Montclair State University

Building Better Learning Behaviors in Students Through Coaching

An academic coaching program that supports students in the murky middle with adjunct faculty academic coaches who help these students reach their potential and graduate.

To help students achieve their academic potential, Montclair State University created a program through which adjunct faculty members provide students with the individualized support and guidance they need to succeed in higher education. The Academic Excellence Coaching (AEC) program started in the fall 2022 semester, serving high-promise students, including many male, Black, and Latinx students who historically and at Montclair have experienced equity barriers. The Montclair program was inspired by New York Institute of Technology’s Achieving Collegiate Excellence program, which relied on staff and faculty volunteers to serve as coaches. At Montclair State University in New Jersey, adjunct faculty members were recommended by department chairs to apply to the AEC program. Selected candidates demonstrated effective coaching, relationship-building, and active listening skills, and showed an understanding of the challenges struggling students confront. Students were invited to participate based on their GPA (2.0–2.5) and credits earned. The students selected for this program don’t need to be in the program—there’s no “carrot,” so to speak—but choose to join so they can achieve their potential.

The coaches work with the students to address their concerns over anxiety; time management; and balancing school, employment, and/or family responsibilities. Coaches also work with students to ensure they are connected with university resources, and are maximizing those connections. The coaches empower the students by:

  • Developing individualized plans of action that assist in achieving new learning and academic life-management strategies.
  • Expanding self-awareness and capacity to learn from mistakes, heightening their understanding of what it takes to achieve academic success.
  • Counseling students in maintaining supportive relationships and increasing their personal accountability.
  • Helping them to establish connections with campus resources and educating them on how to use them.

Beneficial outcomes for the students are:

  • Improved awareness of how they learn, including their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Maintained or improved academic standing.
  • Increased confidence and resilience.
  • Success with time management and other personal organizational strategies.
  • Success communicating with peers and professionals.
  • Appropriate usage of campus resources.

Overall, students who engaged with academic coaching have had positive experiences with the program. In an exit survey conducted after the fall 2022 semester, the majority of students self-reported improved grades, better time management, and adoption of positive behaviors such as attending class, spending more time on homework, accessing appropriate campus services, and holding themselves accountable. Because this program helps students understand that someone cares about them, they can realize their potential, advocate for themselves, and achieve their academic goals.

The Methodology

The program was developed by the Provost’s Office with three unique offices collaborating to create the AEC program: the Office for Faculty Excellence, the Center for Academic Success and Tutoring, and the Office of Undergraduate Education. Student support services and faculty have distinct understandings of student needs and thus the collaboration was crucial to creating this program. Academic advising leadership was critical in distinguishing between advising and coaching and demonstrating how both complement each other to better serve and support students. The faculty coaches have knowledge about how classes and professors work, but they were not attuned to all that student services can provide. Academic support providers bridge the divide by asking students questions and guiding students in addressing their own issues.

In the fall of 2022, three coaches were assigned to about 50 students each for a total of roughly 160 students. Each week, they set aside nine hours to provide guidance to their students. In addition, the coaches themselves meet weekly with the leadership team for support and training. For the spring 2023 semester, Montclair increased the hourly commitment and added three full-time coaches, bringing the total number of students who attended coaching sessions to 350. All record-keeping and communication occur through Montclair’s student success platform, Navigate, including appointment tracking and individualized coaching notes/appointment summaries.

The following demographics compare the students in the AEC program with Montclair undergraduates:

  • Men: 51.3% in the program, and 40% make up the total of undergraduates.
  • Women: 48.5% in the program, and 59.7% make up the total of undergraduates.
  • Latinx: 42% in the program, and 36% make up the total of undergraduates.
  • White: 24.7% in the program, and 36.6% make up the total of undergraduates.
  • Black: 22.3% in the program, and 13.4% make up the total of undergraduates.
  • Asian: 6.9% in the program, and 6.7% make up the total of undergraduates.

Compared to the overall undergraduate student body, students eligible for AEC coaching were disproportionately male, Black, and Latinx, the overall demographic makeup of the population underscores the potential value of the Academic Excellence Coaching program.

To incentivize active participation in the AEC program, in the spring semester Montclair distributed $250 in Red Hawk Dollars, a convenient prepaid debit account, to students based on a minimum of three coaching meetings and a coach’s recommendation.

The Impact

Montclair examined the students’ GPAs and the demographics of the participants as part of its evaluation of the AEC program. Overall, the students saw an increase in their GPAs commensurate with their engagement with their coaches. Engagement of the targeted population as defined by at least one appointment with a coach was about 50% in the fall, and 41% when the program expanded in the spring semester. Montclair hopes that starting the program a week before the students begin their semester will increase target students’ level of engagement with the program in future semesters. 

End-of-the semester assessments revealed students’ positive experience with the coaching program. Students reported that they increased their use of Montclair resources and identified improvement in many significant areas, including seeking and accepting assistance, self-advocacy, and perseverance. Students also showed awareness that their journey was not over. In identifying areas that still needed improvement, students prioritized time management, meeting deadlines, and setting short-term tasks that facilitate achieving long-term goals. These are precisely the areas that coaches emphasize, so it is perhaps not surprising that students see these as areas for further development.

The academic coaches have benefited from the AEC program as well. Not only are they helping and supporting the students, but they have also evolved into ambassadors for the institution. They connect students to Montclair and share their knowledge from the AEC program with their academic departments. As a consequence, these adjunct faculty are more connected with the university.

Key Takeaways

The success of Montclair’s AEC program is due to its overall intentionality of purpose. Faculty members were vetted based on their ability and willingness to engage with and support the participants. Students who were not members of a high-support, high-touch effort were the program’s primary focus, enabling these students to be elevated to the next level in their academic and career pursuits.

Liberatory outcomes, such as enhancing social agency, increasing critical consciousness, the development of a strong social ethnic identity, and so forth are critically important, if focused on with traditional academic and career outcomes. These are why MSU students are so successful—because it’s happening there and now there’s a real opportunity for those outcomes to become more formalized. This is what Provost Junius Gonzales calls the “next level of value” for Montclair, and that lies in not only in social and economic mobility and the contributions that students make, but these liberatory outcomes.

“I have built strong connections with professors. This is something I have never done in any other semester. Had some good professors in the past but wanted to get in and out of class. My perspective on school was different in the past. It felt good to hear support and compliments from professors.”

Student testimonial

“We as an institution have a promise we make to students, and students promise us in many ways through their success that they will ultimately contribute to society, their families, and the workforce.”

Junius Gonzales, Provost, MSU

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