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Five Advising Skills Needed When Adopting Artificial Intelligence in Student Services

Five Advising Skills Needed When Adopting Artificial Intelligence in Student Services

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is coming to Higher Ed and it is going to impact several areas of the university, especially student services.  AI will not replace advisors, but it will require tapping into a different skill set.  This is an exciting thing as I believe AI will allow advisors and student support staff to focus on what they love most – transforming students.

Academic Advisors and student support staff are, by nature, motivated to support others succeed. Unfortunately, when you combine student support staff’s increasing caseloads with cumbersome systems it is difficult to have consistent, transforming discussions.  AI is helping solve this problem by taking the hundreds of data points that exist on campus and providing prescriptive insight into what a student requires to succeed.

While there are several emerging solutions that claim the use of Artificial Intelligence, if it is not allowing an advisor to purely focus on the core of why they are advising then it is not true AI for student services.  Here are 5 things advisors, faculty and student support staff can look forward to when their institution adopts student service oriented artificial intelligence:

  1. Student Transformation

AI is no good if it does not provide an advisor with a legible prescription for each student derived from the success and challenges exhibited by your own students.  This prescription should contain both factors that will lead to success as well as risk factors.  The instantaneous insight into students allows an advisor to take a few precious minutes and focus on building strengths while mitigating obstacles.  With vital student information seamlessly integrated within advising tools, the advisor simultaneously advises and transforms.

  1. Confronting Students

Another skill necessary in the age of AI in student services is the ability to confront damaging student behavior.  It’s a vicious cycle in that some student behavior sabotages their success and eats away at confidence and eventually the student drops out.  AI will illuminate these damaging behaviors and a skilled advisor will use the student success factors to build up their confidence to confront and overcome their obstacles (notice a theme here…).  The skill of empowering a student when confronting these damaging behaviors is critical to keeping the student engaged.

  1. Adapting Quickly

It is challenging to be in the business of transforming many lives each day, but it is also what draws advisors to this important job.  We are drowning advisors in student information, sometimes leading to paralysis by analysis.  AI should show the right student information, no more and no less, so advisors can adapt quickly to each student engagement.  This leads me to my next point…

  1. Remain in the Moment

Being present with a student involves active listening.  Cumbersome systems, multitudes of data and jam-packed schedules inhibit active listening.  True student transformation happens when an advisor is fully in the moment with their student focused on what will lead to success and building confidence to navigate through obstacles.  An AI solution should largely eliminate these distractions so an advisor is able to remain in the moment with the student.

  1. Emotional Intelligence

An important trait of an advisor is the ability to read and interpret student emotions.  Emotional intelligence as a skill goes beyond this and a big ingredient is regulation of their own emotions.  Our students live busy, chaotic lives and the ability of the advisor to support a student emotionally while also regulating their own is going to be essential to impacting more students each day.

Artificial Intelligence is not an evolution for student services – it’s a revolution.  It is time to embrace and practice these essential advisor traits that certainly existed previously but were not as prominent.  AI is going to create an ecosystem where advisors flourish doing what they love to do – this can only have incredible impact on their students.

Aviso Retention provides Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics to increase student success and retention.  Click here to learn more.

The Retention Dilemma with Graduate Programs

The Retention Dilemma with Graduate Programs

When you think about student attrition, is it ever in the context of graduate school?

Probably not, but you should.  Undergrad retention rates hover around 50% and the same goes for masters and doctoral students.

Colleges and Universities are more focused on their undergraduate attrition than what is happening in their graduate programs.   I had the fortunate circumstance of attending the Annual Meeting for the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools in early March (which, by the way, is a fantastic group of people) where I had conversations with several Deans of graduate programs spread from Maryland to Texas.  The conversations were overwhelmingly similar.  Each one sharing they would love to have a retention solution similar to what their undegraduate counterpart currently has, but they don’t have the student numbers in their grad program to justify the cost.

Let’s pause and think about this for a minute.  One particular institution comes to mind that has 20,000 undergrads and 4,000 graduate students.  If this institution is experiencing an overall attrition rate of 20% annually for both programs, then they are looking at losing 4000 undergrad and 800 graduate students.  Seems to make sense to focus on the larger number, but losing 800 graduate students results in a $7.2m loss in tuition revenue for this particular institution.

Through my discussions, the predominant reasons I am hearing their institutions are not investing in a retention solution are:

  • Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad
  • An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition
  • An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful full time employment

Let’s break these down…

Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad

It’s hard to find numbers on loss in tuition revenue for graduate programs.  An Educational Policy Institute report shows a loss in tuition revenue for undergrad at $16.5B, so I’m guessing if graduate programs are experiencing a 50% attrition rate the financial loss there is still a staggering number.  The institution mentioned above would see an increase in tuition revenue of $0.5M with a 7% increase in retention.  An affordable solution would provide very strong return on investment.

An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition

A strong admissions department should be filtering out students who will struggle.  Of course, the expectation is rarely 100% retention and certainly a small population of students may struggle academically.  Most students admitted to graduate programs can meet and exceed the academic requirements, but life gets in the way.  When priorities shift and life intervenes, the performance drops.  It’s easy to point the finger at performance, but is that the true reason a student leaves their graduate program?  Identify these dips in performance quickly and then engage to uncover the real issue.

An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful employment

Students who drop of out graduate school are likely pulled away by life situations.  Families, health, career, finances, debt and self-confidence are key factors.  The latter factor there, self-confidence, is important to pay attention to.  In Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, she talks about the high number of people admitted to prestigious academic programs who experience imposter syndrome, which is basically a consistent feeling that they must have fooled the admissions folks to gain acceptance into their program.  She experienced the same thing herself as a grad student at Princeton, now she’s a best-selling author doing ground-breaking research in how people judge and influence each other.  My point here is that these are obstacles that graduate students can overcome.

