Actionable insights you can put to use today to support your students through completion
On any given day, InsideTrack coaches connect with thousands of college and university students of all ages and backgrounds. Through well over 20 years of supporting student success, our coaches have amassed an amazing level of firsthand insight and expertise. Just in time for the Fall 2023 Term, we’ve gathered thirteen of our best coaching insights, each designed to help students persist and complete their programs.
Pro Tip #1: Create an effective plan
It sounds simple enough, but the vast majority of college students begin each term without a plan for moving forward. Encouraging your learners to plan — and to be adaptable when plans go off track — is vital in helping them reach their goals. As one of our long-time coaches puts it, “People don’t fail, plans do. And when we help make it less personal, we are more likely to get up and try again.”
Pro Tip #2: Merge motivation and belief
Motivation and belief are what get students through the challenges they face and enable them to persist when the road gets bumpy — which it inevitably will. A big part of this is making it clear that any student you work with knows that they deserve to be in school, they belong here, and they will succeed. Our coaches bring this to the table every day, making it clear that they believe in their students. Another InsideTrack coach notes that, “As student support professionals, we have to have unconditional positive regard for our students.” Turning an “I can’t” mindset into one of “I can” is key.
Pro Tip #3: Integrate proactive communication
Helping students build proactive relationships with staff and faculty is something that will serve them in good stead throughout their time in school and beyond. Particularly when it comes to navigating typical campus resources — such as admissions, counseling and financial aid — students need to be clear in what they’re asking for or explaining their needs from the start. “This helps them cut down on any back and forth and know they are maximizing their time,” says an InsideTrack coach. “And it’s even more crucial for students in an online setting, where communicating via Zoom or email may be the only way they get the support they need, with no office to stop by or campus center to visit.” The good news is that these same communication skills will also be useful in the workforce. Working with students to ask the right questions, see the value in clarifying their needs and tapping into available resources is a great way to help them feel confident and carry on with their degree or credential.
Pro Tip #4: Helping students GROW
One of the tools our coaches use is known as the GROW framework, with GROW standing for Goal, Reality, Options, Will. As a supporter, you can encourage learners to set a Goal, explore the Reality of their situation, think about Options for moving forward, and create an actionable plan for what Will be the next steps. That’s GROW. As one coach explains it, “This is one of my favorite coaching tools because it allows for tailored student advancement to occur during coaching meetings. By continually advancing students within meetings, we create the space to build the knowledge, skills and beliefs it takes to succeed in school and beyond.”
Pro Tip #5: Conquering academic reading
Incoming students know there will be required reading throughout their time in school. What they may not know is the volume and high level of that reading. For many learners, college-level reading is more of a struggle than an established skill. Academic reading is a skill that anyone can learn, but it’s not to be assumed that all college-level students have mastered it — or have an effective game plan on how to approach large-scale reading assignments. Easy-to-implement strategies run the gamut from finding a quiet area conducive to reading and taking notes on main points, to breaking long material into smaller sections, looking up unknown words, re-reading confusing passages, and writing a brief summary after a section is completed. Over time, these reading strategies will become routine. “We work with students to help them understand how improving their academic reading skills will help them continue toward their goals,” says an InsideTrack coach.
Pro Top #6: It takes a village
Coaching is a support model that builds on the efforts of other resources. Our coaches take the time to listen to and understand each student’s challenges and assess how to best deal with their specific obstacles. Incorporating campus resources into the mix greatly increases “stickiness,” or follow-through, and supporters can help students come up with clear next steps for utilizing resources across campus and getting closer to their goals. Students who partner with a coach are more likely to be prepared to engage with the campus resources — benefitting the students, the school and the student support professionals working for the school.
What’s more, coaching complements existing campus resources, including advising, mentoring, counseling, tutoring and career services. Coaches help the students they work with create a manageable to-do list for interacting with campus resources. “We also work with them on how to follow up and make sure they do what they need to do to overcome any barriers,” says a coach who works on retention outcomes with learners. “I’ve seen students increase their use of other campus resources through coaching because we were able to talk through how they would benefit from those services.”
Pro Tip #7: Using CLEAR to break through barriers
At some point, every student — traditional, adult learner, first-generation — will be faced with obstacles to their educational and/or life path. A coach working with online students recalls how some learners react strongly when they get negative feedback via email from their instructor. “Students can personalize the interaction and start to feel like they don’t belong, or that a certain professor or administrator ‘has it out for me.’ Sometimes these assumptions become such a barrier that their grades suffer or they withdraw. When this happens, I try to normalize the situation using the CLEAR Framework.”
