It Makes a Difference When Teachers Care

That's not a new finding, and it's something most instructors already know, but it's the size of the difference that's often underestimated. Two recent studies, both asking different research questions and using different methodologies, offer still more evidence that the relationship between teachers and students is an integral part of the learning experience.

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That's not a new finding, and it's something most instructors already know, but it's the size of the difference that's often underestimated. Two recent studies, both asking different research questions and using different methodologies, offer still more evidence that the relationship between teachers and students is an integral part of the learning experience.

“While we know a great deal about the kinds of faculty-student interactions students experience, the benefits of faculty-student interaction, and predictors of student-faculty interactions, we know little about what students themselves value in their interactions with faculty.” (p. 126) And that's what prompted a faculty research team at North Carolina State University to undertake a qualitative analysis of a collection of feedback students had prepared for faculty. They used an interesting data pool. The institution sponsors a “Thank a Teacher” program, which encourages students to express appreciation and gratitude to professors. The research team used 157 comments written to professors by students who chose to use the program to offer their thanks.

The team used the data pool to answer two questions: (1) What do students value in their interactions with instructors? and (2) Do students express gratitude for interactions that align with National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) survey codes? They did find alignment with the NSSE codes, which is important since the NSSE measures of student-faculty interaction have guided much of the research in this area. They also found that this student cohort valued aspects of interactions with faculty that were beyond the scope of the NSSE measures.

Consistent with NSSE, these students valued being able to talk with faculty about what they needed to do to improve their performance in a class. They valued discussion about careers, including their academic career at college and career options after college. They valued being able to exchange ideas with professors and the constructive feedback some teachers provided. Beyond that, and even to a greater degree, these “students commended faculty for being understanding—especially in terms of devoting time to helping students out of class, caring, enthusiastic, and respectful of students.” (p. 130)

This research team points out this about their data set: “Student responses suggest that, contrary to the perception that students value teachers who are merely ‘easy' or ‘fun,' students value high-quality interactions with faculty members.” (p. 131) They value exactly the types of interactions that research has shown benefit them the most.

The second study explored the relationship between an instructor's self-rated commitment to students and student-rated satisfaction and commitment to the course. These researchers hypothesized that instructor commitment would be positively related to perceived instructor support. In other words, instructors committed to students would be seen by students as supportive teachers. This led to a second set of hypotheses. If students perceived instructor support, they would rate their satisfaction with the course higher, and this perceived support would mediate the relationship between instructor commitment and student satisfaction, as well as mediating the relationship between instructor and student commitment to the course.

They also used a unique research design. The student cohort consisted of 286 seniors, all graduating with degrees in management and all taking the same capstone course, but in one of five sections, each with a different instructor. So they gave the instructors a survey that measured their commitment to students, and they gave students a survey that measured how supportive they found the instructor, how satisfied they were with the course, and how committed they were to it as well. A rigorous empirical analysis produced data supportive of all three hypotheses.

“Our research found that perceived instructor support, driven by an instructor's commitment to teaching, influences both student satisfaction and student commitment. Students who believed that their instructor cared about their well-being and valued their contributions were more satisfied with their course and had higher commitment to the course.” (p. 560)

Findings like these do advance our understanding of student-teacher interactions and relationships even though the findings are not surprising. These relationships have strong impacts on student learning experiences. But the faculty researchers in the first study that used the Thank a Teacher comments do make a point about something that they found surprising. “These types of relationships with faculty are noteworthy enough to promote students to write a thank-you to their instructors, suggesting that these types of interactions are not nearly as commonplace as might be assumed.” (p.131) In many of the comments included in the article, students are thanking faculty members for what ought to be considered part of the job—being there during office hours, helping when students didn't understand, and being respectful of students, for example.

Both studies recommend that faculty development activities focus less on teaching techniques—the how-to nuts and bolts—and more on the importance of these relationships and how faculty go about forming them and then conveying that commitment to students. 

References: Grantham, A., Robinson, E. E., and Chapman, D., (2015). ‘That truly meant a lot to me': A qualitative examination of meaningful faculty- student interactions. College Teaching, 63 (3), 125-132.