There is an answer…  a practical and affordable retention solution can support the right students to persist to graduation.  A system that bolsters the work our professional and faculty advisors are doing to support students.  Being able to find and engage students who are at-risk is advantageous, but so is having a system that automatically recognizes key accomplishments and benchmarks.  The return on investing in a solution can add significant tuition revenue.  More important, it’s difficult to put a monetary value on the impact to the university and future of the student, as well.

I have to share that this topic is close to my heart.  I almost left graduate school myself.  I realized early on in my clinical psychology program that I was not interested in being a therapist.  Furthermore, I was presented with a fantastic job offer that would have been hard to refuse.  A faculty mentor showed me the value of finishing my program.  Looking back, I made exactly the right decision.

Aviso Retention provides analytics, software and expertise to increase student retention and engagement.  Click here to learn more.

Six Steps to Impacting First-Year Retention Now

Six Steps to Impacting First-Year Retention Now

The “first-year experience” is a hot topic in higher ed.  If you are focused on new student fall to fall retention, you are entering a critical time.  Most obstacles and doubts have likely surfaced by now and in the spring term they will start to cement.  Missing home, program of study, social integration and finances are just some factors that come into play.  Reflecting on the fall term and identifying the predominant obstacles will lead to more effective student support and increased persistence.

I have consistently found year after year that an entering cohort of students has its own personality.  Meaning, each cohort has their own unique characteristics.  This results in shifting strengths and challenges your students face.  I love this aspect of student retention – it keeps you on your toes.  Considering that fall cohorts are typically the largest of the year, it’s valuable to hone in on the trends that are impacting student success for that cohort.  As you dive into the spring term, modifying your support to meet those needs can be highly advantageous.

Here are 6 steps to impact first year retention:

  1. Look at trends in obstacles students are facing
  2. Identify common themes
  3. Shift resources to meet student challenges
  4. Collaborate and gain alignment on strategies to support students
  5. Share tools and approaches that have worked to help students overcome obstacles
  6. Identify the students who are facing these obstacles quickly

Look for trends in obstacles students are facing.  Discuss as a group what you are observing with your students while also pulling any quantitative data available.

Identify common themes.  Document 3 to 5 barriers keeping the themes student-focused (meaning, don’t blame the football team’s poor season).

Shift resources to meet student challenges.  Ensure that the size of the team or department is commensurate with the number of students who need support.

Collaborate and gain alignment on strategies to support students.  Utilize the collective wisdom of your team to document how to approach and navigate through your common themes.

Share tools and approaches that have worked to help students overcome obstacles.  If an approach doesn’t work, don’t give up.  It often takes a couple of times before you get it down.  Celebrate wins and publicize effective strategies.

Identify the students who are facing these obstacles quickly.  The best time to build skills and hone a student’s attitude is when they are face to face with their challenge.

If you’re lucky, a student will sit down with an instructor, advisor, coach or support staff and clearly articulate the concerns on their mind.  But don’t count on this to happen.  Engage, listen and poke around to flush out potential barriers to year two.  You’re the expert who can provide coaching and make the difference between a student achieving their academic goals or not.  Believe that you have the ability to make that difference and you will!!

Aviso provides software and analytics to increase student success and retention.  Click here to learn more.

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.

Burnout

Burnout

For those of us in higher education, we have either passed or are approaching the end of the school year. My university holds convocation in May, but in solidarity with my brethren who are still running towards the end zone, it’s time to talk about burnout. We all experience it from time to time, and it’s a completely normal part of work and life. One of the things I have liked most about my career in education is that the schedule takes these natural cycles of work and rest into account, but when you’re in the last few weeks or days of a term that can sometimes seem interminable, those breaks never seem to come soon enough.

Students and success coaches alike can come down with severe cases of burnout, especially during the Spring when the long summer break is nearly in view, and I’ve found that the prescription is not so different for both patients. First, it can help to understand that there is something greater than yourself for which to keep focused. For me, it’s my responsibility to my students.

When I feel like I just can’t get through the two weeks or even a few days left, I remind myself that if I let down my enthusiasm, my students will also. I remind myself that at every single meeting with a student I might say something that could really help him or her pull through this last bit of hard work. Incentive might come in the form of another person- “my mom is counting on me” – or in the form of the end goal itself: that bright, shiny college degree and the opportunities it will bring.

When, however, the symptoms of burnout are too great for measured introspection, there is always the two Ts: teamwork and treats. It’s the same idea that helps people lose weight by finding a workout buddy or rewarding themselves with that delicious smoothie if they run at least 3 miles. If I know a student is particularly burned out and needs to complete a paper, I might let her work on it during our time together. Another student and I might spend our 30 minute session studying for an exam. I’ve actually learned a great deal this way about certain subjects that I would never have known! I ask my students questions on the subject they are studying, and because it’s new and interesting to me, it can become new and interesting to them once again. And when we hit a goal, sometimes it’s just the right time to celebrate with a big bowl of popcorn or a trip to the coffee shop.

Finally, while it’s important to keep an eye on that light at the end of the tunnel, it’s equally important to focus on the day to day. To make a plan for Monday’s work and, once done, not worry about Tuesday’s work until Tuesday. In this way we march forward through that seemingly endless tunnel, step by step, until we suddenly find ourselves bathed in light. Time to take a break.

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

The 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.