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Displaying a Personal Interest in Students and Their learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Several strands of research demonstrate that displaying a personal interest in students is not only effective as a way to encourage participation and engagement, but necessary for real learning.




The posting below looks at some simple yet effective ways to improve

student engagement and learning. It is by Virginia S. Lee of Virginia

S. Lee & Associate, and is from POD-DEA Center Notes on Instruction

series. POD is the Professional and Organizational Development Network

[] and the iDEA Center is a nonprofit

organization whose mission is to serve colleges and universities

committed to improving learning, teaching, and leadership performance.

[] ©2004 The IDEA Center. Reprinted with





Rick Reis



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

----------------------------------------------------1,016 words ----------------------------------------------------

 Displaying a Personal Interest in Students and Their learning



Several strands of research demonstrate that displaying a personal

interest in students is not only effective as a way to encourage

participation and engagement, but necessary for real learning. For

example, research in neuroscience and the physiology of learning

demonstrates the strong link between emotion and cognition (1). In the

absence of the strong, positive emotions engendered by caring, deep

engagement, motivation, and interest, little real learning occurs.

Similarly negative emotions such as fear and shame, all too common in

the college classroom, retard learning, due to "choking," the shutting

down of higher-order thinking, and the activation of more primitive

areas of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight syndrome.


Classic research in communication studies also highlights the positive

benefits of supportive environments (that is, those characterized by

description, problem orientation, spontaneity, empathy, equality,

provisionalism) versus defensive environments (that is, those focused

on evaluation, control, strategy, neutrality, superiority, certainty)

(2). Further, classroom-based studies and extensive interviews with

students affirm the findings of the more theoretical studies cited

above. Research on large classes demonstrates the positive effects of

personalizing the large class with respect to enhancing student

attendance and motivation to learn (3, 4). As well, undergraduate

students repeatedly mention the importance of one-to-one interaction

with instructors in supervised projects and the closer interactions

with other students and instructors in small classes as important

factors in their learning (5).


These threads point to the importance of engagement and a sense of

community as critical to college success and the major reviews of

research (6) have found just this connection. Finally champions of a

restoration of caring, community, and heart in the college classroom

such as Parker Palmer (7) and Jane Tompkins (8) have met with

widespread sympathy in higher education circles...for a reason. It is

no wonder that one of the most widely used new instruments for

assessing the outcomes of college is the National Survey of Student

Engagement (NSSE). Displaying a personal interest in students is the

first step toward demonstrating that community exists within the

classroom and across the campus.


Helpful Hints


A variety of strategies, most quite easy to implement, even in large

classes, convey to students that instructors take a personal interest

in them and their learning: Learn students' names and use them when

addressing students. Easy to implement in small classes, in large

classes learning students' names poses a greater challenge. Assigned

seats and taking (digital) photos of students, labeling them, and then

rehearsing them at odd moments are strategies that have worked for

many instructors. Be available to students in ways that you judge are

not too invasive of your personal boundaries. If your class is too

large for individual conferences early on (or at some point) in the

semester, other, less intensive strategies will also work. Arrive

early to class and stay a little later and encourage students to seek

you out at these times. Maintain regular office hours and encourage

students to use them: some instructors require students to stop by

during office hours once during the first few weeks of classes;

particularly for reserved students, even the briefest visit breaks

down psychological barriers, opening up the possibility for greater

interaction during the rest of the semester. Encourage and respond to

email. Solicit and respond to student feedback. The simple, but

effective, one-minute paper (9) lets students know that you care about

their understanding and learning and establishes a vehicle for

communication between you and your students. Mid-semester evaluations

that you create and use to fine-tune instruction midstream also convey

to students that you care what they think and about their learning.


Create opportunities for students to engage actively in the classroom.

Pedagogically sound because intentional engagement leads to more

effective learning, creating opportunities for students to engage with

each other and you during class time also creates a more personal

classroom environment that helps everyone get to know one another

better. During discussions and other interactions with students,

really listen to them, striving to hear what students are really

saying; not what we want to hear and/or assume students are saying



Connect classroom material to students' experience. Ausubel, the noted

educational psychologist, said that the most crucial element in

learning was what students already know, that is, what was within

their experience. But making connections between academic material and

students' personal experience also conveys an interest in students and

their learning.


 Assessment Issues


Various assessment approaches may help determine the extent to which

you display a personal interest in students. Perhaps the first place

to start in assessing how effectively you display a personal interest

in students is by examining your own views about teaching. Various

typologies of teaching whether as in-class activities or out-of-class

assignments, reveal approaches to teaching that are more

content-oriented and those that are more student-oriented. Displaying

a personal interest in students may be more consistent with the latter

than the former. Asking a colleague to observe you in the classroom

may also be helpful. Like any enlightened peer review process, meet

with the colleague before the actual observation and discuss your

concerns and the strategies that you are trying to implement to

display a personal interest in students. After the observation, meet

with the colleague again, perhaps over coffee or some other relaxed

setting, and compare notes. Finally, solicit feedback directly from

students themselves. Targeting the extent to which you display a

personal interest in students and their learning in a mid-semester

evaluation is one possible approach. Another is using a technique

often referred to as Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID) (11).

Performed by a third-party such as a trained staff person at a

teaching and learning center, the approach eliminates the disturbing

outliers (i.e., "You remind me of my mother, and I can't stand her")

that monopolize our attention, blinding us to more common reactions to

our teaching. Since the extent to which we display personal interest

in students is a very personal, and potentially, sensitive matter, an

approach that produces and  communicates a more impersonal consensus

may be a better approach.


References and Resources


(1) Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Enriching the

practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling,

VA: Stylus Publishing.

(2) Gibb, J. R. (1961). Defensive communication. Journal of

Communication, 11(3), 141-148.

(3) Lewis, K. G. (1994). Teaching large classes (How to do it well and

remain sane). In K.W. Pritchard & R. McLaren Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook

of College Teaching: Theory and Applications (pp. 319- 343). Westport,

CT: Greenwood Press.

(4) Silvia, E. M., & Hom, C. L. (1996). Personalized teaching in large

classes. Primus, 6(4), 325-336.

(5) Light, R. J. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak

their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(6) Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects

students. San Francisco: Jossey - Bass.

(7) Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner

landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

(8) Tompkins, J. (1996). A life in school: What the teacher learned.

New York: Perseus Books.

(9) Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment

techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco:

Jossey-Bass. See pp. 148- 153.

(10) Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of

teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

(11) Clark, D. J., & Bekey, J. (1979). Use of small groups in

instructional evaluation. Insight Into Teaching Excellence, 7(1), 2-5.

Arlington, TX: University of Texas at Arlington.

IDEA Paper No. 39: Establishing Rapport: Personal Interaction and

Learning, Fleming

IDEA Paper No. 15: Improving Discussions, Cashin and McKnight

IDEA Paper No. 1: Motivating Students, Cashin


©2005 The IDEA Center This document may be reproduced for

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may be done only with prior written permission of The IDEA Center.