Academic Coaching Versus Tutoring: Understanding the Differences

When considering the type of help your student would benefit from, there are many options. Two of the most common resources are academic tutors and coaches. While both experts provide academic support, there are some key nuances between the two professions. Academic tutors and coaches both come with educational backgrounds; usually experienced teachers with extensive knowledge in their respective fields can serve both roles. However, academic tutors tend to focus on skills that are specific to class content and do not necessarily have the expertise to identify and provide their students the skills needed to succeed in a comprehensive manner. 

Tutoring sessions are usually geared subject-specific content. For example, if a student is struggling with his science class, he might seek specific help with the content of this class. Material that may be covered might include strategies for creating an accurate lab report; study skills for a specific unit test; or clarification of a particular concept. Tutoring is often limited to addressing the skills that are needed in that immediate period during which the student is meeting with the tutor. Tutors often work with mainstream students who do not have learning disabilities, ADHD, or other challenges that impact their academic success. They do not necessarily have the expertise to work with these students.

Academic coaching tends to utilize a holistic approach to empowering the student. It is not limited to content-specific help. The academic coach will work with students to establish a comprehensive set of academic skills to enhance their academic performance, not only at school, but in the home environment as well. One of the most important areas of focus in a coaching session concerns executive functioning skills. These skills are the “mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” For those students who have ADHD, tasks that include organization of their work, self-accountability and task completion, effective self-advocacy, and time management are frequently difficult to manage and they require assistance to address these deficits. 

So, what does a typical coaching session look like? The student and coach will engage in a homework protocol in which they look at the school portal and the student’s assignment book to determine the daily and long-term assignments. If necessary, the coach will teach the student how to navigate the school’s online portal. This process can be complicated as schools and colleges frequently do not require their teachers and professors to engage in a uniform approach to posting information including due dates, assignments, and test information. The lack of uniformity frequently results in student (and parent) frustration at not being able to locate all necessary information. 

Once the student is familiar with the navigation of the portal, a plan of action will be created and implemented including the order in which the assignments will be completed and confirmation of completion. Students can sometimes have difficulty processing the directions for a given assignment, so the coach will teach the student how to not only strategically deconstruct the steps involved in a specific assignment, but to ensure the assignment is accurately and effectively completed. Long-term assignments will be broken down into smaller chunks, with each chunk assigned to a specific day to complete in the assignment book or calendar. 

When it comes to homework completion, tutors are very adept at the content, but they may not understand or appreciate the emotional component of an assignment. When a student feels overwhelmed about an assignment, there can be many reasons for their distress. They may not feel confident about the material. They may not understand what they are being asked to do. The assignment may be tapping into a skillset that is not well-developed, leaving them vulnerable and unsure about their ability to complete the task at hand. In other cases, the prospect of undertaking large assignments can be overwhelming, and while the content itself is understandable, the anticipation of the experience of attempting the assignment is enough to shut down the student’s efforts before they even begin the task at hand. Coaches are very adept at walking the student through this process, peeling away the layers of the situation until they get to the root of the problem. From there, they can help to address the student’s concerns, create a plan of action, and schedule check-in points for accountability.

In this same spirit, a student’s academic and emotional well-being go together with one another. If a child is having a particularly trying day, having nothing to do with school, then it stands to reason he may not produce top-notch results in the classroom. For example, if he had a fight with his mom about the use of his cellphone and it was taken away just prior to leaving for school, this encounter may set the tone for that morning’s classes, if not the rest of the day. Similarly, if a student did not perform well on a test, the disappointment and humiliation from this experience may impact her interactions with others immediately following the receipt of this news. Coaches understand the nuances of the emotional and academic well-being of students’ lives and they are able to not only process their feelings with them, but empower them by using their disappointments and mistakes as teachable moments so they are better prepared the next time they face a similar situation.

Finally, collaboration with parents and teachers is frequently useful in supporting the student. More often than not, academic coaches will work together with teachers and parents to communicate what they addressed with their students and how these adults can further support the student. They can also offer suggestions for further interventions including the pursuit of psychoeducational evaluations, implementation of accommodations in school through the use of IEP’s and 504’s, and education about other available resources.

Academic coaching teaches students skills appropriate across the lifespan. These strategies enable students to establish a strong foundation upon which they can build each year as the rigor and demands increase. Academic tutors tend to focus more in the moment on a specific area. 

It is important to understand your child’s needs and the difference between academic tutoring and coaching in order to seek the appropriate help for your child.