During one particular semester, I had an opportunity to teach a class for adults who wanted to bridge an educational gap between high school and higher education. As a writing instructor, I know well that having to translate thoughts into print while attempting to follow grammar rules is often an anxiety-producing experience for students of any age. For the adults in this class, the experience was even more stressful because some of them had not written an academic paper in over 15 years and many of them felt self-conscious about being working professionals without strong writing skills.
In order to alleviate some of the anxiety, I positioned myself as a coach and deemphasized grading, I designed hands-on in-class activities so the students could practice skills while I was at hand to offer guidance, and I even started one of the classes with breathing exercises.
One student who felt overwhelmed by the material and doubtful of her own abilities shared that she didn’t feel smart enough to keep up with the rest of the students and was experiencing such strong writer’s block that she felt as though she needed to drop the course.
Dialoguing over email did not help to quell her anxiety, and so we met together face-to-face before the next class. I encouraged her to deliberately say no to any thought that she was not as intelligent as others and to practice thinking positively about her own potential. We chatted about her home life, especially the pressures of raising children while balancing work with school. After identifying strategies for overcoming writer’s block and offering the reassurance that everyone experiences it at some point, I told the student that I had every confidence she could persevere through the course and complete it successfully.
By the end of that evening’s class, the student approached me and said she was going to give the rest of the term a solid try. From that point on, she began turning in quality writing assignments and participating actively in class. She needed affirmation in order to realize and confidently exercise her thinking and writing skills.
This is just one example from one semester, but research suggests that interacting with students outside of the classroom is a key factor in improving student performance in the classroom. Multiple studies throughout the last few decades confirm that positive interactions with faculty outside of class frequently result in better student engagement and productivity in class. In particular, Joseph Lowman suggests that a faculty member’s ability to “create positive relationships with students” beyond the class has a direct connection to the student’s own confidence about his or her capabilities in the classroom (12). Likewise, David Fusani asserts that “students’ self-esteem” is directly affected by the instructor’s “interpersonal rapport” (233).
Unfortunately, as numerous other studies show, the majority of students do not seek interactions with faculty outside of the classroom. Sheila Cotten and Bonnie Wilson recorded observations from students who said they “see no reason” to seek faculty interaction; this indicates that they “are simply not aware of the potential benefits of engaging faculty” (514). In fact, the students they surveyed said “they often choose not to interact because they are uncertain whether faculty are willing to entertain their queries and whether faculty will be receptive to their ideas” (514).
You might be thinking, then how do I get my students to come to my office hours or stop to talk when they see me walking across campus? Approachability is key. Cotten and Wilson contend that students need “continuous and active encouragement in order to feel comfortable approaching faculty” (514). Consider taking time to talk to your entire class about the value of interacting with you outside of class, letting students know that you are available, that you care about and want to answer their questions, and that you are also more than willing to converse about life apart from class. Research also suggests that even, and sometimes especially, positive social interactions with instructors boost student performance and self-esteem (Cotten and Wilson 515).
These interactions might sound taxing to faculty members with heavy course loads and numerous other departmental obligations. Or they might sound outside the scope of a faculty member’s tasks. After all, encouragement and confidence-building should come from parents, coaches, counselors, and friends. While this is true, the reality is that how students perform in class could be directly affected by what and how faculty speak to them in the office, on the sidewalk, at the snack bar. All students, whether adults going back to school while raising a family or youth finishing out their teenage years at college, benefit from being treated as whole people who need both instruction about content and skills as well as affirmation and encouragement when it comes to believing in their own ability.
Now it’s your turn. I invite you to leave a comment sharing an example of a time when interacting outside of class boosted a student’s performance in class. No names please: we want to protect students’ privacy. For more on student faculty interactions, checkout CTE’s teaching and learning tips on effective office hours and helping distressed students.
Cotten, Sheila and Bonnie Wilson. “Student-Faculty Interactions: Dynamics and Determinants.” Higher Education (2006) 51.4: 487 – 519.
Fusani, David. “’ Extra-Class ‘Communication: Frequency, Immediacy, Self-Disclosure, and Satisfaction in Student Faculty Interaction outside the Classroom.” Journal of Applied Communication Research (1994) 22.3:232 – 255.
Lowman, Joseph. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1984.