The increasing pressure for student support
For the last 13 years, I have been involved in various UG and PG personal tutoring initiatives. Over the years, I have witnessed an increase in the type and level of support given to both UG and PG students as they journey through the higher education landscape. The growing need to support students has meant I have been involved in various interventions, such as, one-on-one mentoring, tutoring, or group action learning sets. I recall when I was at university back in the late 1990s, it was the dissertation supervisor who offered a mere token gesture of pastoral support in amongst their academic guidance. “How are you today? Good. Excellent. Now let’s move on and talk about this literature review...” It was like asking if I was OK, was an abhorrent act and the quicker it was over, the better!
These days, however, this type of interaction would not be acceptable - and neither should it be! Student support is now considered a mandatory feature of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) strategies, and it needs to be.
When I worked as a primary school governor, I witnessed increasing demands for pupil support. Hearing the many stories of pupils (and staff) struggling to cope with anxiety, depression, and stress was staggering. This building pressure is now travelling fast down the education pipeline, right into the HE processing plant. This coupled with the increase in student numbers and the destigmatisation of talking about mental health and wellbeing issues, makes managing this space correctly imperative.
Are we creating or solving student problems?
This new environment creates dilemmas for HEIs: How do institutions cope with the increasing demand for student support? What does the demand consist of? How best do we service it?
Over the past couple of years, I have begun to realise that perhaps our methods of supporting students are actually creating problems, rather than solving them. I am sure we have all experienced, first-hand, the increasing need to meet with students to check their progress and wellbeing. I have spent time with students who have shared trauma and sacrifice that would make many people shed a tear. It can be emotionally exhausting and unless there is an outlet for staff to share these cases or seek support, staff wellbeing can also be affected.
I therefore postulate if pressures placed on academic and professional service staff are actually manageable? At what point do we stop directing students to places for support, stop providing answers, and start to actually empower students to really believe in their own problem-solving capabilities? As student needs seemingly become ever more complex and time consuming, it seems colleagues are taking on the role of problem solver and fixer, rather than guiding the student in becoming more self-reliant, resilient and above all, empowered by their own sense of agency.
Do we offer the right type of support to our students?
My current job role is to organise and manage the mentoring of postgraduate taught students. It is similar to personal tutoring, but with a greater focus on developing student self-awareness, autonomy, and resilience though active listening, probing questioning and, when appropriate, guidance. Whilst issues of an academic nature, such as assessment and feedback and academic skills bleed into conversations, the aim of the meetings is to try and get students to take a more holistic look at their lives, consider their values, career ambitions, reflect on their general behaviours and responses to challenges and opportunities. We pride ourselves on the support we give to our students, but I do wonder if our personalised support should actually push the students a little harder, thus generating a greater sense of student autonomy and ownership. Moreover, since each student is paired with a mentor, as student numbers grow, so do staff workloads.
As an accredited mentor with European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) and having a PG diploma in Leadership Coaching and Mentoring, I spend time networking with consultants and practitioners who operate in this field, learning more about the emancipatory power and transformational benefits of coaching. Networking events I have been attending through the Association of Coaching and EMCC, have taught me that mentoring and coaching, whilst similar in their desire to develop a newfound awareness in a client, use slightly different approaches and techniques. I began to wonder if tutoring or mentoring really is the best service to be offering our PG students…might coaching be a better solution? By encouraging students to share their challenges, the aim would be to coach students to discover their own solutions though active listening and skilled questioning.
After a conversation with Prof. David Clutterbuck, I came upon the work of Christine Thornton (2016) who writes about group and team coaching. Whilst team coaching is not applicable here, group coaching enables individuals to come together to develop a sense of self through the interaction with others. A coach works with the group by helping them harness their power to help each other. It enables people to come together to share and reflect on their circumstances and generate ideas and refine them. It enables personal learning opportunities by “quietly comparing ourselves with others, to understand more fully our own strengths and weaknesses” (2016, p.7). It develops trust, collaboration, and empathy for other people’s circumstances, which are all key leadership skills for the modern world. For example, the World Economic Forums key 2025 skills for employment, include things such as “creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, reasoning and active learning” (WEF, 2020), I believe group coaching can offer a way to nurture these employability skills within the student corpus.
