We Hired Coaches to Help Students Succeed

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Tuesday, March 1, 2022
By Pradeep Passi
Photo by iStock/fizkes
From teaching study skills to building self-confidence, our coaches intervene to support students who are most at risk—before it’s too late.
  • Dedicated student coaches can help professors identify and reach out to students at the first signs of academic trouble, such as faltering attendance or missed assignments.
  • Coaches sometimes succeed at engaging at-risk students even after faculty’s attempts have been unsuccessful.
  • By gathering and tracking data over time, schools can determine which interventions are most successful at helping students complete their programs.

No university wants to see students drop out from their studies, particularly because most universities have an ethos of ensuring that all students reach their potential. And, yet, many universities continue to wrestle with the challenge of improving their student retention.

At the Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in the United Kingdom, we recently began to give even greater thought to this issue. As a first step, we reviewed the ways we supported undergraduate students who either had become disengaged with their studies or who were at risk of becoming disengaged. We wanted to understand what we could do better to enable these students to have a greater chance of success.

During our review, we determined that some students begin to disengage from the program quickly after enrollment, whether they stop attending class regularly or they begin to miss assignments. This happens for many reasons, including issues related to financial strain, family caregiving, mental health, or self-confidence. Students often have complex lives, and they can find it difficult to fit their studies in with their many other obligations.  

Too many of these students were falling through the proverbial cracks. Academic staff did not always recognize the signs that students may drop out; in some cases, our faculty did not have time to nurture disengaged students or help them study more effectively. It was clear that we had insufficient resources to support at-risk students.

Many of the reasons that students begin to slide downward often are outside the control of our teaching staff. Even so, our senior leadership team believed strongly that we should not simply accept the loss of these students from our programs. That mindset would not align with our institution’s fundamental mission to transform lives. That’s when our idea to integrate coaches into our student services began to come to fruition.

Coaches as Dedicated Resources

As we adopted our coaching model, we were inspired by both student feedback and existing research related to student retention. One of the most useful resources that we referenced was  “What Works? Student Retention and Success,” a January 2013 report by Liz Thomas. In this work, Thomas, a higher education researcher and consultant based the U.K., describes interventions implemented by schools across the U.K., all designed to increase students’ levels of engagement.

We knew that dedicated coaches would have the time and ability to identify at-risk students and empower them to reengage with their studies. Our business school received approval from the university to hire two full-time coaches. Both of these individuals, who joined our staff in 2016, had prior experience providing support to students, and one already had a coaching qualification.

We knew that dedicated coaches would have the time and ability to identify at-risk students and empower them to reengage with their studies.

At first, we considered setting an open-door policy that would give all students access to the coaches’ services. But we quickly decided that a more targeted approach was desirable. We wanted to ensure that these services would be accessible to those who needed help the most.

When our academic staff determine that students are in trouble, they can refer them directly to our coaches. Once students are referred, coaches will implement a range of interventions, from one or two telephone conversations to meetings every two weeks. These meetings might occur for up to three months, depending on student need.  

A Model of Student Empowerment

Our coaches use a model designed to empower students to effectively manage their lives. They help motivate our students, build their confidence, and develop goal-setting and time-management skills. Some students might only need quick interventions to achieve small, specific goals, such as handing in an assignment on time. In these cases, coaches work with them on improving their study habits and being proactive in contacting their tutors at the first signs that they need academic help.

Other students might need help navigating more complex issues such as mental health difficulties, bereavement, or other crises they are facing in their personal lives. When students require more specialized interventions related to their well-being, finances, or careers, coaches refer them to the appropriate university services.

Our professors still reach out to students who they believe are falling behind. But they now can ask the coaches to intervene if they are unable to get students to respond. We have found that sometimes the coaches will be able to connect with students, even after faculty’s attempts at outreach have been unsuccessful.

Measures of Success

We have worked with our IT department to set up a bespoke and confidential database, where our coaches record each student intervention they make. They include information such as the nature of the student’s issue and the type of support provided. We link these data points with students’ identification numbers so that we can track outcomes over time.

Currently, we are evaluating the data related to interventions that occurred from 2017 through 2020 to determine whether our coaches have had a positive effect on student retention. In those three years, the coaches worked with 1,070 students—approximately 30 percent of our undergraduate population. The vast majority of these students were in their first year of study.

Some students might only need quick interventions, while others might need help navigating more complex issues such as mental health difficulties.

We also are drawing on data from other systems at UCLan, which track student activity such as class attendance, library use, and logins to the learning management system. We formally review this data early each semester to look for signals that students may be struggling in particular courses. We then work with course leaders to implement appropriate interventions, which often include referrals to a coach for follow-up.

One metric that indicates our initiative is having its intended effect is the percentage of Year 1 students who receive recommendations from our assessment boards to proceed into Year 2. So far, students who have worked with coaches have received proceed recommendations at rates similar to the school average. We would expect proceed recommendations for our most at-risk students to be lower than the school average, so this is a positive sign.

‘I Feel Motivated and Encouraged’

We also are encouraged by the positive qualitative feedback we collected in a recent survey. “The academic coach has had such a positive influence on student attainment and retention,” one academic staff member wrote. “She is able to see my students, often at very short notice, to discuss and explore their issues and challenges … She keeps an eye on things post-intervention, so that students do not fall in between the metaphorical gaps.”

One student wrote, “Since seeing [the coach] this year, my grades have improved dramatically and I couldn't have done it without her help and support.” Another noted that the coach “really helped me in my studies. Whenever I leave a meeting with her, I always feel motivated and encouraged.”

Through this program, we have seen the positive impact that carefully considered interventions can have on student progression. Given that many students at UCLan come from nontraditional backgrounds, we know that our coaching initiative will help us ensure that more of our students graduate—and, in that way, it will become a key part of enabling us to fulfill our mission of transforming lives.

Pradeep Passi
Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University of Central Lancashire
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