Working as an Academic Coach in College

in January 28th, 2022
aerial photography of people sitting on chair

by Mackenzie - a graduate student at the University of Virginia

This is part of a series of guest posts by students and recent college graduates

My Educational Journey

I never thought I would get the chance to work as an academic coach for student-athletes, but now it has become a reality. Graduating early from college with a degree in sports management and then earning the opportunity to work towards my master's degree in Higher Education at The University of Virginia (UVA) has put me in that position.

In addition to my graduate studies, I work in the academic affairs group within the athletics department at UVA. As a student, an appreciation for education has been something I value and want to share with those I now support. I also know that forming relationships is critical in education and a value that I try to demonstrate to understand each person as a whole individual, not just as a student or an athlete.

My Experience in Academic Coaching

As an academic coach, I focus on creating long-term study habits and other learning skills with our students. Unfortunately, many have not fully developed these skills during high school. Furthermore, our student-athlete population is predominantly first-generation college students, so they may not have had the same social support to understand the new challenges in college. Working in a one-on-one environment allows me to know students and customize their experiences to serve them better. Our academic coaching model is based on a holistic approach of supporting the student in multiple assets, including the current problems, and planning to foster long-term skills and support.

Beyond personal support, UVA also uses a custom technology platform that requires students to upload proof every day of what they have completed for a task. For example, if students need to create flashcards to study for a test, they will upload all their cards or notes from their reading. This task system instructs students in different ways to learn.

As with any support service, students may be a bit resistant to the system at first, claiming that they do not need it or would handle everything independently when the program is much more beneficial than they realize

Currently, at UVA, our goal is to give students the skills they need, and then they will eventually graduate from our system of needing one-on-one coaching. Creating these relationships has been imperative for the students to trust their coaches and better employ the skills they learn. As with any support service, students may be a bit resistant to the system at first, claiming that they do not need it or would handle everything independently when the program is much more beneficial than they realize. We often have third, and fourth-year students return to explain to younger students how helpful the coaching program was. One of the most significant indicators of the program's success is when students as to be set up with coaches before the semester even starts. They realize the system's benefits and how it has contributed to their success.

Challenges my Students Face

Common challenges that I observed as an academic coach include students’ personal accountability. Many students came from a high school where they would attend classes every day and have constant check-ins for classes on what will be due the next day. The move to college can be a drastic departure from this system.

Using an academic coach to create benchmarks every day or every couple of days serves as a reminder of the classwork they need to complete or the office hours they need to attend. These benchmarks are created traditionally through in-person meetings but can also be set through phone calls, Zoom meetings, or even text messages about specific classes. This system is beneficial, especially with someone on the other end checking up after a missed assignment. This checking in occurs through both in-person meetings along with texting with students. However, despite the long-term benefits for students, it can be labor-intensive on the side of the academic coach. Although I have worked primarily with student-athletes, these same skills apply to general student populations.

Practical Techniques with my Students

Serving in a coaching position has also been a learning experience. I initially assumed the standard practices I learned of creating flashcards and reviewing notes would be enough, but I was stunned when it was not. I then worked to think of ways that I had learned in classes or worked to understand the material better. For example, a technique we often use with students is to teach me the material, and then I ask questions that come up through conversation. Although this takes much more effort on my part, it has proven to be much more beneficial to the students. Thankfully, when I have multiple students enrolled in the same class, I can leverage the knowledge from one discussion and apply it to another student.

A large part of coaching sessions include finding ways to manage the stress that may come up when a student receives a significant assignment and how to balance their academic load with everything else they want to participate in

Feeling overwhelmed is also a common issue among students, not just those in their first year. This feeling often occurs when they are just assigned a significant project or at the start of the semester, or even when they face multiple finals with just a few days left. Students can overcome these overwhelming feelings, but it takes time, energy, and resources through the institution. It is often beneficial to speak with students on why they are overwhelmed to help lessen the feelings and then create a plan to handle the situation.

A common occurrence is that the student will start to spiral on how this assignment will "ruin" their life, but they are only worried about the big picture, not how to tackle the specifics of the situation. Although not an academic-specific task, a large part of coaching sessions include finding ways to manage the stress that may come up when a student receives a significant assignment and how to balance their academic load with everything else they want to participate in.

Being overwhelmed often extends well beyond the classroom. For example, a common issue I see is a student's email. They may receive dozens of random emails from the school that are not relevant, plus more from professors and even a deluge of ads for some students. As a result, students have an inbox full that they do not know what to do. This overflow is a constant struggle, but overcoming it can help deal with assignments that slip through the cracks. In addition, proper email checking fits into a broader set of organizational skills with long-term benefits that a freshman may not wholly appreciate. It's also something that prior generations did not have to deal with to the same extent and may not understand about the modern student experience.

Personally, I struggle with time management, both as a student and academic coach. Trying to balance school, sleep, sports, and possibly a social life seems almost impossible in the 24 hours of the day. Teaching students how to do this often includes taking a week to write out what they do every 15 minutes and realizing how much time they spend on social media or just hanging out playing video games with their roommates. Using this method allows a visual of where they spend their time and is an easy way to start a conversation about time usage. In addition, a check-in with an academic coach is beneficial because it is a time set aside for a discussion specifically about academics and how it fits into the student's life.

The Opportunity with Cartemo

A system like Cartemo (formerly StudyBot) provides some of the services of an academic coach without putting extreme additional responsibilities on thinly stretched student support offices.

The message-based platform through a student's phone has the potential to be a go-to for students struggling with accountability and long-term study skills. This simple approach is more accessible to students and lessens the potential learning curve for those already overwhelmed. As with a traditional academic coach, I know the goal of Cartemo is similar; to create long-term academic skills that students can use their entire academic career and beyond.

Cartemo would also complement an academic coaching program with the ability to respond 24/7. Finally, as a staff member, I see the program handling the routine check-ins and reminders, which would allow me to work to build better relationships and spend time addressing the unique needs of each student.

Guest writers were compensated for sharing their experience. Cartemo was originally used under the name StudyBot and this post has been updated to reflect the new name.

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