January 11th, 2013

Students Place a Premium on Faculty Who Show They Care


Most teachers know that caring for students is important, but do they realize just how important? A recent article by Steven A. Meyers offers a succinct, well-referenced, and persuasive review of research that addresses the topic. It begins with what most teachers already know: Caring is regularly identified as one of the ingredients or components of effective instruction. What many teachers do not know is that students value the dimensions of caring more highly than teachers do.

Teachers tend to focus on the instructional aspects of their role—they want their courses to have standards, to be well organized; they want their instruction to be clear and effective at stimulating student interest. Students agree that these aspects of instruction are important, but they consider the personal aspects of teaching just as important. They want teachers who welcome their questions, who acknowledge their input, and who are available—in short, teachers who establish rapport with individual students and the class as a whole. Said succinctly, caring is more important to students than it is to professors, according to a variety of research findings reviewed in this article.

But should faculty be concerned about what students consider important? Research findings say yes. One study cited reported that when instructor-student rapport increases, those increases are associated with greater student enjoyment of the class, improved attendance and attention, more study time devoted to the class, and more courses taken in that discipline. Another study documented that a professor’s positive attitude toward students accounted for 58 percent of the variability in the students’ motivation, 42 percent of the variability in course appreciation, and 60 percent of students’ attitude about the instructor. (p. 206)

Meyers addresses three faculty criticisms and cautions about caring, starting with “My students don’t appreciate how much I care.” The problem here, according to Meyers, is that faculty don’t always express their care in ways that students understand. Faculty express caring through their devotion to the instructional aspects of their role. They always come to class prepared. They devote time and energy to keeping current in their field. They spend countless hours reading and reviewing potential texts. Those commitments bespeak their care, but according to the research, those are not the behaviors students associate with caring. Research on something called “verbal immediacy” has identified a number of behaviors that do convey caring to students—things like using personal examples, asking questions and encouraging students to talk, using humor in class, addressing students by name, and many others listed on a table in the article—and Meyers recommends that faculty consider using more of these behaviors.

Some faculty are reluctant to express care for students because they don’t want to get too close to students. And Meyers agrees: “Faculty must maintain an awareness of interpersonal boundaries when creating supportive relationships with students.” (p. 207) It’s a question of finding an appropriate balance between caring for students and maintaining professional boundaries. Meyers offers this advice: “Effective, caring faculty members balance their connection with students by setting limits as needed, by enforcing classroom policies in consistent and equitable ways, and by maintaining democratic and respectful authority in the college classroom.” (p. 207)

And finally, there are faculty who believe “My job is to teach, not to care.” These faculty worry that caring compromises academic rigor and lowers standards. They think that caring means always being nice, never pushing students, and always avoiding criticism. But it’s not a case of either-or—caring or doing those things associated with the instructional role. Teachers should do both because students benefit enormously when they do. And caring benefits teachers as well. Research has documented that when faculty don’t care or fail to communicate their concern for students, students respond in kind. When students don’t care about the teacher, they are much more willing to disrupt the class and make learning more difficult for everyone.

This is a first-rate article that convincingly establishes the importance of caring in the college classroom. It ends with an interesting set of questions on the topic that would make for excellent discussion with colleagues.

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

Reprinted from Caring for Students: How Important Is It? The Teaching Professor, 25.5 (2011): 5-6.