International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring
2024, Vol. 22(1), pp.199-213. DOI: 10.24384/14c4-yj08

Academic Paper

The challenges of coaching non-traditional students in higher education: Applying a coaching intervention at a UK University

Dionne Spencer (InReach)



Coaching in education is a relatively distinct area that has grown since the early 2000’s and has become recognised internationally as having an enormous effect in education (van Nieuwerburgh 2012; van Nieuwerburgh and Barr, 2016). The term was initially used as a means of increasing student performance, largely through leaders developing their teaching staff and interacting with pupils (van Nieuwerburgh and Tong, 2013). More recently, coaching has evolved to include initiatives for both learners and educators (van Nieuwerburgh and Barr, 2016) implementing direct coaching for student needs across various ages and stages of their education (Briggs and van Nieuwerburgh, 2010; Short, Kinman and Baker, 2010; Andreanoff, 2016) as a means of enhancing performance and overcoming learning difficulties (Grant, Green and Rynsaardt, 2010; Burns and Gillion, 2011; van Nieuwerburgh and Tong, 2013; Lech, van Nieuwerburgh and Jalloul, 2018).

Coaching in education in part, is considered as “a one-to-one conversation focused on the enhancement of learning” (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012). While several studies have identified the benefits of students receiving coaching in HE (Short, Kinman and Baker, 2010; Andreanoff, 2016; Lancer and Eatough, 2018; Lane and de Wilde, 2018; Lech, van Nieuwerburgh and Jalloul, 2018; Spencer, 2021). Little empirical research has been conducted to explore coaches experiences of coaching under-represented student groups in HE from the perspective of the coaches themselves.

The term under-represented groups in HE include first generation HE students (first in family to participate in HE); mature students, low socio-economic groups; minority ethnic groups; disabilities; women; those living in areas or attending schools with low levels of participation in HE (Wilkins and Burke, 2015; Cotton, Nash and Kneale, 2017) and groups whose participation may be limited by structural factors (Cotton et al., 2017; Younger, Gascoine, Menzies and Torgerson, 2018). The term ‘under-represented groups’ continues to be used within the HE sector. More recently however, further research studies have highlighted that such groups can fit into several categorised definitions, such as: low socio-economic background; minority ethnic groups; or mature students; therefore the term ‘non-traditional’ has emerged to represent students that fit these various categories, and often more than one (Macqueen, 2017; Spencer, 2021).

This heuristic inquiry explored the following question: ‘What are the experiences of coaches in the process of supporting non-traditional students?’

Researchers, coaches and practitioners interested in the understanding the challenges of coaching non-traditional students and the nuances of non-judgement in coaching practice will benefit from this research. Similarly, supervisors, HEIs, and organisations that deliver coaching programmes can learn from the challenges of stereotyping and assumptions made by coaches and will recognise the need to expand the range of models delivered to coaches beyond customary goal orientated approaches such as the GROW model (Whitmore, 2009).

The article will begin with an overview of the reason for selecting Heuristic Inquiry as a chosen methodology. The findings and discussion will present the key themes that emerged from the coaches' experiences of coaching non-traditional students. Considerations for future research will be presented, followed by a conclusion of the study. Whilst the focus of the author is the based on the coaches’ experiences of coaching non-traditional students, the terms ‘non-traditional’ students and ‘students’ will be used interchangeably in this study.


Heuristic Inquiry is used in this study to allow the researcher to have a direct experience of the phenomenon and provide a deeper and richer exploration of coach experiences of coaching non-traditional students in HE (Moustakas, 1990). Adopting heuristic inquiry as a methodology enabled possibilities for the researcher to enter the perceptions, attitudes and values of the participants through self-inquiry and dialogue to find the underlying meanings and importance of human experiences (Moustakas,1990; Crotty, 2012).

The collective accounts of those experiences will be portrayed from the unique perspective of the researcher, who has direct experience of the phenomenon under investigation. Verification of this study was enhanced by returning to the experience of research participants to seek their assessment of the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the phenomenon described in this paper (Moustakas, 1990).


An email invitation to participate in this study was sent to internal coaches within an established coaching network of experienced coaching staff in one University in the UK. The criteria for coaches were that they were internal coaches within the university, with several years’ experience of coaching, with a minimum of an ILM Level 5 Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring. Four coaches self-selected by responding to an invitation to take part in a study. As a primary researcher and participant coach, the author’s accounts were also included in the study.

