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Plan B, C……and D.

Plan B, C……and D.

Straight lines do not occur in nature. It’s true. So why should we be surprised that our own life paths twist, wrinkle, and veer as they do? For success coaches and students, this means learning how to navigate roadblocks, and sometimes even failures, successfully. What should we tell students who have failed one or more courses, lost their athletic eligibility due to academic standing, or been asked to leave the university?

First, I remind my students that roadblocks are opportunities in disguise. This can seem like facile, Pollyanna-ish advice, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less true. Failures force us to turn a magnifying glass on ourselves. They make us ask questions. Re-assess. Recalibrate. And it is this kind of introspection that gives us the new information that will help us move forward more successfully in the future.

For example, over the holidays I got a call from a student I worked with over two years ago. We had worked together for the entirety of his freshman year, and while he had maintained that progress his sophomore year, during his junior year he slipped back into an academic hole and was eventually asked to leave school. I hadn’t heard from him in a long time, but when I answered the phone, it was the same smiling baritone on the other end. “Mrs. Marion,” he began, “I just wanted to call and say thank you for all you did for me back then.” One of the things he’d had trouble with in the past was organizing his work time. It just took him longer to get the work done than many other students, and with four or five classes at a time in addition to his sport, he often found himself overwhelmed, and once he got overwhelmed, it was hard not to want to throw up his hands and just stop doing anything. He told me over the phone that he had been enrolled in community college for the past two years, taking only one to two courses at a time in order to give each the focus and time he needed to pass the class. And had he been passing, I asked? Straight As and Bs, he reported! Failure had made him really look at his work process. Certainly he also needed a little time to learn how to multi-task, but by recognizing that his pace might just be a little slower than a five-course schedule allows, he was able to set himself up for success at his new school.

When my students fail a course or are asked to leave school, we first look back. What was the issue? Time management? Interest in the material? Difficulty level of material? Too much time in the frat house and not enough in the library? Then we look at options. Knowing what we know now, what is the best way to move forward? Should a student take the class again or not? Perhaps a change in major is on the table. Can a student enroll in community college for a while and then return to a 4-year university? Some students simply need more time to figure out what they truly want from a college education? Every student’s path is different. Straight lines do not occur in nature, and there is more than one way through the forest to the castle.

The Language of College

The Language of College

“How would you like your change?” the woman at the check-out asked me, but all I heard was, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?”  Which made sense, since the grocery store I happened to be patronizing at the time was in Lisbon, Portugal, but unfortunately for me, I don’t speak Portuguese. This brief encounter (and many like it) in a country where I didn’t speak the language reminded me that the freshmen who will walk into my office in a few weeks and I are not so different. It reminded me that college is a language. And if you don’t speak the language, even the most basic acts can seem like insurmountable obstacles.

So how do we help students become fluent in the language of college? I find that a good place to start is, well, actual language. Acronyms, for example. We can forget that when we say, “you just need to make sure you have filed your FAFSA and go to the FAS office on north campus right between SPAC and the PLEX!” an incoming freshman may hear, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?” (You’ll know by the deer-in-headlights look similar to the one I gave the Portuguese cashier.) That’s why one of the first things I do with new freshmen is go over acronyms, even the most basic, seemingly no-brainer ones. (I learned this when I began working with a student who did not know what a GPA was nor how one was determined.) In addition to learning the names of the “whos” and “whats” on campus, we will often explore the “wheres” together. And it’s amazing what a little familiarity will do. Even if students know where something like the financial aid office or tutoring center is, and even after you assure them that the people working inside are regular humans without claws or fangs or malevolent intent, many won’t feel comfortable going in for the first time on their own. So we take a little field trip, and I introduce them to the people that can help get them the resources they need. Suddenly, what seemed daunting and strange is a gathering of fast friends, and now the student is way more likely to be able to follow up on his or her own. They’re not fluent yet, but they’re starting to speak “conversational college.”

Which is good because they’re gonna need it. They are going to need to engage in conversations of all kinds- with registrars, bursars, tutors, career counselors and, most importantly, professors. And this, once again, can be scary for a new student. (And I get it. I may have managed to eke out an “obrigada,” or “thank you,” to the Portuguese cashier, but I didn’t sing her the national anthem!) Again, a little familiarity is key. Often the issue is that even when students muster up the courage to talk to a professor or administrator, they don’t know what to say. So we role play. If they ask me as the mock professor, “I don’t understand this,” I encourage them to get specific. What exactly don’t they understand? If they have questions about a financial aid form, we break it down until they understand exactly what they need. We talk it out until they are comfortable asking the questions they need to ask, and that’s one more step toward fluency.

