Every college advisor knows that effective communication with students is essential to successful advising. But what does good communication look like in practice?
We are success coaches with Carolina Works, an ambitious effort to test whether individualized, data-driven student success coaching significantly increases student persistence and completion. In this role, we have identified six practices that are indispensable for anyone who wants to build productive, supportive relationships with students. Learn more about Carolina Works / First In The World.
Start with the Positive
Like all of us, students respond best when they know what they are doing well. In our work, we emphasize how much students—especially nontraditional students—have already achieved just by applying to and starting college. We let students know how much their hard work—juggling classes, jobs, families—inspires us as coaches.
It’s often as important to make sure that students know someone believes in them as it is to help them identify specific actions to reach their goals.
Positive nonverbal communication is critical, too. As we have learned from the “Appreciative Advising” approach promoted by Jennifer Bloom of Florida Atlantic University, even when we are overwhelmed with emails or need to eat lunch, we need to show our students that we are happy to see them. (To learn more, read The Appreciative Advising Revolution, by Jennifer Bloom, Bryant Hutson, and Ye He.)
When students sense that we are genuinely interested in them, they are much more likely to open up and partner with us.
Create an Open Line of Communication
Students often have concerns or questions that they are afraid to ask. Our job is to provide a safe space for those questions. That fosters trust and creates momentum toward finding solutions and achieving success. As coaches, we build relationships by showing genuine concern, actively listening, and consistently following through in a timely manner. If we aren’t able to answer students’ questions right away, we keep them updated until we can. Once students realize they can rely on us, we become their most important support.
Reach out Frequently and Creatively
Students appreciate frequent—but short—communication. The communication doesn’t have to be about grades, attendance, or classes; it’s just important to reach out. We meet students where they are, via email, social media, text, phone—or even in person. This outreach reminds students that we are there whenever they need someone to talk to. It’s not uncommon for students to reply to messages we sent months earlier when they have questions. What’s critical is for students to have our contact information when they need it.
Share Some of Your Personal Story with Your Students
If we share our priorities, goals, and dreams, students will be comfortable doing the same. This might mean keeping photos and mementos in our offices as conversation starters, or sharing stories about overcoming challenges that are similar to the ones student are wrestling with.
In our roles as coaches, we have shared accounts of, for example, the difficulties we had managing money in college or times when we felt afraid to appeal grades, and then we have revealed the strategies that helped us resolve the issues.
Honesty is key in building any relationship, and that’s why it’s imperative to not only offer students advice about strategies for addressing challenges, but also let them know that we experienced similar struggles.
Success coaching isn’t easy. There’s a learning curve to engaging in student outreach, building rapport, working with faculty, and using technology tools. To best serve our students, we need to refresh and take care of ourselves. That means making time for exercise, hobbies, and friends and family. If we make mistakes, we need to admit that we erred, do what we can to fix things, and be as forgiving to ourselves as we would be to our students.
Listen with Empathy
Sometimes we just have to sit with students on their worst days and give them a quiet space to process what they’re going through—not try to fix everything for them. Some need comfort, some need support, some need help planning their next moves. There is no decision tree for this type of work; it depends on individuals working it out together.
Each day as success coaches, we have an amazing gift: an opportunity to be mentors—people who pour encouragement, inspiration, and confidence into students’ lives. Whether it’s sending weekly emails, texting happy birthday messages, sharing resources, or listening empathetically as someone cries, our students know we care. This connection helps empower them to achieve their dreams.
Authors and About JFF
By: Rachel Pleasants McDonnell, Associate Director at JFF; Tori Addington-Ellison, Success Coach, Southwestern Community College; Marin Crosbie, Success Coach, Isothermal Community College; Cristy Warner, Success Coach, Pamlico Community College
JFF is a national nonprofit that drives transformation in the American workforce and education systems. For 35 years, JFF has led the way in designing innovative and scalable solutions that create access to economic advancement for all. Join us as we build a future that works.
Valentine, J. & Price, D. (2019). Carolina Works evaluation brief: Early results in proactive coaching. Indianapolis: DVP-PRAXIS LTD. March 2019.
Bloom, J.L., Hutson, B.L., & He, Y. (2008) The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publication.
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