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Components of Positive Student-Faculty Relationships

Tomorrow's Academy

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Active listening involves using our eyes, voice, gestures, and body language to convey our interest, and being fully present to the speaker. This kind of attention demands restraint. It means no doodling, no thinking about tomorrow's class, this evening's dinner, or that interesting and upsetting luncheon discussion. It means deliberately tuning out the "static," such as our own counterarguments and opinions, and concentrating so intently on what the student is communicating that we can paraphrase it accurately.


The posting below looks at four components that foster positive student-faculty relationships. It is from Chapter 11, Student-Faculty Relationships, in Education and Identity, by Arthur W. Chickering and Linda Reisser. Second Edition Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco Copyright © 1993 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741[]. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Components of Positive Student-Faculty Relationships

What general conditions for relationships among students and faculty seem to foster competence, autonomy, purpose, and integrity? Four major components run through the empirical findings and personal experiences described in the literature on higher education: accessibility, authenticity, knowledge, and an ability to communicate with students.


Accessibility means more than simply saying to students, "Feel free to come and see me." It requires an institutional climate where talking with faculty members is legitimized, where students feel free to "take up the professors' valuable time," and where such contacts are viewed as an important and necessary part of teaching and learning. In many studies, simply frequency of contact is associated with variables related to the general kinds of development with which we are concerned. When frequent contacts are characterized by informality and warmth, student development is augmented. This does not mean that professors should be available twenty-four hours a day or seven days a week. Different students need different amounts of contact with faculty members, and individual students vary at different times. In some cases, delay or no assistance is appropriate. But where the climate legitimizes such contact and where people can respond flexibly according to their judgments about the significance and timing of particular requests, substantial contributions can be made.


Authenticity holds sway when the people that students encounter have a firm and well-integrated system of values and behaviors of their own. Students do not want to be told what they should be or what they should become, nor does such telling make much difference. They do want to know what others believe and the basis on which those beliefs rest. Empirical evidence is not the only valid or acceptable basis. When values rest on faith, on a religious or cultural tradition, or on basic assumptions that are part of an ethical humanism, candid admission of the fact is better than intellectual gymnastics that attempt to support a position through use of dubious evidence or rationalizations.


Knowledge about students and their development can be a great help. We assume that faculty members should be competent in their own disciplines. Faculty should also become familiar with the social, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds from which the students come, and the attitudes, ideals, and developmental problems they bring with them. College teachers should try to remember how they felt when facing college or graduate school. They should be attentive to learning theory, student characteristics, current issues affecting students, and strategies for making education meaningful to diverse adults with different learning styles and abilities.

Daloz (1986, pp. 232-233) offers students some maps in the form of readings in developmental literature and assigned reports on particular theorists who can address key issues for each student: "Levinson [The Season's of a Man's Life] for a young man in transition, Fowler [Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning] and Christian Faith for a woman of deep religious commitment, Gilligan [In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development] for a mother entangled in the demands of work and family. Because each knew I had selected that work for him or her, they each took special interest in that particular map and drew unique value from it."

You do not have to be a trained psychologist or human development specialist to understand some of the basic conceptual frameworks concerning human development and learning. Loevinger's Ego Development: Conceptions and Theories (1976), Perry's Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme (1970), Kegan's The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (1982), Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Mind, and Voice (1986)-all these provide insights that help us "listen with a third ear" and hear better some of the fundamental developmental dynamics that underlie the cognition and affect our ability to come through in our encounters. They help us understand some of the diverse reactions we get from different students when our own reactions and behaviors remain constant. So increasing our own knowledge of the literature on human development can by very useful. Sharing its selectively with our students can help them put their own development into a larger perspective; it can give them conceptual tools to think about where they are and where they want to go, what they are and what they want to be.

Ability to Communicate with Students

Finally, we can learn better how to listen and how to talk with our students. Kuh, Schuh, Whitt, and Associates (1991, p. 178) have described the positive effects when faculty are experienced as real human beings. Not only do faculty at "involving colleges" discuss academic issues after class with students; many of them "take time to help a student who faces debilitating personal experiences, such as parental (or their own) divorce, illness of a child or parent, a roommate with a serious illness, or financial difficulties."

