A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about how educators could build rapport online. In the post, I shared strategies like providing prompt feedback, recording faculty introductions, being available and addressing students by name as ways to foster better student-teacher relationships. In that original post, I drew on Maryellen Weimer’s Faculty Focus article that outlined the importance of building respect, being approachable, fostering open communication, and communicating care and a positive attitude. While these strategies can help to improve our relationships with students, I came across an article recently that has me wondering whether we may be missing some additional opportunities.
In 2016, the Journal of Educational Psychology published a study examining teacher-student relationships. The premise of the article is that relationships are improved when teachers and students find similarities with one another. Titled Creating Birds of Similar Feathers, the researchers paired 315 ninth grade students with 25 classroom teachers. At the start of the academic year, the students and teachers completed get-to-know-you surveys. After the surveys were completed, students and teachers were placed in control and treatment groups. For the control groups, students and teachers received lists of similarities that students shared with other students in a neighboring state. In the treatment groups, however, the teachers and students received lists of five similarities that they had in common. To foster reflection, the participants in the treatment group were asked to examine the similarities and identify similarities that they may have found surprising.
The interesting part is that the individuals in the treatment groups perceived more positive teacher-student relationships than the ones in the control groups. At first, this may sound logical. But the study was organized as a 2 X 2 design. This means that some students in the control group were paired with some teachers in the treatment groups, resulting in some students receiving similarities about their teachers (treatment group) without their teachers receiving similarities about them (control group).
I know this may sound a little confusing so here’s the big take away. When teachers received information about the similarities they shared with specific students, they perceived better relationships with those students, and those students earned higher course grades. The authors did not chalk the impacts of the study on instructor bias or unethical behavior. Instead, the researchers suggested that teachers may have created a more welcoming space for their students when they realize they shared some similar interests or backgrounds. The teachers may have also interacted with these students more which may have motivated the students to participate more in class, to attend class more regularly or to dedicate more time to studying.
Returning to my post on building rapport, most of the strategies that I offered were designed so that students can see their instructors as real human beings who are approachable and caring. This research, however, suggests that instructors need to see their students as human beings, too. In my online classes, I have my students record a short introduction video that acts as an icebreaker so that students can meet one another. I usually watch these videos, but I don’t actively search for similarities with my students. With my new online classes that will be starting in a few weeks, I plan to try this out. I’ll keep you posted on the impact it has.