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The Skills of an Online Success Coach

The Skills of an Online Success Coach

When I flew to and from my various holiday travel destinations a few weeks ago, my boarding pass was a simple bar code on my phone. While on the plane, I connected to the mobile hotspot from tens of thousands of feet in the air so as to keep up with email during the flight. When I landed, I immediately placed an order on grubhub so that the moment I got home, jet-lagged and hungry, a steaming container of Pad Thai would arrive right at my door.

Yes, I now feel like I have enough facility with these technologies that I can utilize them with ease and convenience, but it wasn’t always that way. With each new technology there is a natural learning curve, and that fact is no different when it pertains to online education. Online learning is still fairly new, and there are many ways in which success coaches of online students provide aid and information crucial to a student’s ultimate success. The first is very technical; that is, success coaches for online students are there to help them with the job of learning how to learn online! What are the technologies and software programs with which one must be familiar? How do they work? How does one do things like join discussion threads, contact other students or professors, or turn in work? Many students do not know that professors have the ability to know not only exactly when they are logged-in but for how long. They discover that papers are almost always turned in nowadays via software that checks them for evidence of plagiarism. Success coaches can also be helpful in the area of resource location. Coaches can show students how to access resources like online tutoring and group study sessions which they might not already know about.

In addition to helping students navigate the “nuts and bolts” of online education, success coaches can act as liaisons to effective communication, helping students develop the confidence to connect directly with professors and fellow students who they have never met and likely will never meet. Some students may have a naturally easier time with this precisely because communication is remote. Take the student who feels too shy to ask a question in front of a room full of people but who is much more assertive or proactive online. He may feel much more comfortable emailing a professor than walking into his or her office for office hours. She may contribute to an online discussion thread in a way that she wouldn’t have dreamed in a live setting. On the other hand, some people are less comfortable communicating in what, to them, can seem at first like an impersonal or remote forum. Some of these students are simply insecure about using the technology, while others are just the kind of people who do better with face to face communication. With these students, success coaches can teach students how to communicate effectively in a written-only context, or we can guide them toward resources like Skype that get them a little closer to the “in the room” experience.

Of course, as citizens of an increasingly tech-savvy world, all students, even those who may have been out of school for years or even decades, have some experience interacting online. But that doesn’t mean that we should take for granted that incoming online students already know how it all works. Like all new things, there is a learning curve, and we must acknowledge, address, and aid our students as best we can in their online journeys.

For those for whom that curve might seem an insurmountable ascent, more mountain that mole hill, I remind them that every journey begins with a single step. Step 1: turn on the computer. 

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 Success Coach and Professor Relationship

The Success Coach and Professor Relationship

No man is an island, and no success coach is a one-man band. In addition to partnering with our students, effective success coaching is very much about forming relationships with administrators, athletic coaches and, most importantly, professors. That’s why at the midpoint of every semester, we ask our professors to fill out progress reports on each and every one of our students. These reports provide us first and foremost with objective information- whether a student is really going to class, turning in assignments, and submitting adequate work. They also, however, give professors an opportunity to add additional comments in which they can make subjective observations about a student’s performance, raise concerns, and even provide suggestions.

These comments have proved invaluable time and again. Sometimes they reveal realities that students have been trying to conceal. (Ah, so your claim that you haven’t missed a class in weeks, sir, turns out to be factually inaccurate!) Sometimes the issue is relatively simple: a student is turning in work on time but never seems to proofread it. Sometimes a professor will help us get closer to the root of a deeper problem. Perhaps the student seems to understand the material but just doesn’t pay attention in class. Perhaps he or she is focused in class but just fundamentally does NOT understand the material. Professors are our eyes and ears on the ground, and through their observations and suggestions, success coaches are more easily and efficiently able to help our students identify issues and work to correct them.