Sometimes a passing comment or question presents an opportunity for dialogue. "I can't study." "I can't stand the thought of going home to my parents." "I used to enjoy my church group, but now I am questioning everything." "I don't know what to do when I graduate." "I don't see how I can live with my roommate for eight more weeks." "Something awful happened to me last night." Most faculty want to be helpful, and many feel a professional responsibility to respond. Yet few are trained in interviewing or counseling techniques, nor do they want to play the role of amateur psychotherapist.

An in-depth exploration of helpful listening skills is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, a short review of the qualities associated with skilled helping may remind us of what can be helpful. Trust and respect are key ingredients, as are empathy, warmth, concreteness, immediacy, and a nonjudgmental attitude. Ivey (1988) summarizes the basic components. The most basic is the ability to enter into the student's frame of reference, to attempt to truly understand the student's experiences (even if the student cannot see them), and focusing on assets or strengths that the student can build on. This needs to be done sensitively, not discounting negative feelings or simply trying to make the student feel better superficially. Ivey describes other important dimensions of caring, such as genuine warmth, an emphasis on specifics rather than vague generalities, a focus on the here-and-now rather than the past or future, and a willingness to carefully offer feedback and suggestions that will help students move toward their goals.

Respect is also necessary, recognizing each student's basic worth and uniqueness, refraining from patronizing advice or quick solutions. By helping students clarify the situation, the problem, and the context, and discover what actions are possible, we empower them to take charge of their own adaptation and maturation. We may grow impatient with their bumbling experimentation, but better the bumbling be theirs than ours. Our respect for their thinking and solutions strengthens their autonomy and integrity.

Respecting students' thinking precludes certain rewards. We do not receive the satisfaction that comes from giving sage advice or from the lucid exposition of our own point of view. Dogmatic teachers usually alienate students. Those who pontificate will be tuned out. Neither can we have the satisfaction of pursuing our own curiosity. Any voyeuristic interest in the details of the students' sexual experiences, drug or alcohol use, or conflicts with parents or supervisors is unethical and intrusive. We can forgo this satisfaction passively, by not pursuing the details that superfluous, and we can forgo it actively by summarizing the core message, focusing the students' attention on goals and plans rather than on thrilling or titillating tangents. This helps students realize that we are not together for mutual amusement but for constructive purposes.

Above all, respect means that we seek only information or clarification that benefits the students; we do not seek gratification or prestige at their expense. We do not engage in behavior that threatens harm, injury, or loss or fails to respect the students' privacy, dignity, and individual rights. We may socialize with students, but we are careful about forming connections that may interfere with our objectivity, or may appear to other students like favoritism. We do not bring our personal issues or needs into the dialogues. We make referrals to more competent professionals-that is what the campus counseling center is for-and we consult with colleagues when we feel unsure of how to handle something.

Active listening involves using our eyes, voice, gestures, and body language to convey our interest, and being fully present to the speaker. This kind of attention demands restraint. It means no doodling, no thinking about tomorrow's class, this evening's dinner, or that interesting and upsetting luncheon discussion. It means deliberately tuning out the "static," such as our own counterarguments and opinions, and concentrating so intently on what the student is communicating that we can paraphrase it accurately.

We need to listen not only for facts and feelings but for students' interpretations of what they mean. Does the low grade received on a test mean "total failure"? Does it mean that he did not understand the assignment or needs more work on study skills? Does it mean that she could not concentrate because of personal problems? By helping students see their assumptions and interpretations, we probe cognitive constructs that underlie their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Alternative frames of reference can then be explored.

Listening to and talking with students effectively can be exhausting, frustrating, and difficult, especially with students diverse in age and national and ethnic backgrounds. But it is in one-to-one exchanges that we can be models, mentors, and friends. The four general conditions conducive to productive relationships among students and faculty-accessibility, authenticity, knowledge, and the ability to communicate with students-are not complicated to arrange. But on many campuses, such arrangements will require modification of priorities, funds, and energies. While many students do not miss an individual connection with faculty, others yearn to know us better. Institutions which do not have built-in traditions and rewards for informal student-faculty relationships may continue to leave most students nameless and faceless. They contribute little to the development of competence, autonomy, purpose, and integrity.