Table 1: Coach Information

Coaches AgeYears of experienceEthnicity Education
Carolina463 yearsWhite BritishFirst degree, ILM Level 5 certificate
Donna416 yearsBlack or Black CaribbeanMasters degree, ILM Level 5 certificate
Melanie457+ yearsWhite BritishFirst degree, ILM Level 5 certificate
Phil514+ yearsWhite BritishFirst degree, ILM Level 5 certificate

Demographically, there were restrictions to gaining the experiences of under-represented student groups. The term ‘non-traditional’ has been used to represent students from any group which had up until recently been under-represented in HE (Macqueen, 2017) and whose participation may be limited by structural factors (Younger et al., 2019; Cotton et al., 2017).

Nine students self-selected and identified themselves as undergraduate students that fit into one or more of the following categories:

  1. At a disadvantage based on geographical location, occupation, previous education and income either household or individual.
  2. Minority ethnic group Black Minority Ethnic (BME).
  3. First generation HE student – first within the family to study at university.
  4. Mature student.

Data Collection and Analysis

The data collection method of semi-structured interviews provided the opportunity to explore and to gain insight into the experiences of the participants though a two-person conversation (Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2007). Dialogue is at the heart of heuristic inquiry and would ordinarily employ an informal conversational approach in which both the researcher and coaches enter into the process fully through the sharing of experiences (Schneider, Pierson and Bugental, 2015). However, a less structured approach was considered potentially problematic when organising and analysing data if comprehensive questions did not emerge naturally from the interviews (Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2007), hence the decision for a semi-structured approach.

Interviews lasted between 90 minutes and two hours and were audio recorded. Notes were also taken during the interviews. The notes were used to help transcribe and analyse the interviews. Supplementary data such as coaches reflective diaries and the reflective diaries of myself, along with my experiences and reflections as a coach were also collected and used to explore and to gain insight into the experiences of the coaches in accordance with heuristic inquiry (Moustakas, 1990). The data from the coaches semi-structured interviews formulated most of the data analysis. The data collated from the interviews and supplementary data sent by coaches were gathered and all were initially considered as part of the data analysis process. An in-depth analysis did not occur until all interviews were completed and all supplementary data had been gathered to ensure the supplementary data would not distort the data that would be received later in the interviews.

Individual interviews were transcribed and shared with the coaches to ensure they were an accurate depiction from their perspective. Coaches could make alterations as part of the heuristic process should they wish to do so (Moustakas, 1990) however, no requests were received for any additions or deletions to be made.

Data analysis was initially undertaken manually prior to uploading transcripts into a qualitative analysis software programme (NVivo). Text was grouped and categorised into themes within NVivo. NVivo was also used to cross check the interviews and supplementary data. Each individual experience was analysed and lead to a collective account described as a “composite depiction” (Moustakas, 1990) of the coaches' experiences of coaching non-traditional students.


Three aggregated themes were identified from the collective accounts of the coaches’ experiences of coaching non-traditional students. My own experience as a coach was explored in parallel with the coach data and comparisons were made, identifying commonalties and nuances across all experiences. There were three main findings:

  1. The challenges of the intervention of coaching
  2. The perceived need to be more directive
  3. The ambiguity of identifying and facilitating confidence through coaching

1. The challenges of the intervention of coaching

This theme expressed the challenges experienced by coaches when coaching non-traditional students. These challenges are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Coach challenges

Attendance and commitment

The findings of the study identified that all coaches experienced difficulties with student attendance and their commitment to coaching. The first challenge for coaches was that almost all students required at least one session to be rescheduled at short notice. Students informed the coach of their non-attendance on the morning of the session, within a few hours of the session commencing, or not at all.

Most coaches commonly considered ‘contracting’ by way of a coaching agreement between themselves and the students to be an appropriate method to communicate the ethical nature and conditions of coaching (Bresser and Wilson, 2010).

Melanie did not want to emphasise what the student “should or should not do”, adopting a more flexible approach to ensure her student “felt comfortable” in the first session. Melanie reported that contracting was “rushed” as she thought it would “be boring for them”. She wanted to be “approachable” and “friendly” as a “priority” to build trust and rapport “very quickly”.

Carolina expressed her “disappointment” when a student failed to attend a coaching session.

