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InsideTrack’s focus wheel goes beyond academics to help the whole student succeed

Enrolling in college is no simple task. There are programs to research, forms to complete, finances to figure out and plans to make. So it’s no wonder that every student’s first day of their first term is a day unlike any other — beginning their educational and career journey.  

But that’s just the first step. 

Before long, reality sets in. College is hard… and even harder for learners who work, have kids or face barriers to their postsecondary success. Between the pressures of everyday life and the pressures of school — with all of its lectures, reading, research, homework and exams — issues can build up and a once-clear path to a degree can quickly go off the rails. 

To address this, InsideTrack has developed eight core focus areas — together known as the focus wheel — to holistically explore topics that impact a student’s retention. In this blog, we’ll explain how focusing on all parts of a learner’s life is crucial to retaining students and helping them thrive. 


Not surprisingly, academics is a key topic of discussion between learners and their coach. This includes everything from the demands of daily reading and writing assignments to test-taking and study skills. When connecting on academics, coaches work with students to create (or strengthen) study habits, self-advocate when talking with professors or other staff members, access available campus resources like tutors, and develop plans for tackling large projects, to name a few. To make a more thorough academic assessment of their student, coaches can ask learners to discuss topics like their academic strengths and weaknesses, how they feel about their class requirements, and what assignments on the horizon they’re most concerned about — and why. 

Student/Coach Conversations: Academics

Coach Aaron was working with a transfer student whose goal was to get her bachelor’s degree in psychology, then enter the master’s program to become a therapist. Statistics was a required course, but she described herself as “math-phobic” and had enrolled in — and withdrawn from — the course seven times. 

During a coaching call, Aaron worked through the GROW exercise with her. G is for Goal — and the student would be delighted with a C in statistics. R is for reality — and her reality was that she had attempted and withdrawn from the course multiple times. O is for options — and in order to come up with options, Aaron asked the student to create a list with room for eight options, set a timer for two minutes, and start filling out the list. The student was able to come up with seven options:

  1. Get a tutor
  2. Talk to her cousin who’s really good at math
  3. Check out Khan Academy videos on statistics
  4. Email the teacher ahead of time and introduce herself
  5. Form a study group with some of the psychology students from her current cohort
  6. Order the textbook ahead of time
  7. Consider retaking it during the summer when she has no other classes

While talking over the exercise with Aaron, she was able to add:

  1. Get more sleep this term so she has enough recovery to learn

Finally, the W in GROW is for What — as in “What are you going to do?” The student chose to order the textbook ahead of time and “make friends with it.” And that was exactly what she did. When Aaron followed up with the “math-phobic” student, he learned she had exceeded her own goal and completed the course with a grade of A-.

School Community

Starting at a new school is essentially starting a new community. Students need to feel a sense of belonging in order to fully integrate into their school community. But what does that mean, exactly? According to an MIT Teaching + Learning Lab article, students with a genuine sense of belonging feel cared about, accepted, respected and valued by others on campus. This extends from administrators and professors to resident advisors in the dorm and staff leading clubs and organizations. 

Research published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education explores how college students who have a greater sense of belonging tend to have higher motivation, higher levels of academic engagement and higher achievement, along with increased academic self-confidence and more overall enjoyment of school. As a result, they are more likely to persist and graduate. Conversely, students who consider leaving school without completing their degree reported lower levels of belonging. And the level of belonging is much greater for students whose parents had college degrees compared to first-generation students. Fitting into the school community is a key indicator for student retention. As someone who supports students, a good place to start is by asking questions about belonging and assessing how the learner is engaging with their school community. 

Student/Coach Conversations: School Community

Questions about the school community area of the focus wheel can be a doorway to the heart of student issues. Is the school a good fit? Is the program of study a good fit? Does the student feel like they are fitting in? Equally as important is what the coach senses from a learner’s answers. When they talk to you, do they seem to feel safe? Are they feeling good about where things are at? Is their experience with you (the coach) contributing to their sense of belonging? 

