Academic Coaching: Experiences and Lessons at One Urban University

Academic coaches encourage “persistence and completion by helping students find ways to overcome both academic and ‘real-life’ barriers and to identify strategies for success” (Bettinger & Baker, 2011, p. 10). Coaching has also been defined as moving a person “to a higher level of competence, confidence, performance, or insight … Coaching is all about change” (Reiss, 2007, p. 11). Aguilar (2013) wrote that the art of coaching encompasses doing a set of actions, holding a set of beliefs, and being in a way that results in those actions leading to change.

Changes created by academic coaching can promote retention and engagement. Bettinger and Baker (2011) found that college students who had used Inside Track, a private academic coaching company, were more likely to remain in college even up to two years after receiving coaching than those who had not. One student who worked with an academic coach at Portland State University wrote in a survey this year, “I feel a lot more connected with school and the improvements I have made in the term” (Hatfield, 2013). Robinson and Gahagan (2010) noted, “Millennial students … gravitate toward individual mentorship and are more likely to succeed if they feel connected to their university” (p. 29). This suggests that relationships developed in coaching programs can impact affinity with an institution as well as academic success.

Academic Coaching at Portland State University

To help students build positive academic habits such as planning for long-term assignments and communicating professionally with faculty, Portland State University’s (PSU) Learning Center used to offer workshops scheduled at various times, but few students attended. In response, it created a one-on-one coaching model open to all undergraduate and graduate students of this large, urban university.

During the program’s first year in 2011-2012, four interns from PSU’s Graduate School of Education who specialized in postsecondary, continuing, and adult education helped fellow students in 170 coaching sessions. They worked through myriad issues experienced by many students ranging from juggling courses with work and family, communicating with faculty, and strategically approaching long-term assignments. Although coaches focused on academic strategies, they learned quickly that successful academic work is related to other areas of students’ lives. Coaches walked students to the Student Health and Counseling Center, the Disability Resource Center, and the Women’s Resource Center, among other places. Students learned about other resources on campus offered by both professional staff and student organizations that provide support in areas outside of the classroom. In addition to the coaching interns from PSU’s Graduate School of Education, one coach was a graduate student from the School of Social Work who also helped develop services for students who are veterans.

Students can meet once with a coach or they can return weekly throughout the term. A few students continue for two terms or for the entire year (PSU is on a quarter system). The coaching program’s outcomes are simple and are grounded in common assessment practices: students will create individual goals and measurable plans to meet these goals. Goals may address school/life balance, active learning strategies and various approaches to studying course content, improving communication skills, and learning of resources on campus.

Students who seek coaching complete an interest form online. Coaches have access to Google calendars for appointments and a Google site accessible only to them. The site contains information on campus resources, training materials, coaching literature, ethical standards of the International Coach Federation (2008), and forms coaches may need such as those having to do with pre- and post-assessments. Coaches are encouraged to upload to the site literature and other resources they have found. Coaching is conducted in a semi-private office in the Learning Center during scheduled appointments. Coaches and administrators meet bi-weekly to discuss sessions, share resources and ideas, and set goals for learning. Unlike other Learning Center student employees (tutors, workshop leaders, and office assistants), coaches are not paid, but are part of all Learning Center celebrations and all-staff meetings.

Academic Coaching Lessons from K-12

Administrators of PSU’s Learning Center have used a variety of resources in creating its coaching program. This year, the program’s third, administrators are planning to incorporate parts of Elena Aguilar’s 2013 book, The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation. Although the book is written for K-12 administrators and teacher coaches, many principles can be applied to higher education coaching programs. Aguilar touches on several theories and the importance of professional development. This section explores four of the strategies that apply to students who seek coaching and the learning outcomes of coaches themselves which the Learning Center has incorporated into their coach training.

Reflective Learning

To create change, Aguilar (2013) encouraged ongoing reflection. Students whom coaches help and the coaches themselves must have time to reflect on their process and their subsequent development because of this process. Through reflection, coaches help students understand that decisions in areas outside of school can impact academic performance and vice versa. Thus, coaches can help students see their lives as one interconnected whole and not a “miscellaneous heap of separate bits of experiences, but in some organized and systematic way—that is, as reflectively formulated” (Dewey, 1902, p. 5).

Constructivists, like John Dewey, emphasize the importance of active construction of knowledge. Students’ previous knowledge and experiences are where new learning begins, and coaches must co-create knowledge rather than simply give knowledge to the student. Before Learning Center coaches meet with students, they have a sense of what the students are bringing to the initial session through an interest form that students complete before the first appointment is made. Students are asked questions such as “What has been your best experience so far?” and “How do you typically study?” These questions, in addition to those having to do with what the student hopes to get out of coaching, create a foundation from which both coaches and students can work. During coaching sessions, coaches and students work together to create specific goals tailored to each individual stemming from their conversations.


