The Key Ingredients to Students’ Success in a College Course

College students walking on campus

It is very rewarding personally and professionally to teach psychology in higher education. As I reflect on teaching and working with students, I am mindful of the five key ingredients I have found to be valuable to their success in a course.

The first ingredient is creating a trusting, safe, and respectful learning environment for students to thrive. When students feel comfortable in their learning environment, they feel confident to express their ideas, ask questions, and connect with the course in a meaningful way.

The second ingredient is caring about students’ well being and expressing genuine concern for their success. This is paramount to teaching in a meaningful way. As Parker Palmer (1998) wrote, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (11). There are few things more rewarding for a teacher than to witness our students seeing the value of the course material and connecting it to their own lives as it relates to their educational and professional goals.

The third ingredient is to help students aspire to their goals in the course. It is important to facilitate learning opportunities using discussions, technology, course assignments, and group work throughout the course to connect theory and practice. Supportive relationships in the classroom can encourage students to become more invested in learning, enable them to extend beyond their current abilities, and form a bridge of mentorship (Meyers, 2009). These learning opportunities can help students discover their ‘why” as it relates to their educational and professional goals.

The fourth ingredient is responsibility. I see the value of discussing my responsibility as an instructor and the student’s responsibility on the first day of class. Discussing responsibility on a regular basis with students and building rapport with them is valuable to their success in the course. Rapport impacts students’ attitudes toward the class, their academic behavior, and the extent of their learning (Meyers, 2009). Being approachable to students, expressing excitement for the course content, making time to discuss students’ concerns, and exhibiting positivity towards their class performance are important elements of responsibility. Wilson (2006) found that students’ perceptions of their professors’ positive attitudes toward them (e.g. concern, desire for students to succeed) accounted for 58 percent of the variability in student motivation, 42 percent of the variance in course appreciation, and 60 percent of their attitude about the instructor.

The last ingredient is to maintain enthusiasm—for teaching, working with students, re-imagining course content, and celebrating students’ successes. Students need to know their instructor supports them and wants them to succeed. Importantly, attending to the personal role in college teaching is most effective when it is coupled with a focus on the instructional role (Lowman, 1995). In other words, caring is a part of effective college teaching, but not the totality. Supportive relationships between faculty and students are not a potential detriment to instructor rigor, but instead function as a conduit for students to master difficult material (Meyers, 2009). Constructivist perspectives (e.g. Vygotsky) assert that students’ social interactions with a more knowledgeable person enable learning and development. This relationship is an important facilitator of learning because it provides support, encouragement, and assistance for students to develop higher-order learning skills and to integrate new information with their current understanding and past experiences (Daniels, Cole, and Wertsch, 2007).

Here are some approaches instructors can use to incorporate the five key ingredients in a college course:

  • Creating a trusting, safe, and respectful learning environment must be established on the first day of class by defining this type of inclusive learning environment for students and having a policy in the course syllabus addressing it. Revisiting the definition can be valuable before class discussions of sensitive course content.
  • Expressing care and concern for students’ success in a course is as simple as checking in with students at the beginning of the class, and ask the following questions: How is your understanding of the course content discussed in the last lecture? Are there any questions or concerns you have about the course content before new course material is introduced? How are the course tools and course materials working for you in the class? This “check in” with students on a regular basis shows concern for their success in the course. Students will feel more comfortable asking questions or scheduling an appointment to clarify the course material. Setting an intention like this will help establish a positive learning environment for students.
  • Helping students aspire to their educational and professional goals can be fueled by the types of assignments, small group work, class discussions, and student self-assessment exercises we design. It is important students “see” the value of having a solid foundation of course content that will build in future courses and the relevancy to their goals.
  • Discussing responsibility—theirs and mine—on the first day of class helps lay the groundwork for a successful semester. This can be achieved by having a class discussion of the following policies in the course syllabus: methods of communication for instructor and students, student attendance, course preparation, student participation, instructor’s office hours, and instructor feedback on course assignments and examinations. Establishing clear policies for the course creates a learning environment in which the instructor and students are on the same page about their responsibility for the course and rapport can begin to develop.
  • Conducting regular self-assessments and creating new goals helps faculty maintain enthusiasm for teaching course content, supporting students, and facilitating students’ success in the course. This self-reflection is paramount. It provides an opportunity for instructors to be mindful of what is effective and areas of need while working with students in a course. Reaching out to other colleagues, especially those with deep expertise in teaching and learning, provides great perspective and can help us address the course concerns in a positive way.

It is evident creating a respectful learning environment for students, expressing enthusiasm for course content, demonstrating concern for student success and maintaining responsibility for the course can make a difference in a student’s course experience and their course success. As a new semester approaches, I will continue to be mindful of the key ingredients above to facilitate my students’ success.


Daniels, H., M. Cole, and J. V. Wertsch, eds. 2007. The Cambridge companion to Vygotsky. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lowman, J. 1995, Mastering the techniques of teaching. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

Palmer, P. J. 1998. The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, J. H. 2006. Predicting student attitudes and grades from perceptions of instructors’ attitudes. Teaching of Psychology 33:91-95.


Stacy I. Roth, M.S is an adjunct instructor in the psychology department at Temple University.