The Power of the Teacher-Student Relationship

DiSA Briefing Paper 6
The Power of the Teacher-Student Relationship
Dr Debra Cureton, University of Wolverhampton
Both students and lecturers regard good teacher-student relationships to be crucial
to achievement. Students achieve most where they feel respected, treated as
individuals and able to approach their teachers.
Students’ and lecturers’ opinions about the reasons as to why disparities in student
attainment occur and what can be done to reduce the attainment gap were accessed
through Consensus Oriented Research Approach (CORA) which educates, engages
and empowers (Soocoomarne, Adefila, Cureton and Sekhon, 2011). This approach
facilitates discussion about an issue and provides prioritised, stakeholder lead
solutions to the issue. Analysis of the qualitative data collected indicates that
student and lecturers felt that difficult learning relationships lead to lower levels of
attainment and therefore contributed to the attainment gap. Unsurprisingly, good
learning relationships are associated with good module grades.
The Equality Challenge Unit and Higher Education Academy (2008) both call for
systematic institutional research to be carried out in to disparities in student
attainment, that have the potential to inform curriculum design. Both organisations
also call for research into this area to involve students and teachers as research
Generation of Evidence:
Two Consensus Oriented Research Approach conferences were conducted with
students; one in each institution. The conferences were attended by 57 students
(Wolverhampton n=30, Coventry n=27). The conference attendees were from mixed
ethnicities in order to gain a global perspective of student perceptions of the reasons
why the attainment gap occurs. This also allowed for any comparisons to be made
between the beliefs and perceptions of BME and white students, as well as allowing
for diversity in the solutions students provided. Research data was collected through
a number of innovative techniques including ‘game’ focused exploration of the
research issue and ‘ideal curriculum design’ to identify solutions.
Data was also collected from 12 lecturers (Wolverhampton n=6, Coventry n=6)
during two conferences. The structure of the conferences were the same as those
attended by students. The activities differed slightly. The lecturers were provided
with sector level research about the attainment gap. The world café technique was
used to collect lecturers’ view pertaining to the attainment gap and solution forming
was achieved through developing ideas for learning and teaching interventions,
which then formed the action research cycle.
Research finding:
o Both students and lecturers agree that relationships are crucial to the success of
student learning.
When you get on well with your lecturer, you can ask them questions.
You’re not afraid to ask about things you don’t understand and you can
ask about things you are interested in. Knowing you can talk to them
[lecturers] sort of inspires you to what to know more.
(BME , male, second year student)
….She didn’t answer my emails and it made it hard to do the
assignment. The information wasn’t clear and I, well we all,
needed clarification so that we could do good assignments.
When she didn’t respond to emails it makes you think
‘why do I bother; what’s the point?’ You know, I’m not
like that normally; I want a first, but it just makes you like that.
(White, male, third year student)
a lack of proactive reaching out so as to acknowledge, cater for
and support students’ needs [negatively impacts on attainment)
(Lecturer on student attainment)
o Both students and lecturers agreed that respect was an important part of these
…. mutual respect is important: [I demonstrate this through] inclusive
language. Calm, reassuring presence, encouraging students to ask
questions and to contribute.
They respect my experience and listen to what I say
(Female student on good lecturers)
o Students see feedback as an important relationship builder:
We need feedback to know what could have been done better:
It helps build a rapport.
(Student on barriers to good relationships)
The relationship works when lecturer takes time and effort to discuss and explain
all work and assessment requirements
(Student on good relationships)
The relationship doesn’t work when you are feeling lost at the start of an assignment
especially at the start of a new year
(Student on barriers to good relationships)
Some Lecturers tended to define relationships as teacher to student as with these
‘When I meet the students I direct them to the course
tests and other reading materials that are relevant.
But in many cases students don’t read; they expect
you to tell them what it is about’
(Lecturer, on negative relationships)
Good learning relationships; well the student
is a good student, comes to lectures, is confident
and is capable of doing well....... My role?
Well I provide a safe space to learn and the
materials and I am a resource for them.
The best students view us [lecturers] as a
resource, you know not a safety blanket.
(Male Lecturer)
This student’s view of a good teacher-student relationship compares well with the
characteristics we found in teachers whose modules exhibited low disparity gaps;
Their emphasis also reflects a more reciprocal student-teacher relationship:
We learn best when relationships with lectures
are good, when they communicate, listen
to you, see you as an individual, you know
when they are human and not like a lecture and
think of you as a human and not like a student.
(Female student)
Some students said that you have to learn to approach lecturers for help and
that they did not always feel comfortable doing so; for this student it was a
question of learning to do this both with teachers and support services:
You have to learn that your teacher is there to help and that you can ask
for help
(female student)
Outcomes/implications for policy and practice:
There is a need to ensure that lecturers and students have the same expectations
about learning relationships. Ground rules are helpful and are best negotiated to
ensure that both groups have matching expectations.
Blended learning – how do you maintain a relationship with students during the
virtual aspects of teaching?
Distance Learning – how do you create and maintain a two-way relationship with
students who are learning at a distance?
As respect is important to students, how do we show and enhance the ways in
which lecturers demonstrate respect toward students?
o How do we maintain the above in large group teaching environment?
As students value their relationship with the institution, how do we ensure all
aspect of university life encourage two-way, respectful interactions?
How is a student charter helpful?
Other comments
How do we create the opportunity for lecturers to relationship build with students in
a financial climate that is pushing towards larger class teaching? – it is easier to know
the names and circumstances of 30 students but impossible to know this about 300
Cureton, D., & Cousin, G. (2012). Consensus Oriented Research Approach: Reflexive
Co-Enquiry with Students.
ECU/HEA (2008) Ethnicity, Gender and Degree Attainment Project: Final Report
Gender_Degree_Attainment_report_Jan08.pdf (accessed September 17, 2009
Soocoomarnee, P., Adefila, A., Cureton, D., & Sekhon, J. (2011). Creating a Safe
Environment for Disparity in Attainment Research to Take Place, Promoting Inclusive
Change: addressing equity and success for BME students in higher education
Conference - Monday 4 July, 2011, University of Greenwich