Aguilar (2013) also discusses the zone of proximal development, which is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978). Coaches provide scaffolds for student learning. For example, students regularly say they have never thought about writing a paper or studying for an exam over a distributed time period—they had always done it the night before. Learning Center coaches suggest frameworks that promote studying over a period of time and do so without being punitive. For example, students are not required to create mini-deadlines for their assignments and are not refused coaching if they do not follow through with their goals. Rather, if students do not meet their goals for the week, they can return to their coaches knowing that they can share what hindered their work and go on from there.

Critical Pedagogy

Aguilar (2013) grounded her work in the frame of critical pedagogy, which encourages a critique of dominant forms of knowledge and social practices that organize meanings and experiences (Giroux, 2009). The critical educator asks how social norms impact and are impacted by class, race, gender, and other disparities of power. Critical theory applied to the classroom often begins with students’ own voices and experiences; it is no different with coaching. Coaches also need to be cognizant of power at multiple levels and be trained in how their own assumptions frame their world views, and thus how they approach their work with students. According to Aguilar (2013), if coaches do not explore the belief systems that drive their own actions, they may not see transformational, sustained change in the people they help.

Academic coaches must ask themselves if they truly believe everyone, regardless of academic history, age, wealth, and so on, can be academically successful. Nearly 30,000 students attend PSU and the majority of undergraduate students have transferred from a community college or four-year university (Portland State University, 2012). Also, many students are the first in their families to attend college. Coaches must explore the assumptions they have of these and all populations. Part of the Learning Center’s training of coaches includes integrating critical theory in confronting their own assumptions, reflecting on how their world views were formulated, and discussing what happens when they apply their assumptions to coaching sessions. Sharing stories in staff meetings help coaches to identify these assumptions, particularly when coaches have never personally experienced what a student is going through.

Development of Coaches

Aguilar (2013) emphasizes the professional development of coaches, for it is not only the students who coaches help who need support from administrators. PSU’s Learning Center takes seriously the growth and development of its student employees, interns, and graduate assistants. Specifically, administrators ask coaches to develop their own learning outcomes for their coaching experience. Coaches created outcomes ranging from asking more open-ended questions to being involved with programmatic assessment. PSU’s coaching program also is certified through the College Reading and Learning Association (2013), which has a mentor program certification component. The certification process required administrators to reflect on training components and what coaches were learning from their experiences. Lastly, the Learning Center has created a culture of observation and each student employee or intern is observed at least once (and sometimes more if appropriate to the position) with a debriefing conversation following an observation.


Those in higher education wanting to implement an academic coaching program may want to read Elena Aguilar’s (2013) The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation. Although it provides helpful charts, rubrics, and prompts for coaches to use during sessions, it more importantly grounds coaching in theoretical frames and emphasizes the need for contextualization. Without such foundations, coaching would be akin to throwing darts with hopes of hitting the center. Work with students cannot be approached this way; rather, coaches must begin with each individual student to determine how to scaffold learning and development. Higher education professionals should explore what their K-12 partners have to say about doing this in meaningful ways.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the boundaries of academic coaches? In other words, what specifically is their role in a university?
  2. If you have a coaching program, on what theoretical foundations do you base your program? If you do not have a program, which theories would guide you? What about in your other programs?
  3. How do you know if your coaching program is successful? How would you measure success in your context?


Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: Effective strategies for school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

Bettinger, E., & Baker, R. (2011). The effects of student coaching in college: An evaluation of a randomized experiment in student mentoring (No. w16881). National Bureau of Economic Research.

College Reading & Learning Association. (2013). International mentor training program certification. Retrieved from

Dewey, J. (1902). Child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Giroux, H. A. (2009). Teacher education and democratic schooling. In A. Darder, M. P. Baltodano & R. D. Torres (Eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (pp. 438-459). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hatfield, L. J. (2013). [Learning Center academic coaching post-assessment 2012-13]. Unpublished raw data.

International Coach Federation. (2008). Code of ethics. Lexington, KY: Author. Retrieved from…

Portland State University. (2012). New freshman and transfer student profile. Retrieved from

Reiss, K. (2007). Leadership coaching for educators: Bringing out the best in school administrators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Robinson, C. R., & Gahagan, J. (2010). Coaching students to academic success and engagement on campus. About Campus, 15(4), 27-29.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

About the Author

Lisa Hatfield currently serves as the Director of the Learning Center at Portland State University, where she is also pursuing an Ed.D. in Curriculum & Instruction. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and a Master of Arts in English. Her research interests include P-20 alignments, assessment, and scholarship of student affairs professionals.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Lisa Hatfield.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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