Introducing FOCUS

Inside Higher Learning, following the ten strategies, is a section called FOCUS (Fundamentals of Collective Undergraduate Success), designed to help students work in clusters to create personalized action plans. Students can take up this effort themselves, forming their own groups, or schools/programs can take the lead and help students incorporate FOCUS into their routines.

FOCUS is not complicated, burdensome, or rigid. We know and understand that students will want to do things for themselves and chart their own paths. Thus, FOCUS is not about hand-holding or telling students everything to do. It does, however, provide structure and meaningful mentoring. It also can provide a framework for educators to better measure student progress over the semester.

The previous section, Tools, outlines sample implementation strategies for Higher Learning based on specific groups and program models. Reading through that first will provide you with initial ideas for how you might introduce Higher Learning to your students. The below recommendations will allow you to go further, integrating a more structured FOCUS program. Again, if you’re an educator - a high school teacher or counselor sending students off to college each year, a student affairs professional, an assistant basketball coach, a professor or TA - and you haven’t formally established a FOCUS program for the students you support, it is quite possible that they could approach you to be a part of their team as a coach, after reading Higher Learning.

Why Coaching?

The coaching style used by FOCUS takes its cues from the structure provided by competitive athletics, particularly at the collegiate level. Student athletes spend considerable time working with trained professionals (head coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, and others) to develop their individual skills and to grow as a team. These experiences are formal and scheduled, in some cases taking up a significant portion of the day. These same students, and their many peers who aren’t involved in sports, typically do not have the same sort of structured opportunities to help them prepare academically. One could argue that students can receive tutoring, utilize office hours, or receive mentoring from a range of sources. This is true. It is also fundamentally true that it’s a much different experience to know that you have structured morning practice with your team and coaches every day during the week, compared to having the opportunity to sign up for a tutor and meet with them a few times, or stop by a professor’s office hours when convenient. In the latter, there is no structure, nor coaching. There’s simply optional resources and services.

This New York Times piece highlights the importance of additional intensive advising, particularly for first generation students, stating, “Coached students were more likely to stay in college and graduate.” It’s critical to understand that it’s not just first generation students who benefit from this advising. As I write in Higher Learning, the strongest students in my years of student affairs work have formed extremely effective networks of peers, faculty mentors, and advisors, and have utilized this support structure to guide them not only to graduation, but to prestigious awards, fellowships, lucrative careers, and top graduate programs. We often highlight their individual achievements as a sign of their remarkable talents. Indeed, they are bright and driven. They did not get to where they are by themselves, however. The tops in their games - no matter what the area - have coaches and support teams. Our students need to understand that and ensure that they position themselves similarly. FOCUS provides the model to do just that.

Getting Focused

So now, let’s get to it. Suppose you play an advisory role in some sort of student group on campus. It could be as a TA in a classroom. Maybe you coach a team. Maybe you advise student organizations or coordinate residential programs. Your first step in bringing FOCUS to them could be to bring them together and have a conversation about what they want to get out of their college experiences. It’s fairly safe to say that they will want to be well-rounded, have fun, meet great people, participate in some memorable programs and events, and do well in the classroom. When discussing how they will make it happen academically they will offer the usual lists of resources and strategies - work hard, go to class, maybe get a tutor, etc. They may not touch on how they can work together to push each other to succeed (in the ways that members of athletic teams do). This is where you can start to shift the conversation.

At this point, you can either introduce the group to Higher Learning, having them read through some (or all) of it, including FOCUS, and reconvening in a week or so, or you can introduce FOCUS to them, get them into FOCUS groups, and use those groups to move through Higher Learning over the semester.

Your interactions with students can also be flexible. You can facilitate a weekly large group workshop to cover key topics (such as in a classroom setting as part of a semester-long College 101 course) or you can train “Assistant Coaches” - upperclass peer mentors, graduate students, counselors / TAs, or actual assistant coaches on athletic teams, for example - to do the workshops with one or two FOCUS groups at a time. There could also be a mix of periodic - perhaps monthly or quarterly - large groups sessions, with weekly or bi-weekly small group meet ups in between.

You should create some sort of accountability or check-in system to ensure that:

  1. Students are meeting in their FOCUS groups multiple times per week (putting a minimum number of group study hours that your groups can democratically decide upon, doing FOCUS developmental workshops, talking with mentors / coaches about what’s working and what isn’t).
  2. Students / FOCUS groups are using the necessary resources to succeed.
  3. Students / FOCUS groups are take steps the leverage opportunities on campus (guest speakers, student activities and leadership opportunities, internships, and more).
  4. Students / FOCUS groups are invested in their career and future development (getting connected with mentors and connections in their fields of interest, using career services resources, exploring graduate school options, exploring opportunities for graduate school funding, etc).
  5. FOCUS groups are effective and working. This is critical; we can’t assume that every FOCUS group cluster will be functional. This should be identified quickly via weekly meetings w/ assistant coaches / peer leaders, but ultimately, an overall program coordinator should have one-on-ones with each student to determine whether their FOCUS group is a great fit, and they are doing everything they should be doing to do well on campus. (This can also be informed by any sort of early warning system available to you, perhaps indicating missed classes, poor performance on midterms, etc. If such information isn’t available, having students self-report could incorporated into your FOCUS programming).

For high schools and prep programs seeking to do FOCUS, this resource sheet gives some introductory ideas. Having students in FOCUS groups in high school allows them to the develop some of the key noncognitive and leadership skills necessary for college-level work, and creates an environment to develop consistent, sound academic habits. Additionally, as a high school counselor or prep program staffer, you can use social media, texting, or e-mail to create opportunities to encourage students to form FOCUS groups on campus and check in on them. Students who have done FOCUS in high school are well-positioned to be FOCUS group creators and leaders once they hit campus, paving the way for them and their peers to be great!