Melanie reported that her “biggest expectation” would be that they “would turn up”; she acknowledged “how pressured they are” but expressed that “it’s not that easy” for her to keep rescheduling coaching due to prior work commitments.

Phil experienced difficulties with his students attending coaching and tried a more flexible approach by rescheduling the session to another university site. When the student did attend the rescheduled session at the alternate site, they arrived “late with no explanation given”. Despite adopting a more flexible approach, agreeing a plan, a timeframe and repeated prompts to arrange another session, no further contact was made by the student. Whilst several attempts were made to contact her afterwards, the student did not attend further coaching sessions. Phil indicated that “in some ways”, he “hoped that” he “didn’t intimidate her”. He described the student’s non-attendance as a “shame” but also stated that “it was and it wasn’t” because the “student was seriously challenging”.

The second challenge for coaches was the slight nuances in understanding students’ commitment to coaching and other commitments that could impact their ability to attend coaching sessions. Melanie linked her understanding of commitment to the parallels that had been drawn from experiences of coaching staff. She described her student’s commitment as being “motivated, organised, and engaged” particularly when she became aware that the student was “juggling a lot of things”. Melanie described herself as “lucky” and stated that once her student “realised this would be helpful for her she was keen to keep doing it”. Melanie indicated that someone who is “motivated and reasonably organised” was more likely to attend and perhaps the “the ones who are not that motivated” might struggle.

Phil identified his students’ commitment to coaching by their attendance and level of engagement, drawing comparisons between them. Phil reported one student as “a lot more motivated”, “a lot more organised” and “more mature”. Compared to the “much younger woman” that was perceived to be “more immature in general”.

As a coach, I was particularly challenged when a student arrived late and informed me 35 minutes later that they were ready to leave to attend a lecture. Whilst I acknowledged the student had to leave early, a part of me also presumed a lack commitment on their part and that their time could be better utilised elsewhere.

Lack of goals

A common theme for most coaches was the lack of goal setting by non-traditional students. Coaches were familiar with coaching staff members who had a clearer idea of the topics they were going to discuss during coaching that would lead to specific goals. Non-traditional students however were vague about their goals and generally required more time to identify them during coaching.

Melanie reported that it could take at least one session to identify specific goals with students, unlike coaching staff, where she encouraged staff to decide their goals in advance of the session. Melanie suggested that the same approach applied to staff could have been reinforced with students, but she decided to use a different approach. Melanie adapted her approach with students to a “relaxed pace” she considered that it was more “important to be realistic about those goals” given that students could attend up to three coaching sessions and that they did not attend with a goal or aim in mind.

Carolina described her first session as having to “ask a lot of questions to find out what they wanted to focus on”. Or even to find out why they were there.

Phil described the first two sessions he had with his students as “difficult.” He reported the session with one student as “like wading through treacle” and “getting blood out of a stone” as the student had not identified a specific goal by the end of the first session. The other student was described as “incredibly passive” and Phil reported moments of trying to get the student to “reflect or think” as “big silence” and “tumble weed.”

Phil adopted a more flexible approach by extending the timeframe of the second coaching to assist his student to find a specific goal. He recalled the student “talked for two hours in the first session” and “stumbled on this thing”. It took “over 3 hours of going around in circles” in the second session before the student left feeling “really enthusiastic”. Phil suggested the timescale had been elongated because “it wasn’t until the end of the second session that we got to the root of the problem and then a plan emerged”.

The emotions of coaching, intercultural sensitivity and non-judgement

Another challenge faced by coaches was the emotions that were felt and the notion of non-judgement during coaching. What was common across all accounts was that all coaches experienced emotions that they were not accustomed to when faced with challenges or new experiences with no prior knowledge to draw from.

Phil “agonised” after the first session with one student and expressed his frustration with another. He considered building rapport as a way of establishing trust in the same way that he did coaching staff members. Coaching non-traditional students was the first time that he felt that he could not build rapport during coaching. Phil described coaching one student as “just impossible” and compared his experience to “talking to a brick wall”.

