The game plan Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

For many people, going back to school can be intimidating. Quite often, when a working professional starts college, it’s the first time in years he or she has set foot in a classroom. Like everything else in today’s fast-paced, highly technological world, higher education has changed significantly during the past several years.

Getting back into life on campus and in the classroom can be a daunting task, which is why some institutions have developed support programs that are designed to smooth the transition for “non-traditional” students. At University of Phoenix, for instance, they go so far as to call them “coaching” programs to designate an even deeper level of support.

“While today’s professionals may have some management or business experience, their academic skills may be a little rusty,” says Rich Spinner, a campus college chair, full-time faculty member and student coach at University of Phoenix-Cleveland. “This is where student coaches come in.”

Smart Business spoke with Spinner about how a coaching program can help students navigate the back-to-school process.

What makes an effective coach?

Number one, coaches need to be very good at assessing student skills. They need to be able to ask probing questions to find out where a student may need help, because sometimes the problems students think they have are not the true problems. So coaches need to be good listeners, of course, and be somewhat insightful. Coaches also need a lot of patience, because some of these academic issues are pretty tough to comprehend and absorb. Last, coaches have to be encouraging. It can be tough to take on continuing education when you haven’t taken a class in years. Coaches need to reassure students that they can do it, and remind them that they don’t have to do it alone.

What type of student would benefit from a coaching program?

Take, for example, a 40- to 50-year-old person who has little to no computer experience. Now, put that person into a continuing education program where almost all of the course work is done online. Needless to say, that person is going to need help or the class will quickly pass him or her by.

Some people may assume that anyone under the age of 60 has some familiarity with computers, but in some cases, older professionals may have worked in a role in which they didn’t use computers. Or, they may have other areas where they need help, such as remembering long-forgotten study skills. Perhaps a person is a single parent or someone else who just never found the time to become computer savvy. The first aspect of a coaching program is an assessment that determines exactly how much help a student will need and in what areas.

What is involved in an assessment like this?

The assessment looks for three things. The first step is determining how comfortable the student is with a computer.

The second part of the assessment is reviewing the student’s writing and research skills. Today’s college programs require a lot of research, and there are usually several written assignments, both individual and on a team basis. So, while computer skills are important, the student must be able to effectively research and write in order to survive.

The third part of the assessment is the student’s life skills. Many organizations bring in life coaches, executive coaches and/or career coaches, but nothing trumps the value of a good education from a quality institution. Even if a student has good life skills, returning to school offers a growth opportunity that ultimately leads to career advancement.

Once the assessment is complete, how does the coaching process work?

Generally, students are assessed to determine their comfort level and need. There are those who are already at the level they need to be to move into the program. Then there those who are well versed in many areas, but still need a little help in other certain areas. Then there are the students who need help in several academic areas, so they are the ones who typically benefit most from a student coach.

Once it’s determined exactly how much help the student needs, the coach and the student create a plan that’s designed to get the student up to speed as quickly as possible. The plan may include educational workshops in the classroom, lessons online or over the phone, and/or specific one-on-one tutoring — whatever the student needs to succeed.

But, effective coaching doesn’t end with the plan. In my opinion, a coach should be in constant contact, always available when the student needs assistance. It is helpful when students can contact their coaches directly, who will help them get back on track — even if an assignment deadline is looming.

How can coaches help students who are enrolled in business classes?

When students enter into business programs, such as an MBA, they almost always find at least one class that gives them difficulty. Some business students may ace marketing and HR, while others will be more adept at economics or statistics. The coaches are there to help students get though the rough patches, no matter in what subject.

Rich Spinner is a campus college chair, full-time faculty member and student coach at the University of Phoenix-Cleveland. University of Phoenix, the largest private university in North America, serves a diverse student population, offering associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs from campuses and learning centers across the U.S. as well as online throughout the world. University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus serves students online and at locations in Independence, Beachwood and Westlake/Crocker Park. To learn more, contact University of Phoenix at (216) 447-8807 or (800) MY SUCCESS or www.phoenix.edu.