Popular culture images of teaching would have us believe that the very best college professors speak from the front of a large lecture hall filled with eager young students listening to every word we utter. Or we sit at the head of a round table in a well-appointed seminar room peopled with rapt graduate students who wish to learn from our years of reading, thinking and writing. If cultural representations are any indication, professors are mere keepers of knowledge, the troll at the gate our students must pass.
The reality of higher education is that learning rarely happens in rows of seats in front of which stands a charismatic professor in tweed. The academic landscape has changed in dramatic ways, particularly as we use new platforms and technologies to interact with students. Innovative approaches to teaching and learning, such as competency-based education, increasingly rely on coaching models, a method of learning that challenges our popular conception of what it means to be a professor.
As faculty members in competency-based graduate and undergraduate programs, we have shifted from professors to coaches, a move that has yielded astounding results in terms of student learning, retention and graduation.
Coaching is a personalized and continuous process that facilitates student learning and development to improve performance in solving discipline-related problems. Faculty coaches question the learner until the learner acquires facts and builds ideas for creative problem solving.
The end goals of coaching include: building student awareness of how to approach complicated problems, increasing learner confidence by helping him or her figure out an individualized approach to problem solving, and motivating learners to improve performance by acting as a constant source of support. Coaching is not advice giving, mentoring or the mere act of transferring skills from an expert to a nonexpert. Effective coaches enable the development and action planning of a learner.
Coaching looks markedly different from teaching. For instance, learners in our competency-based programs meet with faculty by phone, synchronous online communication software or in person every two weeks at a minimum, with meetings lasting about 30 minutes. Coaches begin each conversation by building a connection with learners. They then proceed to a review of learner-generated action items from previous coaching sessions. Coaches and learners celebrate successes, but also have frank discussions about missed opportunities, roadblocks or negative behaviors. Coaching sessions end with learner-generated action items and clear measurable goals.
Admittedly, coaching is not a low-cost option for education. But it is a powerful pedagogy for learning, building relationships and increasing learners’ skill sets, particularly in individualized and self-paced environments such as competency-based programs. Coaching adds structure to learning. By facilitating goal setting for projects and holding learners accountable, coaches ensure that learners continuously move toward graduation. The coaching process also provides a context for learners to identify and develop skills necessary for successful careers.
Our experience with coaching has led to a variety of benefits, both for us and for our students.
Benefit 1: Coaching builds stronger relationships between faculty coach and student.
Coaching delivers results because of the supportive relationship between the coach and the learner. Good professors, regardless of the learning model, develop strong professional relationships with students. The best coaches, however, do not provide subject matter expertise. Instead, coaches provide encouragement, feedback and structure. Coaches don’t provide answers, but help students find the resources they need to solve problems. For example, one of us coaches students who are creating communication strategy plans. We might find it tempting to tell the student exactly how to research, write and present a plan, but that’s not our job. Instead, we have to ask pointed questions that prompt the student to find the resources she needs to complete the task.
Benefit 2: Coaching enhances student performance, including non-content-related performance.
Strong coaching inevitably leads to discussions beyond the subject matter. Performance coaches can help students situate what they are learning in terms of content within their short- and long-term academic and career goals. The coaching process provides personal and professional attention and detail to career planning, something more and more learners are demanding from higher education. For example, one of us coached a student who found himself in a job he hated and working for a company whose core values were the antithesis of his own. Meeting regularly with the student, the coach helped create a strategy to change career paths and help the student find employment with his dream company.
Benefit 3: Coaching better emulates the kind of relationship students will have outside the university.
Few other institutions outside of the academy will provide students with an expert at the front of the room who will present information to a large group of people who all have varying needs, interests, talents and experience. Coaching better represents the kind of guided relationships students will have with superiors, co-workers and collaborators in future environments.
Benefit 4: Coaching increases retention.
When students develop a personal relationship with their faculty coach, they are more likely to reach out when they need help and are less likely to disappear. For those reasons, we’ve seen increased retention in our coaching-based programs. Westminster College has two competency-based graduate programs -- a master’s of strategic communication and a project-based master’s of business administration. The strategic communication degree program has a retention rate of 94 percent over several years and the MBA has a retention rate of 91 percent.
Benefit 5: Coaching provides more bang for students’ buck.
Coaching models do not lower the cost of instruction. In many cases, it will increase costs. But research from the Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform shows that coaching promotes the implementation of learning and reciprocal accountability. Tuition dollars go to individualized, one-on-one instruction, providing results, something that many students are willing to pay for.
