November 11th, 2015

Caring About Students Matters


professor chatting with students

Good teachers care about their students. We all know that, but sometimes over the course of a long semester, it’s easy to forget just how important it is to show our students we care about them. I was reminded of this importance by two recent studies, which I read and highlighted for the December issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter.

In terms of research design, the studies couldn’t have been more different. In terms of results, they both came to the same conclusion. The interactions students have with their teachers and the kind of relationships that teachers establish with students profoundly affect students’ learning experiences. And it’s a finding that’s been established in study after study.

But it isn’t always easy to care about students. We may care theoretically, even actually, but when we’re tired, stressed by all that our academic positions require, and pulled by what’s happening at home, showing that you care isn’t all that easy. And then there are those students who themselves so clearly don’t care—about us, our course, their major, or their learning. Caring for a student and having that completely ignored or otherwise disavowed doesn’t do much to motivate continued caring.

Teaching Professor Blog So, at the risk of sounding crass, I’m wondering whether you can fake it when you don’t feel it. It may be like what we tell students in their first public speaking courses: “Even if you’re quaking in your boots, if you sound confident, chances are good that’s how you’ll end up feeling.”

And then there are those faculty who don’t care very much and the few who don’t care at all. In one of the studies the researchers did a qualitative analysis of a set of comments written by students who had participated in a Thank-a-Professor program. What was surprising was the number of comments thanking teachers for what most would see as part of our job—being in our offices and welcoming to students, offering to help, expressing understanding, and showing respect. As the researchers point out, the fact that these behaviors merited a thank you would lead one to conclude that students aren’t experiencing them as often as we might expect.

Can you teach someone to care? The behaviors that convey caring in the classroom are well-known: use student names, give them your full undivided attention when they speak, acknowledge and appreciate their effort even when the contribution is marginal, regularly wear a smile, show some flexibility, and be comfortable in the classroom space that students occupy … to name just a few. These aren’t difficult actions to execute, and I can’t imagine any teacher not being able to learn how to do them.

But I do think there’s a rub—you can’t pretend you care for very long. It’s an emotion, a feeling, and those aren’t easy to fake. You may be able to fall back on the behaviors when you need to, but not as a matter of course. The better students know you, the easier it is to recognize inauthentic behaviors. And there’s a price to pay for pretending.

It was also interesting that both articles recommended that faculty development focus less on teaching techniques and more on these “softer” skills. We need to banish that descriptor because it makes it sound like these skills are without substance, that doing them erodes rigor and makes a teacher all touchy-feely. Nothing could be further from the truth. The communication skills used to define relationships are complex. Caring or the lack of it is conveyed by small details intricately choreographed and part of a dance that shows what you stand for as a human being.

I’m pretty pessimistic about teaching someone who doesn’t care to care. I’m more optimistic about teaching those who know how to convey that concern. And I’m downright sure we can help those who care but sometimes get tired. All they need are reminders that it truly matters and the occasional expression of caring that’s returned by a student who’s been touched. “Your course made me a better person” it says on a now-tattered floral enclosure that once accompanied a carnation left anonymously outside my office door. It’s been pinned in front of every desk I’ve ever worked behind.

References: Grantham, A., Robinson, E. E., and Chapman, D., (2015). ‘That truly meant a lot to me’: A qualitative examination of meaningful faculty-student interactions. College Teaching, 63 (3), 125-132.

Dachner, A. M., Saxton, B. M., (2015). If you don’t care why should I? The influence of instructor commitment on student satisfaction and commitment. Journal of Management Education, 39 (5), 549-571.

  • Jack Daniels

    This is, to my mind, one of very best Faculty Focus articles to date since the subject it deals with is so important. The research on late-adolescents/emerging adults clearly implies that most folks earning their BAs are not fully individuated "adults." In other words, they're still wrestling with the "burning questions" – and if they're freshman or sophomores, they're likely still recovering from losing the vital connections they forged in high school with other young people in order to survive the adult-created, adult-agenda driven world of academia.

    Do we really KNOW our students? How can we connect "the material" in our classes relevantly to their life experiences, and in ways that actually help them find answers to the "burning questions"? How far are we willing to walk with our students searching for identity? …Searching for answers? …rather than trying to make them love our subject as much as we do, or think they should?

    Two educators who "get it" about college students, and I recommend them to all my teaching colleagues:

    Chap Clark and Michael Wesch ("burning questions"!).

    Clark on "systemic abandonment":

    Wesch on the "burning questions":


  • Tom

    The best advice I ever received about teaching was this: "students will care how much you know, once they know how much you care." So, whatever the students' attitudes–and Mary Ellen covered most of them–we have to demonstrate that we care. Sometimes, it is caring enough to encourage a student to do better … other times, it is caring enough to explain that actions (or inaction) have consequences.