Professors, however, much like the rest of us, aren’t huge fans of filling out paperwork for seemingly no reason, and awhile ago I received an email from a professor basically asking, “how do I know that success coaches are actually DOING something with the information I am taking time out of my already busy day to provide?” It was a fair question, and so we tweaked our program so that communication began to flow in both directions. We now send emails to all of the professors working with students in the success coaching program that let them know exactly how their commentary informs and guides our work.

This process begins with us going over the progress reports with each student. If a student has been telling a story that comes into direct contrast with something the professor has said, we address it immediately. As someone with decades of both teaching and parenting experience, I can sniff out a lie or a half-truth pretty consistently, but there are times I’ve had students who were able to put one over on me…for awhile. No one likes to be caught in a lie, but once he or she is, the culprit is generally much less likely to try it again. We do not do this to shame students but to shine a light on the realities of the situation. Then, it’s time to make a plan. For example, let’s say a student is in trouble primarily because he is not going to class. First, we sit down and figure out WHY that is. One might assume that a student like this is simply some combination of lazy or undisciplined, but I’ve had not a few students for whom not going to class was part of a much larger, more complicated whole. One student I worked with admitted to being entirely confused during lectures, and that level of incomprehension made him feel ashamed which, of course, is not a particularly wonderful feeling. In order to avoid the feeling, he had decided to avoid class altogether- an understandable impulse, of course, but not necessarily a useful one. For other students, this plan can involve anything from seeking tutoring, planning out study time at the beginning of each week, giving themselves more time than they thought they needed to do assigned reading or to write papers, and setting earlier alarms so they can be out of the door with enough time to get to class.

Now that professors know not only that their input is appreciated but also precisely how we use it to help our students pass their classes, they have become even more willing to fill out midterm progress reports. That’s an unequivocally good thing, since we are all part of the team of people doing our best to ensure that as many students as possible leave our university with a cap, a gown, a diploma, and a smile on his or her face.

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

Online Success Coaches: Experiences of an Online Success Coach

Online Success Coaches: Experiences of an Online Success Coach

The following profiles are culled from the experiences of online success coach Deana Brown. She and I sat down awhile ago to chat about her experiences in the job, and she told me about some of her most memorable students.

“Tamara was a single mother in her mid-20s who worked as a cashier at a big box store. Her profile was far from unique- she and most of the people she knew were high school graduates (and some drop-outs) who had spent the years since starting to raise children while working in largely minimum-wage “survival jobs.” But Tamara had bigger ambitions. She wanted to be a judge some day, and that dream is what brought her into my life as an online success coach working with people trying to get their associates’ degrees. Tamara’s goals were commendable but her first semester work had been less so, and when she and I began working together she was on academic probation. Like many “first-in-the-family” college students, Tamara didn’t have a lot of experience navigating some of the challenges of college life (online or off): time management, study skills, and effective communication with professors. Add to that the fact that a lot of the learning in online classes is, for the most part, self-generated, and it’s easy to see why these students can find themselves falling behind. Tamara was exceptionally bright, but earning a college degree while also working full-time and raising a son is already difficult without these extra roadblocks. So, with Tamara, our primary job was one of planning. Each week, when Tamara would get her work schedule for the week ahead, we would carve out time for schoolwork. Could she spend a little time reading that online lecture before she left to pick up her son from school? Could she use the momentum created by helping him with his homework to do some of her own afterwards? We also talked about how to plan ahead. If a paper is due on Friday and you plan to begin it Thursday afternoon, what happens if you hit a snag and need clarification from the professor? There is generally a 24-48hr response delay for professor emails, and by then it would be too late to get your question answered before the paper is due. Within a semester, Tamara was not only set to get off academic probation but also she was making straight As.”

