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Academic Coaching:  An Approach to Empower and Educate

Marcal A. Graham, Ed.D. and Grace Klinefelter, DBA

Comparatively speaking, when we examine the data trends over the past 40 years, we see more students are in fact attending colleges and universities. The trends also demonstrate that completions and overall graduation rates are declining (Bettinger & Baker, 2014). This is an alarming fact as colleges and universities look to increase access and opportunity to students in order to create a diversified student culture.  The need for additional support in the way of academic coaching is much needed when we consider many of the academic and financial challenges of first generation and low-income students who lack social capital and a road map for navigating the challenges of higher education.  Robinson & Gahagan (2010), in their discussion of student academic performance, assert that a “coach encourages students to reflect on strengths related to their academics and works with the student to try new study strategies” (p. 27). Since coaching is collaborative in nature, students, administrators, and parents must be aware of not only the academic demands, but also factors impacting the “whole student.” 

Coaching means different things to people so it is important to begin by defining the meaning of coaching for this paper.  According to the International Coach Federation, coaching is “… partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (www.coachfederation.org).

People come to coaching for a wide variety of reasons.  Some common goals include to discover and clarify what they want to achieve, to encourage self-discovery, to develop and carry out solutions and strategies, to demonstrate personal responsibility and accountability and to unlock potential.

According to a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (2015) for the International Coach Federation, coaching clients reported the following results:  increased self-awareness, ability to set better goals, a more balance life, lower stress levels, self-discovery and self-confidence.

Organizations that have implemented coaching cultures report such benefits as employees being motivated to achieve their full potential, accepting ownership and accountability for their work and relationships and having a solutions-based, future oriented focus and commitment.  These same benefits can be available in an academic setting.  Students who are motivated to achieve their full potential, accept ownership and accountability for their work and have a solutions-based future oriented focus and commitment are well-positioned to be successful in their academic studies and their careers.

Although the use of coaching has been embraced in the corporate sector, traditional four year colleges and universities have been slow to organizationally push academic and success coaching campus-wide (Robinson, 2015).  This fact is reflected in the dearth of literature on academic coaching in higher education.  Vansickel-Peterson’s (2010) doctoral dissertation examined the efficacy of life coaching from the lens of five academic leaders. The research findings purported that coaching provided academic leaders with a safe space to engage and address issues that may be sensitive in nature.  Additionally, her findings provided support for growing employees into positions of leadership. Another highlight of Vansickel-Peterson’s research was the understanding that coaching should be embedded into the pedagogy which would promote self-empowerment and entrepreneurship.

Building on Vansickel-Peterson (2010) research was Robinson (2015) who studied coaching programs on college campuses and their impact on undergraduate student success.  Her findings presupposed that coaching was an emerging phenomenon that ranged in scope in delivering services to students who could be entering college for the first time to those undergraduate students who may be on academic probation. Robinson (2015) also found that many coaching programs in higher education were created to increase retention and persistence as well as help weak academic students navigate much needed resources and enable them to focus on skill development and goal attainment.

Bettinger & Baker (2014) in their randomly assigned study reinforced the positive value of coaching by finding that those students who were “coached” were more likely to attend a university a year after the coaching treatment had ended.  Furthermore, findings from their research study also showed that the use of “coaching” produced higher persistence and graduation gains which helped students prioritize course work, understand how to navigate and prepare for unforeseen academic and learning challenges that undermine their success.  Additional benefits to the educational institutions that implement coaching include improved achievement of student learning outcomes and decreased turnover of faculty and staff.

Promoting Coaching through Reflection

As  an administrator and adjunct faculty in college, my (Dr. Graham) role has always been to probe students’ thinking in order to understand their academic and personal preparation for the next academic and personal steps in their lives. The question that I posed to myself was: how do you transform, inspire, and motivate students to see themselves beyond their immediate position in life? How do you instill accountability and self-awareness at the same time? How do you promote goal setting if students are not demonstrating a high degree of motivation? I developed a coaching tool that provided the opportunity to engage students in ongoing reflection and dialogue called M.O.V.E.M.E.

