The answer is not always the solution: using coaching in higher education

May Lim explains why academics should refrain from always giving students immediate answers and instead apply coaching techniques that guide learners to problem-solve and reach their own conclusions

May Lim's avatar
Singapore Institute of Technology
27 May 2021
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Advice on using coaching to guide students to find their own solutions
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“Prof, could you just tell me what to do? Can you show me the solution?”

“What do I need to do to get an A? And why is there so little feedback in my assignment?”

“My teammate is not contributing. I am doing all the work!”

Questions or statements like these are not uncommon for university faculty. While some literature may suggest that Asian students specifically are quieter or more passive, lack critical thinking or prefer to be told rather than actively ask questions in the process of learning, what is certain is that students with these characteristics can be identified pretty much anywhere in the world.

What is academic coaching?

Coaching is common in the business world and executive or leadership settings, and it has great potential to be applied also in the academic setting. An academic coach can facilitate learners to achieve their fullest potential by evaluating their performance and assisting them to set goals, create plans and stay accountable. Coaches can help learners discover more about themselves while also guiding them to improve and generate solutions to perceived or presented challenges.

Identify coaching opportunities

For students to develop holistically as proactive problem-solvers who are work ready, a lot more can be done outside the formal curriculum hours. Many wonderful coaching opportunities between faculty and students can be missed. Instead of merely deducting marks for repeated late submissions of assignments, a coach can set aside time with the student for a conversation with the goal of improving time management. Or instead of rushing to fix the group dynamic or “telling off” a teammate who is allegedly contributing less, a professor might coach the complaining student on how to provide feedback to the teammate and manage the group dynamic and so potentially develop his or her negotiation skills. Our daily encounters and interactions with students present many coachable moments that are just in time and authentic and give context to aid in their development to become work-ready graduates.

Coach to improve learning approaches

Students who are academically at risk often have maladaptive ways of coping or ineffective approaches to learning. When these are identified early, coaching can be a good way to help these students adopt more effective and organised ways of learning. For students who have done badly in their studies, apart from focusing on the content, professors can play an important role in coaching them to better manage their workload and be accountable to their study plans. Early coaching opportunities can catch students before they disconnect from their studies and prevent problems spiralling.

Coach while providing feedback

We have all had cases of students who are dissatisfied with their grades and ask for either a re-mark or additional feedback to justify this. Instead of repeating the feedback already provided, academics can take a coaching approach. This means asking the student to relook at his or her piece of work, reflect on the initial feedback given and explain to the professor what he or she would do differently if given another attempt at the assignment.

Coach to improve teamwork

When supervising students for group work, a group-coaching conversation can be helpful for members to brainstorm what accountability and shared responsibility can look like. Having an honest conversation to share their strengths, as well as tendencies to lapse, can allow group members to discuss the best approach to work as a team, especially at times of stress or when communication breaks down. Working effectively within a team is a vital skill and one that is key in the workplace. Professors can play an important role by coaching students to work well in a group.

Resist the temptation to provide immediate answers

Being experts in their respective fields, many professors will face the challenge of exercising restraint and not providing advice or solutions too quickly. By providing immediate answers, we risk depriving the student of an opportunity to think for themselves and experientially arrive at the answer. While providing the right answer may be quicker, it is certainly not the most effective way to help someone to learn or be a better team player.

Coaching is a skill set that needs to be developed

Effective coaching is more than asking a couple of thought-provoking questions or repeating: “What do you think?” Students may not like it immediately, as it is hard work! It is much easier and faster to be told the solutions. However, with time, they will discover the value of coaching as they witness their progress. In an Asian context, where many students are respectful and value advice from authoritative figures, such as professors, coaching can require a mindset shift for both students and faculty.

We have started the journey of faculty development in coaching. Our preferred future is for all faculty to have coaching as part of their skill set to use at the right moment with their students.

I received this feedback from a student who had undergone several coaching sessions: “Coaching helped me to scaffold my reflective process. My supervisor asked me questions that made me reflect on myself thoroughly, highlighting my strengths and weaknesses, and [we] discussed specific strategies that targeted my main issues. It made me more feel more confident and supported, reducing my overall anxiety, especially performance anxiety, which was my greatest challenge.”

Coaching is certainly a valuable skill for an educator, one that is worth spending time to learn and practise. In the process of learning, it is equally important to learn when not to coach. In many scenarios, coaching may not be the most suitable approach: for example, a student suffering from depression who needs counselling or a student who simply has not grasped a difficult concept and needs further teaching. By getting the proper training on coaching and applying our wisdom about when to use which skills, we can be more effective in training our students to think for themselves.

May Lim is an associate professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology. She is also an associate certified coach (ACC) certified under the International Coaching Federation (ICF).

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