Shifts toward coaching models of education will require faculty and students to reconsider their roles. It also will require institutions to revise persistent and outdated notions about what it means to be an effective teacher. These shifts do present some challenges.
Challenge 1: Coaching requires new or redesigned evaluation processes (including rethinking tenure and promotion requirements).
Most faculty coaches must work within evaluation systems that have been created with traditional models of education in mind. For example, faculty who participate in coaching spend much more time per student, which means that large course loads are almost impossible without course assistants, especially if the faculty member is going to remain active in producing scholarship.
Because faculty coaches do their work via phone, Skype or in their offices, they are doing their work in less public venues. Faculty and administrators who review faculty performance based on face time might assume that coaches aren’t performing at the same level as more visible faculty members.
Challenge 2: Coaching, if not done right, can be disastrous for students.
Coaching cannot be done effectively without proper training for the coaches and the students. Bad coaches will not only tarnish the experience for the student, they can damage the reputation of coaching-based programs. We’ve seen problems arise in cases where faculty members simply want to transfer what they do in the classroom to the coaching venue. Good coaching requires training and effective transitions to truly benefit students.
Challenge 3: Coaching requires thoughtful scheduling and clear boundaries.
Because coaching creates a deeper relationship between faculty and student, coaches must be aware of setting clear boundaries. Students will push to make faculty available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Good coaches are accessible within reason, but they also teach students to respect time. We’ve learned that we have to set boundaries with students early in the process. First, we give them two or three choices for scheduling coaching calls. Then, we set an example by keeping that appointment, being on time for the call, staying on topic during the call and closing within the agreed-upon time. Finally, at the end of the call, we schedule our next check-in and reiterate our commitment to keeping that appointment.
Challenge 4: Coaching might be seen as an argument for eliminating full-time faculty.
Coaching can be done successfully by part-time faculty, but it cannot be done exclusively by adjunct labor. Coaches should be fully trained, regularly assessed and kept abreast of best practices and research in coaching models. Subject matter coaches are also imperative for helping students learn complex and complicated content. Such work cannot be turned over to less-qualified instructors or to robots, as faculty might fear.
Coaching won’t eradicate the problems of higher education, but it can offer students the kind of individualized and personalized learning that they need and want. Shifting to a coaching model, though, requires that we all rethink our notions about what it means to be a faculty member.
Christine Seifert is an associate professor of communication at Westminster College. Richard Chapman is a professor of economics at the college.
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Gooooood morning, San Antonio! A big Texas “Buenos días!” to all gathered there at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for the 95th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges.
A convention hall filled with 1,800 educators? Let’s go Socratic. Questions trump answers.
Raise your hand if you are on food stamps. Nobody? OK, did anyone this morning have an expense-account breakfast or a free breakfast from one of the corporate sponsors? Didn’t the tuition and fees from the nation’s nine million (by President Obama’s count) community college students pay for all the meals here in San Antonio? The plane fares? The hotels?
Question: How many community college students are on food stamps? I don’t know, either. No one seems to. I’ve asked the AACC. I’ve asked the U.S. Department of Education. No luck so far. Raise your hand if students can sign up for food stamps on your campus. Yes, I see a few.
Now, break into groups of two or three. Question: What will you say to one of those students from your community college who is on food stamps? What are you doing here at a convention that doesn’t have questions about hunger -- or the euphemism "food insecurity" -- at least anywhere I could find on the four-day agenda?
Why am I asking? I went to work at a community college to teach College Writing I. I’ve spent as much time, with colleagues, helping students at Bunker Hill Community College sign up for and recertify their food stamps as I have teaching.
Question: What are the big food days at the convention this year? From the schedule I have, it’s a tie -- Sunday, one lunch, nine receptions, and a Latin rhythms dance, and Monday, nine breakfast meetings and a gala dinner.
Discussion question: Does the number of students on federal free and reduced lunch in your feeder high schools let you estimate how many students on your campus might be hungry? If not, why not? Use evidence to support your argument.
Over to the national scene. Question: Did you visit your state’s congressional delegation to support President Obama’s proposal for free community college? Did you propose a better idea? Did you spend more than one hour trying to figure out how to fund the president’s plan at your institution? Did you ask your congressional representatives what they are willing to do for the nine million voters in community college classrooms?
No, no. That’s not me down at the podium. I’m not on the program. I’ve just hacked into the Gonzalez Center's audio-visual system, up here on the Jumbotron, to shout, to scream, to wail the questions every one of you in San Antonio knows must be on the agenda for community college leaders. What do I know? Every one of you is more qualified than I am to give this speech.
