of the available resources. Sending an attachment, uploading a paper, joining a discussion thread, engaging with a tutor via video chat- these are all skills crucial to success as an online student that may be as foreign to an older student as pumping out some copies on the ditto machine would be to…well, pretty much anyone.

All in all, helping older students navigate the world of online education is, much as it is with traditional students, all about connecting students with the resources they need to succeed. It’s about listening to their stories and helping them discern first what they need and then how to get it. Online education has opened doors for so many new types of students, and it’s our job to make sure they have all they need to walk through those doors and across a graduation stage.

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.