He questioned the dynamics of his coaching relationship during a supervision session and described the coaching relationship as “immensely frustrating” and “really difficult”. Phil had “never really encountered” such emotions during coaching. He recalled that he “didn’t get angry with her” but he did feel “a bit sorry for her”. He received some reassurance from his group supervision but expressed that he was accustomed to receiving positive feedback when coaching staff members. To receive otherwise was a new experience, and as such it was difficult for Phil not to make judgements about himself and the student when he did not obtain the outcome that he expected. Phil mentioned his experience during supervision to identify if coaches had been in similar situations. Their response was, “you know, you don’t win them all” but Phil “got used to winning them all.”

All coaches that participated in the study became sensitive to cultural differences. Awareness of the cultural differences for Melanie caused anxiety and fear. Melanie was particularly conscious about creating an environment that was a “safe space” for her student to engage in a coaching conversation. Melanie had observed prejudice towards herself from “older people” and acknowledged that she would “try not to worry about such things” going forward. She was concerned about how her student would perceive her even though there was nothing explicit in the session or in the student’s reflective dairy to validate her suppositions.

Melanie expressed feeling “anxious” prior to meeting her student, she feared that she would be judged because of her different ethnicity. Melanie “was nervous” that she would be seen as “the face of a white person”, “traditional status quo attitude and therefore likely to be prejudiced”. Melanie acknowledged her “anxiety” and her “fear” was something that she could talk about in counselling and was less sure whether her emotions were something that could be talked about in coaching. Melanie considered her own self-awareness to be an important aspect prior to and after coaching in terms of creating an effective and a non-judgemental coaching environment.

Phil acknowledged that like himself, most of the staff at the University were White middle-class and male which he considered might make the environment intimidating for some non-traditional students where there were social and cultural differences. Phil assumed that different backgrounds and gender were contributing factors to his coaching experiences. He recalled the student’s background being “possibly Middle Eastern, Turkish or something” and suggested that the student may have needed “someone different to talk to her”, that the student might have felt “more comfortable talking to a woman” as the student was not talking to him.

Carolina questioned whether she was the “right coach” for her student during coaching and if the student would have benefitted more being paired with someone else. She experienced moments of self-doubt based on not fully understanding the student’s needs during the session. There were times she “didn’t understand what the student meant” and “didn’t know what to say for the best” and therefore “listened” and “asked a few questions” that she thought “would help”.

Not only was the notion of non-judgement difficult when it came to differences. Non-judgement was difficult when similarities were acknowledged in terms of my own background and ethnicity. As the only non-white coach I was aware of my preconceptions when coaching a non-white student. Within the first five minutes of arriving late for the first session I thought, “she’s not interested” as she periodically glanced at her mobile and informed me that she had to leave early due to a lecture. I found it difficult not to categorise the student as fitting within the stereotypes of being a “difficult to reach student”. On the one hand I was frustrated and challenged knowing how beneficial coaching could be and perceiving that the student did not view coaching in the same way. On the other hand, I deliberated whether to include my thoughts in my diary excerpts, partly because my preconceptions changed and partly because as a coach, a black coach at that, I felt as though I should not have those preconceptions to begin with. My thought process during coaching and reflections after the session made me question myself as a coach, my level of transparency and my ability to be impartial during a coaching session. The self-doubt that I felt was also discussed with my supervisors as a way of self-reflection.

2. Perceived need to be more directive

Most coaches used the GROW model as a structure to facilitate coaching non-traditional students, one coach used a “balance wheel”. All coaches were familiar with using a nondirective approach when coaching staff. The same approach proved challenging when students did not appear to have a goal in mind.

Carolina used GROW to facilitate the first session. She minimised the requirement to establish a goal from the onset by adopting her approach to establish an equal relationship. Carolina did a “lot of listening, paraphrasing and probing” when she “felt that it was okay to do so” which created a “human” approach, with laughter and a “comfortable environment.” She considered the student to be an “equal partner” by giving her student “permission to take control, make decisions, express her feelings” to demonstrate to the student that there was “another human being in the room”.

Melanie described her adaptive method as a “slightly more suggestive” approach when coaching non-traditional students. From her perspective students arrived at the session “nervous and uncertain of what to expect when experiencing coaching for the first time”. Melanie reported her student required “a bit more input from the coach” to “detangle” what they were looking at and what their goal might be. Melanie “encouraged” and “coaxed” her student as a way of getting them to commit to actions. In addition to coaching Melanie offered the student library resources that she considered would be useful to them during their studies.