Coach Semeion describes one of her students as going from a cocoon to a butterfly. Through their coaching relationship, it was evident to Semeion that this new freshman was spending most of her time in her dorm room playing video games. As a result, her college experience — and her academics — were suffering. Semeion was able to build trust early on and learned that the thing bothering her student most was being away from home and not knowing anyone. 

Semeion worked with her learner to help her cultivate a sense of belonging. Together, they created a goal for academics and used timers to limit gaming time and set manageable study times. They discussed school resources, including where they are and how to use them. And they discussed the learner’s health and how she could advocate for herself. 

Knowing it was hard for the student to see her own wins — like exploring new interests and spending more time with her campus community — Semeion made sure to reflect the positives back to her. Six months after coaching started, you could find this freshman at her campus NAACP club meetings, leading the campus writing club as their president, going to her internship with a publisher, and baking and sharing some of her made-from-scratch family desserts with friends. Semeion helped her student nurture a sense of belonging not only in her school community, but in her own skin as well.

Commitment to Completion

No one begins their higher ed journey with a goal of dropping out without finishing. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to discover the reasons why the student you’re working with came to college in the first place. Knowing why they enrolled in college — to expand their opportunities, to start their career, to better their lives, to show their kids they can do anything, to make a difference, or any number of other reasons — gives you a key motivational component to help them persist through challenges. 

Student/Coach Conversations: Commitment to Completion

Coach Kim was working with an adult learner who was attending online college to complete his electrical engineering degree. During coaching sessions over the phone, the student would sometimes lose service while driving to McDonald’s to use the Wi-Fi to do his classwork. An exercise one day started with a standard coaching question: “Why school?”

His response? “I’m here for my kids.” Coach Kim wanted to know more, so she asked him again, “Why?” He said he wanted to be an example of growth for his kids — giving them someone to look up to, something he didn’t have as a kid. He shared that his parents worked hard in the service industry but didn’t pursue opportunities beyond that. When the coach asked him why it was important for him to provide this example, he said he wanted to change the trajectory of his family tree and create a path for opportunity that he hoped would impact generations to come.

Engaging in this conversation and using the “commitment to completion” area of the focus wheel to reflect on the power of the student’s intentions helped put the efforts he’s making to complete his degree in perspective. It also reminded him of why he’s doing what he’s doing — a powerful force for motivation. As the student explained, even though going to McDonald’s to get online may be a hassle, for him, it’s worth it. 


When a learner can make a strong connection between the work they’re doing in college and their career goals for after they complete their certificate or degree, it can be easier for them to remain motivated. Yet for most college students, that vision of their future isn’t always clear. It’s not uncommon for students to try and figure out the connection while they complete their general education requirements. Sometimes they know the field they want to pursue, but they don’t know how to learn more about specific careers in that field. Honing in on the career focus area can help.

Student/Coach Conversations: Career

Coach Kelly was working with a healthcare information management major with questions about the job she was hoping to get after graduation. The student was curious about stability in her job field, and asked her coach, “Is this a career field that will still be relevant in 10 years, and is there room to grow?”

Kelly framed the conversation by explaining that she’s not a job forecaster or expert in the health care field. But as a coach, she could support the student in getting the answer from the right people. Kelly taught the student about informational interviews and how they can provide a great way to learn more about specific careers. Together, they came up with a list of relevant questions, including longevity of jobs in this field, as well as other questions designed to provide a better understanding of general job expectations and opportunities for advancement. Then they discussed who to talk to — starting with the student’s professor.

When the two next met, the student had completed two informational interviews — one with her professor and another with someone he recommended from his network. Armed with real-world information, the learner was confident that healthcare information management was a good fit for her and that she could build a long-term career. Connecting coursework to career is a great way to keep motivation — and retention — high as students pursue their degrees.

Managing Commitments

For most learners today, there’s a lot more going on in their lives than just academics when they’re enrolled in school. Some are away from home for the first time, learning to manage their time and their finances on their own. Others have jobs in addition to school. Still others have children, are caring for parents, or have other family commitments along with their daily coursework. A coach can help a student be more aware of just how much time a course can take up — inside and outside the classroom — then work together to create a time management plan so their education stays on track.

