What I learned from coaching adult learners.

The importance of relationship building when coaching adult learners. What I learned from coaching adult learners.

Students who take control of their learning end up succeeding. Working with adult learners from all over the country in an Online Competency Based Education taught me this. I was very fortunate to be selected as part of a team of six educators to help design the coaching model for a new competency-based education program for a nationally recognized university. I never thought I’d be working for a University in that stage of my life. At the time, I had just completed graduate school and I was on a path to land a job with the Department of State. 

At the university, I was fortunate enough to work with innovative people who were very passionate about the learning model they were creating. Early on, I felt we were building something special, even though I did not know how it was going to play out. I was excited about the potential of building a student-centric learning model that empowered students to take learning ownership. I was intrigued by the different ways students engaged with their learning and how coaching helped them to modify their behaviors and boosted their ability to facilitate learning success.

Coach adult 6.png

When my colleagues and I started to design the coaching model, we relied heavily on the student experience. When we launched our largest pilot in 2013, we scrapped 75% of what we put in place before the pilot. The students in the pilot behaved very differently from what we expected. We realized then that our students were unique with circumstances unlike traditional online students. Most had not considered traditional online universities before coming to our program. They were nontraditional adult learners for whom, at the time, the online learning model did not work. Credit-hours models did not fit their work schedule and commitments. Being in virtual or physical classes for certain amounts of time—without personalization and flexibility—was not sufficient or obtainable. Plus, the cost for online courses was too high to risk, given that they might be unable to finish. But with our program, they had nothing to lose. The first nine months of the pilot was free and, after that, most of our employer partners paid student tuition for an entire year. Tuition for a year in our entire program equaled the cost of two classes in a traditional online program.

When we were designing our coaching model, we thought offering our pilot program for free would keep students engaged. We were wrong. What attracted students and what kept them coming back were entirely different. Our program curriculum didn’t depend on teachers delivering content. This made the program super flexible for students to access and do their work. The courses were pre-designed. Each course had clear objectives and desired outcomes in a competency format that included all the course content and resources. The program provided opportunities for students to work on the learning deliverable anytime, anywhere, as long as they had access to a computer, tablet, smartphone and Internet access. The curriculum was project-based with subject matter experts who assessed student work. It placed students in real life scenarios. They had to come up with innovative ways to solve problems. Most of my students preferred this type of learning model. The program was solely competency-based with progress evaluation and binary grading scale—“Not Yet or Mastered.” The assessment relied on the rubric criteria of each competency to measure how well students demonstrated knowledge. Students had to master 120 competencies to earn an associate degree and an additional 120 competencies to earn a bachelor degree. The competencies were divided into 6-month terms. Each competency had a goal (equivalent to a course). Even though the program was self-paced, some structure was required to keep the students on a path for success and to promote graduation in a timely, cost efficient-manner.

In the first pilot, I learned quickly how the traditional, credit-hour based learning model prevented learners from fully taking ownership of their learning engagement. With the traditional system, students must work within predetermined structures to earn the credits they need to advance. What’s more, there are rigid timelines for taking exams and submitting learning materials. The competency model is flexible, allowing students to demonstrate learning at a personalized pace. Students could also choose from an all-you-can-learn buffet to earn as many competencies as they want within a term. Based on student academic satisfaction and financial aid, we did have to place minimum competency mastery requirements to keep students eligible. But most students—because of their prior work experiences as adults—had knowledge they could tap into for each project. Still, they needed to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise within the context of our program through our project-based learning model. In each 6-month term, students could decide when to submit assignments and projects related to their goal competencies.

Coach adult 8.png

I soon realized that what our program provided was unprecedented. Most of the students I coached were not used to their new power and autonomy. It was overwhelming for some. I spent a lot of my time learning from students how they approached learning. My colleagues did the same and, through this practice, we were able to develop our coaching model. As a result, our coaching model was not simply academic; it was holistic. We realized that our students’ life responsibilities and personal perceptions of their learning abilities impacted their success in our program. We were very bold to take this approach—working with the entire person, not just their academic pursuits. To work independently in an online competency-based education requires a lot of discipline. Our goal was to meet all students where they were and to use their unique experiences with our ongoing support and coaching through the program. We started the pilot with 250 students. By the end of it, we were working with close to 900. The more people we guided through the pilot, the confident we became in our coaching model.

