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Two Essential Frameworks for Using Questions to Build Student Relationships

In our survey of more than 180+ educational advisors and program operators, we found that most advisors support 100 or more learners.

With so many students under your wings, how can you build relationships and offer support at scale?

That’s a question we’re always asking in the Learner Success Guild—and last month, we teamed up with NACADA’s Distance Advising community for a workshop on building more meaningful online relationships between advisors and learners.

At the event, we also welcomed guest speaker and Learner Success Guild member Mollie Khine. Mollie is an ICF-certified coach and a leader at the Flatiron School where she works with learner support teams. She’s also the co-founder of a team-building and experience design business called Convers(ate).

If you missed the event—or just want a quick recap—here are two essential frameworks Mollie shared with us for building relationships while coaching learners.

Framework #1: GROW Method for Coaching

The GROW method provides an arc for a good coaching conversation using empowering questions as the foundation. Rather than just advising learners on what they ought to do, a question-based framework allows you to strengthen relationships with learners by guiding them discover the next best steps on their own.

The GROW framework has four parts:

Goals: What do you want to do?

Reality: Where are you now?

Options: What could you do?

Way forward: What will you do [to achieve the goal]?

Many learners come to coaching sessions overwhelmed or stressed, and want to jump right into the reality of their current situation. However, a good coach helps learners take a step back to re-anchor to their goal, as well as to break down the options available in light of their current reality.

How? Let’s look at an example that will make this coaching framework clearer.

Let’s say you have a learner who joins you on a coaching call. The student is clearly frazzled, and reports to you right away, “I’m too overwhelmed and I can’t finish my course. There’s too much to do and I’m really busy right now. I just can’t keep up with everything.”

Notice how the learner is focused on their present reality. They may want to finish the course, but they can’t see the way there. The GROW framework allows you—as a coach, instructor or other student success advisor—to help them find the way forward.

Consider two different conversations—and outcomes:

Standard Advising

GROW Framework

Learner: “I’m too overwhelmed and I can’t finish my course. There’s too much to do and I’m really busy right now. I just can’t keep up with everything.”

Coach: “Ok, let’s figure out how we can help you get caught up. It looks like you have 5 overdue assignments. I can connect you with your instructor to create a plan to finish those.”

Learner: “I’m too overwhelmed and I can’t finish my course. There’s too much to do and I’m really busy right now. I just can’t keep up with everything.”

Coach: “I can understand that. This is definitely a difficult course. Let’s take a step back—am I correct that your goal is still to complete your course? That hasn’t changed, right?

L: Yes, that’s still my goal. It’s just hard right now.

C: Let’s talk about your options - what choices do you have to move forward, given your current situation?”

L: “Well, I’m really behind. So I could just drop out of the course for now until things get less busy. Or I guess I could ask my partner for more support at home or see if I could get help catching up, but I just don’t know what to do. What should I do?”

C: “Those are all potential options. Let’s say you do really want to finish the course, if you can—you’re already more than halfway through. What do you feel is manageable for you? What is a good first step?” (Way forward)

L: “Well, I’m having dinner tonight with my partner. I could start by asking them for more support in the upcoming weeks so I have more time for coursework.”



Student leaves feeling more overwhelmed and without a concrete plan for what to do aside from having another meeting. Meanwhile, assignments continue to pile up and the stress increases.

Student leaves with a concrete action item(s) that allow them to feel more in-control and supported. They have a manageable way forward and a clearer picture of their options and goals.

Framework #2: 3 Types of Questions for Relationship Building

At the heart of the GROW framework is the practice of asking good questions. As Mollie reminded us, “simply asking more questions than you do today will change the quality of your interactions—not only in your work, but with any people in your life.”

With this in mind, there’s three primary types of questions you can use for relationship building and problem-solving within the GROW framework: focusing questions, scaling questions and forwarding questions.

Focusing Questions

Time for live coaching is limited, for both students and staff. Focusing questions help you narrow the scope of the conversation and make the most of your time together.

Sample focusing questions you can use on your next call:

  • What is most important or top of mind for you right now?

  • What would make these 30 minutes together most productive for you?

  • You’ve named three important topics, where would you like to start?

  • What is the real challenge here for you?

