April 7th, 2017

Fostering Student Connectedness: Building Relationships in the Classroom

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professor chatting with students

A large body of research has documented how students who report strong connectedness with college instructors reap many benefits, including: better persistence (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1978), engagement (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005), and effort (Kuh & Hu, 2001) in college, as well as greater academic self-concept (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010), confidence in their ability to succeed (Vogt, Hocevar, & Hagedorn, 2007), and grade point average (Anaya & Cole, 2001; Kim & Sax, 2009). In general, the research literature supports a strong positive correlation between positive student-instructor interactions—both inside the classroom and out—and student learning and development. What is unknown, however, is whether students are aware of these benefits.

Using a sample of predominantly commuter students (N = 34), my colleague and I conducted a study in which we examined student connectedness using a brief survey designed to elicit student opinions on: how connected impacted their academic success, and how instructors could better foster connectedness in the classroom. Connectedness was defined for students as “how supported you feel, how comfortable you feel in class, and your general feeling concerning the classroom learning environment.” Students answered questions on connectedness as it related to the specific class in which they received the survey and their academic experience overall.

Almost all students (94%) indicated that they felt connectedness improved their academic performance. Some top reasons why students perceived connectedness was so important included:

  1. Increased motivation and investment. Many students indicated they work harder and enjoy the academic process more when they feel connected to a class.
  2. Increased retention. Several students reported that connectedness helped them better internalize and understand course material.
  3. Provided sense of security and comfort. Students indicated that the more connected they felt, the more comfortable they were in class, which in turn lead to increased participation in class activities.

Students also provided feedback on how an instructor could increase connectedness in the classroom. Some top suggestions included:

  1. Show excitement. Students wrote that they enjoyed learning from instructors who were truly excited about teaching and passionate about the material they were teaching.
  2. Show interest in students’ personal lives and well-being. Students seemed to especially appreciate caring instructors. As one example, in my classes, we often use the first few minutes to ask students to share their latest good news or something fun they did or will do over the weekend. Not only does this practice help start the class on a positive note, it also builds a sense of camaraderie between students, as well as between students and the instructor.
  3. Strive to create an open and inviting atmosphere. Students appreciated instructors who set an open and inviting tone in their classes. One thing several students highlighted as effective was a first-day-of-class survey that included a place for them to share privately with the instructor any concerns about they might have the course. Additionally, students valued instructors who made themselves available outside the classroom and who provided various communication methods (e.g., phone, e-mail, course LMS, office hours).
  4. Keep classes engaging. Students indicated they enjoy class more when their instructor integrates mini exercises, group activities, demonstrations, discussions, and short videos into class sessions. They said this practice increased how well they were able to pay attention because it broke up the larger class session into manageable chunks.
  5. Remind students about resources outside the classroom. Students appreciated reminders about relevant and important resources across campus. These reminders could come during class time or on the LMS. Students also said they enjoy using office hours to discuss future career plans.

In summary, survey responses suggested that students placed a high value on connectedness and felt it impacted their academic performance. Students suggested that caring, student-centered instructors who are passionate about both teaching and the course material made them feel more connected in their classes. Although instructors already have a lot on their plates when preparing for class, they might do well to reflect on the impact they have on their students and their role in increasing their students’ connectedness to their classes and campus in general.

Melissa McInnis Brown is an assistant professor of early childhood development and education in the Department of Family Sciences at Texas Woman’s University. Teresa Starrett is an associate professor of educational leadership in the Department of Teacher Education at Texas Woman’s University.

References

Anaya, G., & Cole, D. G. (2001). Latina/o student achievement: Exploring the influence of student–faculty interaction on college grades. Journal of College Student Development,      42, 3–14.

Kim, Y. K., & Sax, L. J. (2009). Student–faculty interaction in research universities: Differences by student gender, race, social class, and first-generation status. Research in Higher Education, 50(5), 437–459.

Komarraju, M., S. Musulkin, & G. Bhattacharya. 2010. Role of student–faculty interactions in developing college students’ academic self-concept, motivation, and achievement. Journal of College Student Development, 51(3), 332–342.

Kuh, G., & S. Hu. 2001. The effects of student-faculty interaction in the 1990s. The Review of Higher Education, 24(3), 309–332.

Pascarella, E., & P. Terenzini. 1979. Student-faculty informal contact and college persistence: A further investigation. The Journal of Educational Research, 72(4), 214–218.

Umbach, P., &M.Wawrzynski. 2005. Faculty do matter: The role of college faculty in student learning and engagement. Research in Higher Education 46(2), 153–184.

Vogt, C., D. Hocevar, & L. Hagedorn. 2007. A social cognitive construct validation: Determining women’s and men’s success in engineering programs. Journal of Higher Education, 78(2), 337–364.