Building Bridges over the Gap: Embedded Coaching – Seize the Moment

At this point in the semester, are you finding that some students still aren’t getting into the groove? This may be the right moment to reach those students who want to be in school but who aren’t catching on as to how to be successful.

If you’re like me, you’ve done the things we all try by this point in the semester:

  • requested mid-semester feedback
  • suggested tutoring
  • encouraged students to go to the Nittany Success Center (NSC) for study skills workshops
  • completed the Early Progress Reports with suggestions
  • gotten a study group together via the NSC
  • given weekly online quizzes that students can take multiple times to prepare for exams

And yet, there may still be (in freshmen gen eds especially) a number of students who just aren’t getting up to speed. Usually, the first exam brings on some panic, enough to change some behavior. But then, there may still be this persistent group, who actually could qualify for out-of-state status… because they may be in the state-of-DENIAL!! It hasn’t yet occurred to them that college is not high school and that a change in behavior is needed. Or they may know this, but just don’t know what to do about it!

I believe that there is a sub-group within this group that we can actually reach while there is still time to make a difference. I’m not talking about the truly unmotivated, those students who are in your classes under duress (parents made them) or aren’t mature enough yet to take on the responsibility of college… This is another discussion.

This post is about helping those students who want to be in college, and who truly lack the learning skills they need to cross over that high school to college gap. The good news is that these skills can be learned. Learning a new skill is never as effective as when it occurs in a real setting… so no better place to learn how to learn your class material than in your class!

One strategy you can try is an embedded coaching approach. Embedded, because it takes place within the regular meeting time of your course. Coaching, because you show them a learning skill that is effective for your content area. You explain it – show them how to do it – let them try it – give suggestions as they go along and talk about why it is effective – and then you let them experience the effectiveness in a real situation – a quiz, for example. They can see the effectiveness of the strategy.  It builds confidence in their own ability to learn at the college level and sets a realistic expectation of what is needed to succeed. In reality, students may be spending the same amount of time, in either case… the results are just better! Coaching also involves encouragement and communicating tough truths.

This is what happened yesterday that prompted me to write this post.

In my English as a Second Language course, students are learning about academic writing, expectations of American college classrooms, and building their academic vocabularies. We use a vocab workbook and computer exercises to focus on 10 new academic words per week. Each week, they have a quiz on that chapter’s words. One bright student in the class kept doing consistently poorly on the vocab. I asked if the student was studying. To which the student replied, “Yes!” accompanied by a big sigh, and when asked what the student thought was the problem, the reply was simply, “I don’t understand.”

Now to me, studying and learning vocabulary is a pretty easy task and seemed like a no-brainer. I was puzzled.  But then I pressed further and said, show me exactly what you do when you study. The reply was to write down the words and definitions and then look at them and rehearse them. Then I asked, “How are you using the workbook?” Oooh, not all… hmmmm. Surprising, but OK… I said, let’s take the chapter that you have for this week’s quiz and actually work through the exercises in the book. As we did each section, I articulated aloud how I would approach it – the strategies I would use – simple things like, cross off the words you used to narrow down your choices… Use the part of speech to narrow the choices… You get the drift… At the same time, I was telling the student WHY the book worked through the exercises in a certain way – each exercise was helping students to learn the different nuances of each word. Each exercise was reinforcing the word, its meaning, and under which circumstances it might be used.

This meeting also gave us the opportunity for encouragement (I know you can do this!) and tough talk (thinking is hard work… college is all about becoming a better, stronger, deeper thinker – Did you know that? Is that what you want?) It’s like learning a sport! You have to train – and through time, it gets easier – or at least you know how to attempt the next hurdle! You have to build endurance!

The big a-ha for this student came while taking the quiz. The score went from an average of 60 to 100%. That moment galvanized two realizations for both of us:

1) Student – spending time is not enough – knowing how to study a subject and spending time with effective study habits can have a huge payoff

2) Instructor – I cannot take for granted that students in freshman classes know how to do the independent learning that we expect. I cannot assume that even the most routine (for us) learning acts are known to students in this day and age.