Phil acknowledged that maintaining a nondirective coaching approach was easier when coaching staff than it was when coaching non-traditional students. He expressed that with staff he was able to retain his role as a coach in the way that he had been trained. Whereas, with students there was “a temptation to teach”, and there was a “kind of gravitational pull” with students to “slip into a bit more teaching or mentoring mode”.

Phil reported adapting his methods of coaching by applying the experience and knowledge gained from his professional practice as a teacher into his coaching practice. His approach with one student required more “telling” his perception was that the student “still thought it was like school”, “could not generate ideas” for herself and expected to be told what to do. He recalled “as a coach you are not really supposed to do this” but considered the suggestions given generated ideas and a way forward for the student.

My approach as a coach in some sessions was a dialogic one, similar to that of Carolina. Although non-traditional students were not always clear about the topic of conversation or goal, they were considered equal partners. Questioning, listening and pausing was used to allow for moments of reflection. In some instances, after the session, I contributed to the conversation by sharing my ideas and knowledge having worked within the University, such as University Procedures and the support services available to students. The account from a diary excerpt captured that a “one size” approach “does not fit all”; different points of the session required “less talking and more listening to gain insight into the unspoken, or more probing to gain clarity”.

3. The ambiguity of identifying and facilitating confidence through coaching

Most coaches considered confidence to be an area that non-traditional students required support with during coaching even though the students did not explicitly identify themselves as having issues with their confidence. What varied was how explicit or implicit it was for coaches to identify confidence and the methods used to assist non-traditional students with their perceived levels of self-confidence.

Coaches commonly considered students to be less confident based on their outward appearance such as body language, communication, expression, tone, their overall demeanour towards their studies and the relationships students had with their tutors, peers and family.

Melanie initially considered her student’s eloquent speech to signify a high level of self-confidence. Whilst Melanie was “not sure” that the student said they were “lacking confidence”, Melanie perceived her student to be more confident in her practical work and less confident with her written work following the disclosure of dyslexia during their coaching conversation.

Phil considered both his students to lack confidence based on his perceptions of their ability to articulate themselves during coaching and their ability to familiarise themselves with their environment and interact with their tutor and peers. He reported that many students did not arrive at university with a lack of confidence in their ability, but that students were “scared” of being seen as “ill equipped or stupid” and were “intimidated by everyone else”.

Most coaches appeared to be able to identify the role that confidence played in their student’s wider disposition in terms of their transition from one education setting to another, and their ability to adapt to an unfamiliar learning environment.

Carolina considered the university environment and the relationship her student had with her peers and tutors to impact their student’s confidence. She perceived the transition from Further Education, “an environment of being told what to do” to Higher Education, “an environment of independent learning” a challenge. Caroline described different facets that she thought came into the equation when identifying her student’s self-confidence such as “fitting in to this strange environment” and “confidence to communicate their needs”.

Phil recalled his first experience as an art college student as “intimidating” he considered others to be more “flamboyant and knowledgeable” than himself. Carolina compared her confidence as a prior undergraduate student to the students whom she coached and considered herself confident in her ability to ask tutors for support when she felt it was required to do so. She perceived students who did not ask for support from their tutors or peers to lack confidence.

Melanie recalled her own confidence to be one of her “biggest barriers to learning” when she was in the education system. She acknowledged that confidence was not easy and something that she had to find herself. Melanie focused on providing a space to discuss positive feedback and used the student’s strengths to assist with building their confidence.

Phil identified where the student wanted to be in terms of a future career and supported him to identify the steps required to envision himself in that future position, which in turn assisted with his student’s confidence. Phil initially described his student prior to coaching as “lacking in self-confidence” as he felt the need to have a number of things in place such as “a client base”, “a job”, and “have people buy his work” before he felt he could call himself a designer.

Similarly, Carolina identified where the student was and where the student aspired to be to assist with her student’s confidence. She encouraged the student to speak and feel confident about her skills, aims and identity, which helped her to verbalise her aspirations and how she saw herself.”

My experiences were not dissimilar to the other coaches in terms of ambiguity in identifying student’s confidence whilst coaching. With two students in particular, confidence was either the focal point from the onset or became the topic of discussion during coaching. Both students’ self-confidence appeared to stem from the relationships they had with her peers during their early educational experiences, which led one student to believe that she was not good enough. What was challenging for me as a coach was identifying relevant coaching interventions when both students found it difficult to provide examples of being confident or satisfied with their achievements. The account from my diary excerpts demonstrated that I “felt equipped in my ability to listen, but not necessarily to address the direct needs of self-confidence”. I felt “slightly out of my depth” and question how I could support what appeared to be straight forward in terms of identifying what the student wanted the outcome to be and yet challenging in terms of identifying ways the outcome could be achieved.


