Unprepared First Generation Students: Developing Autonomous Learning Strategies through College Academic Coaching

Kimberly M. Florence, University of Nevada Las Vegas

In the United States, billions of dollars are spent yearly toward remedial education to ensure students academically unprepared for college level study are equipped to meet the demands of post-secondary learning (Carter, 2013). For example, Complete College America (2012) revealed that upwards of three billion dollars in both state funds and student monies went toward remedial education courses. As a result, support programs such as academic coaching have been developed to hinder the reliance on remedial education and increase student retention rates. The purpose of this article is to outline how college academic coaching can develop independent learning strategies in Unprepared First Generation Students (UFGSs) by linking academic self-discipline to academic performance. If UFGSs develop independent learning strategies then they are more likely to persist through the demands of post-secondary learning. Thus, academic coaches can increase academic success rates for unprepared first-generation students through the development of autonomous learning strategies.

Unprepared First-Generation Students

Bettinger, Boatman, and Long (2013) describe the unprepared college student as someone who confronts academic, social, and financial issues. Consequently, if these issues are not managed, low self-esteem, frustration, and a greater propensity to drop out of college can result (Bettinger, Boatman, & Long, 2013). First-generation students are defined as individuals from families where no parent or guardian earned a baccalaureate degree (Soria & Stebleton, 2012). Thus, unprepared first-generation students characterize a demographic in need of further examination because of an increased likelihood to have difficulties transitioning into higher education (Soria & Stebleton, 2012).

The first-generation college student has commonly been described as being (a) female, (b) older than the traditional first-year college student, (c) Black or Hispanic, and (d) from a lower socioeconomic background (Engle, 2007). Coffman (2011) used a social constructivist lens to explore how these characteristics, specifically race and culture, influenced first-generation students’ perceptions of themselves in comparison to their non-first-generation peers. Findings indicated that low socioeconomic status and inadequate secondary preparation decreased the propensity for academic achievement. However, Coffman (2011) added that higher education institutions could overcome these social constructs by (a) not marginalizing students based on race, (b) providing supplemental learning opportunities on campus, and (c) fostering support networks for continued academic success.  Thus, Coffman’s (2011) work supports the need for first-generation college students to improve learning outcomes through specialized and/or extended campus services.

Concurring the contention that institutions can support first-generation students, a panel of academic professionals and first-generation students organized by the Huffington Posts’ “Huffpost Live” gathered to discuss the varying needs of first-generation students. Sara Lipka, senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserted that instituting additional advising centered on both academic and career-based assistance was particularly helpful in serving this specific student demographic (Lipka as cited in Menendez, 2013).  Academic and career advising improved the development of self-efficacy and enhanced study skills (Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon & Hawthorne, 2012). It is from the development of self-efficacy and study skills, which are linked to college success, that enable long-term positive changes to occur. Lorna Contreras from the organization Students Rising Above, a non-profit founded in 1998 to help students manage the academic, social, and emotional challenges of college, stated that by upholding an initiative to help first-generation students remain committed to higher education, they are 93 percent more likely to have children who will be committed to post-secondary learning. Thus, their children acquire a college-going ideology that can be passed down from generation to generation (Contreras as cited in Menendez, 2013). In terms of UFGSs, academic coaching is an advantageous service for procuring long-term academic commitment to post-secondary learning.


Academic Coaching

Cheug (2012) described academic coaching as a service used to retain incoming students based on one-on-one mentoring. Generally established under the umbrella of academic affairs, academic coaching has been practiced through a variety of forums that include but are not limited to semester long courses, summer bridge programs, peer mentoring, and private sessions with academic advising professionals. The purpose of this service was to generate and apply varying strategies designed to enhance learning outcomes, such as organizational management diagrams, test taking strategies, goal setting plans, and motivational techniques. For example, InsideTrack, a company independently contracted to provide academic coaching services on behalf of colleges and universities, developed a comprehensive system of coaching, analytics, programs, and support services to improve student success rates and increase enrollment numbers. InsideTrack conducted a study that evaluated the effectiveness of their system across eight institutions (Bettinger & Baker, 2013). Results showed that academic coaching that took place within the first year of college increased persistence by five percentage points (Bettinger & Baker, 2013). The use of academic coaching to enhance learning strategies proved effective for InsideTrack. However, first-generation students are still more likely to leave a four-year university before their second-year of college (Irlbeck, Adams, Akers, Burris, & Jones, 2014).

