Academic Success Coaching: Keys to an Effective Approach

Given voluminous research on the impact of individualized attention on at-risk students’ academic performance and persistence, more institutions are innovating new ways to leverage both peer mentors and professional academic success coaches.

To learn more about the second approach (which has not yet been as widely adopted), we reached out to Derek Moore, a key player in the success coach program at Pulaski Technical College. Pulaski has success coaches on seven campuses, and the coaches report to the institution’s dean of enrollment. The program has seen some success, and Moore shared with us some of its key features.

Smaller colleges especially, as well as institutions serving nontraditional student populations, may want to take note. Much of the program’s features are replicable, and it is possible to start on a small scale — with just a few coaches and a brief questionnaire to serve as a needs assessment — and then build up over time.

Here is one model for providing effective academic success coaching.

The Triage Approach

Moore outlined for us the thinking behind Pulaski Technical College’s academic success coach program. The program takes a “triage” approach, offering three levels of coaching:

  1. Identifying self-assistance services that the coach can provide to students
  2. Providing information sessions and brief meetings with students who many need some minimal advising or coaching
  3. A case management approach

The case management approach involves the coach partnering with the student to create a specific development plan. Moore recommends establishing a short-term timeline for the plan and focusing on setting obtainable and short-term benchmarks for progress.

The plan needs to be unique to the individual student’s needs, and needs to develop the whole student. For example, the coach and the student might set goals for progress in different areas in which the student has aspirations:

  • Education (A goal could be completing a certificate or an associate’s degree, or achieving and maintaining a specific GPA across two terms)
  • Employment (e.g., work on campus, a paid or unpaid internship, or an advancement in the student’s current job)
  • Personal development (e.g., increasing their network or improving their image)

Then set specific, short-term benchmarks, such as successful completion of a particular challenging course, or the student’s ability to develop and audit their own course schedule, within the next one or two semesters. Perhaps one student’s personal development goal is to become an effective public speaker; the coach could propose a benchmark of completing a public speaking course — or, to empower the student further, the coach could partner with the student to facilitate a workshop together.

A Non-Academic Needs Assessment

To ensure that the development plan is both individual and addresses the whole student, Moore advocates equipping the success coach not only with information from standard academic assessment instruments such as the ACT or the SAT, but with a non-academic needs assessment. Because at-risk students are often strained by external commitments or external needs that have the potential to impact their academic performance or their persistence, Moore recommends inviting students to self-identify external needs.

For example, present the student with a needs checklist:

  • “I need assistance with transportation to campus”
  • “I need assistance with child care”
  • “I need assistance with becoming a better parent”
  • “I need assistance with searching for a new position”

Moore adds, “The checklist is a way for students to self-identify needs or challenges they face that they believe may distract them from their academic pursuits. It is also an opportunity to open a conversation about how the coach can support them in driving holistically toward their goals in all areas of their life, not just one area.”

Four Keys to Effectiveness

Additionally, Moore suggests four items that are key to the role of an effective coach:

  • Keeping connected with campus and external resources
  • Connecting students with peer mentors
  • Engaging in regular dialogue with faculty
  • Listening to the big picture of the student’s story and aspirations

Keeping a Ready List of Resources for the Student

First, the coach needs to develop familiarity with and knowledge of campus resources, such as financial aid, tutoring, the learning assistance center, and key people on campus who can help solve recurring problems quickly; external resources, such as community educational programs and local advocacy groups that assist with educational needs; and online resources that can be of use to students struggling with specific challenges.

“As the student’s go-to person,” Moore adds, “the coach needs to be prepared to help the student get things done. So many campus processes and procedures are not student-friendly. The coach needs to be trained and prepared to help the student demystify these processes and connect them with the resources they need in a timely way.”

Connecting Students with Peer Mentors

The more access the student has to a peer network and to role models of success, the better. Moore suggests that once a success coach program has been established for more than a year, students who have received past coaching can be invited to serve as peer mentors to current students facing similar challenges. Moore suggests, “You want the student to see examples of success, another student whose experience has been similar to theirs and who has achieved their associate degree or their bachelor’s, or who has achieved a recent advancement in their career.”

Partnership with Faculty

It is critical for the success coach to be in dialogue with the faculty. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Established, agreed-upon meeting times between the coach and a faculty member
  • “Office hours” when faculty teaching core courses are available to meet with success coaches (this may be an option to consider once you reach the phase where you have a large number of success coaches working with students)
  • A meeting of a coach with multiple faculty to discuss recurring challenges and how they can work together

Moore notes that it is important that coaches are aware of particular faculty member’s teaching style, and that faculty are in contact with the coaches prior to the drop date and other key dates early in the term.

A Listening Approach

Finally, Moore stresses the importance of training academic coaches to listen — not only to the student’s immediate needs, but engaging them “in broader conversations about where they came from, where they are currently, and where they are going to.” It is essential that the coach strive to understand and support the student’s goals, their aspirations, and thier challenges — both academic and non-academic.

This dialogue builds trust and buy-in from the at-risk student, and takes the act of coaching beyond tutoring for a particular course and toward planning to meet long-term goals.


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