With the challenges HE faces, I think group coaching could be a way to reduce institutional and school pressures, by decreasing the number of academic staff members needed in supporting roles, and by taking the onus off them to provide students with recommendations or answers (that have the possibility of backfiring), by empowering the students to understand how to explore problems and solve them for themselves.
The operational challenges
However, I contemplate frequently the best way to integrate PG group coaching into the daily operations of a school. I offer some postulations below:
- The duration of courses being one year. How many group sessions are needed to evoke self-awareness and self-efficacy within the student?
- The logistics surrounding meetings. Are staff available for group coaching ‘on-demand’ or are sessions scheduled in advance – thus possibly not coordinating with the needs of the students at that moment?
- Should staff be formally trained in coaching methodologies and techniques prior to engagement?
- Who pairs the coach with the coachees? How big are the groups? What happens if relationships break down during the group sessions and students refuse to participate?
- Many international students take time to warm to the idea of talking, in complete confidence, about issues that concern them. Certain cultures do not recognise this form of open dialogue as an accepted norm. Thus, international students, particularly from Asian or Eastern European cultures often require more time on contracting and rapport building before they feel comfortable to unmask themselves in any intimate setting.
- Some students are unsure of what constitutes a problem worthy of discussion and cannot articulate emotions well or reflect on themselves easily. Many struggle to know how to articulate their problems, so it makes it a challenge to try and identify the issues that really need analysing.
- Many students are immersed in the world of social media, communicating through screens. They are surrounded by images and commentary that are often not reflective of the real world. This makes it hard to know, as a coach, am I coaching the real student, or an online persona? Moreover, the quest for ‘perfection’ (whatever social media seemingly projects that day), makes it harder for students to admit their actual reality, reducing the rich learnings that accompany them.
- Many students are used to quick fixes that fulfil their desires instantaneously. These days we can Google, YouTube, TikTok or Reddit a solution to a problem. They offer quick explanations for “why do I do what I do?” or “ways to solve or tackle X”. I witness this in mentor sessions. Students come wanting to know the answers there and then. Some are not bothered about working it out for themselves because it takes too long and/or makes them question their reality. What is the best way to tackle this in a group coaching setting?
- Coaching requires challenging the coachee- to make them feel uncomfortable. Are HEIs willing to make their customers feel unsettled? Will someone be offended or complain?
It must be recognised that group coaching is not a replacement for other forms of student support. On the contrary, there still needs to be a service that supports students who have serious issues that require immediate intervention. However, we know that student resilience does not manifest simply from attending a lecture or watching TEDx or YouTube video. It happens through life experience; it has to be lived and analysed to be understood. We must challenge students on their lived experiences, in a safe, guided space, where learnings can be shared and explored. Unless we do this, we will not develop the type of students we need to survive, let alone thrive, in a complex world.
In my view, HEIs cannot afford to keep meeting the support demands of students on their terms, who in most cases just need a probing question to enable them to figure it out for themselves. I feel we are doing our students a disservice by not pushing back and challenging them to reflect on their practice and innovate. I argue that group coaching offers a way to sustainably resource and build resilience in the student corpus. However, I think this comes with a risk assessment that requires serious attention before going live. Group coaching has the power to transform people’s lives, making them more self-assured and aware.
But it requires a brave HEI to make the first move, because until it becomes the modus operandi for student support in HE, the notion of challenging students may be viewed with caution and be slightly disconcerting for senior leaders and officials who may feel this translates into challenging the customer. But we must remember- the customer is not always right.
Dr Claudia M. Bordogna MA PhD FHEA CMBE CMgr MCMI is a senior Lecturer in Postgraduate and Executive Education Personalisation. She is qualified in Leadership Coaching and Mentoring and is a EMCC Global accredited mentor. She oversees the design and management of the PG professional and personal development curriculum and the production of extracurricular events to support student CPD.
Thornton, C. (2016). Group and Team Coaching: The Secret Life of Groups. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
World Economic Forum (2020) Top Ten Skills of 2025. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/top-10-work-skills-of-tomorrow-how-long-it-takes-to-learn-them/
Education for Mental Health Toolkit
Developed as a partnership between the University of Derby, King’s College London, Aston University, Student Minds and Advance HE, and funded by the Office for Students via a Challenge Competition, this toolkit has been created to provide evidence informed guidance on the ways in which curriculum can support both wellbeing and learning.