Using the CLEAR system, which stands for Confirm, Legitimize, Evaluate And Respond, helps a student shift their perspective, empowering them to realize the influence they have over the situation and explore options they have to resolve their barrier and move forward. It’s also an excellent way to help students push reset when their goals go off track. And it provides a mechanism for addressing student concerns by working through their frustrations and challenges, ensuring that you’re responding in the most productive way.
Pro Tip #8: College is a learning experience
Students often forget that college is a learning experience — and no one expects them to be perfect. They will miss points on a test, misunderstand an assignment or two and will run into a time when they can’t do their best work because of the struggle to balance college with life. That’s not only OK, it should be expected. Giving students a little perspective — that college is about doing your best and learning as you go — can be an excellent mantra for retention. When the going gets tough, focusing on the learning can smooth things out.
Pro Tip #9: Strive for consistent messaging
Too often, student support happens in silos. In our partnerships with colleges and universities, InsideTrack coaches take note of student challenges, looking for trends and systemic challenges that institutions could improve upon. These insights are given to administrators to help them gain visibility into their students’ perspectives and enhance their student support. One pain point that comes up often is the fact that various institutional departments seem to be disconnected from one another. When asked about their inability to get the information they needed, a coach remembers a student replying, “It’s like admissions and financial aid are at different colleges.” Sitting down as a student support team and developing consistent messaging with a flow of information between departments not only makes your job easier, it makes the learner experience much better.
Pro Tip #10: Understanding core values is a piece of cake
A coach trainer explains that her favorite coaching tool to leverage is the wedding cake model. On paper, the wedding cake looks like three tiers set up like a pyramid. The bottom tier is Core Values. The middle, smaller tier, is Career. And the smallest tier on top is Degree or Certification. The wedding cake model places the most importance on the student’s core values, or the bottom tier. Understanding a student’s dreams and the values behind them gives a coach insight into what will motivate them to ultimately succeed. “Using the wedding cake helps me better understand my students’ core values in order to build their motivation and persistence throughout their time in school,” the trainer explains. “Ultimately, it’s about asking questions to get down to the root of what’s important for each student. I’ve found this particularly helpful when students are facing challenges, decisions, and changes to their plan.”
Pro Tip #11: Using a stoplight to signal progress
Another coach cites the stoplight exercise as a favorite tool. “The simplicity of this exercise makes it easy for the student to think about things that are going well and things that are not going well, giving them the space to talk about changes they need to make — something they might otherwise have a hard time admitting.” Picture a traditional stoplight, with red at the top, yellow in the middle and green at the bottom. The stoplight exercise prompts students to reflect on their actions and progress over a specific period, like a term or the duration of an online course. In doing so, they are asked to make decisions about which practices are helping or impeding their success. Red signifies “What do you want to STOP doing?” Yellow indicates “What do you want to CONTINUE doing?” And green means “What do you want to START doing?” It’s a simple and effective way to get students to look realistically at how things are going, and commit to areas for improvement.
Pro Tip #12: Proactive outreach works wonders
Developmental support is designed to enhance every student’s educational journey, not just those who struggle or are “at risk.” Yet we know that too few students take the initiative to reach out. If things are going well, they may not feel that there’s a need. If things aren’t going well, shame, stigma and feeling overwhelmed can make them hesitant to ask for help. Incorporating a proactive outreach strategy can help students build relationships with staff before problems arise. Just as importantly, proactive outreach reaffirms that student support is for all students, not just those who are deemed to be struggling. According to a coach working with online students, this is especially true with adult learners. “Programs serving adults may need to lead students to support, because after a long absence from the school environment, they’re likely unaware of the range of resources and services institutions now offer.”
Pro Tip #13: Treat students like people, not numbers
Many college services are provided in a transactional way. Here is your schedule for the term. Here is your tuition bill. Here is your dorm assignment. To a student, it can feel like taking a number at the DMV. “Next!” And while it may be the right approach for some things, students and institutions both benefit from an approach that focuses more on developing long-term success skills. The sheer volume of students and necessary tasks can make it seem like there’s little time for retention or relationship-building, especially when those outcomes can be more difficult to track. But even adding a few new questions and phrases into student meetings — asking more “whys,” for instance — can encourage students to develop qualities like self-awareness and self-confidence. “Asking ‘why’ helps the student open up and feel that you care, building connection,” is how one coach explains it.
Start implementing these tips to bolster retention today
Every learner starts out firmly believing that their reasons for pursuing a degree or credential — fulfilling career, greater job satisfaction, overall happiness, increased stability, and the ability to make a difference — are worth the time, effort and commitment required. Yet when challenges start to pile up, the life-changing benefits at the end of the journey can feel out of reach and motivation can fade. Incorporating these tips into your student-facing interactions can help students work through their obstacles and stay on track to achieve their goals.