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Academic Coaching – An Invaluable Resource on College Campuses

In the United States about 40% of undergraduate students drop out of college; a staggering 30% of those are freshmen. While there are multiple reasons for that number, many educators are concerned about the rising lack of student academic success and retention rate. To combat that, more and more colleges are implementing academic coaching as part of their student services programs.

What is academic coaching? 

Academic coaching is based on a proactive relationship between student and coach, using the process of inquiry to build self-awareness and responsibility by providing structure, support, and constructive feedback. In simple terms, an academic coach (peer or professional depending on the institution) takes on a facilitator rather than an instructor role, creating conditions for learning and change of behavior by modeling skill-building strategies and goal-directed behavior.

Moving from a structured to a self-directed environment. Are students ready?

When students transition into college, they go into a stimulation overload. They are enrolled in five to six courses (15 -18 credits) that meet two or three times a week as opposed to every single day in high school. Students have to navigate a new environment, cope with living with one or two strangers, figure out the unspoken rules of campus, fend for their meals, do their own laundry, find the right clubs and organizations to join, decipher which student or academic services provide the appropriate support, and so on. From the moment students step on campus, they experience an overwhelming sense of freedom and independence by moving from a highly structured high school life (parental wake-up calls, home-cooked meals, extracurricular activities, study halls) to a self-directed college environment.

Students are handed a syllabus for each course that can range from five to fifteen pages, describing the expectations, objectives, and goals for the course. It lists contact information for the professors and their teaching assistants, provides the grading system, reading agenda, assignment due dates, and final exam schedule. Sometimes the professor goes over the syllabus, but most often the expectation is that students will read it on their own. It is, ultimately, the roadmap to the entire course. Some professors even believe that it is a binding contract between the faculty and the student. But do students actually read their syllabi? Just recently a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga included the location and combination of a locker where he left a $50 cash prize for one of his 70 students to find. To his dismay or amusement, the cash was unclaimed at the end of the semester. If the syllabus is such a vital part of a college course, why does it remain unread by so many?

While college campuses are laden with student support services, the rising concern of decreasing student success and retention rate left educators pondering what was missing: Why don’t students read their syllabi? Why can’t students manage their time? Why can’t students create effective study habits, manage their test anxiety, handle setbacks, effectively defuse roommate conflicts, self-advocate for their needs, etc.?

College expectation vs. underdeveloped executive functioning (EF) skills: 

Colleges expect students to come in with the ability to develop realistic plans, activate, initiate, and sustain academic effort, create and remember goals, as well as regulate intense emotions to daily frustrations. These are referred to as executive functioning skills. Executive Functioning (EF) is the brain’s air traffic control system: it drives the ability to focus, hold onto information long enough to work with multiple data, filter distractions, switch gears, make decisions, revise plans, control frustrations, and manage intense emotions in order to avoid crashing. Does this sound like an average teenage brain?  

Emerging studies now show that executive functioning skills do not develop automatically with maturity. Such skills are built over time and need to be specifically taught and reinforced until they become automatic, and that can take a very long time, especially for students who struggle with anxiety or learning and attentional problems. EF is the foundation of learning and social interactions. Paying attention, managing emotions, completing tasks, and communicating needs and wants are essential for learning, especially in the post-secondary environment. 

In college, a functional working memory is needed for holding and manipulating information in the mind, following multi-step directions, taking effective notes, returning to the same page of a book after an interruption, or even for a simple task such as reading a syllabus in its entirety. Inhibition skills are needed for filtering thoughts and managing impulses, pausing before thinking, and controlling outbursts even when facing frustrations. Students with ADHD face extreme difficulties with these skills. And lastly, cognitive flexibility is essential for shifting between multiple tasks, considering new perspectives, changing strategies upon failure, and thinking outside of the box. 

To foster the growth of EF skills and enhance retention rates, academic coaching was brought to many college campuses. Students are expected to transition to college with the ability to develop realistic goals, manage their time, embrace higher-level thinking all while dealing with intense emotional frustrations in an environment that lacks external structure and bombards them with new and rising academic and social challenges. The reality is that many students need the extra support that academic coaching provides.

Academic Coaching at Boston College

Academic coaching is not tutoring; it is not content-based, but built on the idea of a collaborative and supportive relationship between students and a coach, through which students develop their own strategies, and systems of self-regulation to maximize their academic performance. Coaching sessions at Boston College are student-centered to facilitate goal-directed, self-regulated, and autonomous behavior. Students come to see an academic coach with a variety of complaints, ranging from: “I do not know how to manage my time,” and “I do not know how to study for a specific test,”  to “I studied so much, but when I take the test, my brain goes blank,”  and “I do not understand this essay prompt, how do I even begin?” 

At Boston College academic coaching is built on a positive and proactive relationship. An academic coach explicitly teaches strategies on how to complete tasks, such as taking effective notes, reading textbooks with a purpose, breaking down prompts, and even reading and simplifying a course syllabus. The coach ultimately creates a condition for learning and change of behavior by emphasizing listening and questioning, tracking progress, managing accountability, and providing feedback. In simple terms, it hones executive functioning skills that are essential for academic and social success. It is available to all students and can be booked once a week through the student portal.

An example of a BC academic coach’s semester reflection:

The student has made tremendous progress this year. He came in very unsure of himself and his ability to do well in a college setting, and by the end of the year would come into our session with a plan for the week–what to prioritize, how to study, and the breakdown of content to study for each day. He is very interested in holistic health, wanting to talk about working exercise, meditation, and journaling into his routine. 

The student’s greatest strength is always asking how he can make himself a better student, but sometimes this also means he is never satisfied with his improvement. I tried to often remind him of where he had started and where he was now to temper his frustration that he was not yet where he desired to be. 

Suggestions for next year include helping him be mindful about where he is studying (he often studies in spaces that are hard to focus in, like his room/dorm, and benefited greatly from switching locations and finding a space that worked for him, although this took some prompting. He might also benefit from some work on reading strategies, as reading takes him a long time. He is definitely a student who could transition to meeting every other week in the future if that was something he desired.”

What to look for in a coaching session:

An academic coaching session needs to focus on introducing effective strategies to boost executive functioning skills, especially as the complexity of academic tasks becomes more demanding. In order for strategies to be effective, efficient, and systematic, they need to be individualized. That means identifying what the student is going to do with the strategy, how long it will take, and how effectively it can be applied across the curriculum. For example, simply telling the student to highlight while reading (as a strategy) is ineffective. The student needs to return to the coach regularly and discuss which strategy worked and why. Ultimately, the academic goal of coaching is to develop independent and self-regulated learners: metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally. Meaning, with the appropriate support, the students will develop their own system of effective strategies to maximize their performance in and out of the classroom. Many colleges offer academic coaching for all students on campus.

Therefore, students shouldn’t be shy about seeking out academic coaching support once they begin their college courses. It may be critical to their success.

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