4 Themes of Good Academic Coaching

Being an academic coach is a role that many people within student support services fill and don’t even realize it. The academic coaches that I’m usually referring to are peer coaches who are helping students with specific success strategies; however, you don’t have to follow a prescribed method in order to be considered one. Based on my research, being an academic coach (clarification: good academic coach) is really about embodying these four themes: Empathy, the Respect & Power Equilibrium, Critical Caring, and providing Structured Guidance.

1. Empathy

  • Short explanation: Strengthening the relationship between coach and student by connecting and relating to the individual and their struggles
  • Long explanation: Empathy should be characterized as strengthening the relationship between the academic coach and the student by the coach relating to the individual and their struggles. According to the 2005 book “The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education” by Nel Noddings, Empathy impacts a student’s psychological readiness and willingness to continue working with the academic coach and can possibly have effects on their future autonomy. Essentially, a connection must be built between two human beings in a relationship that is built on an emotional level. If your goal is for a student to open up and become more trusting, you need to break down the potential barriers that a student may have up in defense. The first and most important step in breaking those barriers is by establishing that empathetic relationship from the get-go. 
Retrieved from: https://philpresents.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/handle-with-care-4-keys-to-convince-any-audience/
Retrieved from: https://philpresents.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/handle-with-care-4-keys-to-convince-any-audience/

2. The Respect & Power Equilibrium

  • Short explanation: A coach should demonstrate respect as a peer before expecting to have authority (power) over the student; Balancing respect levels with your mentoring role is important.
  • Long explanation: The Respect & Power Equilibrium can basically be described as the academic coach demonstrating respect as a peer before expecting to have any type of authority (power) over the student; however, the academic coach needs to find a balance between the peer-to-peer relationship and their role as a mentor/student leader. In a study done in 2011 by Bettinger & Baker, counselor-to-student ratios are often between 1:1500 and 1:3500 (depending on the size of the college/university). This hinders many counselors/advisors from establishing any real relationship with their students, which in turn results in students feeling a lack of respect from their counselors/advisors. Many of the students that I have worked with in the past have expressed that their initial concerns about academic coaching as revolving around the lack of empathy and respect that was being shown by their academic advisors and their fear that the same uneven relationship would be developed with an academic coach. No one wants to be talked at and told “this is what’s best for you” by someone who doesn’t actually know them. There are many ways that a coach can establish this relationship, one of those ways being reminding students that they are setting their own goals in the sessions. It can be very beneficial in establishing that you respect the student as an individual just by giving them the power to decide their own goals. People are generally much more likely to follow through on something when there is more intrinsic motivation as the driving force.
Retrieved from: http://elo24.eu/article/respect
Retrieved from: http://elo24.eu/article/respect

3. Critical Caring

  • Short explanation: Stern, truthful advice and criticism should be given only after genuine understanding of the struggles students are facing.
  • Long explanation: Critical caring can be described as stern, truthful advice and criticism paired with genuine understanding of the struggles a student is facing. This is a very tricky thing to master because without first establishing that empathetic relationship built around respect, you’ll just come off as another blunt, rude choice word who thinks they have all of the answers. However, when you have established that relationship, you will be seen as much more caring with your critiques. Students in the past have described academic coaches possessing these qualities as, “stern but caring” and “tough, but more like a friend… how a mentor should be”.
    • Side note: it’s also important that you aren’t just stating advice and facts about what it means to be successful. It’s better to ask engaging questions that allow students to come to their own conclusions than it is to constantly be giving them parental advice. You essentially want to use inception so that they can make the idea their own.
Retrieved from: www.reddit.com
Retrieved from: http://www.reddit.com

4. Structured Guidance

  • Short explanation: Assistance with structuring and planning out the actions needed in order to have academic success (e.g. scheduling time, tracking grades, formulating study plans).
  • Long explanation: Lastly, the final step in this whole process is being given the green light to structure guidance for helping a student get on the path toward success. This guidance can come in the form of assisting scheduling their time, figuring out how to track their grades, formulating a plan of action to attack their studying, etc. Students will be much more receptive to strict guidelines to success that they are being given once their coach has demonstrated Empathy, the Respect & Power Equilibrium, and Critical Caring.
Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/office-of-the-regulator-of-community-interest-companies
Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/office-of-the-regulator-of-community-interest-companies

It’s important to remember that all four themes are interconnected; however, if you don’t begin with an empathetic, respectful relationship, you will find that students are less likely to give you the authority (power) you need in order to help guide them toward success.


The ideas in the post derive from: 

-Epps, M. (2015). Coaching a winning team: Good academic coaching when working with academically at-risk students (Unpublished master’s project). State University of New York at Buffalo, Amherst, NY.

Featured image retrieved from: http://fit2finish.com/if-coach-is-in-charge-of-player-development-who-is-in-charge-of-coach-development/

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