Question: Is educating the poor the greatest all-talk, little-action topic in our national public policy?
I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron at the Gonzalez Center to give the keynote address somebody other than me ought to be giving. I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron here at the Gonzalez Center because again the agenda for the AACC annual meeting, sponsored by our students, whose tuition, fees and textbook dollars sponsor the sponsors, ducks the crisis everyone knows our students are in.
Obama’s proposal? Where were we, community colleges? For the third time, President Obama has given community colleges the podium, the microphone and the spotlight. For the third time, where were we? It’s our job, not Obama’s, to find the funding and round up the votes.
Question: Does having Bob Reich, one of the most passionate, most eloquent voices on the dangers of poverty, of inequity, of inadequate education as your invited speaker, podium and Jumbotron, mean that everyone in San Antonio is doing enough for the nine million students? Well, I sent Professor Reich a copy of my speech. Ask Bob what he thinks.
Question: Why do we expect funding to land in our laps? Compare and contrast. For the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education victory stood on 20 years of targeted previous court victories. Community college leaders in 2015 won’t show up unless a funded plan arrives tied with ribbons and a bow?
I’m going to read to you the opening of “A Talk to Teachers” that James Baldwin gave in 1963 to New York City public school teachers. Listen. Please, please, listen.
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.
Everyone is this room is one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. So any citizen in this country who considers himself as responsible -- and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people -- must be prepared to go for broke. Or, to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.
“A very dangerous time”? Question: We have nine million community college students. Community college professionals agree that no more than 50 percent are likely to complete their degree or certificate. What life in the land of the free and the home of the brave is left to the other 50 percent, to those who don’t complete their degree or certificate? Poverty. That’s 4.5 million human beings in our community colleges today who we know are condemned to poverty.
Crisis? Question: Why does everyone seem to think this 4.5 million is OK, an unfortunate fact of life? Where’s the plan to remedy this?
Look at history books. Half the U.S. went to war to free the four million slaves. What will we do for these 4.5 million? Relative to the wealth, to the potential of everyone there in San Antonio, relative to the wealth and potential of this nation, by the standards of what’s possible in 2015, what does it mean about us that we will let these 4.5 million students slip into a life of poverty?
I’m looking for someone, anyone in the Gonzalez Center this morning who also can’t believe that condemning 4.5 million students to a life of poverty is an inevitable fact of life.
Question: Who said achieving equality and social justice is easy?
Let’s listen again to James Baldwin: “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.”
Funding? Under our noses. What about the tax policies that subsidize Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Williams students, on financial aid or not, to the tune of $20,000 or more per student, depending on your assumptions? When the most from the federal government for our students is a $5,500 Pell Grant, only if the students and their families have filled out the forms correctly. Will the Pentagon or those colleges give up their funding for our students without a fight? Of course not. Again, we didn’t even try.
Crisis? Question: What exactly are the skill levels community colleges must deliver in reading, in writing, in math? How do those skills compare with those of freshmen and sophomores at Yale, at Harvard, at Princeton, at Williams? Impossible to say? We can’t set national standards! Make my day. We can start.
“A very dangerous time”? Raise your hand if you know that your intro biology course would transfer to Mount Holyoke, Smith or Amherst. Raise your hand if you know that MIT would give credit for your courses in calculus and in differential equations. Of course this doesn’t cover all nine million community college students. It’s a start. If we’re not matching skills with top students, how do we know about the rest?
Question: Could your students with, say, 40 or more college credits write an essay in 40 minutes analyzing the rhetorical strategies President Lincoln used in his second inaugural address to achieve his purpose? (I’m failing here. My students need a week at least and many drafts.) That’s a question on an AP exam in English and Expository Writing.
If you have a better proxy of the skills required for freshman writing at a top college, let me know. If you think community college students deserve only lesser skills in basic thinking and writing for any 21st-century job, if you think community colleges can educate worthy citizens who don’t know, understand, cherish Lincoln’s words, I’d say, “Step outside,” but I’m 1,767 miles away, in Boston.
Time to return your Jumbotron to AACC control. While you’re down there in San Antonio, remember our students who don’t have food waiting at receptions.
What do I know about the 1,800 there in the Gonzalez Center? I know you can do James Baldwin proud, and go for broke. Why are we waiting?
Question: Why not close with President Obama? “Yes, we can.”
Wick Sloane, an end user of a selective-college education, writes “The Devil’s Workshop” for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him @WickSloane.