Despite success in academic coaching, retention rates among unprepared first-generation students (UFGSs), especially first-generation students of color, remain low. In a 2012 article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 90 percent of first-generation college students failed to graduate within six years because institutions were not prepared to confront the financial, personal, emotional, social, and educational challenges associated with this demographic (Greenwald, 2012). Therefore, institutions must consider how to best reach first-generation students who are failing to complete college. Self-regulation is a strategy students can use to help improve learning outcomes and to persist with post-secondary learning (Stefanou, Stolk, Prince, Chen, & Lord, 2013). The following sections outline how institutions with academic coaching programs can assist UFGSs in developing self-regulated learning strategies.


An essential trait for any college student seeking long-term academic and professional success rests primarily on the ability to self-regulate learning. Self-regulation is a person’s aptitude to self-direct mental abilities into task-oriented academic skills therefore, forming the capacity to self-monitor, self-instruct, self-evaluate, and self-reinforce (Zimmerman, 2013). The development of self-regulation among UFGSs is particularly important due to the multitude of internal and external variables that can impact overall academic performance. Naumann, Bandalos, and Gutkin (2003) found that variables associated with self-regulation are better predicators of first-generation students’ overall academic success when compared to ACT scores. The purpose of their research was to “determine the predictive validity of self-regulated learning variables in comparison to traditional college admission test scores of first generation students” (Naumann, Bandalos, & Gutkin, 2003, p. 5). The researchers conducted a quantitative study designed to examine a variety of independent variables, three of which included (a) generational status, (b) ACT scores, and (c) self-regulated learning. These variables were assessed in relation to the grade point average (GPA) of both first-generation and second-generation college students (Naumann et al., 2003). Thus, the findings indicated that self-regulatory behaviors are significant to UFGS’s overall college success when compared to their second-generation counterparts.

Self-Regulation and Academic Coaching

Contrary to other services and programs devised to guide students toward academic success, academic coaches work with students to enrich their learning, develop academic accountability, and improve learning effectiveness (Webberman, 2011). Carol Carter, an international success expert for students grades K-16, said “at the core of the coaching relationship is always having the coach ask powerful questions to help students become as self-sustaining as possible” (as cited in Webberman, 2011, p. 19). To that end, academic coaches must guide UFGSs through inquiry with the aim of developing autonomous learning strategies.

The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning

The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning (CPMSRL) illustrated the continuous process students encountered when developing self-regulated learning skills. The model consisted of three phases, which included (a) Forethought phase: Task Analysis and Self-Motivation; (b) Performance Phase: Self-Control and Self-Observation; and (c) Self-Report phase: Self-Judgment and Self-Reaction (Cleary, Callan, & Zimmerman, 2012). Assessment of the transition between phases was conducted through the use of Self-Regulated Learning Microanalysis (SRL Microanalysis), a methodology used to measure the self-regulatory beliefs and reactions of students while they were engaged in real-time context-specific tasks. For example, Zimmerman and Cleary (2012) used SRL Microanalysis as an assessment measure for Self-Regulation Empowerment Programs (SREP). The programs required SREP tutors to assist at-risk middle and high school students set goals, implement learning strategies, and self-record outcomes. The CPMSRL was the process by which self-regulated learning behavior was developed. SRL Microanalysis was the procedure used to measure the CPMSRL. If both the CPMSRL process and SRL Microanalysis procedure were utilized by academic coaches to understand self-regulatory behaviors of UFGSs, then the following five-step procedure would be used (see Figure 1).

Fig1 - cyclical phase model self regulation

FIGURE 1: The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulation and the SRL Microanalysis steps are referenced in accordance to developing self-regulatory behavior.

In the first step, the coach and student identify an impending academic task, activity, or assignment that must be completed by the student. In order for proper application of the SRL Microanalysis, the task should be suitable for evaluation by the academic coach, such as studying for a final examination. The second step requires the student and the academic coach to identify the self-regulatory sub-phase most relevant to productively completing the task. This is important to further the student’s ability to self-assess what is useful in executing the task. In other words, if a student can assess that crafting a strategic plan, which would fall under the task analysis sub-phase, is constructive to learning, then there is a greater propensity for identifying future tactics useful toward eventual success. Next, the academic coach transitions into the performance phase of the CPMSRL.

