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The Power of Instructor-Student Rapport

Remember your favorite college professor? The one whose class you never missed and gave your best effort because you enjoyed her so much. If you’re like most people, what you liked best was the rapport she had with you and the rest of the class—her upbeat personality, her wit and humor, her willingness to answer questions after class. It really wasn’t her expertise, research background, or lecture materials. It was her ability to reach out and connect with students.

Read through some student comments on RateMyProfessor.com and you’ll come to see just how much instructor-student rapport influences students’ perceptions of their professors and the quality of their classes. Look up professors that rate a 5 out of 5 and you’ll find comments such as Great Communicator, Super laidback and easy to talk to, Knows everyone’s name, Patient and kind, Always ready to help, and Best class I’ve ever taken. Check out professors that rate a 1 out of 5 and you’ll find comments such as Does not notice when you’re there, We sit there in awkward silence, Seems uninterested, Never responds to emails or voice messages, and Worst class ever.

But what does liking the instructor have to do with learning? According to the research, a lot! Studies have found that strong student-instructor rapport leads to higher levels of student motivation, academic effort, heightened attention, and increased classroom involvement1. It can improve the students’ attitude and interest in the course content and disciplinary subject2. It can also create a more cohesive learning environment where students come to appreciate the instructor, their fellow students, and even the homework. As a result, students are significantly more likely to attend, engage, and most importantly—learn!

Research shows that positive instructor-student rapport behaviors fit into five categories, 1) Uncommonly Attentive Behaviors, 2) Connecting Behaviors, 3) Information Sharing Behaviors, 4) Courteous Behaviors, and 5) Common Grounding Behaviors3.

Instructors with uncommonly attentive behavior consistently call students by their name, show enthusiasm for teaching, reply promptly to student communications, and are willing to meet with students outside the classroom. Instructors with connecting behaviors use humor in their teaching, appear to be comfortable, easy going, more informal, and are good at creating an inviting and relaxed learning environment. Those with information sharing behaviors give advice, share knowledge, and communicate clear expectations; as well as, use non-verbal cues such as smiling, nodding, good eye contact, and other invitational communication gestures. Courteous behaviors are similar but focus on building trust and emotional safety to encourage questions, sharing of ideas, and experimentation. Instructors viewed as having common grounding behaviors were highly personable, relatable, centered, and willing to share themselves and their personal stories to create a common ground for learning4.

While no educator can display these all these behaviors all the time, tapping into our natural tendencies to connect with our students can make a big difference. Many educators come to teaching with a passion for helping and developing others. This applies to all educators no matter if you’re college professor, corporate trainer, staff developer, or school administrator. Allowing ourselves to embrace this innate desire in whatever way possible will help us connect with our students and energize learning. So the next time you teach; smile, tell a joke, relax, and connect. The rapport you build might be the most powerful thing you can do to get people to learn.

For information on earning your M.A. in Educational Leadership degree, contact an enrollment counselor at 877-308-9954.

About the Author

Dr. Sue Hines is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and Associate Professor in the Doctor of Education in Leadership Program and teaches in the M.A. in Educational Leadership Program at Saint Mary's University’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs. She has over 30 years of combined teaching experience at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level. Her career has primarily included college teaching, faculty development, program development, program accreditation, and academic research with a focus on faculty development program evaluation.

References:

1Granitz, N. A, Koernig, S. K., & Harich, K. R. (2009). Now it's personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education, 31, 52-65. doi: 10.1177/0273475308326408.
2Frisby, B. N., & Martin, M. M. (2010). Instructor-student and student-instructor rapport in the classroom. Communication Education 59, 146-164. doi 10.1080/03634520903564362.
3Webb, N. & Obrycki Barrett, L. (2014). Student views of instructor-student rapport in the college classroom. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 14 (2),15 - 28. doi: 10.14434/josotl.v14i2.4259.
4Ibid.