Student/Coach Conversations: Managing Commitments

Coach Darren was working with a student who loved school and was having a great college experience. To meet people and get some exercise, the student joined an intramural soccer league. What started out as a low-stakes recreational activity quickly ramped up to be more of a time commitment as his team won their games. As the playoffs approached, the social activities also increased — with everything from running drills and extra practice to sign-making and post-game happy hours. Coach Darren was happy for the student but was keenly aware that he wasn’t hearing a lot about classes. When the coach asked about school, the student shared that he had a big exam coming up on the Monday following a weekend of soccer playoffs. This is where managing commitments comes into play.

Darren pointed out that they both knew the weekend wasn’t long enough to properly study for the test and participate in all the activities leading up to the big game. Leaning into another focus area — commitment to completion — Darren asked his learner “what inspired you to start college in the first place?” That question brought everything into perspective for the student. He could see that the exam was the priority. And while the intramural playoffs were exciting and fun, he knew he needed to make academics his main focus while still fitting in time for intramural soccer. Balancing commitments helps to keep students from getting overwhelmed and stay on track with their academic progress. Following the meeting with his coach, the learner made the time necessary to fully study for Monday’s exam.  


Finances can be a huge barrier to success in school. When it comes to funding college, details matter, and students need to be fully aware of how scholarships, grants and financial aid work, along with the day-to-day facets of paying for housing, food, transportation and other expenses. When meeting with students you’re supporting, it’s important to bring finances to the forefront, making sure they don’t have any unexpected gaps in funding, holds they don’t know about or personal financial expenses that could derail their schooling. 

For many students, the topic of finances goes well beyond tuition. They may be responsible for expenses they have never had to cover on their own before, requiring them to work while they attend school. Finances are also a topic that many students find hard to discuss or even embarrassing. And financial issues are a primary reason that learners stop out without earning their degree. So tapping into this integral part of the focus wheel is a must when addressing the whole student.

Student/Coach Conversations: Finances

When Coach Jim brought up the concept of budgeting during a coaching meeting, the student he was working with said no one had ever talked to him about this before. Living on campus was starting to feel stressful for this learner. Between his cell phone bill, car insurance and the money he was spending on food, costs were really adding up. Jim assessed the situation and learned that the student hadn’t anticipated so many expenses — and wasn’t sure he could pay them all each month.

By asking questions and listening for what was said — and not said — Jim found out that the student was most comfortable when he wrote things down. So he recommended using a notebook dedicated to recording the money that came in and the money that went out, enabling the student to see exactly where his funds were going. The student explained that this was a new concept for him and he could immediately see the benefits of keeping a written record. Over time, the student was able to plan for his monthly expenses, greatly relieving his level of stress and allowing him to better focus his energies on his studies.

Health & Support

Health is a broad topic that covers both physical and mental issues — everything from getting adequate sleep and eating right to dealing with anxiety and stress management. It’s difficult to focus and give your best to your studies if you’re dealing with a persistent toothache, for example, or are struggling with depression. When connecting with students, it’s helpful to ask them if they have support in case they became sick or got hurt. What steps would they need to take if they had to miss a class, a test or an assignment due to health challenges? Do they know where to go for help with any mental health concerns? How could health challenges impact them financially? Being proactive can help learners put support structures in place before anything happens.

Student/Coach Conversations: Health & Support

Coach Jodi was working with a highly effective business administration student who was working toward an advanced degree. Mid-semester, the learner got sick and was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 and double pneumonia. Naturally, she worried that her grades — and her graduation plans — were in jeopardy. It was clear to Jodi that school needed to be put on the back burner until the student recovered. Jodi told her that what she needed to do now is get better and focus on your health. “School will be here when you are healthy enough to return.” 