            The M.O.V.E.M.E theoretical framework is an attempt to move the discussion to a more applied position that helps students, counselors, teachers, and principals in the trenches and gives further strength to the need for improving metacognition along the educational pipeline. Some may view it as a form of persistent inquiry (Crone & MacKay, 2007) that derived from examining data and asking students to question and assess their own effort, assumptions, and learning in order to take ownership for the outcomes.  The goal of the M.O.V.E.M.E coaching model and process is to promote a healthy mindset through personal leadership development so that students reflect on their own thinking and refine their approach when necessary to analyzing a situation, problem solve on a deeper level, and develop internal strategies that allow them to confront and overcome adaptive challenges in and outside of the classroom (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).  There are a collection of engaging, evidence-driven, and thought-provoking questions that promote a deeper level of cognitive and non-cognitive understanding beyond the surface which are generated from the M.O.V.E.M.E coaching model such as:

  • Motivation: Is there a high degree of evidence and effort visible in your execution while acquiring information? Where is there evidence of success in how you handled perceived failure?
  • Openness: Is there an ability to receive new thoughts, ideas, and paradigms? Are you blindly accepting what is presented because of authority, tradition, provocative, or disbelief with no evidence to support? (Fishman & McCarthy, 1998).
  • Vision: Do you have short-term and long-term goals or understanding? What is needed to execute the plan? Have you conceived a plan yet? Have you identified the obstacles? Having vision requires having a blueprint for the future and producing action to make dreams and goals become a reality.
  • Exposure: What places, people, and things are parts of your social and emotional universe? What is shaping your world view? What shapes your attitude toward success and failure? Are you open to diversity? Do you need to change your surroundings?
  • Mastery: What part or parts of your life are you devoting to excellence? Are you seeking excellence, mediocrity, or just being good? What do your outcomes look like? Are you demonstrating intentionality? (Graham, 2010). Are your mistakes correctable? What does your level of academic and personal preparation look like?
  • Engagement: What intentional and unintentional verbal and non-verbal signals or cues do you communicate to people? What would they say? Are your thoughts, actions, and behaviors consistent? Are you in a safe place to make mistakes?  What are the nuances, dynamics, and levels to your interaction with people? How do you disarm people? Is my mindset fixed or growth-oriented? (Dweck, 2006; Sparks, 2013) Are you compelling in your presentation of information?
M.O.V.E.M.E: Academic Coaching Model in Action

The University of Maryland Educational Opportunity Center (UM-EOC), a community-based TRIO program under Academic Achievement Programs, has established a long track record and mission of providing post-secondary options to largely first generation and low-income adults age 19 and over in Prince Georges County, Maryland for almost 20 years.  Over the past five years, UM-EOC has incorporated the M.O.V.E.M.E coaching model in an effort to empower students (i.e. high school seniors, adults, non-traditional students, transfer students, and largely low-income and first generation) in Prince George’s County by emphasizing leadership development, critical reflection, and demonstrating how to change one’s mindset as they pursue educational and workplace opportunities. It has been a transformative process to see people change their thinking which was fixed initially and see it become open or malleable (Dweck, 2006; Sparks, 2013). It continues to demonstrate that in order to positively change the lives of individuals you need data, critical reflection, and a transformative mindset that harnesses positive energy to motivate those in all walks of life. We continue to challenge the thinking of the community as they look to negotiate the pitfalls and opportunities of the educational pipeline. Finally, we hold that the best strategy lies in empowering peoples’ ability to critically reflect on where they are and what is needed to overcome academic and personal obstacles in front of them.

In order to maximize the power of coaching for students, there needs to be a culture of coaching throughout the institution.  Educational leaders, faculty and staff all need to be involved, both as coachees and as coaches.  The commitment to coaching must be driven from top leadership through all levels of the organization.

Implementing a coaching culture involves personal transformation of the leader who embarks on a journey with an unknown destination.  The transformational journey involves continuous questioning and challenging beliefs assumptions, patterns, habits and paradigms in order to create a new future.  Goldberg and Somerville (2014) suggest that “… helping students develop as complete human beings, with whole minds and bodies engaged in learning, who are practiced in understanding in a variety of ways, is the educational mandate of our times” (p. 116). 

