David Pollock, PhD
Faculty Development Specialist
You’ve thought a lot about building your course to get students interested in your subject and ensure they learn what they need to in your course, yet here in the first days of the term, it’s also time to think about starting off right in how you relate to your students. The interpersonal dimension of the student-teacher relationship has been shown to affect student engagement with a course, and ultimately, their learning (i.e., Granitz, Koernig, and Harich1). While student perceptions of how caring and relatable faculty are may not match an instructor’s own appraisal of their rapport with students, students’ perception is what drives their thoughts and feelings about an instructor. If you’ve read with any frequency on student feedback that he/she “doesn’t care!” while being aghast that any student could think that about you, it might be especially good to give some specific thought to this. Everything you can do to improve students’ perception can aid in helping them feel connected to you and the course.
Of course, you can take this too far. You do not have to be students’ best friend, be lax in your rules and standards, or never say “no” to a student. What it does mean is that part of being an effective instructor is paying some attention to the relational aspect of your interactions. While there is much to unpack in the student-teacher relationship, here are a few simple things you can do right at the start of the semester to get started making a connection with your students.
Learn their names. Some faculty do this routinely with seemingly little effort; others struggle to learn names even in small classes. But calling someone by their name whether in the office, on the sidewalk, or in the classroom, is a simple way of saying, “I know who you are,” and can go a long way toward making that important connection with students. If you are one of those for whom learning names does not come easy, ask your colleagues for their best strategies. It’s worth the effort. Here are a few suggestions from Carnegie Mellon on how to do that.
Provide an opportunity for students to get to know each other. While this isn’t about you especially, it is about helping create an environment in which students feel comfortable and connected. You are part of the same ecosystem, so ensuring that students know each other helps improve your ability to connect with students. You can use ice-breaker activities to help students get to know each other or jump right in with content-specific activities that require students to work together. But if you do the latter, include directions that involve a quick introduction element so they at least hear each other's’ names. Connecting students to each other in online classes is also important, perhaps more important.
Be a human. Students can often perceive faculty as obsessed with their discipline (not a bad thing, right?) to the detriment of seeing them as relatable human beings. When students see you as so far above them in knowledge and understanding and lacking in anything they can relate to, they could feel less connected to you. Some faculty for a number of reasons may feel as if they have to prove their competence and might overdo it when it comes to presenting themselves as knowledgeable. But it is possible to be a real expert in your discipline and still come across as a person students can relate to. To accomplish this, tell stories about your life as it relates to your discipline. You don’t have to tell deeply personal stories of life-altering experiences (unless you really want to, and it relates to your content), but you can drop in anecdotes from your life here and there that are funny, moving, or illustrative of content in some way. And even an occasional story about something from your life that is somewhat off-topic is alright as well as long as you don’t overdo it. You don’t want the “he talks about himself all the time” complaint.
A related thing you can do is to communicate to students why and how your discipline is interesting or exciting to you. Tell them how you first got interested in the discipline; what your first revelations were; or even how you struggled as an undergraduate to understand what you are teaching at the moment but eventually learned to master it and love it. Again, the idea is to give students a little insight into you as a human being and someone who learned to love the discipline.
Be interested in students’ humanity. You want students to see you as a knowledgeable, skilled instructor as well as a human being. Likewise, students want you to see their humanity and not just their performance on the last exam. While it may be impossible to get to know all of your students on a more personal level, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to with as many as possible. Make an effort to learn something about students beyond their performance in your course. This could be knowing they participate in college activities like sports, theater, music, student government, and so on; or just that they really like a particular band. It could also mean just listening when they tell you how stressed they are or how unsure they are about their career. These conversations can take place before or after class, during office hours, or as you bump into them on campus. In online classes, this kind of interchange can happen through email or through a private discussion board between you and individual students. An early course “tell me about your career plans” private exchange is an easy way to get that started in online courses.
Making an effort to relate to students should not feel forced. If it is, you can come across as “fake” and even less human. Use the same kind of relational skills you have used in interpersonal relationships to guide how you relate to students individually. Be careful, of course, to not cross students’ sense of boundaries nor of obvious boundaries that should be in place between instructors and students. For instance, if a student mentions family trouble to you, but they are resistant to your questions about it, back off. Let the student’s response guide you in how far you carry such conversations. On the other hand, if such conversations get too personal for your comfort, feel free to suggest the student see a college counselor or even something like, “I wish I could help you with that, but it’s really not something I can help with.”
Granitz, N. A., Koernig, S. K., and Harich, K. R. (2009). Now it’s personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education, 31 (1), 52-65.