“Mark was a federal corrections officer in his 40s. He had worked as a guard as well as in administrative management at the prison for over a decade, and it was clear he had been shaped by the culture. Now working towards getting a degree in criminal justice online, he talked and wrote like someone for whom communication was all about economy and power. Managers and guards, he explained to me, spoke aggressively and without mincing words to inmates, but they also used basically the same kind of language with one another. Unfortunately, this presented Mark with some challenges when it came to communicating effectively with fellow students and professors in his online courses. Mark’s aggressive writing style, combined with the fact that it is already naturally difficult to convey tone and intention in written communication anyway, meant that many of Mark’s communications came across as angry demands. So we worked on how to approach people politely and effectively through text. There was the classic list of do’s and don’ts: don’t write in all caps, make good choices about punctuation, don’t begin emails with “So….,” as in- “So…I need this thing from you and you need to give it to me!” But we also talked more in-depth about the reasons why this type of communication is so much more effective not just in an academic environment but in a professional one. If every time you hit a roadblock you get angry and lash out, you are far less likely, in the end, to move up into greater positions of power and responsibility.”

These profiles demonstrate something we already know- that no two students are exactly alike. There are as many unique stories as there are students, which is why it’s important for success coaches to have as many tools at their disposal as possible. However, if there is one unifying piece of advice Deana would give to a new success coach on his or her first day, it’s this: “Listen carefully and take notes. This can take great patience sometimes, but before you try to jump to conclusions or provide solutions, make sure you take in their entire story. Then work together to make a plan, for if students are invested in the process of discovering for themselves what they need and how to get it, they will be more invested and motivated towards their own success.”

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

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

I recently spoke with a woman who works as a success coach exclusively for students who are getting their degrees online. We discussed the similarities and differences in our jobs, and I was most intrigued by two ways in which online success coaching is unique.

The first is something I hadn’t thought much about until now, but once we started talking about it, it seemed so obvious. That is the idea that part of an online success coach’s job is to connect students to or provide students with communities of fellow students and educators. This type of community building occurs organically (if not always effortlessly) on campus, as students live, work, and study in the same physical environment. As any of us who has spent time on one, whether as a student or faculty member, knows, college campuses are rich social environments where any variety of clubs and gatherings, both informal and formal, encourage students to get involved and interact with one another. Having a sense of community can make students feel more invested in their experience as well provide support when he or she is feeling frustrated or is struggling. This is why so many weight loss programs encourage us to share our progress with friends- it’s all so much easier when we know we are not alone.

While online students do participate in discussion threads and other class-related group projects, many online students do not explore opportunities (either because there are none or because they do not know how to seek them out) for greater social interaction. This lack of a greater sense of community deprives students of the social, academic, and motivational benefits that the group provides. Online success coaches themselves act as connections to a larger school community, but many go further. The success coach with whom I spoke realized that many of her students were young moms who were trying to get their degrees while simultaneously working and taking care of children, so she started an online support group where they could connect to each other directly. The group was an instant success, and since that time she has started an online group for young men and another for students veterans and military spouses. 

Secondly, the demographic spectrum of students who get their degrees online is much broader than it is for brick and mortar college students. Many of these students, like the moms discussed previously, are older and work full time jobs or take care of families in addition to attending school. While this generally means that these students come to school more mature and responsible than your garden variety 18-year old, scheduling can still be tough. Many of the students who do work are in school precisely because the jobs they have are often “survival jobs,” – relatively low paying and scheduling instability. A student who works as a restaurant server, for example, may think he has time to work on a paper on Thursday only to learn Wednesday night that the shift schedule has been changed and now he has to work. A student raising a child may be just sitting down to study for that midterm when she gets a call from school telling her that her child is sick and needs to be picked up. A student working as a server AND raising a child may have both of those things happen in the same day, and then she’s really got to scramble!

One of an online success coach’s most important jobs can be to help students navigate these scheduling complexities.   Ultimately, all success coaches primary goal is to do whatever they can to help a student achieve his or her goals; online coaches, however, do this job in an ever-growing environment with its own unique challenges. 

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.

