Coaching in Adult Education

Former Dean James Pappas of CLS

For the past few years, I have been struck by the emergence and practice of coaching in adult education and in the broader arenas of adult life.

What Is Meant by “Coaching”? 

Everyone is familiar with the use of the term “coaching” in reference to athletics. However, becoming increasingly popular is the use of the term to relate to helping individuals make improved changes in their lives, whether those changes occur in their careers, their personal interests and pursuits, their spiritual dimensions, or other realms in their lives. Thus, coaching has become a widely accepted practice of transforming people from where they are to where they want to be. 

Coaching and Adult Learners 

Coaching is now being used by adult and continuing education units to bolster student recruitment, retention, and graduation. As Liberal Studies students are well aware, many adults return to campus with considerable fear and trepidation. Often they have been away from an academic environment for many years and are anxious about their prospects for success. Or they are involved in challenging accelerated or technology-based programs. Or their current life circumstances make education a difficult prospect. Coaching can help them plan their education, their  work, and, indeed, their lives. 

Coaching can be particularly critical for adults wishing to return to college, thinking of new career  opportunities, and changing their view of themselves in these contexts. It can lead to significant personal (adult) learning where the individual being coached changes his or her self-image or self-concept and previously held beliefs, thereby resulting in a new perspective regarding his or her personal and professional life. 

The goal of coaching is to create a developmental shift that will help an individual see and behave differently in relation to a problem or difficulty—e.g., making a career change, choosing to pursue a degree, coping with a supervisor’s criticism, dealing with family conflicts.

Coaching has also been implemented to enhance higher education’s involvement with adult students. With the knowledge revolution, the transformation of jobs and rise of new professions, and the decline in the half-life of most degrees, higher education administrators have recognized that they must create lifelong relationships with their graduates; in fact, establishing a lifelong relationship is an important part of the new value proposition for alumni. Today, to be viable in many work settings, a worker must not only complete a bachelor’s degree but often return for a master’s degree and, indeed, for additional education beyond the master’s, including skill-specific certificates, badges, and courses. Some institutions offer career services throughout one’s working lifetime. They also rely on coaching to maintain ongoing communication and support with their adult students. This trend is likely to increase as online technologies make such relationships practical. Having life and career coaching at one’s home institution as a value-added service may become an important part of the expectation of students seeking degrees.

Coaching outside Academe

Coaching for adults is also a significant benefit offered by some employers to aid employees seeking promotional or professional opportunities. Individuals often hire career coaches to help them identify new career paths. Other coaches, whether retained by employers or by the employees themselves, aid in retirement planning. Coaching can open up avocational interests and spiritual aspects of people’s lives. It can help those who want to improve their abilities in interpersonal relations, communication, and goal setting.

The goal of coaching is to create a developmental shift that will help an individual see and behave differently in relation to a problem or difficulty—e.g., making a career change, choosing to pursue a degree, coping with a supervisor’s criticism, dealing with family conflicts. 

Helping Adults Take a Different Direction

All of these approaches and ideas regarding coaching are in sync with the role continuing education plays in the lives of adults: to get them to have a different approach to their lives. 

Last year, University of Oklahoma Outreach sponsored about 20 staff members, including College of Liberal Studies staff, for extensive training as professional coaches. This training was provided as part of an initiative that will be announced in the near future. But what interested me was how engaged our staff was in this activity, which required many hours of in-class training and considerable personal time. It reminded me that the “helping motive” is deep within our staff and our organization. Whether formally in a coach-coachee relationship or in the context of a class or degree program, the College of Liberal Studies has long been committed to helping individuals transform their lives. We look forward to continuing to play that role in the lives of current and future adult students. 

James Pappas Signature for Coaching in Adult Education

James P. Pappas, Ph.D.
Vice President for Outreach and Dean, College of Liberal Studies


Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 

Banner photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc


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The College of Professional and Continuing Studies is a fully accredited academic unit of the University of Oklahoma, offering 100% online, hybrid and onsite degrees for working adults and non-traditional students.