  • Steve

    Showing you care comes in many forms. Indeed, there are ways of connecting with students other than getting to know all about their lives. In the end, what matters is simply listening to what they say and giving a darn that they learn. It's always amazed me how much they will respond to even the smallest amount of listening and caring.

    Here's what I mean. This past semester I had a student in my Intro to Humanities section. He was a bright guy but none too interested in the subject matter at the beginning of the course. He was simply going through the motions. I mentioned this in some feedback on a paper and told him I wanted to see him just once perform at his potential. I think I wrote something like " I will shower you with praise when I see it. Honest. Promise.,No fooling."

    It only took one tossed off sentence on his paper to produce a turn around. For the rest of the course he tried harder. He even hung around after class one day to confess sheepishly that he hadn't tried as much on his last assignment. He had broken up with his girlfriend and was cramming for MCAT exams. He just wanted me to know that it had nothing to do with me, his respect for my class or the subject matter.

    I was characteristically uncomfortable discussing his girlfriend troubles, but I was flabbergasted at how little actual listening and giving a darn it took to turn a student around. You don't have to become their best friend for life to let them know they matter. I swear, seventy-five percent of them will try to walk through a brick wall if they even half-suspect it matters to you. And caring can be something as simple as saying, "You can do better. I know you can."

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  • JTB

    I am finding this a very relevant topic this week. As a Professor at a small State university, I have attempted to connect with my students this semester by offering an extra credit opportunity which is a two page submission; Tell me a little about yourself, what made you choose our university? If you chose my course as an elective, why? If it was a core course for your major, what are you most concerned about? If you could be or do anything when you finish, what will it be – think big, is there anything interesting or important that you would like me to know or be aware of.

    The assessment has allowed me to gain an insight into the literacy skills they bring to the course, their background, so that I can tailor some of my teaching to their interests or challenges, their greatest concerns about my course. It also allows them to begin to think of putting their life goals into a concrete plan, and allows them the opportunity to tell me about any personal or medical challenges they are facing.

    My students need that care factor. The majority of them come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are the first in family to attend college, and for the most part, this is their only chance to get it right for a career start. And yet, with all of the challenges in their backgrounds, they are facing so many obstacles to completion. In the past week, I have had three students in my office for non-academic problems. The first was sexually assaulted a year ago and is struggling to cope academically as she begins to realize that she couldn't keep throwing herself into her studies and ignoring the trauma of her rape. The second is a very smart young man who has grown up with a hypercritical and controlling mother and who feels invisible to everyone around him. The third is an incredibly talented young man who is probably one of the best students we have in our program, but who is socially awkward and only beginning to realize how important networking is for his future career prospects.

    It has been many years since I have felt this connected with students, and now that my own children are almost grown, I am beginning to think that it is at this point in my life that I am more emotionally able to handle the problems (and care) without drowning in them.

    • Monique

      JTB, great idea. I have 37 students in one of my courses, and I had them complete 5 X 8 Student Information Index Cards the first day of class. This allowed me as well to learn about the students. I included questions about hobbies, college major, career goals, two reasons they are taking the class, two things they are hoping to learn from the class as well as an question that was for anything else they would like me to know.

  • We know that respect begets respect. As a long time public administrator in state government, it became very apparent very early that employee productivity had a direct correlation with how the individual was treated. The golden rule, so to speak, does not just involve niceties. Always treat people well, but if we are honest with ourselves, we often need some butt kicking.
    When such diplomatic chastening is needed with a student, if it is done in private (primarily) and followed up with an increase of confidence and earned praise, this can be just as critical as any myriad approaches. “Praise in public and discipline in private.” Also, individualizing teaching within a balance of the needed uniformity produces almost universally desired results.

  • Harry S. Coversotn

    I totally agree with the premise of the essay. Faculty who care about their students are much more likely to have students who care about their own learning process. As a general rule, I think this is right on target.

    What I think is missing here is a concern for the conditions precedent for such caring relationships to form. The first is insuring that classes are small enough for faculty to actually get to know the students. The second is that faculty are present, available to students in a fully embodied manner. That is largely missing from most online courses which begin in anonymity and often encourage minimal engagement thereby. The third is that faculty are supported by their administrators such that engaging students is seen as a safe enterprise rather than a risk venture. All of these factors impinge upon the possibilities of creating caring relationships with one's students. Sadly, the context in which instructors function at many colleges make it difficult to do so on a good day.