1. The challenges of the intervention of coaching

This study explored the experiences of coaches in the process of supporting non-traditional students to gain a better understanding of the nuances of coaching non-traditional students in higher education.

The study identified that although contracting between the coach and student occurred (Bresser and Wilson, 2010), all coaches experienced difficulties with student attendance and their perceived commitment to coaching. Inferences for non-attendance were drawn across most accounts and despite expressed frustration, most coaches rescheduled sessions to accommodate students. It could be argued that the varied, flexible approach to contracting to suit the needs of non-traditional students could have attributed to non-attendance and expectations not being met. However, adopting a more formal approach could have been too restrictive and reduced rapport building in the first instance. It could be proposed that coach awareness of the differentiated commitments that non-traditional students have could reduce the assumptions made and the elongated time that some coaches experienced in rescheduling coaching sessions, challenging the notion that non-traditional students are difficult to reach and find it difficult to engage (Marie, MacKenzie, Rowett and Wright, 2017). The flexibility demonstrated by coaches however was distinctive to their experiences of coaching non-traditional students and perhaps uniquely tailored to students within an a HE environment.

The lack of goals proved to be a challenge for coaches. The study identified that coaches were reluctant to deviate from taught practices considered to be part of a non-directive approach. Coaches considered their adaptive approach by way of “suggestion” or ‘telling” to be more directive. However, applying customary goal orientated approaches such as the GROW model (Whitmore, 2009) proved challenging when students did not have clear goals in mind. The findings identified that coaches use of existing models and techniques with limited flexibility, may not be as effective for non-traditional students, particularly when there are no specific goals from the outset. It is important to recognise that one coaching approach may not suit all non-traditional students. Coaches should feel able and be able to adapt their approach to meet the needs of the student at the time such as the flexibility to coach beyond what they may have been taught in terms of managing coaching conversations in an agreed time (van Nieuwerburgh and Love, 2019). This study advocates the use of more flexible approaches and ways of working across a coaching-mentoring continuum, (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012), or across a directive, non-directive spectrum (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019). Depending on the situation and the desired known or unknown outcome, a “facilitative”, “dialogic”, or “directive” approach, adapting to being more or less directive, might be more beneficial in supporting the individual and diverse requirements of non-traditional students (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019).

Another distinct challenge was the emotions coaches experienced during coaching. Emotions of frustration, anxiety, fear and self-doubt appeared to occur when coaches were confronted with cultural challenges, and new experiences with no prior knowledge to draw from. Awareness of the cultural differences caused anxiety, fear, moments of self-doubt and questioning of their coaching abilities (Pelham, 2016). Coaches discussed challenges during supervision where they felt ill equipped to manage them (van Nieuwerburgh and Love, 2019). Other coaches identified emotions through their own self-awareness and considered it important to do so prior to, and after, coaching to create an effective coaching environment. It could be argued that self-awareness is important in any relationship aimed at change (Baron and Azizollah, 2019).

For the coaches an awareness of their own cultural assumptions, biases and stereotypes was crucial when coaching non-traditional students (Plaister-Ten, 2013), particularly when considered to be on the ‘right side’ of power gradients and the side that is socially sanctioned as ‘good’ (Pelham, 2016). Being a member of the majority culture, it is easy to assume that one’s own cultural assumptions and attitudes are more universal than is actually the case (Pelham, 2016; Baron and Azizollah, 2019). The challenges and emotions were not solely by difference. Similarities by way of culture and identity also attributed to the conflicting emotions and the potential personal matters of unconscious bias or prejudices that coaches may have faced (Pelham. 2016). There is value therefore in training, development and supervision for coaches related to supporting non-traditional students in Higher Education Institution (HEI) coaching initiatives.

The notion of non-judgement was also important to coaches. There were nuances in how the term was perceived and how it exhibited itself in practice which appeared to be multifaceted, complex and a relatively new territory for coaches. Coaches were interculturally-sensitive to the role that culture played during coaching, and at times overcompensated for perceived differences by contracting differently, accommodating non-attendance, or being flexible with the allocated time for coaching. By wanting to create a right environment for students, coaches may have inadvertently delivered a ‘less-than-optimal’ coaching experience for them to create a ‘cultural fit’ during coaching (van Nieuwerburgh, 2016).