Leaders are being asked to step into new roles and lead their academic institutions in new and different ways.  This transformation involves helping leaders, faculty and students develop the ability to succeed, persist, grow and evolve and can be supported through coaching.   For example, leadership and executive coaching for leaders, peer and behavioral coaching for faculty, and developmental and life coaching for students.

Besides the new role for leaders, professors are also going to play a new role.  They go from “sage on the stage” to adopting a coaching perspective.  In the past, students were rewarded for learning what the professor deemed necessary.  Today, “[e]ducation is successful to the extent that it unleashes students to pursue their interests by trusting them to take action, to make decisions, to fail, to learn, and to take action again” (Goldberg and Somerville, p. 139).  This change significantly impacts the role of the professor in the classroom.   The responsibility for learning is shared between the professor and the student.  The professor’s role shifts toward that of helping the student develop a mindset of curiosity, openness to explore, fail, try again and reflect on the experiences.

There are several approaches to help professors incorporate coaching into their classrooms. For example, behavioral coaching focuses on problem solving.  Cognitive-behavioral coaching provides an opportunity for professors to reflect on their teaching practices.  Instructional coaching supports professional development for professors.  Peer coaching allows professors to observe and critique each other.  Goulston (2009) said that faculty are there to empower and embolden their students to be all they are capable of being.  Helping faculty transform their work in the classroom through the implementation of coaching will help achieve this goal.

For students, the transformation includes minimizing the importance of grades, honors and awards as motivators and replacing them by connecting with the value of learning.  The importance of intrinsic motivation cannot be overstated in this process.  According to Goldberg and Somerville (2014), “[w]hen intrinsic motivation is enhanced, students are wholly engaged, mind and body; and their enjoyment and joy are inspired by the internal sense of pleasure they get from being interested in the subject.  Intrinsically motivated students thrive in an atmosphere of trust, where they are given autonomy and a chance to pursue their passions”.  (p. 151).

                  From this research, it can be seen that coaching provides opportunities for students to succeed throughout their educational experiences and can be empowered to leverage the learning they achieved to reach even greater levels of success and fulfillment throughout their lives.   By implementing a coaching culture in the educational institution, all members of the faculty and staff can also benefit from an environment of curiosity and caring.  

Reference List

Bettinger, E. P., & Baker, R. (2014).  The effect of student coaching:  An evaluation of a randomized experiment in student advising.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36(1), 3-19.

Crone, I., & MacKay, K. (2007).  Motivating today’s college students.  Peer Review, 9(1), 18-21.  

Dweck, C. (2006).  Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success.  [n.p.], Random House. 

Fishman, S. M., & McCarthy, L.  (1998).  John Dewey and the Challenges of Classroom Practice.  NY:  Teacher’s College Press.

Goldberg, D. E., & Somerville, M. (2014).  A whole new engineer.  Douglas, MI.  ThreeJoy Associates, Inc.

Goulston, M. (2009).  Just listen.  [n.p.]. UK Professional Business Management/Business.

Graham, M. (2010).  MOVEME.  Harnessing the power of your thoughts for personal and professional greatness.  NY:  IUniverse, Inc.  

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002).  Leadership on the line.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

International Coach Federation.  FAQs.  Retrieved from www.coachfederation.org.

PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (2015).  2016 ICF Global Coaching Study.  Retrieved from https://coachfederation.org.

Robinson, C., & Gahagan, J. (2010, Sept.-Oct.). Coaching students to academic success and engagement on campus.  About Campus, 15(4), 26-29.

Robinson, C. E. (2015).   Academic/Success Coaching:  A Description of an Emerging Field in Higher Education.  (Doctoral dissertation).  Retrieved from http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/3148

Sparks, S. (2013, September 10). ‘Growth mindset’ gaining traction as school improvement strategy. Retrieved from www.edweek.org.

Vansickel-Peterson, D. L. (2010).  Coaching efficacy with academic leaders:  A phenomenological investigation.  Accessed from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dlvansickel-peterson/11-23-2010/   

Academic Coaching:  An Approach to Empower and Educate
Collection 2017 Contemplative Practices for 21st Century Higher Education
Visibility Use group defaults
Author Marcal A. Graham, Ed.D., Grace Klinefelter, DBA