Jodi supported her learner by going through appropriate channels to get her withdrawn from the class without repercussions. Without the support of her coach, the student would have just taken on the stress of schoolwork, when what she needed most was to rest and get well. The student recovered, enrolled in the next semester, and completed her coursework with honors.


Simply put, the focus area of effectiveness covers the ability to complete tasks and meet deadlines — a must-have skill in order to successfully navigate college. There are financial aid forms to fill out, assignments to turn in, exams to study for and so on. That’s the rhythm and flow of higher education. Many students deal with the temptation to procrastinate, choosing to hang out with friends or watch TV when they need to study. This is where other areas of the focus wheel can help too. 

Like connecting to long-term goals, for example. Identifying which other areas are impacted by effectiveness can guide the support and tools you have to offer. Effectiveness can impact a student’s health if they have health concerns that aren’t being addressed — like not being sure how to fill a prescription if they’re living on their own for the first time. The demand of financial responsibilities also requires effectiveness. Sometimes the challenge of paying a bill isn’t about having the money, but having the wherewithal to pay it on time. 

Sharing tools like budgets, calendars and reminder notifications, along with familiarizing yourself with school and local resources will support your learner with the effectiveness to be successful in all areas of their lives — throughout their time in college and beyond. 

Student/Coach Conversations: Effectiveness

Coach Leah worked with a learner who was returning to school after taking some time off. She missed the structure of school and wanted to complete her associate’s degree. The learner quickly came to trust Leah, and let her know that one of her biggest challenges was related to her ADHD — something she believed was hindering her effectiveness. During a coaching meeting, Leah shared, “There’s never not going to be obstacles, there’s never not going to be roadblocks.” But because she has so many great strengths, Leah knew that the learner would be able to overcome anything she set her mind to. So every time the pair worked through a challenge together, Leah would make sure to bring awareness to how they did it. 

By being proactive in her coaching, Leah was able to shift the student’s mindset, getting her to think about what she can do now to support her future self. One ongoing roadblock for the student was passing her English course, having failed the class multiple times. By working with her coach on time-management and other issues related to effectiveness, the student was able to turn papers in on time and no longer let small assignments slip past her. Before long, she could see the results and felt confident that she could apply the same approach to not only her next English class, but many areas of her life.

Bringing the benefits of the focus wheel into focus

Using the eight areas of the focus wheel to get to know your learners and their challenges is a thorough way to identify issues and create a plan before something becomes an obstacle to persisting in school. These are the subjects coaches talk about every day with students, and they help lead to a much more holistic assessment. 

That’s why every time an InsideTrack coach interacts with a student — be it by email, text, video or phone conversation — they enter notes about the conversation into our online coaching platform. Keeping track of this information is so important that the technology includes a special section with each of the eight focus areas called out for note-taking. This makes it easy to follow-up on specific topics and action items.

Yet despite the clear delineation between the eight focus areas, it’s important not to get too caught up in any specific category. The challenges and obstacles students face often spill into multiple areas. 

As an example, it’s not uncommon to meet with a learner who lets you know that they are planning to withdraw from a course. Either the class has proven to be too difficult and they want to start over during a different term to get a better grade, or something came up outside of school that is competing for their time. (Often, it’s both.) As a coach, you know that the add/drop date has passed and if they withdraw now, they’ll still be responsible for the tuition — and it won’t be covered by financial aid, which, in turn, means they’ll have a hold placed on future registration until the tuition is paid. Looking at the focus wheel, does this fall under the heading of finances? Effectiveness? Managing commitments? Academics? Odds are it’s a combination of areas, or even all of the above. And that’s OK. Just use the structure of the focus wheel to inform your curiosity and guide your assessment before providing the type of support that will be most helpful. In the end, it’s another actionable resource designed to help you help your students continue on their educational path and achieve their goals.

How can you help learners not only persist, but thrive? With personalized retention coaching, institutions can keep more students on track to graduate — especially first-generation and other students facing barriers.

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Whether you’re looking to help students persist through completion or to improve career outcomes for job seekers and employees, our holistic coaching solutions can help you achieve meaningful outcomes.