By Haley Dutmer
Friday October 7th marked Notre Dame’s first Teach@ND Day–a celebration of the excellent teaching that occurs on our campus. The day brought together instructors and TAs from across campus for events focused on this year’s theme of relationship-rich education. The day started with a keynote presentation by Peter Felten, co-author of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, and was followed by a lunch and an undergraduate student panel: “The Instructors Who Changed My Life.”
Prior to Teach@ND Day, undergraduate students submitted hundreds of thank you notes to instructors who’ve impacted them. In addition, ND Learning organized reading groups for instructors across disciplines to connect and read Felten’s book. Here at ND Learning, we had a book club too! Here we highlight some key themes our group took away from Relationship-Rich Education and provide some tips to instructors on how to enrich relationships in your own classroom.
Web of Relationships
In Relationship-Rich Education, Felten and co-author Leo M. Lambert draw on hundreds of interviews with students, faculty, and staff from 29 higher education institutions to uncover the key to undergraduate student success. One of the key principles to success they uncover is the importance of meaningful personal relationships on campus. They found that students thrive when they have a web of significant relationships supporting them (e.g., professors, friends, and staff who help meet their academic, social, and personal needs). Having a web of connections is important for all students, but especially for some, such as first-generation college students, who face additional barriers to making connections in college.
If we want to ensure all students are able to form meaningful and encouraging relationships in college–the first place to look is the classroom. For some students, the classroom could be the only or primary space where they are interacting with faculty or peers.
While instructors are not the only connections on campus to help students, they often play an important role in connecting students to other resources. As they are often one of the first people on campus to identify when a student is struggling and can then connect the student to additional support from campus resources such as the Writing Center, the Center for Student Support and Care, the Office of Student Enrichment, University Counseling Center, or University Health Services, to name just a few. In effect, this helps to broaden the student’s network of supportive relationships.
We as instructors also help empower students to search out and build meaningful relationships on campus. In our reading group, ND Learning Graduate Associate Emily Smith shared that she, inspired by the book, spent some time in her classroom one day explaining to her students (all freshmen) the importance of building relationships in college. She had the students share one person or organization on campus they’ve made a connection with already (even if it’s a small connection!). Then, she had the students talk in small groups about their experiences with and feelings about office hours and had them set a plan to attend office hours at least once for one of their classes this semester.
Tips for Instructors
Besides connecting students to campus resources and discussing relationship-building with students explicitly, there are many simple steps instructors can take to promote quality instructor-student and student-student relationships in their classes. Even small things can make a big difference! Why not try out one of the below strategies in your class next week?
- Learn and use students’ names. One of the best ways to build a connection between you and your students is to learn and use their names. If you have a large class, it is beneficial even just to attempt to learn names as this demonstrates to students that you care to try to get to know them as people. When giving written feedback on an assessment, address the student by name. Remember, it’s never too late to start using names!
- Ask your students how they’re doing. College can often feel quite transactional to students. Small gestures can help them feel more connected and invested. Try mingling with students before class and asking them how classes are going or how their weekend was. When emailing with students, consider asking “How’re you doing?” rather than always defaulting to “Hope you’re doing well.”
- Facilitate peer connections. Some of your students might not know anyone else in your class. Consider taking a moment to have students turn to a neighbor and exchange names and email addresses so they have at least one peer to turn to if they’re confused on an assignment. You can also arrange study groups to ensure no student is left without peer support. Since meaningful peer relationships themselves are important to student success, it makes sense to devote some class time to helping students cultivate them. Consider allowing a little leeway for students to chat informally with peers during group work. Give students fun and meaningful ways to interact in class (such as tackling an interesting real-world problem together or working on a creative task) to help deepen peer relationships.
- Rethink office hours. Office hours are often intimidating for students. Regularly encourage students to attend your office hours and be flexible. Remind students that the purpose of office hours is to support—not to evaluate. Consider offering meetings by appointment and letting students choose between meeting on Zoom or in person. For in-person office hours, try hosting them in a common area like the student center rather than in your office. You can also call them “student hours” instead of “office hours” to emphasize that this time is devoted to the students.
- Encourage your students. Your words can have a lasting positive impact on students. Express to your students that you believe they can succeed in the face of challenges and that you are there to support them along the way. Try sending an encouraging and supportive email to your students before an assessment to help them feel a sense of belonging and support before facing a challenge.