Back to School Series: Helping Students Interact with Professionals

Back to School Series: Helping Students Interact with Professionals

A comprehensive education is so much more than just “book learnin’.” Institutions of learning are also training grounds for building social, psychological, and professional life skills. As to the latter, many of us, after years or decades in the professional world, have forgotten that these rules of behavior and decorum are not necessarily innate- these skills need to be learned. And if we as educators and administrators fail to teach students the rules of professionalism, we are neglectfully leaving out a part of their education.

Be punctual, dress appropriately! Don’t walk into the office of someone from whom you need something with earphones in your ears! Pronounce your words clearly when speaking, and in emails, write in full sentences, and use proper punctuation and capitalization (i.e.- no text speak or emojis, please)! Much of this all seems like it would be common sense, right? Well, for some of us, maybe it is. But if we really think about it, that’s almost always because we picked up these lessons early, sometimes unconsciously, from our first role models: our parents and close family members. Perhaps we saw our fathers interact with their work colleagues. (Perhaps they even brought us to work to see for ourselves!) Perhaps we watched our mothers negotiate a deal with confidence and aplomb. Perhaps we grew up with the grandmother who was ever reminding us not to slouch, who, when we’d ask, “can Samantha and me go the mall?” replied, “You mean Samantha and I, dear.”

Many of the students who walk into my office as students in the success coaching program arrive without the benefit of those role models. Perhaps they are the first in their families to go to college and, while parents who lack a college education can certainly raise their children to be confident, articulate, responsible individuals, some may lack the experiences in the professional working world that would model for their children the more nuanced code of conduct. They may also just simply not know how some things work in the university setting itself. How does one untangle the legalese and acronymic language of financial aid forms, for example? Therefore, I make it part of my job as a success coach to help students learn how to behave in a professional setting, even on campus.

Part of the issue that students have when interacting with professionals in environments like the Registrar’s or Financial aid office is that they simply do not know what to request. When students are unable to effectively communicate what they need, both they and those tasked with helping them become frustrated, and problems are left unsolved. So with my students, the first thing we try to do is diagnose the problem. Then, we talk about effective ways to get the help they need from the resources available. In addition to the “nuts and bolts” tips I mentioned earlier, I always convey for my students the importance of coming across with some self-confidence…even if self-confident is the exact opposite of how they actually feel. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, of course, for asking questions is not only NOT a sign of weakness but actually a sign that a person is confident enough to admit what they don’t know, but DO walk into a room like you deserve to be there.

This is not always easy to do. It takes practice, but just as practice doing anything else can make one better at it, more comfortable in those clothes, so to speak, the same applies here. It reminds me of a student I once had who really struggled her first semester in college but by second semester, with guidance from the success coaching program, was doing much better. She was majoring in criminal justice, and that first summer she got an opportunity to work as an intern in a large city police station. When she returned in the fall, we got a chance to chat and the first thing she told me was how glad she was that we had talked about how to act in a professional environment. “I really did the things we talked about!” she reported excitedly, “and it worked! Before I left someone from the department went out of his way to comment on how mature I was!” She laughed, “and you and I both know that I came to school as one of the most immature people you could possibly meet!”

For online students, the age and life experience differential can often mean that they enter programs with a greater understanding of these professional skills. Many have full-time careers already, and for them it’s about remembering that the same knowledge that allows them to succeed at their jobs is entirely transferable here. With these students, it can be helpful to have them refer back to these experiences in the working world, to ask: what’s your work environment like? What are the big dos and don’ts? What are the rules, both explicit and tacit, about turning in work on time, communicating with colleagues and/or superiors?  Chances are, they are very similar to what’s required of them in college.

For me, however, there’s always one piece of advice underlying all others, and that is this: be someone with whom people like to work. Be someone they trust; be someone they can rely on; be someone they are happy to see walk into the office or classroom every day. Focus on that, and much of the rest of the path will illuminate itself from there.

