Why Coaching Students Helps Advisors, Too

Five Ways that Proactive Coaching Improves Staff Engagement and Satisfaction

By Kimmy Benson, InsideTrack Coach Supervisor and Andrea Engler, Senior Executive Director, Student Transition and Support, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis

According to the Department of Education, only 60 percent of students who start their college education graduate within six years. Two-fifths of the nation’s college students are starting a college education, yet not persisting to graduation. Colleges and universities looking for sustainable solutions to this issue increasingly look to their advising departments to move the needle on retention and foster student success.

Advising departments and student support services are in place to ensure students have what they need to persist, but they often rely on students to self-refer or take the first action of identifying obstacles and asking for help. A proactive coaching model takes a different approach that includes strategic outreach and a holistic assessment of a student’s priorities, commitments and goals — both academically and outside of school. Advisors can use proactive coaching to pinpoint why students are leaving and encourage them to share the real reasons they are choosing to withdraw. The method gets at the root of student struggles and helps students overcome obstacles before they derail the college journey.

But shifting to a proactive model makes a significant positive impact on advisors, too. It’s no wonder that an advisor would narrow their eyes at the idea of proactive outreach. After all, advising rosters are often large. Schedules are packed with student meetings consumed by degree planning and transactional questions; at the same time, advisors juggle walk-in appointments and put out the occasional fire of dropped classes, confusing degree maps and the troubled, lost student seeking support. It’s tough to ask advisors to add what appears to be more work onto their plate.

The benefits and transformation that comes from doing so, however, are clear in the stories and experiences from advising staff who have woven coaching strategies into their work. As they attest, it didn’t make their jobs harder. If anything, it made their work more fulfilling and more powerful. Incorporating coaching skills into advising improves student outcomes and positively impacts job satisfaction.

The specifics look different from institution to institution. But if implemented successfully, a proactive coaching model can become the leverage needed to support both student retention and advisor job satisfaction, ultimately creating a more effective and sustainable advising program. According to advisors who have adopted a proactive coaching approach, the following five areas are where student-facing teams tend to see the most transformation and impact, both for students and themselves.

More professional development and opportunities for team building

Quality coaching demands comprehensive training and ongoing mentoring and support. Coaching skills are intended to be a practice — not something you learn, then put aside the second you leave the training. The foundation of the training and ongoing support provides consistency and assurance that new skills are being used in the most effective way. Just as our students develop over time and incorporate new habits and skills into their daily routines, advisors follow a similar journey when they begin incorporating coaching skills into their work. Immersed in the ongoing professional development and ongoing support, advisors report enjoying having a shared language and new techniques for working with students. Those shared techniques and knowledge lead to collaboration and accelerate team effectiveness while providing a transformative professional development experience, as described by an advisor below:

“This has been a rare professional development opportunity that has actually made me better in practice ​instead of just giving me more theory to cram into my brain that I will never touch again because it’s not natural and I don’t know how to incorporate it. I feel so much more competent in many areas: active listening, asking open-ended questions, giving a student ownership instead of advice, role articulation, radical transparency. The list goes on and on, but those five have especially transformed my approach to advising.” – Advisor, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

Greater impact on every student

At its worst, advising is a blur of student faces, emails, instructions and prodding with little impact or student action to show for it. When coaching skills are leveraged effectively, advisors are able to focus more on student development and educate the whole student with an emphasis on building desired future behaviors that impact success. Students are building knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs during their advising interactions. Beyond just knowing about the classes they need to complete their degree, they’re learning more about their strengths, habits, motivations and obstacles.

The impact isn’t just specific to the student. As advisors are assessing students holistically, they’re gathering valuable insight into trends and themes that are impacting students on an institutional level and can help institutional leaders make informed decisions on policy that enhance the success of all students.

As this advisor notes, incorporating coaching skills can be transformative and lead to changes not only in individual student meetings, but also with student groups:

“This technique has invaded everything I do. I’ve even transferred these skills to my group work and seminars with students on probation. I frame things differently and I ask hard questions and use radical amounts of transparency, and I see it making a difference in my advising meetings. I have so many tools to use to help these students, and I think it does help, in every area of my work, with students and colleagues.” – Advisor, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

Another advisor shared that the shift from transactional student meetings focused on degree planning to more holistic meetings can build student skill and responsibility:

“Coaching methods have allowed me to help students figure out the path to their success.  Advising has really changed from just course and transfer planning to figuring out how things are really going and why a student is making decisions. It has definitely helped me put power and responsibility into the student’s hands while I provide a bit of guidance.” – Advising Supervisor, Austin Community College

New tools for facilitating effective meetings

We’ve all had the experience of a student wandering into our office, asking a flurry of questions, then slinking away, leaving us wondering if we answered what they were actually asking, or if giving them verbal direction was truly the guidance they needed. We may wonder, “What just happened? Did I provide value? Will that student stay in school? What could I have done differently to increase their chances of staying in school?”

