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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.

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.