As with learning any language, it’s all about practice. And we are much more likelier to practice something once we see we are making some headway. That’s my job. To help a new student get to that first breakthrough where he or she realizes…hey — now I know how to ask for my change!

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.

Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

There are situations in life that require us to make carefully considered decisions about tactics. Whether you’re dealing with your boss, your child, or the TSA agent who seems to have a real problem with the amount of shampoo you’ve chosen to bring on an airplane, we are daily answering the question (whether consciously or not), “do I more effectively get what  I want if I play good cop…or bad cop?” As a success coach, I know this dilemma all too well, for most of my students need me to be both at different times. Learning how to become a master of the good cop/bad cop routine is an art, and I don’t always get it right. However, for the most part, I am able to make those decisions by synthesizing both the micro and the macro; in other words, I pay attention to both to the specific circumstances of the present moment and larger patterns of behavior.

Griffin is a student of mine who just finished his sophomore year. While most of my students who find themselves in academic trouble are glad to finally shed the burden of trying to pretend like they’ve been on top of it all along, Griffin resisted letting go of the façade. The reasons for his situation were either someone else’s fault or something that he now had totally under his control. Any “bad cop” energy I tried to put forth was met with defensiveness and digging in. There was simply no way he was going to do it any other way than his own, I soon discovered, so I gently opened the door and let good cop in. Would he like a cup of coffee? So sorry we even had to bring him down to the station at all….there are just a few, minor things we need his help with. For one…where was he on the night in question? I let Griffin try doing it his way for awhile, and when we would meet, I let him discover the ways in which that plan was not working as well as he had hoped. I treated it as an intriguing experiment, the way a math teacher might respond to a student who was clearly going about a problem the wrong way. “Oh, what an interesting way to think about doing it! Can you show me step by step how you plan to solve the problem your way?” Then, you slowly watch as the student himself figures out that his way is leading him to the wrong solution. “I’m glad you showed me that. That was a really out-of-the-box way to think about the problem, but I think we now both see that it needs tweaking. Let me show you another way we might approach it…” Manipulation? Only if you truly refuse to consider that the student may indeed prevail doing it the way you see as “wrong.” Perhaps Griffin would be the first student ever to ace a class by never showing up and not turning in any work! In a universe full of infinite possibility, I couldn’t say that it was impossible, right?  And it was perhaps because of this openness on my part that Griffin eventually let me show him other ways to approach the problem.

Tim, however, needed a different strategy. Tim needed a drill sergeant combined with a mom who does not put up with nonsense. Tim needed a bad cop. Tim was one of those students who was always looking for a loophole, a soft spot, a chink in the wall through which he could tunnel his way out. And Tim was pretty good at finding them. He had gotten things past adults all his life- sometimes due to privilege and sometimes due to sheer will- and he came to college believing that a few well-placed excuses combined with an innocent, “aw-shucks” attitude would allow him to coast through university just as he had high school. So, I admit, it must have surprised him when I called him on his b.s. However, much as seems to be the case with your average criminal mastermind on  Law & Order, Tim came to respect me and actually listen to me precisely because I had seen through his act.

Most students need both bad cop and good cop from time to time, as well as a variety of other things. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of my job is figuring out what tactic will get through to the student most effectively. Sometimes I follow my well-trained instincts; sometimes, it still takes a great deal of trial and error to figure it out. But most importantly, I remind myself that one size does not fit all. My best decisions are always made when I put in the time to really get to know the person staring back at me from the other side of my desk. Only then can I most accurately discern when to convince my student that her accomplice has already spilled the beans in the other interrogation room…and when to offer her a cup of coffee. 

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 Next Generation – Student Support

The Next Generation – Student Support

It can be difficult to remember exactly where and when you learned something. When a job is new, you are learning something new every day, but once you’ve been at it for awhile, you simply do what you know works without much thought about the process by which that wisdom was gained. Since I have been working as a success coach for more than a few years now, I thought I’d ask one of our first-year coaches, a woman named Ellen who had worked as a staff member at two other colleges prior to joining the team at my university, about her experience this year. What did she learn? What surprised her? What are some of the most crucial take-aways that will help her be an even better coach in year two? Here are some of her thoughts:

The most important theme Ellen kept coming back to again and again was that of variety in…well….variety of forms. Based on her work with mostly freshmen who were on either academic probation or warning, it became incredibly apparent to her the extent to which not all high schools are alike. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to academic rigor, even when you only look at college prep programs from school to school. A student with a 3.0 GPA from one area can be vastly more prepared than a student having graduated with the same GPA from a different school. However, Ellen was also surprised by how many of her students’ primary challenges were not academic at all, and she figured out that in order to address students with vastly different obstacles- from organization to motivation to family issues to mental health problems- she had to come up with as many strategies as there were barriers to a student’s success.

