March 27th, 2015

Practical Tips for Cultivating a Learning Relationship with Students

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Take a moment right now to ask yourself who your best teachers were growing up. Now list the qualities that made them your best teachers.

Looking at your list, you will probably notice something interesting. When I have faculty do this, they invariably list qualities such as “cared for my learning” or “cared for me as a person.” They do not list qualities such as “the most knowledgeable person in their field.” In other words, they list relationship qualities as the factors that make for a great teacher, not knowledge qualities.

This priority is also borne out in research. When 17,000 students were asked to list the qualities of an effective teacher, “respectful” and “responsive” came out on top, not “knowledgeable” (Smyth, 2011).

Unfortunately, everything we hear about teacher/student relationships is in the form of warnings—something to be avoided. The result is that we rarely think about the relationships we form with our students. We focus on the content that we want to push to them, but not the very qualities that made for the best teachers in our own experience.

Here are a few practical tips for cultivating a learning relationship with your students.

Focus on Feedback

Studies show that students are starved for feedback on their work (Turnitin, 2013). Instead of getting real feedback that helps them understand their problems and how to improve, they get a laundry list of margin comments like “grammar” that tells them next to nothing and are merely intended to justify the grade. Some faculty circle grammar errors and write “grammar” in the margin thinking that it will force the student look up the problem themselves. But few students will go to this effort. You have the student’s attention right there, so explain what the grammar error is, and how to correct it. You could also include a link to the appropriate location on a writing website such as Purdue’s OWL that will allow them to learn more if they still have questions.

The most important point to remember is that we don’t teach subjects, we teach students. Feedback needs to be to the student, not the work, since it is the student who must improve in order for the work to improve. What must the student need to know and do in order to improve their skills? For example, a garbled account of a reading could be the result of a student not knowing how to read academic articles, not due to lack of effort. In this case, merely telling them that their account is wrong is unhelpful. They need to learn how to read academic work. As faculty members, we might talk with this student about how we read academic work, what we look for, how we take notes, how we ask questions while we read, etc. Detailed feedback that is directed toward helping the student improve, not simply justifying the grade, resonates with students as demonstrating concern for them as people, and lays the foundation for a healthy student/teacher relationship.

The Why as Well as the How

Many faculty often fail to explain the value of the tasks in our courses, and assume that “it will be on the test” is motivation enough. But it’s not. Motivation is generated by seeing value in a task beyond the stick of a grade. Faculty should always preface any task or teaching content with a description of why it is important.

I once had an instructor who began each lecture from whatever point he let off at the prior lecture, talking through the next 50 minutes of content. He would pace across the stage like a machine unspooling a recording of information. It was clear that he was going through the motions without concern for our learning.

If he had just prefaced his classes with an explanation of why the content was important to us, it would have shown that he cared and respected us. Providing some context to the day’s activities also would have motivated us to listen and engage. Similarly, he could have explained that our papers were not simply busy work to ensure that we did the reading, but meant to help us develop a persuasive way of writing that will serve us well throughout our lives. Explaining the value of activities in terms of student learning and future needs will improve attention, retention, and the quality of the learning relationship.

The Check-in

Finally, one of the best teaching practices I’ve adopted is to periodically ask students how the class is going for them. I have them write me a paragraph about how they think they are doing, whether they are learning, and where they are struggling. Students who feel that they are adrift will appreciate the interest you’re showing in them and may even come in for help.

Moreover, the question also gets students to be reflective about their own learning and skills, and self-evaluation of one’s own learning trajectory has been shown to be one of the most powerful mechanisms for learning. A simple check-in two or three times during a course will not only improve student attitudes and motivation, but also get them to take control of their learning. Of course, students will also see the gesture as a demonstration of the instructor’s interest in the student’s learning.

If you haven’t asked yourself about the qualities that made for the best teachers in your own experience, do it now. The answer may surprise you. If there is a discrepancy between what you do and what your best teachers did, then it is time to evaluate your teaching practice. This exercise can be the first step to transforming how you teach.

Resources
Meyers, S.A. (2009). Do Your Students Care Whether You Care About Them? College Teaching, 57 (4), 205-210.

Smyth, E. (2011). What Students Want: Characteristics of Effective Teachers from the Students’ Perspective. Faculty Focus, April 18, 2011.

Turnitin (2013). Office hours: Students share successful feedback tips. Webcast.

John Orlando is the associate director of training at Northcentral University and was recently named editor of Online Classroom.


Feedback for Learning

Written by John Orlando, this white paper prepares you to make changes to your feedback practices, guides you to appropriate technologies, and promotes a holistic feedback approach that can help you shake any negative associations with feedback. After reading this report, you will be ready to immediately save time, improve relationships with your students, and increase learning. Learn More »