The third and fourth steps require the academic coach to develop Likert scale related, forced choice, open-ended, closed-ended or free response questions that measure the real-time academic activity. For example, the academic coach asks, “What steps within your strategic plan do you believe will be helpful in receiving a passing grade on your final examination?” This question has been presented prior to the student actively utilizing a learning strategy like flash card memorization. As the student performs the flash card memorization task, the academic coach may ask, “Do you have a system for keeping track of flash cards with concepts you did not remember?” Then, the academic coach poses self-reflection questions once the student has performed the task, such as “Why do you think you incorrectly defined the concept on your flash card?” In other words, the academic coach asks questions consistent with self-judgment and/or self-evaluation. Next, the academic coach examines the student’s responses.

The fifth and final step includes scoring and evaluating the process. Upon completion of the assessment, the academic coach evaluates the assessment based on the types of questions posed. The results of the evaluation inform both the academic coach and the student how the self-regulatory process comprehensively impacted the effectuation of the academic task. Therefore, it provides insight into which strategies do and do not work. According to Cleary, Callan, & Zimmerman (2012), if the strategy used has proven to be ineffective, then students are “more likely to infer that they needed to adapt their strategic methods to perform more effectively on the task in the future” (p. 15). Subsequently, the CPMSRL can be reexamined through the SRL Microanalysis to further contextualize what learning strategies are effective.

An important feature to the Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning is the continuous application toward context-specific tasks. This allows the coach to work with a student as they jointly navigate learning strategies. Academic coaches have UFGSs self-report what learning strategies work for them. This report, as well as the coach’s evaluation, is used to monitor progress in relation to the task at hand. Therefore, academic coaches can reapply the CPMSRL and monitor overall growth as the student continues their coaching sessions.

The outlined five-step procedure can be conducted over a few sessions at roughly 15-20 minutes per session. The number of sessions dedicated to CPMSRL have been largely determined by the UFGSs success at completing a given task or, if additional factors such as self-efficacy and study skills need to be enhanced in association with the task. College academic coaching programs that utilize CPMSRL in conjunction with SRL Microanalysis when working with UFGSs will find the process beneficial to understanding UFGSs and the requirements necessary to help them become autonomous learners.

Expected Results

The application of the Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning, assessed through the SRL Microanalysis, is anticipated to result in multiple benefits for unprepared first-generation students, academic coaches, and higher education institutions. First, when serving students through the acquisition of self-regulatory skills, academic coaches will gain the opportunity to help UFGSs identify their limitations while also building the skills necessary to establish behaviors and thinking that are autonomous and personalized to their learning. As a result, more UFGSs will be prepared to matriculate through college coursework and handle the difficulties of transitioning from student to professional. Second, higher education institutions will be able to retain and educate UFGSs that would have previously strayed from their college degree aspirations. Specifically, academic coaches will receive a greater competency in understanding their students’ challenges as well as provide strategies necessary to guide them towards academic success. The only foreseen limitation is the amount of academic coaching time available. If an academic-coach has a high student-to-coach ratio then time per student may decrease, which may limit the capacity to properly implement the five-step procedure. In conclusion, by assisting UFGSs to become autonomous learners, both academic coaches and higher education institutions will experience benefits such as student persistence and active learning engagement that are residuals of student’s improved academic performance.


Unprepared First Generation Students comprise a population with absolute distinction. They are entering the postsecondary environment with issues that influence the way institutions serve them. Although colleges have taken great strides to improve retention among UFGSs, it is also important to ensure that these students generate a deep understanding of themselves and the approaches that will advance their academic goals. The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulation based on SRL Microanalysis serves as a strong foundation for developing autonomous learning strategies dedicated to the short-term and long-term success of UFGSs.

Reflection Questions

  1. How can autonomous learning strategies impact long-term academic outcomes for unprepared first generation students?
  2. How can the CPMSRL, examined through SRL Microanalysis, help college academic coaches understand the individual academic needs of unprepared first-generation students?
  3. How can post-secondary institutions practically apply the phases/steps of the CPMSRL within current student academic advising/ coaching programs?

About the Author

Kimberly M. Florence is a Higher Education, PhD student and graduate assistant at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Her research interests include academic success and retention among first-year students, underrepresented students, and students of low SES backgrounds.

Please e-mail inquiries to Kimberly M. Florence.


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


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