Ellen also learned things that will help her work more effectively with certain kinds of students. For example, she had not fully realized just how much of a student athlete’s time is dedicated to his or her sport, and what incredible organization and time management skills it takes to be both student and athlete at the college level. She also came to some interesting insights regarding international students, namely just how real and difficult culture shock can be to navigate.

Although one of the biggest lessons Ellen learned was there is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to working with students, there were some commonalities. On the whole, she said, the challenges her students faced often stemmed from a lack of problem solving skills and support. Many of her freshmen were not used to making decisions for themselves or solving their own problems, and she found she nearly always had to give them a crash course in Problem Solving 101.  She also observed how quickly her students came to trust her and tell her what the problem really was and, for many, this trust was born from her students’ viewing her as a campus mom, a second mom, or the mom they never had. One of the truths Ellen discovered that I, too, find difficult is that, for many of the students who end up walking through our doors, the success coach is the only person in his or her life who supports them and always has their back.

At the end of our conversation, Ellen paused and said, “You know, I’ve worked at colleges before, but even so, I really experienced a learning curve this year.” I asked her what, if anything, was the main take-away. “I love being a success coach,” she said, “and I think if every school did this, we could raise graduation rates nationwide.”

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.

Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

The other day I had the privilege of meeting with two women who work in the academic support center at our local community college. These women have been wanting to start a success coaching program for some time, believing that, especially on the community college level, where students have an even more diverse range of needs and challenges than at a typical four-year institution, a success coaching program could provide huge benefits to their students. We had a great conversation about how we launched the success coaching program at my university, how it works, and what we’ve learned in the years since its inception. I’d like to share a few of the highlights here.

SELLING THE PROGRAM

As we learned first-hand at my university, the reasons why a school needs or could benefit from a success coaching program are not always immediately apparent to administration, faculty and staff. Often, this is because many people simply don’t know what success coaching programs do. Students already have access to academic advisors, counselors, and tutors, they say. How would this be any different? Wouldn’t success coaches be at best redundant and at worst interlopers stepping on the toes of those who are already doing these jobs? In order to garner support for any nascent success coaching program, it is essential to communicate to faculty and staff that success coaches work as partners with professors, coaches, and counselors, and that the primary job of a success coach is to act as a singular point person who helps students pinpoint and navigate any challenges that might arise, academic or otherwise. Success coaches also act as mentors and role models to students, some of whom have few (if any) others to look to. Sure, some students find mentor/mentee relationships with a particular professor or coach, and those relationships can be incredibly gratifying, but not all students are so lucky.

Perhaps the most persuasive way to get a university on board when starting a success coaching program is simply to share the numbers. Our success coaching program has unequivocally improved retention while vastly reducing the numbers of students who have been dismissed from the university. In fact, the retention rates of students in our success coaching program, who are statistically most at risk of dropping out or being dismissed, are just as good or better than those of the general population. Math! She tells no lies.

HIRING

Just as most organizations thrive or fail on the effectiveness of their human resources, so it is with success coaching programs. Hiring the right people is essential, and over the years we have found a few types of people who generally make the best coaches. Probably the largest percentage of our coaches are retired educators, but that is not the only model that seems to work. We have hired coaches from the business world who have experience mentoring others, former social workers, HR directors, and people who have spent time in student affairs. Regardless of their career origins, all of our best coaches seem to have one thing in common: experience building one-on-one relationships which focus on the needs of others.

GIVING THE PROGRAM A MISSION

Finally, a successful success coaching program must have a clear understanding of the job at hand. We are not professors. We are not counselors. We are sounding boards, detectives, friends and, more than anything, facilitators. We connect students to the resources they need to succeed, for we know that their success helps not just the students themselves but all of us. The more well-educated our workforce and citizenry, the better off we all are, and success coaches know that our primary goal is to help facilitate that success in any way we can.

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.

Tales from the Trenches of a Success Coach

Tales from the Trenches of a Success Coach

Regardless of your line of work, every once in a while it’s nice to talk shop. It just feels good to compare notes, swap stories, celebrate or, at times, commiserate with the other people who truly understand what you do because they do it too. A couple of days ago, my fellow success coaches and I got together for a shop talk session, and the conversation centered around stories of students present and past. So this month I’m going to forgo the larger thesis and just relate a few of these anecdotes. These are snapshots of individual lives- brief glimpses into moments, both large and small, on a few individual students’ paths to a college education.