When advisors incorporate coaching into their work, they’re using a consistent meeting structure. This leads to advisors having greater confidence in how they run their meetings and students having a consistent experience from advisor to advisor. Advisors who incorporate coaching methodology consistently structure meetings with a focused, purposeful start that allows them to be more efficient and make better use of their time and energy. In wrapping up, they summarize the meetings by connecting the immediate steps back to the student’s long- or short-term goals. Facilitating meetings with a clear structure helps the advisor cover the highest priority topics more efficiently and consistently. That way, more can be accomplished in the same (or an even shorter) amount of time. The advisor and student both leave the meeting with a clear picture of the student’s current reality and what steps need to be taken to move forward.

Here an advisor describes the benefits she and her students experienced from shifting her regular meeting structure to a coaching structure:

“I feel more prepared and purposeful with students now. There was this kind of vague uncertainty before that always left me flat — like something didn’t happen or I missed something. Now, I have more of a behavior/action/development focus and I can remain student-centered. I simply feel more satisfied with my role because I feel more confident that it’s benefiting students.” – Advisor, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

More insight into the student experience

Spending time on relationship building helps students feel comfortable sharing their challenges and concerns. When advisors are asking additional open-ended questions outside of what the student came in for, they are identifying and addressing red flags earlier in the student journey. This enables issues to be addressed before they become major obstacles.

Some may worry that this approach will take up too much time. Common pushback comes in the form of, “It takes a whole hour to do a degree planning session. I don’t have time to ask the student about anything else.” However, simply asking a few additional questions about things like the student’s motivation for being in school, their perceived challenges, what they’re juggling outside of school responsibilities and how they feel about their identity as a student can create a connection and build trust with the student. This shows that the advisor cares about their success, which in turn nurtures that sense of belonging that is so crucial to student persistence. That trust could lead to a student identifying a challenge that would have never come up if the questions and conversation was limited to the number of credits they need to take. Below, advisors describe how this shift has impacted their own work satisfaction and the positive benefit to students:

“It is a method of making a more personal connection with a student, creating an atmosphere in which opportunity to share possible/potential barriers to success is created.” – Advisor, Austin Community College

“The main difference I notice since starting coaching is that I’m building relationships with students. I’m actually having a lot more fun with my work!” – Advisor, Austin Community College

“Coaching has definitely changed my outlook on advising for the better. I am now much more likely to ask students about other parts of their lives besides academics, and I am much better about making sure they have an action plan when they leave my office. This impacts my job satisfaction because I feel like I’m doing a better job for my students.” – Advisor, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

Students become partners in their own success

When incorporating coaching skills into daily workflow, advisors are creating additional time to learn the student story. This allows them to spend less of their time “instructing”, and instead inviting the student to do more critical-thinking and decision-making. The ideal state is to blend an instructive and developmental approach that empowers students to be experts in their reality and increases staff satisfaction by making advising less repetitive and transactional. Advisors don’t choose to spend their career working on busy college campuses with students to send emails and repeat the same answers to questions day in and day out. They care about student success, and student success is more achievable when students and advisors share responsibility for it. The magic of incorporating coaching skills into advising is seeing the way in which it blends instruction and development to grow the student’s ability to take action, follow-through and learn how to repeat self-development themselves after they’ve left the meeting.

Here, an advisor offers her take on facilitating students’ growth:

“This approach avoids a prescriptive style of advising. Instead, the advisor becomes a listener and facilitator, drawing information and synthesis out of the student. I believe it correlates well with our new model of developmental advising/navigating and view of advising as learning. I hope that this method helps students realize that they have the ability to think through decisions themselves and to use available resources. “ – Advisor, East Mississippi Community College

With higher education putting increasing emphasis on improving graduation outcomes, advisors likely feel increasing pressure to increase retention rates. A typical response is to triage the needs of the most at-risk students, and addressing issues as they come up. Taking a proactive coaching approach that catches potential challenges earlier makes a lasting impact on student persistence — while saving advisors time and increasing their sense of investment and engagement in their work. Incorporating coaching skills into advising is a necessary step to support advisor sustainability and job satisfaction while positively impacting student retention. While it may initially seem like one more duty packed into an already hectic schedule, the resulting student and staff success is worth the effort.

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