Coaching is popular in education today. It is very different than advising. It is also hard to scale without identifying the metrics with which you are coaching and measuring student success. You need coaching metrics unique to your program to streamline coaching implementation without losing quality. The goals of the coaching model—how it will help students become self-sufficient and take ownership of behaviors leading to their success—must be clearly defined. The better you understand the motivations for students’ success in your program, the more you can establish behavior personas to align with your coaching practices. These personas are used to label the students’ behaviors, not the student. And coaching adapts to those behaviors. In a personalized model, student behaviors change often. You have to keep abreast of current behaviors and not label the students based on the behaviors with which they begin the program. Your team has to identify the skills you want your students to acquire during the coaching sessions. Putting a structure like this in place is important to running an effective coaching model. I have often seen a support system, which is supposed to help students, becomes a barrier that keeps them from developing the skills they need to progress in their learning. And when students do not put in the time to the development of certain skills, they end up relying on tutoring services at their schools to cover the gaps. Under such circumstances, students get lazy. They choose not to carefully proofread their papers or to make sure their grammar is correct because they know the tutoring service will correct their mistakes. Such students never gain the ownership to improve their skills. In our coaching model we wanted to make sure that the students themselves were coming up with next steps and that the skills they needed were obtainable. In a sense, we wanted students to become mad scientists behind their learning by helping them better understand what contributes to their learning success and learning challenges.

The coaching model I helped developed was influenced by many different behavior practices. We took some best practices from academic advising, social work, therapy and executive coaching and fused them. I learned early that the success of our learning model relied on students being committed and resourceful, and embracing challenges. All the things I mentioned were intrinsic behaviors and non-cognitive behaviors that were hard to measure. Over and over in my experience coaching hundreds of students, I found dissecting behaviors to be the key identifier of learning success and challenges. First, students needed to believe that they can do it and be successful in the program. Second, students needed to reserve and protect time to give themselves a chance to engage with the learning. Third, students needed to identify learning strengths and learning challenges within the context of the project. Fourth, students needed to come up with a plan or tactic of how they were going to approach the resources and construction of the deliverable. Finally, students needed to be resourceful and identify a network of support to reach out to when they were stuck, or need to celebrate learning success. We wanted learning to be social even though the program was online and self-paced. We wanted students to invite people in their circle into their learning journey.   

I coached my students to be resilient learners. Many led complex lives, which made it difficult to commit substantial time to the program. I spent a lot of time coaching them how to create the discipline to honor the time they put aside for their schoolwork. I had to learn their most productive spaces— physical or mental. To validate it required real learning touch points from the projects they were working on. Whenever a student completed a project and submitted their work, I would ask them, “What was your approach in this project?” “What led you to complete the project?” “What space did you work in?” “Who was around you to help keep you engaged in your project?” The answers gave me everything I needed to better understand what environment my students worked best in. Then I made sure to validate those spaces whenever new milestones were reached. Of course, in personalized learning, things change very fast. What worked for the last project might not work for the next. Changes at home or work might prevent a student from doing new work around the arranged place and time that worked before.

Coach adult 12.png

A positive relationship with a student is the foundation for a good coaching experience. Such a relationship is necessary to get to the root of the learning success and meet challenges. My students needed to know I was on their team and not there to judge them. They needed to know that I believed they could achieve their goal of obtaining a college degree. They also needed to know I viewed them as creative, resourceful and whole.

The secret to building strong relationship with adult learners is being a good listener, being credible and accountable, and respectful to them and their time. It also requires earning a student’s trust. Some of my students had their own gremlins. Often they had negative experiences with school. I needed to help them approach the learning journey as a new start. I did some research around the importance a “New Start” has on people. I felt it was important for students who joined the program to actualize and embrace that this experience was going to be different from their past experiences. This created a great expectation for them. After becoming more familiar with the various personas, behaviors and experiences of adult learners, I felt I had the tools to coach students effectively—provided they were open to discuss their experience.