Aaron is a soccer player who came to college two years ago on a full athletic scholarship. Aaron is good. I mean, really good. So good, in fact, that our soccer coach recruited him as a freshman and basically built the entire team around him. Fall is soccer season, and with the demands of the sport combined with the dual challenges of coursework and adjusting to college life that all freshmen face, Aaron’s grades suffered. He ended the semester with the bare minimum GPA he needed to remain eligible to play. However, it seemed reasonable to assume that in the spring, when he would be practicing but not traveling or playing competitively, he would have the time to focus on his studies and bring his grades up. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened, and by second semester midterms, Aaron had Fs in five classes. That’s when his coach stepped in and got him a success coach, who immediately went into full triage mode. She got him organized. She kept him accountable, even when that meant walking over to his dorm and physically escorting him to her office when he failed to show up for a meeting. It was a herculean task, but it worked. Aaron got out of the hole and was ready for another fall season. Case closed, right? Lesson learned and the rest is history? Not exactly. Aaron’s sophomore year was a mirror image of his first, and by then his coach had realized something of a common, if counter-intuitive, phenomenon among student athletes.

While one would assume it would be harder to keep one’s grades up when one is so busy with a sport in season, sometimes the exact opposite is true. Sometimes it’s the structure of an on-season that helps a student organize the rest of his or her time effectively. It’s the immediacy of being able to connect how you are doing in school right now to your eligibility to play the sport you love. For Aaron, the loss of that structure and immediacy in the spring was a major drawback. Luckily, with the help of his success coach, he was able to break the pattern this year and has been doing well in class as well as on the field. When I spoke to his success coach, she told me of one particularly wonderful moment. She had gone to a game to see Aaron play, and had, without realizing it, sat next to his mother and grandmother in the stands. They spent most of the game simply sitting side-by-side, until Aaron scored a goal and all three women jumped to their feet and began cheering. After a moment of surprise, Aaron’s mother and grandmother looked over and asked, as if they already knew the answer, “are you the success coach?” When Aaron’s success coach answered in the affirmative, hugs and words of gratitude were shared all around.

Madison is a freshman this year, and her story, while still largely unwritten, has been less inspiring. An extremely bright young woman with excellent test scores and high school grades, Madison, nevertheless, managed to get on academic probation during her fall semester. She started meeting with a success coach at the beginning of this semester, but by midterm she had been dismissed from two of her five classes for lack of attendance. Lack of attendance, it seems, is the name of the game for Madison. She is simply not going to class. When pressed, she has revealed to her coach that there is a set of issues she is dealing with, but so far she has not been willing to talk about what they are. Clearly there are deep and stormy seas churning underneath Madison’s nonchalant exterior, and hopefully she will listen to her coach’s advice and utilize the psychological counseling resources on campus. However, if she doesn’t do something to turn her ship around, she is likely to be asked to leave. Madison’s story reminded all of us success coaches of students we’ve had who just weren’t able to make it. Either their grades were just too low to be turned around, they had underlying family or personal issues that were simply too big to surmount in the time they were here, or some combination of both. Perhaps the unwritten chapters of Madison’s college career will be happier ones. Perhaps the last chapter ends with Madison, beaming from ear to ear, crossing the stage in cap and gown to receive her diploma. In the meantime, we will hope, we will help, we will facilitate…and we will keep our fingers crossed.

Cody is another freshman in his second semester of college, and another student who did not work with a success coach initially but whose fall semester grades put him on academic warning, and so he was given a success coach for spring. (This trend, by the way, is why I strongly believe all freshmen should receive a success coach for their first semester.) Cody is the only child of parents who for a long time believed they would be unable to have children. This does not necessarily account for the amount which they doted on their miracle child, but Cody readily admitted to his coach that his parents basically did everything for him and let him do pretty much whatever he wanted. He certainly is a smart, charming person, but it seems he learned to use his powers of charm and manipulation mainly in order to get out of things or to get other people to do things for him that he really should have done himself. Unfortunately for Cody, his college professors have not been quite as easily charmed, and this paradigm shift in the way of the world seems to have thrown Cody for quite a loop. He’s confident enough to admit he’s gotten away with a lot in the past and smart enough to know that’s not going to work anymore, but he needed someone to help him figure out just how to do things differently. He needed help learning skills like time management, organization, and work ethic, and that’s where his success coach came in. Cody is still not out of the woods, and sometimes his coach describes getting him to do things as “like pulling teeth,” but he is working on it. Little by little, the way we all break old habits and forge new pathways, he is working on it.

Statistics about retention, performance, and graduation rates on college campuses often focus on the abstract- the composite. And yes, composite data is important. But amidst all the data, we must remember that there are trees in this forest! There are as many stories as there are acceptance letters, desks in a classroom, and piles of laundry waiting patiently…for Summer 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 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.