Activate a Relationship-rich Culture with Three Simple Practices

Group of students all waving and smiling together

If you haven’t yet read Peter Felten and Leo Lambert’s book, Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, by all means get your hands on a copy. As learning designers, we highly recommend you read about their recent, extensive research and relationship-rich principles, get inspired, and make a point of incorporating some of their ideas into your own teaching practice.

Felten and Lambert’s work shows that the best predictors of satisfaction among college students have to do with relationships. All students, regardless of background, ability, or confidence, need relationships—specifically, relationships with adults. And every student needs what Felten and Lambert call a “relentless welcome.” They need a warm hello from the front of the classroom, from cafeteria workers and advisors, to extracurricular leaders and coaches. Students need validation; they need to know they belong in school; they need to understand they will be seen and heard, and that they can find help when they need it, they can feel comfortable at school, and they will find support. The following three simple practices will help your students feel welcomed.

Learn students’ names and their preferred pronouns

I hear what you’re thinking: I have a lot of students. Why should I do this? The reason to do it is because making the effort to help students feel comfortable is crucial. It’s hard to function at your full capacity when you feel like an outsider (there’s a ton of research to support this; see Claude Steele). Comfortable and supported students, we know, learn more easily; are less afraid of failure; begin on a positive cycle of support, motivation, and success; are happier; and get better grades.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Have some fun on the first day of class: Write your name for students to see, model its pronunciation, and introduce yourself with a couple of sentences. If you have a name that’s difficult to pronounce, talk about it. Then pass out index cards and share a list of pronunciation or phonemic symbols. Ask students to write their names to help you pronounce them correctly. Collect, select at random, and do your best to pronounce a few names. To encourage community building, and to help people remember one another, ask those whose names you’ve read to introduce themselves.
  2. Save these cards and share them at the start of each class.
  3. Keep the alphabetized stack for reference for when students visit your office.
  4. Alternatively, use technology. Namecoach is a program designed specifically to help instructors get their students’ names right. An online discussion forum could be similarly used, as could an instant messaging forum like Slack or Microsoft Teams. The same goes for a Padlet board or Google Jamboard, which are online boards that students can post with virtual sticky notes. You could even use VoiceThread or Flipgrid to have students share short, casual audio or video clips in which they pronounce their own names.

The bottom line is that being part of a community (in person or online), and knowing that their instructor is invested in that community, are both motivating factors for students. Your efforts to establish relationships creates a caring atmosphere in which students are more likely to participate, to ask questions, and to come see you when they don’t understand something.

Value persistence

To make a difference in the lives of students, show them that you’re a partner in their learning journey. Show them that failing an exam doesn’t mean they aren’t smart enough or worthy enough to be in college. Help them understand that there is a process to being successful and that you care enough to help them tackle the hard work that’s required.

The key here is to be transparent about your willingness to help students who are willing to work. Our current student body is more culturally, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, and some students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, may have had negative classroom experiences in the past, or may even suffer from imposter syndrome. It’s also important to remember that students, especially first- and second-year students, are pretty new at navigating their higher education experience. Letting students know that you’re available often isn’t enough to help them feel comfortable about reaching out to you. Here are some ideas to help encourage your students:

  1. Shake up your office hours. Of course you should hold office hours (and explain what they are for, something that may not be obvious to students new to the system), but consider ways to make office hours less intimidating. How welcoming is your office? Could you hold office hours in a dorm complex or student union? The key is to build an atmosphere of comfort so that students can relax and learn more easily.
  2. Help students practice. Talk with students to provide opportunities for them to share what they find confusing or are missing. Use a “muddiest point” activity: collect statements of what your students find confusing, address their misunderstandings, and reexplain difficult or confusing concepts (do this in person or via a casual video). Offer practice sessions so that you can assess where your students are and how to connect with them. Use clickers, Möbius (a math tool), or H5P (a practice-problem tool) to incorporate practice into your lessons. Work with students to reflect on past assignments and tests so they get used to thinking about their own learning, about the things they can control, and about goals they can set for themselves. Motivate them to take charge.
  3. Help students help each other. Look for opportunities to encourage students to become mentors or coaches for their classmates—experts who can share what they know. Set up a system whereby you use student-made practice problems in your review sessions or task students with explaining concepts to their peers.

The important thing here is to show your students that you’re invested in their learning and that they should be too. It’s to show them that success, at its core, is about work and a willingness to take control of our own learning.

Make mentoring a priority

By now, you’ve read that supported students are more ready to learn, to stay motivated, and to be successful, and that those things can happen with your help. But it’s not just your students who need this kind of support; it’s all students. So put yourself out there!

  1. Make an effort to say hello to students in your department or college. Ask them about their interests and listen to what they share.
  2. Help students make connections with other adults. Introduce them to the math tutor for your unit or to a professor with similar interests, and do it in person to offer what Felten and Lambert call a “warm handoff.”
  3. Create some time and space for mentoring conversations with your students. Be a good listener, but also offer some practical guidance. As much as you can, exchange thoughts as co-humans and not simply as instructor and student.
  4. Join or develop ways to help students when they first arrive on campus. Plan an activity or meet families to help move students into dormitories.

Your involvement matters, and all of these ideas can take place in person or in an online environment. Technologies like Zoom, learning management systems, email, instant messaging platforms, and video can help build relationships. They all take some effort but are well worth your time to build the genuine relationships that students need to thrive in college.

Maria Scalzi Wherley is a learning designer and writer-in-residence with the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at the Pennsylvania State University. She has decades of teaching experience, serving a wide variety of learners a diverse range of subjects. She has also worked at the state level to design curriculum for public schools. Wherley holds an MEd in curriculum and instruction from Penn State University. 

Jane Sutterlin is currently a course production coordinator (instructional designer) with the University Connected Learning at the University of Utah. Sutterlin collaborates with faculty and staff members in the development of effective online instructional materials and courses. Sutterlin consults with content faculty on best teaching practices that result in successful student learning outcomes for University of Utah’s diverse online student population. Since 2005, Sutterlin has collaborated with content experts and designed courses that utilize technology as a tool for learning while implementing current learning science research strategies. Sutterlin earned a master’s degree in learning, design and technology in 2015. She has presented at both local and national conferences on topics that involve incorporating new technologies and pedagogy into teaching and learning.


Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Johns Hopkins University Press.