There is a conundrum in teaching. We hold a stereotype that an excellent teacher is kindly, approachable, and openly supportive of students, yet some of the best teachers I’ve had have been aloof, unapproachable, and cantankerous. Let’s take some fictional examples. In the 1970s, The Paper Chase was a popular movie. It took place at Harvard Law School and featured Professor Kingsfield, who taught contracts to first-year law students. Kingsfield was intimidating and feared, but students deeply respected him as a teacher. Flash forward to the 1990s and the popular TV show Boy Meets World. The show featured Mr. Feeny, who could be imperious and sarcastic, but he was an admired teacher and mentor to his students. More recently, there was Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series, austere and standoffish but revered as a teacher. None of these teachers was particularly outgoing or affable, yet they were still excellent mentors and teachers. What explains this seeming contradiction? I think the answer is that students came to trust these teachers.
I’ve been studying student trust in the teacher for the past six years. There is remarkably little work in this area given how important we know trust is in social relationships and organizations. The reason, I believe, is that people tend to equate trust with student-teacher rapport. My research shows, however, that trust and rapport are separable traits and that, when it comes down to it, it is more important for students to trust us than like us.
Student trust is interpersonal. It involves a judgment by students about their teacher’s motives, and that judgment may or may not be accurate. Furthermore, trust in the teacher is most important when students feel most vulnerable and at risk for failure, such as when taking courses that are both challenging and required for their major or cover a topic that makes students feel anxious and insecure. Minoritized students who feel outside the mainstream culture of the campus will be sensitive to the trustworthiness of their teachers.
In my research, I define student trust in the teacher as a student’s willingness to risk vulnerability and pursue challenging work due to the belief that the teacher is competent, will demonstrate integrity, and will act in ways that are beneficial to the student’s learning and development. This definition has three components. The student has to perceive the teacher as having
- competence (the teacher has both the disciplinary knowledge and teaching skill to teach a successful class);
- integrity (the teacher is truthful, conscientious, and respectful in working with students); and
- beneficence (the teacher will work to promote and enhance the learning and development of students in the class).
I’ve conducted a series of studies on student trust with my undergraduates. The overall findings indicate that students are more willing to work hard and take on more challenging work when trust in the teacher is high. Violations of any of the three components, especially integrity and beneficence, can lead to a damaging overall loss of trust and perceived teacher competence.
One issue I was particularly interested in was whether trust was separable from rapport. Rapport refers to a personal connection between students and teacher (Benson et al., 2005). Teachers who create good rapport with students are seen to be approachable, accessible, encouraging, respectful, and caring of students. They also have good communication skills. Clearly, there is some overlap in terms of being respectful and caring, but trust involves competence and beneficence, which do not seem to be part of rapport.
In the research we did, we found that both student trust and rapport motivated students to work harder and take on greater challenges, but the two factors had independent effects, and trust had a much larger impact on student behavior. Good professors probably inspire both good rapport and trust in their students, but the two factors are separable, and one can occur without the other. Of the two factors, trust had the greater effect. Students may see a professor as likeable and approachable, but not necessarily competent or trustworthy. At the same time, students may find a professor aloof and intimidating, but still perceive them as reliable and helpful in their learning.
Many “high-impact” and “active” teaching practices—such as learning communities, service learning, undergraduate research, writing-intensive courses, and global experiences—require extra effort by students over traditional lecture methods. Student “buy-in” to engage in this extra effort is critical for the success of these practices. Trust in the teacher is critical for students to embrace the added challenge of these learning experiences.
During the pandemic, we pivoted to remote teaching and conducted our classes in the face of great uncertainty. I believe that under these conditions, student trust in the teacher became paramount, and the teachers who had earned their students’ trust were best able to lead their students successfully through this period.
If student trust is so important, how can faculty encourage it in their students? We’ve looked into factors that both augment and undermine student trust, but the work is ongoing. Here are some things to try if you want to build student trust:
- Acknowledge any particular student anxieties.
- Be transparent in your course goals and methods; explain the value of the course and the methods you are using to achieve course goals.
- Promote belongingness and community within your courses.
- Establish norms of dignity and respect.
- Give students multiple opportunities and means to demonstrate their learning.
- Provide frequent formative feedback.
- Show flexibility in assignments and deadlines to let students do their best work.
- Admit when you are in error.
Here are some things to avoid if you don’t want to undermine student trust:
- Show indifference or irritation at student concerns and questions .
- Be inconsistent or arbitrary in administering policies.
- Play favorites in class.
- Humiliate or embarrass students.
- Make insensitive or prejudicial remarks.
- Base actions on personal convenience rather than what is best for student learning.
Benson, T. A., Cohen, A. L., & Buskist, W. (2005). Rapport: Its relation to student attitudes and behaviors toward teachers and lasses. Teaching of Psychology, 32(4), 237–239. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top3204_8
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.