Carol Shi, Kevin Chen, & Julie Lee, Brown University
Effective student support at undergraduate institutions requires multidisciplinary personnel, expansive resources, an accurate understanding of students’ academic needs, and a holistic approach to student wellness. In the past decade, near-peer mentoring has been increasingly recognized as a useful modality of supporting students (Akinla et al., 2018; Tenenbaum et al., 2014; Zaniewski & Reinholz, 2016). Grounded in the near-peer model, Academic Coaching at Brown is supervised by the Associate Dean of the College for Academic Support and provides individual guidance to undergraduate students through peer leaders—referred to as coaches—through a comprehensive, student-centered approach (Brown University, 2020). Each student is paired with a coach who is a junior, senior, or graduate student at Brown and at least one year more advanced in their education. Pairings are made between students and coaches who pursue similar fields of study, as prior research demonstrates that this strategy increases the effectiveness of the dyad (Zaniewski & Reinholz, 2016). Coaches and students schedule mutually convenient times to meet and discuss students’ goals for the semester, strategies to improve academic performance and overall well-being, and any concerns students may have about campus life. Traditionally, coaches meet with students in person, as frequently as weekly, to talk about progress with time management and organizational skills, work-life balance, mental health, and career development.
Benefits of Academic Coaching include:
- Relatability: Coaches can relate to students’ academic experiences and challenges, as they themselves are students. Students often feel more comfortable confiding in near-peer coaches than in professional staff about their questions and concerns.
- Consistent support and follow-up: Coaches and students agree to meet during mutually convenient times, as often as once a week and for as long as consecutive semesters. Students benefit from consistent and long-term mentoring relationships with their coaches.
- Meaningful referral to academic resources: Coaches work with the Associate Dean of the College for Academic Support to identify other campus resources that may benefit their students, including the Writing Center and Academic Tutoring.
- Promoting student wellness and mental health: Coaches advocate for the mental health and well-being of their students and frequently refer students to wellness resources both on and off campus.
Academic Coaching has been an effective modality of student support at Brown University during the COVID-19 pandemic due to its adaptability and integration of individualized, near-peer mentoring and student wellness. With the advent of remote learning in spring 2020, undergraduate students throughout the country have experienced significant disruptions to their academic, social, and overall collegiate experiences. The pandemic has likely contributed to high rates of reported stress, anxiety, and depression among college students (Gonzales et al., 2020; Kecojevic et al., 2020; Son et al., 2020). Furthermore, political and social crises perpetuating systemic racism and violence against Black Americans have placed substantial burden on the mental health of students, especially those who identify as people of color and underrepresented minorities. Students continue to face a myriad of challenges, including loss of in-person academic and social engagement that had previously been a cornerstone of the residential college experience.
Academic Coaching’s Response to COVID-19 and Remote Learning
When Brown University transitioned to remote learning in March 2020, Academic Coaching continued to support students individually by holding meetings via Zoom. Overall, coaches focused on helping students balance academic responsibilities with wellness and reflect on the meaning and purpose of their collegiate experiences. Coaches routinely conducted remote drop-in sessions, during which interested students could ask specific questions about their academic plans and critically evaluate their study habits and organizational skills as needed. These drop-in sessions also offered students the opportunity to try out individualized coaching, and if students determined the session was beneficial, they could initiate a longitudinal mentoring relationship with their coach. These sessions improved outreach to the student body and increased accessibility to and awareness of Academic Coaching initiatives. Additionally, coaches hosted novel “study with me” sessions to provide students with a supportive, motivating, and quiet remote environment to work on individual tasks and to help students feel more connected to each other.
At the end of the spring 2020 semester, coaches recognized the complex academic, social, and personal challenges students faced. The Academic Coaching program decided to continue offering support over the summer to help students tackle incomplete assignments in order to finish their spring courses. Throughout a four-week period, students who were referred by academic deans and advisors worked intensively with coaches to create study schedules, further hone their study skills, and connect with teaching assistants, academic tutors, and writing associates for additional support.
Since its conception, Academic Coaching at Brown University has strived to incorporate constructive feedback from students. This has been more important than ever, given the monumental changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing remote learning practices. There is a broad spectrum of students who utilize Academic Coaching support services, including freshmen acclimating to the college environment, sophomores and juniors who have specific career goals, and students on academic probation who need to complete outstanding courses. The Academic Coaching team implements surveys at the beginning and end of each semester to gather student feedback. In fall 2020, students described challenges that would have been present during any given semester, such as confronting issues of time management, burnout, and mental illness. However, they also described obstacles specific to or exacerbated by remote learning, such as “time zone problems,” “difficulty [seeking] individual help from professors and TAs,” and “feeling disconnected to peers and the overall community.” By the end of the semester, students reported positive feedback about Academic Coaching. Students described our coaching program as “well-organized and effective,” noted that the “sign-up process at the beginning . . . to indicate information about our learning styles or what we're looking for” facilitated a pairing process that addressed specific needs, and shared that they had good experiences with coaches’ “flexibility and willingness to adjust.”
The switch to remote coaching presented some significant challenges. First, students had varying degrees of schedule availability and access to stable internet connectivity, depending on their time zones and living arrangements. Coaches strove to be as flexible as possible, mindful of disparities in students’ remote learning environments. Furthermore, virtual meetings could not fully replicate the interpersonal dynamics of in-person meetings, and coaches encountered more difficulty with building rapport with students. Finally, as the pandemic persisted, coaches noticed the impact of Zoom fatigue on their students and themselves because it was in such ubiquitous use, from classes and coaching to social gatherings and mental health counseling. For some students, the barriers of remote meetings were too great to overcome and led to increased attrition and less follow-up.
Although the shift to remote learning was largely disruptive, there were a few benefits to remote coaching. Since coaches themselves were college students navigating the new learning environment, they were able to share personal experiences and advice with their students as the semester progressed. Additionally, remote coaching allowed for more flexibility by simplifying the logistics of coordinating in-person meeting locations and times. The virtual format also allowed coaching pairs to explore alternative methods of communication. As long as both parties were explicitly comfortable doing so, coaches shared advice with and received updates from their students via text messaging or other apps, which meant coaches could have a better sense of how their students were doing in real-time, and students could engage in continued practices of accountability.
Academic Coaching at Brown successfully adapted to various challenges imposed on the traditional collegiate experience by the COVID-19 pandemic and met the evolving needs of Brown undergraduate students in search of individual guidance. The near-peer mentoring program was adjusted to be more accessible to students by offering virtual meetings and implementing drop-in coaching sessions during midterm and finals periods so students could utilize coaches at critical times to meet their most pressing academic needs. We strove to support students holistically by emphasizing the importance of mental health and making referrals to campus resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services and Student Accessibility Services.
The Academic Coaching team has identified specific and actionable ways through which to improve our student support services during the ongoing pandemic. Even in the post-remote learning era, we will continue to offer virtual coaching meetings and drop-in sessions to students to provide as much flexibility as possible for meeting times. Routinely solicited feedback indicated that students appreciated the convenience of virtual meetings, especially while they managed responsibilities like jobs that required working during typical business hours. We believe flexibility and accessibility are core tenets of student support programs that can potentially help address disparities in academic performance and overall well-being among students. Academic Coaching at Brown will continue to be innovative in both adapting current practices and designing new initiatives to ensure all students have opportunities to maximize educational engagement and achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals.
Julie Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of College for Academic Support and Transfer
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Cite this article using APA style as: Shi, C., Chen, K., & Lee, J. (2021, June). Supporting students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and remove learning: Lessons learned from Brown University’s peer coaching program. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). [insert url here]