Online Student Experience & Engagement – A Culture of Coaching

Many universities are offering tremendous student support, but most can extend this support further by transitioning from the foundations of coaching to a culture of coaching. That way, students can experience connection and support in every interaction with university faculty and staff members.

Miranda Benson, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Helix Education, shares proven principles and practices that elevate an institution’s student-facing interactions while laying a critical foundation of coaching.

What Is Coaching? Why Do Our Students Need It?

Recent survey data shows that what students need right now is human-to-human connection and engagement with a trusted advisor. 

In an online-only environment, it’s essential to provide that engagement during academic experiences in the online classroom, and the student feedback is telling us they did not have a great experience in spring. 

But students are also craving that same engagement and resources outside of the classroom. We know, for instance, that mental health impacts a student’s academic experience. While many institutions maintain resources, therapy, and counseling services, it’s important that students also have positive relationships and believe they can ask for more services when they need them.

Right now, many students are gravely concerned about finances. In this scenario, an emailed award letter with a list of resources might not make that student feel confident about their finances leading up to fall. Instead, it may take a half-hour, one-on-one appointment with a financial aid counselor to help the student understand the big picture and make sure that they can commit to it.

Lastly, academic support remains vital. No matter how much you improve your online courses, your team has to remove barriers to success. So your coaching team has to be the voice in the student’s ear, giving them options about how to push past the obstacles they encounter.

RISE: A Mnemonic for How to Coach Students

At Helix Education, we use the mnemonic RISE to describe our coaching approach.

R – Rapport. To build a positive and productive coaching relationship, we need to establish a connection with our students from day one. So one of the questions we ask our coaches to ask themselves in the process of building these relationships is: What are the common interests that we share? 

Coaching’s key idea is to connect and build rapport with a diverse range of student

personalities, experiences, and backgrounds. How can you gauge that? Ask yourself if students are showing up, opening up, and sharing feedback with and about their coach.

I – Inquiring. We define “inquiry” as asking powerful questions to learn more about your student and how to help them be successful. Great coaches are curious people who are constantly asking questions. But inquiry means more than gathering information; it’s also about asking our students powerful, open-ended, and thought-provoking questions to promote self-discovery and self-awareness on the student’s part. 

At Helix, we encourage our coaches to focus on six areas in their inquiry. These include academics, effectiveness, study habits, their core goal, their life balance, and their financial preparedness.

S – Supporting. Not all students need the same level of support. First year students, for instance, many want more frequent guidance than grad students. But often, the difference between coaching and a typical advisor lies in accountability. Coaches hold their students accountable on a weekly basis to make sure that they’re on track, motivated, and aware of their own progress. 

By building a relationship with the student from the beginning, the coach can help them navigate little fires before they become really big fires.

E – Empowering. Empowering is all about action plans, prioritized lists that measure incremental progress towards the student’s goals. Ultimately, empowerment encompasses getting the right tools into the student’s hands at the right time and then inspiring the student to use them. In this stage of the interaction, we encourage the student to fly. 

Because of the fantastic relationship that coaches build through the RISE process, they’re able to make sure that students are taking advantage of the resources that can contribute to academic progress and ultimate success.

Making Coaching Part of Your Institution’s DNA

In order to provide excellent student service, you as a leader must be unflinchingly passionate about coaching. Even if you don’t have a coach position, you can still set an expectation of coaching culture with your team members. Your leaders should frequently and consistently conduct observations and offer feedback about the level of service that your team is providing students. 

Are you asking: “When will I stop having to coach on rapport and how to ask thought-provoking questions and make sure to set a time and date appointment?” If so, the answer is “Never.”

As a leader, you are always working against the default of mediocrity. Consequently, while you absolutely may — and should — have non-negotiables that require a more formal accountability process if not followed, coaching as a culture requires constant follow-up  — never-ending vigilance, consistency, and passion. 

Finally, when employees feel heard and have a good relationship with their leaders and team members, and your institution demonstrates a vested interest in the employees’ experience, that relationship gets passed on to your students.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Miranda Benson from Helix Education. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.