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

 

Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

We’ve had good ones; we’ve had ones who were not so good. We’ve had ones who changed our lives, our career paths, who opened us up to new ideas and ways of thinking; we’ve had others with whom we just tried to get by with a passing grade. We’ve all most likely had a wide spectrum of relationships with our teachers and professors, both in primary school and college, so we know that those relationships can be as rewarding, fraught, and complex as any others. For university students, these are important relationships, even if only because these people hold the power of the grade, and thus it’s important for students to learn how to interact with their professors.

The students I’ve worked with who have had difficulty in this area have had such difficulty for a variety of reasons, but often the power structure that puts professors on a (for some) intimidatingly higher plane than students is at the heart of it. Simply put, students are scared to talk to them. Scared that if they take advantage of office hours or express a need for help, the professor might think they are dumb. Scared to talk to any authority figure, but especially one who has the power to decide the fate of their GPAs. For some, the issue is cultural, which is something we’ve found at our university with international students from a few specific countries. Not all international students face cultural barriers to effective communication with professors at American universities, but some do. In these cultures, the status differential between students and professors is even greater than it is here. These students hold their professors in such high regard that to actually talk to one seems unthinkable, and to really open up to one about having difficulty in the class- totally anathema. Even classroom participation can be restricted by notions that one simply cannot for any reason express a point of view that might conflict with that of the professor.

International students aren’t the only ones who have to develop the skills to build successful student/professor relationships, and the first thing I tell all my students who seem to be having trouble is to remember that their professors are…spoiler alert…actual human beings! They are people too! They are at times happy and sad and energetic and stressed out. They have, at times, blind spots and biases and holes in their own knowledge. And they are almost always not only willing but excited to interact with students who show enough interest in their class to actually talk about it with them outside class time. I tell my students that what they may see as showing weakness (asking for help), their professors almost always interpret as showing interest. It’s a professor’s dream! When I’ve had students who were particularly daunted by the thought of meeting with a professor one-on-one, I’ve actually walked with them to the professor’s office door. The walk there often looks like a scene from Dead Man Walking, but when they emerge? Smiles! Relief! It wasn’t nearly bad as they thought it might be; in fact, the professor turned out to be a real person just like I said he or she would be! Weight lifted, and a bridge crossed forever.

Now, we all know from our own experiences that once in a while you will come in contact with a professor who is not the ideal. Who for whatever reason is NOT open, friendly, or helpful. It’s the other side of the “professors are people too” coin: people are not always at their best. So how should students navigate those relationships? It starts in the same place: remember that this professor is a person just like you. You know how you have a life outside of class, and it’s not always perfect? Well, so do they. Maybe they or someone they love is going through a difficult time. Perhaps he or she is facing the same burnout toward the end of the semester as you. So don’t take it personally because it may not be about you at all! But since you still have to get the grade, figure out what makes this professor tick. Figure out what kind of behavior and work is going to get you the result you desire in this class and do that. (A good place to start is by getting insight from students who’ve had that professor before. If it’s the material in the class that is at issue, find other resources- like peer tutoring- that can help.)  It’s also good training for the real world- sometimes the relationships we have to cultivate and make work are not the ones we would always choose. Sometimes we have co-workers or bosses who are difficult to deal with, so what do we do? We figure out the best way to succeed in an imperfect environment. When students realize this, it’s just another thing that they now see can be applicable to the rest of their lives, and that in and of itself can be a motivator.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how the student/professor relationship is growing and changing with the evolution of online education, and even those who have never taken an online class themselves can probably see both the positive and negatives based on their own experiences with things like social media. Often, online students find the relationships with their professors comes even easier online. Shy students who would never dare speak up in a lecture hall become poets in online discussion threads. Those who may have difficulty approaching a professor face-to-face find it much easier to communicate by email. These relationships can still be as complex and as rewarding as those with professors who are standing in the same classroom as their students, and each year that online education grows will provide us with more information as to how success coaches can help our students make the most of these relationships.

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.