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Use of coaching in Higher Education

Definition, examples and limitations

What is coaching?

Coaching is a form of personal and professional development. It is a non-directive yet goal-focused conversation and is geared towards improving personal and organisational performance and developing skills (Starr, 2003).

It is most often associated with asking questions, rather than giving direct answers. But asking questions is only one of the core aspects of coaching approach. Key principles of coaching include building rapport, active listening, asking questions, summarising (feedback) and reflecting.

  • Building rapport simply means developing a mutual trust and friendly attitude. Rapport is quoted as one of the foundational elements of successful team working and collaborations.
  • Active listening is listening intently, paying attention, and giving feedback in a form of a nod or a verbal confirmation of listening. Research suggests that we take in only about 25% of what is said to us. Active listening aims to ensure that we take in a lot more. This helps us to spot important details and show genuine interest in the other person.
  • Asking (right) questions is a skill that is directly linked to listening. That is, you cannot ask the right questions if you’ve not been listening properly to the conversation. Questions you ask should be simple, easy to understand and goal directed (i.e. relevant). They should also be containing only one topic in each question. An example of a suboptimal question is the following: “Please tell me what was the most difficult situation and how you solved it?” – two questions in one.
  • Summarising (feedback) and reflecting is simply feeding back what you heard the other person saying. Saying something like “what I am hearing is…” may help the other person realise something that they were not aware of before.

Why use coaching?

There is plenty of research behind the effectiveness of using coaching approach in organisations. Recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology reports that coaching has a positive impact on overall organizational outcomes, including employees’ increased knowledge, problem-solving skills, new skill acquisition and later improvement, as well as improved confidence, decreased levels of stress, and enhanced motivation and satisfaction.

In the Higher Education (HE) context, the use of coaching can help students to become independent thinkers who are self-reliant and self-motivated. But it’s not done by “leaving them to it” or “dumping them in deep waters and see if they make it”. Instead, it is done in an empowering and nurturing way. It requires (more) time, patience and energy comparing to a more conventional directive top down approach. But the results are so worth it.


Use of coaching in the classroom

In a seminar with second year undergraduate students, the discussion leads us to the notion of primary data and secondary data. I ask the students if they know the difference. Some nod ‘yes’, some say ‘no’. Instead of telling the class about the differences, I ask for volunteers to explain what these are.

Use of coaching in personal tutoring

A personal tutee attends a meeting looking very concerned about their assessments across units.
I ask them what their aim for this meeting is. They say that they want to see more clarity and feel less overwhelmed and more in control. Instead of telling them how to approach assessments based on my own experience and knowledge, I question them about their approaches and strategies that they have used or plan on using. And I listen to them talk these through. 30 minutes later the student thanks me for a help and confesses that they feel so much more in control and clear about their assessment.

Use of coaching in postgraduate research student supervision

A student asks me whether they should consider a teaching pathway or a research pathway after they complete their doctoral studies. Instead of sharing my own opinion on the subject, I ask them about their personal values, preferences and professional passions. At the end of the conversation, they say that deep inside they always knew that this (research route) was the right choice, but they didn’t know how to get to the bottom of it.

Can anyone be a coach?

Absolutely. Although we all have our innate tendencies and capabilities, anyone who is willing to learn, can become a coach and use coaching in their work with others.

Can coaching be used everywhere and at all times?

Like with any development tool or approach, there are some boundary conditions to the use of coaching in HE.

Firstly, the type of guidance needed. Indeed, there are situations when one can help a student or a colleague to arrive at their own answer by effective questioning and listening.

There are other times, however, when a clear and directive guidance is required.

  • A student is asking a regulations-related question.
  • Although research suggests that coaching can be an effective for most people, there may be some personal level characteristics that make it a suboptimal approach. For example, in situations where there is a language barrier or there are cultural expectations of clear power distance (e.g. where arriving at one’s own solution may be seen as disrespectful towards a superior).
  • When there are time and resources implications. Having a goal directed conversation is usually a lot more time and energy consuming than quickly giving a precise correct answer. For example, trying to respond to a student enquiry received an hour before the submission deadline will unlikely have a place for even a light coaching touch. Factoring in time and resources is crucial.

Why not try some of these?

You can try some of these coaching techniques and see how they feel:

  • Use small talk to build rapport. Stay open minded, make eye contact, be genuinely interested and friendly. Small talk, although small, can lead to important rapport later on.
  • Practice active listening. Try asking a colleague or a friend an open-ended question, for example, about a holiday they just had or about how they are settling into a new role. Observe yourself if you feel like you want to jump right in with your own thoughts or insights. Ask a couple of questions, nod and don’t interrupt. You may be surprised how rewarding this may feel.
  • Try asking a question instead of giving an answer. Next time you hear someone ask you a question, consider if it’s a good question to throw back at them. Try asking goal-directed questions, such as “what do you think?”, or “what is your own take on it?”, or “This is interesting – talk me through your thinking here”.

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