Let’s consider our earlier example again. In this situation, the learner has already expressed an area they need help with—they are overwhelmed and feel they can’t keep up with everything. However, a focusing question can help clarify exactly where the overwhelm is coming from. You might ask the student:

“What’s your biggest challenge currently in trying to keep up with everything?”


“What do you think are the three biggest things keeping you from being able to make enough time for this course right now?”

These types of questions help scale down the nebulous “I’m overwhelmed” into concrete problems you can find solutions for.

Scaling Questions

Scaling questions are a set of anchors that allow you to gain specificity and clarity on a situation. One of your jobs as a coach is to move the conversation from the learner’s stress and emotions to practical problem-solving and solutions.

Scaling questions are one way to get more clarity on the situation so you can make that transition effectively.

Some scaling questions you can use on your next call:

“On a scale of 1-10…”

  • …how would you rate your current understanding of [concept]?

  • …how much effort have you been putting in this week?

  • …how much effort would you be willing to put in for next week?

  • …how clear are you overall on the project requirements?

When using scaling questions, make sure to always define what the scale is—that is, define what a one or a ten means. Then, once a learner gives you a number, ask why. Not only will their answer help them reflect on their own situation more objectively, but it also helps you gain additional context to their situation.

Consider scaling questions in the context of our same example:

As the learner shares about their feelings of overwhelm, scaling questions can help provide additional clarity on how they’re feeling or their current reality. For example, imagine the following conversation using scaling questions:

Coach: “On a scale of 1-10, 1 being “I’m not overwhelmed at all,” and 10 being “I’m totally overwhelmed, I’m drowning,” how overwhelmed are you feeling about this course right now?”

Learner: “I’m about an 8.”

C: “An 8? Ok. What makes you say you’re at an 8 right now?” L: “I just haven’t been able to turn in any assignments for a few weeks because I’ve been so busy and now I’m totally behind and won’t be able to catch up.”

C: “Ok. Could you think of anything that would allow you to move from an 8 to, say, a 7 on this scale?”

L: “Maybe if I just had more time in the evenings to focus on coursework, or if I had more time to get caught up…”

As you use scaling questions, the learner is guided to start thinking of options, which is a key step in finding a way forward.

Forwarding Questions

Finally, forwarding questions move the conversation towards action and ground learners by offering concrete next steps.

Some forwarding questions you can ask on your next call:

  • How can you take what we talked about today and apply that this week?

  • What is one thing you can do immediately after our phone call that will help you move forward?

  • Let’s turn that into an action step: What exactly will you do? And by when?

  • When will you start?

If the student isn’t sure where to begin or what to do next, and asks you to tell them instead (i.e. “What should I do?” “I don’t know, what do you think?”), turn it back to them by asking:

  • What have you tried so far? What ideas do you have?

  • What is your instinct?

  • What’s one thing you could do that you think would help?

Let’s look at our example one more time:

As the student begins to think of options available to them—they could give up entirely, they could ask their partner for more support to free up time for classwork, they could work with their instructor to create a timeline for catching up on unfinished work—forwarding questions help turn those options into concrete next steps.

Using forwarding questions in our example above could look like:

Learner: “I just don’t know what to do, what should I do next?”

Coach: “Well, what is your instinct? What could be a reasonable first step?”

L: “Well, I am having dinner with my partner tonight. I could start by asking them for more help.”

C: “Good idea. Let’s turn that into an action step. What kind of help from them would be most useful for you?”

L: “I think if they could take care of dinner and cleaning up on nights when I have classes, it would be easier to dedicate that time to coursework and lectures. Tonight, I’ll ask them if they could manage that for the next few weeks.”

By using the GROW framework alongside focusing, scaling and forwarding questions, student support staff can efficiently:

  • understand and empathize with the learner’s situation

  • help uncover the learner’s goals (and then remind them of their own goals as a powerful motivator)

  • brainstorm future options with the learner

  • and create a concrete action plan for getting back on track

Even better, the learner goes away feeling supported and grounded, with a clear and manageable next step, and a strengthened relationship with the success coach who they can now turn to a bit more easily in the future if they need more support.


For more practical frameworks, original research and expert discussions on coaching and supporting online learners, sign-up for our monthly Learner Success Newsletter. And if you’re a senior leader or manager of an advising team, apply to join a community of 100+ senior leaders working to improve and scale student success for adult learners.


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