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.