Do we have time to do this with every student individually? No… Can students learn these skills in tutoring and study skills workshops? Absolutely! Do our students take advantage of these wonderful offerings? Not as much as they should.. sometimes it is just impossible for students to work, get to class, and get extra help out of class…

So here’s the question/suggestion. We have them in front of us already. Can we spare part of a class session to coach them through a mini-activity where they really DO the kinds of things we hope they are doing when they study outside of class or participate in class (like take notes)?

Keep it short and sweet – a mini-lesson with a punch – enough to allow you time to talk explicitly about what you do when you read the textbook, take notes, study for an exam, etc… Have them DO it…Don’t just talk about it. Then give a brief quiz on the material – give them time to talk about the differences between how they worked the material (or not) before – and how this made a difference – and in what ways.

The pump may be primed at this point in the semester – Students know where they stand. They know something isn’t going right/well. Their confidence may be shaken. They may be ready to throw in the towel… but there is still time! The opportunity for change comes in crisis. You can be there now – reach out with some practical help that shows them immediate results. Try an embedded coaching session…see how it goes. My  motto is – it is better to have tried, than not…

What else could we do, in this first semester, with first semester students, to help them bridge the gap in learning skills and behaviors that can lead to success?

Please do add your comments and strategies below!

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5 Responses to Building Bridges over the Gap: Embedded Coaching – Seize the Moment

  1. Frances A. Miller says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your post. Since I teach those who are considering becoming teachers, I model this during EVERY class. Together, we choose a study skill or cognitive behavior the students should work on. Then, when I ask them to complete a task (either individually, in pairs, or within a small group), they are to monitor how they did using the particular skill while accomplishing the task.

    Also, I stay away from quizzes and tests and ask students to do a good amount of performance based tasks in order to receive a grade. If one takes a good hard look at the content and the purpose of each and every question on a quiz or test, you will see that the quiz or a test actually assesses how well students can memorize, as opposed to synthesize and apply what they have learned. At first, the students can’t believe they are in a class that does not have tests or quizzes. Then, they realize how they will be assessed. As a result, class participation and student engagement is high, and attendance is rarely a problem. In fact, my students will often text me or call me to explain when they will be even 3 minutes late! Yey!

  2. scs15 says:

    These are great tips, Fran! Thanks for sharing them! Every content area is different, but there are definitely things across them that can be shared and utilized – if not the actual task, the spirit or design behind it!

    I appreciate your sharing!

  3. scs15 says:

    A reader wrote…

    While my entire career has been about helping students learn and learn how to learn, I am discouraged by the consistently asked, pragmatic question “is this going to be in the test” or “do I have to “learn” that?” Specific wording to reply to this will be appreciated.

    In spite that I direct them to the detailed study guides, PPTs, quizzes, questions to practice, etc., I provide, all many of them want to know is “is this going to be in the test” or “do I have to “learn” that?”

    No wonder, I guess, study sessions led by tutored are not as attended as it would be if I were leading them. The tutor does not write the exam.
    My question always will be…. so how can we change this bad behavior on their parts? For some, gaining a knowledge that they CAN do the work without cutting corners or lowering standards might be enough… Again, my efforts go towards those students who want to learn – but don’t know how… I can try to change the behavior of those folks whose motivation or attitudes aren’t where we’d like them… but we only have so many hours in the day… I’ll prioritize my efforts…

  4. Rick Pierce says:

    Suzanne …

    Thank you so much for caring so deeply about ALL student to share such an insightful andf thought provoking message. It is so refreshing to have colleagues who care enough to share their experience and challenge the rest of us to go the extra step to help ensure student success. THANK YOU!!

    • scs15 says:

      Hey Rick,
      Thanks to you for taking the time to read and respond! It is very energizing to me to have such a great group of caring people to work with… It really does take all of our efforts.. and how gratified we’ll be to see them reach the finish line!

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