September 12th, 2013

Are Student-Professor Relationships More Important in Hard Courses?


A bevy of research establishes that student-faculty relationships are important on a number of fronts. For example, they predict persistence and completion in college. They impact the amount of effort students make in courses. They affect the development of students’ academic self-concepts. The authors of this analysis write: “There is evidence in the literature to suggest that the way students feel about their relationship to the professor may play an even larger role than many faculty know, or—perhaps—care to admit.” (p. 41)

But the question that most interested this research team was whether the relationship mattered more in certain kinds of courses, particularly those courses that students consider especially difficult. “In such courses the student-faculty relationship often exists in a context fraught with worry over grades, confusion and lack of confidence about course material, and intimidation related to seeking out help from the professor.” (p. 42)

To explore that question, these researchers surveyed a sample of students taking six different organic chemistry courses from four different professors. Students responded to both closed and open-ended survey questions.

Responses to the open-ended questions verified that students found organic chemistry a difficult course. Sixty-seven of 113 responses mentioned both the difficulty and the competitiveness of the course. The second-largest group of responses addressed what the researchers dubbed a “discouragement” theme. These comments indicated students’ beliefs that no matter how hard they tried or how much effort they expended, they were not going to do well or even succeed in the course. Other comments in this category described professors who did not care about students or want them to succeed. Students mentioned not learning the content well and anticipating that most of it would be forgotten. The third category of comments was smaller but more positive, reporting that much had been learned in the course, including the recognition that organic chemistry content is not structured like content in other science courses.

Responses to the closed questions documented that student-faculty relationships have two important impacts. If students perceived those relationships positively, more specifically if they looked up to the professor, felt comfortable enough to approach him or her, and felt that the professor respected students, those positive relationships were a significant predictor of course grades. Moreover, positive student-faculty relationships were also predictors of student confidence. Both of these relationships were statistically significant, but the second was stronger than the first. Even so, these relationships are correlational. These findings do not indicate that positive relationships cause higher grades or confidence.

One hypothesized relationship was not indicated by the results. The researchers predicted that if students had positive relationships with their professors it would increase their sense of science identity or the degree to which students felt a part of a science community as opposed to observers of it. These data did not indicate an increase in this sense of science identity among students who reported positive relationships with professors.

Despite literature consistently showing the power of positive student-faculty relationships, “many faculty overlook, or underestimate, the impact they have on students. There is often a tendency for faculty to assume that talent and hard work alone will get students through the course, when in reality many other factors—including their own behavior toward students—can play important roles.” (p. 45)

The good news about findings such as these is that what faculty need to do to establish these kinds of positive relationships is not all that difficult. Students look up to professors who present themselves as real people in the classroom. This authenticity can be conveyed by sharing personal anecdotes, talking about professional interests, and telling students about their own experiences learning the content. Professors are perceived as being approachable when they talk informally with students, before and after class, and when they meet on campus. Students can be encouraged to take advantage of office hours in a number of ways. Office hours on designated topics allow small groups of students to attend for help on particular issues. Treating students with respect is nothing more than treating students as you wish to be treated—courteously, attentively, and with understanding.

Reference: Micari, M. and Pazos, P. (2012). Connecting to the professor: Impact of the student-faculty relationship in a highly challenging course. College Teaching, 60 (2), 41-47.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.7 (2012): 2,6.