Take a moment right now to ask yourself who your best teachers were growing up. Now list the qualities that made them your best teachers.

Looking at your list, you will probably notice something interesting. When I have faculty do this, they invariably list qualities such as “cared for my learning” or “cared for me as a person.” They do not list qualities such as “the most knowledgeable person in their field.” In other words, they list relationship qualities as the factors that make for a great teacher, not knowledge qualities.

This priority is also borne out in research. When 17,000 students were asked to list the qualities of an effective teacher, “respectful” and “responsive” came out on top, not “knowledgeable” (Smyth, 2011).

Unfortunately, everything we hear about teacher/student relationships is in the form of warnings—something to be avoided. The result is that we rarely think about the relationships we form with our students. We focus on the content that we want to push to them, but not the very qualities that made for the best teachers in our own experience.

Here are a few practical tips for cultivating a learning relationship with your students.

Focus on Feedback

Studies show that students are starved for feedback on their work (Turnitin, 2013). Instead of getting real feedback that helps them understand their problems and how to improve, they get a laundry list of margin comments like “grammar” that tells them next to nothing and are merely intended to justify the grade. Some faculty circle grammar errors and write “grammar” in the margin thinking that it will force the student look up the problem themselves. But few students will go to this effort. You have the student’s attention right there, so explain what the grammar error is, and how to correct it. You could also include a link to the appropriate location on a writing website such as Purdue’s OWL that will allow them to learn more if they still have questions.

The most important point to remember is that we don’t teach subjects, we teach students. Feedback needs to be to the student, not the work, since it is the student who must improve in order for the work to improve. What must the student need to know and do in order to improve their skills? For example, a garbled account of a reading could be the result of a student not knowing how to read academic articles, not due to lack of effort. In this case, merely telling them that their account is wrong is unhelpful. They need to learn how to read academic work. As faculty members, we might talk with this student about how we read academic work, what we look for, how we take notes, how we ask questions while we read, etc. Detailed feedback that is directed toward helping the student improve, not simply justifying the grade, resonates with students as demonstrating concern for them as people, and lays the foundation for a healthy student/teacher relationship.     … Read More