By the second year of the program, our coaching department grew. The program had 2500 students. We had to train other coaches in our model. Modularizing coaching practices was challenging. The effectiveness of coaching relied a lot on a coach’s mindset. A coach needed to be accountable and be willing to work to earn the trust respect of the students. We had to simplify our process in order to train other coaches to have the same mindset and approach in their coaching practice. We had many educators nationally wanting to be part of our team. We recruited part-time coaches who worked remotely from all over the country. By year three the program had 4500 students and over 130 coaches. The coaching team worked very hard to help scale the model.

I worked closely with my colleagues to dissect the different challenges our students experienced. I was able to categorize the challenges as academic, personal, time management and accountability. Within each bucket I identified an effective approach, based on my student experience, which led to success. Based on patterns of my other students’ behaviors, I was also able to demonstrate to students ineffective approaches that might keep them from succeeding. I created preventive ingredients to my coaching approach relating to the categories. I found normalizing the experience ahead of time—with general examples and how other students experienced them—helped put some student at ease. When they eventually experienced the challenges, it made it much easier to coach the students through them. Sometimes the students would refer back to the examples I provided when they were naming the challenges they faced. That gave me the tools I needed to coach them through the process effectively. I started to see areas students were taking ownerships. With two other coaches I helped run Reboot pilot, which focused on working with students who had a slow pace and were not as engaged. It was a great opportunity to dig deeper and dissect all of the different moving parts that held students back. It was not about the intentions of the students. Instead we focused on how we could move students from intention to motivation to action. I spent six months running this pilot and, at the end, the team I worked with developed new coaching tools that revisited our regular coaching model. This helped equip coaches to better work with their students.

coach adult 5.png

Some educators feel coaching is only for students who are struggling. I disagree with that. Coaching is for all students. The relationship is there to elevate the learner to take ownership of their learning success. Part of taking ownership is also celebrating learning success. For students who experience more success than challenges, it is a great opportunity to help them dissect the cause of their learning success. Often some students do not know what contributes to their success. It is important to help them name the process they take to digest new content and identify what helps them retain and demonstrate new knowledge. This is a great step to take to help your students become aware of those success factors. I used to do this a lot with my students once they mastered or completed a project. I would have them reflect on each step they took to complete their project. If they used this approach several times with different projects and assignments, I attached the approach to their method of learning. When I coached them to use their approach to resource content, I brought up what I learned about their approach to see if it was validated. I had a student who used to read first, highlight second, and then go talk to someone about what she learned. Afterwards, she went back to what she originally highlighted before starting putting her learning deliverables together. If she missed a step in the process, I would know. During our coaching call she would bring it up how she was struggling with the content in the resource. I would walk her through her process and identify what threw her off in her process. Once we identify the problem, she had to go back and complete the step. After that, she was ready to move forward most of the time. She loved talking about what she acquired in the readings. I would ask her to explain to me what was interested to her.

There are many moving parts in learning. I learned from coaching adult learners that every movement counts. You have to always meet the students where they are. Let them drive the conversation first. Use your listening skills to prompt the discussion in order to have them reflect on the experience. Once they do that, you will have everything you need to drive the conversation and help them take ownership and identify the different touch points that are impacting their learning. You then have to explore ways they can take ownership of the process and help them become resourceful in addressing the gaps and encourage them to help others in the areas where they excel.


Coaching hundreds of adult learners and helping design our model over three and half years taught me the value of relationship building and normalizing learning challenges. I was as much of a student in the process and as a coach. I learned that educators take the process of acquiring knowledge for granted. We focus more on outcomes through measurement of knowledge than the process it takes to learn. Learning affects student holistically and vice versa, our human holistics affect how we learn. I believe resiliency and self-efficacy are things you can teach and help others develop. The more breakthroughs I experienced with my students, the more I saw them activate the non-cognitive skills they learned to overcome from previous learning challenges. It was very cool to see them experience new revelations about themselves.

You cannot run an effective coaching model without making the intention/mission of your coaching model visible and alive. Our model valued building strong relationships with our students by treating them with respect and viewing them as creative, resourceful and whole. How we viewed our students dictated how we treated them. More specifically, it guided us when helping them become resilient and self-sufficient learners.

I am forever grateful for the opportunities that allowed me to be in a such an innovative learning environment where I could help people reach their dreams through education.