Non-judgement also appeared to be problematic when coaches faced new challenges or new experiences. Coaches made judgements on how committed students were to coaching; their lack of goals; their lack of engagement; and their confidence during coaching. Assumptions were also made about students’ cultural groups, which is a behaviour that should be avoided to avert risk of any cultural misunderstandings and stereotyping (van Nieuwerburgh, 2016). It raises further questions about the notion of non-judgement and how it manifests itself in practice where noticeable, or even subtle, differences are present. Coach comments were captured during the interviews, this may mean that these judgements were not manifested as part of the actual coaching sessions themselves, only derived from the interviews. Nonetheless, the findings support the need for coaches to understand good practice in interculturally-sensitive coaching.

2. Perceived need to be more directive

When coaching non-traditional students, all coaches appeared to deviate from what they considered to be a nondirective approach to a more directive one. Coaches described their approaches as being more “suggestive”, “telling,” “teaching” or “mentoring” and yet appeared to be reluctant to adopt what they perceived to be a more directive approach. Other approaches such as coaching along a coaching-mentoring continuum (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012) for instance, could suggest that there are more nondirective approaches than coaches are aware of. It could therefore be argued that coaches need to be aware, trained and have the ability to work across a coaching-mentoring continuum (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012), or a directive, nondirective spectrum (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019) to be able to adapt their coaching approach as required during coaching.

3. The ambiguity of identifying and facilitating confidence through coaching

Confidence was an area of discussion that emerged either implicitly or explicitly during coaching. What varied was how explicit or implicit it was for coaches to identify confidence and the methods used to assist non-traditional students with their perceived self-confidence.

Coaches appeared confident in their ability to identify and support students with their confidence when they were able to draw upon their own experiences or concepts whilst coaching. Although coaches considered themselves to have supported students with their confidence, it was not possible to substantiate the extent of this beyond the coach accounts, or their interpretations of their student accounts of their confidence after coaching had taken place. Thus, it could be said that not only was confidence difficult to identify and define, it also appeared to be multifaceted, situational and dependent upon how confidence was perceived by the coach. Therefore, some caution may need to be taken when identifying issues of confidence to avert the risk of cultural misunderstandings and stereotyping (van Nieuwerburgh, 2016).

Future research

There has been very limited research on the experiences of coaches supporting non-traditional students in UK Higher Education; as such there is the potential for further research to identify effective ways to support non-traditional students through coaching. Potential areas for exploration are:

Interculturally-sensitive coaching

How interculturally-sensitive coaching, or cross-cultural coaching, can be embedded in coaching programmes in a Higher Education Institution, in particular:

  • To discover if coaching can create safe and non-judgmental spaces across the institution for non-traditional students.
  • To discover how to enable coaches to feel sufficiently equipped to coach non-traditional students.


To ascertain if such training programmes can be sustained over time and if, and how, it enhances coaching relationships.

Flexible alternative approaches

To extend this study to explore how coaching could support non-traditional students using more flexible alternative approaches, such as working across a coaching-mentoring continuum, (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012), for example across a directive to non-directive spectrum (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019).

The additional studies could potentially provide evidence to support future development of coaches to work with non-traditional students who may be new to coaching, struggle to identify goals, and to encourage engagement with the coaching process.

Support for coaches

This study identified that coaches felt ill equipped to manage their emotions and the nuances of non-judgement during coaching. So, further exploration into how coaches are supported through supervision to highlight and address the challenges from coaching.

These studies could contribute to the body of knowledge of emotions in coaching, the nuances of non-judgement, and the impact of coaching supervision in these areas.


It is acknowledged that the results from this study cannot be generalised due to the choice of methodology. It is nonetheless useful to consider the potential implications of the study’s finding for HEI’s in the UK, coaches, and practitioners that support non-traditional students.

This study brings to the forefront the nuances of coaching non-traditional students in HE and how non-judgement can present itself in practice when noticeable, or subtle, differences or similarities are present. Coaches in this study were concerned about the judgements they made about their student, the perceive judgements made by non-traditional students about themselves and whether they supported non-traditional students sufficiently well through coaching. It is important that coaches do not overcompensate for perceived differences, doing so could inadvertently deliver a less than optimal coaching experience for non-traditional students (van Nieuwerburgh, 2016).

