By Published: July 26, 2019

CU Boulder staff members lead effort to refine, expand and replicate the developing field of academic coaching

CU students with academic coach

CU Boulder's team of academic coaches  (Alicia Sepulveda, Audrey Blankenheim, and Bea Salazar-Nuñez).

While universities grapple with the growing problem of students transferring or dropping out, CU Boulder has found a way to help them stay.

Students counseled by arts and sciences’ “academic coaches” for one semester see their GPAs rise 0.35 points on average and are 12% less likely to drop out of the University of Colorado Boulder, a university study has found.

Academic coaches provide free one-on-one support for struggling students on academic alert or academic probation that they might otherwise not receive at CU Boulder. By meeting with academic coaches several times in the semester, students rapidly gain skills needed to stay in college and improve their overall strength and talent as learners.

As a result, students engage in their academics with stronger critical thinking and problem solving, attributes built into CU Boulder’s strategic imperative to “shape tomorrow’s leaders.”

To better understand why the program is successful, a study conducted by the CU Boulder Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation (CADRE) offers insight about the degree to which their program helps students raise GPAs and the facets of the program that most support students’ progress.

“We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to engage in a research partnership with CADRE,” says Lily Board, the college’s assistant dean for academic advising and student success. “This research study is providing us with a deeper understanding of the program’s efficacy and will help position CU as an emerging thought leader in the field.”

Building on their momentum, the coaching program’s staff are leading an effort to organize and host a national summit at CU Boulder to explore innovative approaches to academic coaching and envision the field’s future.

Academic coaching’s specialized approach

While academic advising has been established on university campuses for decades, academic coaching is young.

Many programs came into being over the last decade as students from wider varieties of educational backgrounds began attending universities.

“It’s a wonderful turn over the last handful of years,” says Jessica Kerr, managing director of academic coaching at Kansas State University. “We know that (students) are arriving with varying skills and tools and resources and experiences. Academic coaching is, I think, the answer to that.”

Academic coaches’ responsibilities and approaches can vary and often depend on the identified need that led to the creation of a program at their institution. As a result, there exists tremendous nuance and few defined best practices.

At CU Boulder, the College of Arts and Sciences launched the campus’ first academic coaching program in spring 2016. Academic advising leadership hoped to help students who struggled early in their college careers while adapting to the rigors of an arts and sciences’ education.

coaching session

Audrey Blankenheim in a coaching appointment.

By boosting grades early, students could look forward to research, internships, study abroad and other enrichment opportunities otherwise limited by a low GPA.

Eryn Elder, assistant director of the program, created a framework that defines its highly individualized approach. What sets the program apart is that it blends study-strategies education with intensive self-reflection on each student’s particular strengths and background.

An academic coach might approach goal setting by asking the student to reflect on their values and how they define success. They then collaborate to identify skills that build on the student’s strengths and lifestyle, mutually determining if the strategy is likely to be adopted.

In follow-up meetings, the student reflects on the strategy’s effectiveness and work through changes to improve. In doing so, students begin to feel that they have the skills to succeed in a particular class and at CU Boulder.

“We help shape our students to see themselves as leaders, despite the challenges they face academically,” says academic coach Alicia Sepulveda. “Students see that one semester or one year does not shape who they are and who they become.”

Testing their approach

Despite seeing immediate results of improved GPA and retention, the academic coaching team wondered if there were ways to improve.

“The impetus for partnering with CADRE was not only to improve our programming and student outcomes,” says Elder. Her team also wanted “to be a leader in the field and share this knowledge with other folks with as much open access as a way to further the profession.”

CADRE’s staff of researchers help university departments, state agencies and K-12 schools improve their programming through strong assessment design and investigation.

“Our work is to advance research as well as to conduct evaluations to understand the impacts of programs, research, evaluation and interventions on teaching and learning,” says Elena Diaz-Bilello, associate director of CADRE. “All of the work that we do is within the context of education.”

Since the research team was unfamiliar with academic coaching, Jessica Alzen, research associate with CADRE, began by reviewing previous studies on the profession. She was surprised to find few existed.

“We couldn’t find a single study that had a good description of what coaching actually was,” says Alzen. They realized their study could be a way to help the field better understand itself. “Something meaningful from this work is to provide a clear and thick description of what coaching looks like for traditional students at a large public university.”

Using a mixed-methods approach that analyzed quantitative outcomes and qualitative interviews, the study finds that students on academic alert who complete the program have second semester GPAs that are 0.35 points above uncoached students on academic alert. Participants also have a 12% increased likelihood of returning for a second year of college.

We help shape our students to see themselves as leaders, despite the challenges they face academically. Students see that one semester or one year does not shape who they are and who they become.”

The study also suggests that students show behaviors indicative of greater self-awareness. They regularly reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and they gain the ability to determine the skills and resources that work best for specific problems. Students’ ability to take control of their academics is largely built through the intentional establishment of trust between the student and academic coach.

Although the researchers are quick to point out that the results from year one of this two-year study are descriptive at this time and they cannot prove with certainty that the program is exclusively responsible for increased GPAs, the initial findings are encouraging.

Alzen and Diaz-Bilello plan to publish their findings in two articles. They also plan to continue a second year of assessment of the program’s outcomes using new student populations and exploring how students, academic coaches and other university staff distinguish the profession from other similar fields. The researchers hope that creating contrast with other programs like academic advising encourages academic coaching to focus on its unique services, which ideally results in better practices and stronger student outcomes.

For Elder, the research continues to point them in the right direction.

“Because we’re able to paint a clear picture of what we’re doing, we can now better train our coaches. We can better serve students. We can better map assessment to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Organizing a national summit

With this recent success, the academic coaching team is turning their attention to sharing their experience at a national summit, which occurs July 28-30.

Roughly 50 academic coaches from across the United States will gather at CU Boulder for this invitation-only event. Over three days, they will discuss a unified vision for academic coaching and begin to define best practices.

The idea for the summit originated with Sepulveda, who saw a lack of academic coaching-specific conferences. “People would tell me we need our own (coaching) conference. We need to talk about these things.”

Rather than following a traditional, speaker-driven conference model, Sepulveda and Elder worked with academic coaching teams from KSU and CU Boulder’s University Exploration and Advising Center to organize collaborative ideation workshops.

Their goal is for attendees to have a larger number of resources on which they can draw and a stronger sense of the ways each person can push the field.

“The more and deeper we understand what we do, the clearer we can get about how we better support students,” says Elder.

Sepulveda agrees. “This summit can help us get closer to providing resources that are affordable and accessible to (other coaches), so that they can do their jobs better, work with students better and ultimately transform students.”

Becoming a 'national leader'

For Elder, organizing the summit and encouraging researchers to ask difficult questions about their work has the added benefit of positioning the college’s academic coaching as an innovator in the field.

“Last summer, I said ‘We can be a national leader in this.’ Somebody needs to be. What if CU Boulder becomes the hub for academic coaching?”

Elder hopes a bolstered reputation would lead to a larger staff and more student access to the program.

“Right now, we have three full-time academic coaches supporting students on academic alert and probation. In arts and sciences alone, we can’t serve students on probation in (spring semester) due to the high number of students on alert.”

“I would love to see (academic coaching) be something that is available to all students.”

Elder sees opportunities for collaboration with faculty, academic advisors and research. She would like to see “overwhelming connectivity across campus,” such that academic coaches are partnering widely and in the most effective way.

“We need radical collaboration and we need radical support and radical spaces to innovate.”