Building on the work of (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019), it may be more appropriate to introduce alternative conversational approaches such as a “facilitative” approach, that works on the assumption that coachees have the resources to improve. Or a “dialogic” approach, where coaches can support coachees by sharing possible strategies to assist their needs, keeping coachees as the ultimate decision makers (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019). Such alternative methods could assist with avoiding cultural misunderstandings and stereotyping (van Nieuwerburgh, 2016) and create and further maintain safe spaces where non-traditional students would not be judged for their (explicit or self-defined) characteristics. Training should be provided to equip HEI coaches to be able to use alternative coaching approaches, that can be individually tailored to support students in HE.

Accredited training providers and universities that offer coaching courses should expand the range of models delivered to coaches beyond customary goal orientated approaches such as the GROW model (Whitmore, 2009). This would ensure that coaches have the ability to adapt their approaches to meet the needs of a diverse student body. Alternative approaches that offer the flexibility to work across a directive, non-directive (facilitative”, “dialogic” “directive”) spectrum, (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019) or a coaching-mentoring continuum (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012), is highly recommended. Coaches within this study inadvertently used similar approaches but, could have benefitted more from a flexible approach as part of this study had they been aware of alternative approaches available to them.

Another contribution to practice offers insight into the emotional aspect of coaching and the need to ensure that coaches are adequately supported and equipped to manage cultural differences or similarities that may be of equal challenge. The study identified the complexities and the challenges of non-judgement and how it can manifest itself in interculturally-sensitive coaching practice where noticeable or even subtle differences are present. Further consideration should be given to explore if the notion of non-judgement can be discarded once the disparities have been acknowledged by the coach. Or alternatively, acknowledge that non-judgement is practically impossible to achieve since coaches need to make several professional judgements throughout a coaching conversation (van Nieuwerburgh and Love, 2019). Coaches would benefit from discussing the important issues of stereotyping and cultural judgements that arise from coaching in supervision and be able to seek further supervisory guidance, interculturally-sensitive coaching training and support to diversify their approaches and develop their coaching competencies more widely.

Coaches need a supportive space by way of supervision to openly discuss conflicting emotions that can occur through unconscious or conscious bias, and to reflect on practices that may implicitly favour one culture over another, or explicitly favour certain characteristics or behaviours over others. This study builds on cross-cultural coaching and interculturally-sensitive coaching literature that advocates intercultural sensitivity (van Nieuwerburgh, 2016), culturally-bound awareness and culturally appropriate responsibility, as the essence of good inter-cultural coaching practice (Plaister-Ten, 2016; 2013). The findings suggest that there is room for improvement in this area requiring further training, support and guidance during supervision for coaches to gain a more in-depth understanding of the diversity of non-traditional students and recognition of their own limitations in working with them.

The final contribution to coaching practice in HE highlights that coaching facilitates conversations where confidence can be discussed. It also identifies that confidence in coaching can be multifaceted, situational and not always easily identified. The study builds on the work of Brady (2011) and Hindmarch (2008) who recognise the complexities of identifying aspects of self, such as self-esteem and self-doubt during coaching. Several studies have proposed that the provision of models, strategies, methods and frameworks has helped coaches identify, support and explore aspects of self, such as self-confidence and self-esteem during coaching (Dinos and Palmer, 2015; Maxwell and Bachkirova 2010; Bachkirova, 2004). Models, strategies and frameworks could be developed further to enhance coaches in HE and their practice to coach non-traditional students with their confidence should the matter arise during coaching.

Additionally, identifying confidence in coaching for non-traditional students should be treated with caution, to avert the risk of cultural misunderstandings and stereotyping (van Nieuwerburgh, 2016). Coaches should therefore familiarise themselves with the suggested behaviours that demonstrate intercultural sensitivity. For instance, appropriate curiosity about the student might invite them to raise issues of confidence during coaching. Coaches would have a clearer understanding of the individual needs conveyed by the students themselves. Further supervisory guidance or training should be provided to support coaches should they feel ill equipped to manage confidence issues in coaching.


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About the author

Dr Dionne Spencer is a coach who works with individuals and educational organisations to identify and enhance the overlooked potential of students from under-represented groups.


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