Help Faculty Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions to Student Reactions

One of the more vexing problems facing academic administrators is how best to help low-performing instructors improve in the classroom. The costs associated with poor instructor performance are real, ranging from a lack of student engagement to a loss of student learning. For their part, instructors with poor student evaluations often find it quite difficult to raise those scores over time. In many cases these instructors will reject outright the idea of improving student reactions citing an opposition to “educational consumerism” and the creep toward “edutainment” within the classroom. Further, it is even common to hear the argument that teaching technical courses with substantial mathematical computation put instructors at a significant disadvantage with respect to achieving positive student reactions (i.e., students dislike these “harder classes.”).

Although there may be some veracity to these arguments, it’s important for administrators and faculty to recognize that students’ reactions to courses matter – not simply because they impact student feelings of satisfaction, but also because they are associated with student learning, increased motivation, and self-confidence. Thus, when students have a more positive overall experience in the class, learning is more likely to occur. The challenge then is to change the conversation with faculty away from satisfaction as a means to happy consumers and toward satisfaction as a pathway to improving learning outcomes. In fact, the research linked above also suggests that a large portion of student reactions can be explained by “instructional style.” This is actually good news for instructors hoping to improve student reactions and stands in stark contrast to conventional wisdom that it’s the course content that drives reactions. On the contrary, it is the instructor driving these scores and, of course, instructor behavior is the one thing that is fully within control of a faculty member.

Along these lines, a forthcoming article by Dachner and Saxton suggests that one way of improving student reactions is quite simply to care more. That is, for faculty to demonstrate a positive commitment toward students. In a sample of 286 graduating seniors enrolled in the same course across five different instructors, the authors surveyed instructors regarding their level of commitment to their students (e.g., “To what extent do you care about the students in this class?” and “How dedicated are you to students in this class?). Students were surveyed regarding their perceptions of instructor support (e.g., “my instructor shows very little concern for me”), satisfaction (e.g., “overall quality of the course” “effectiveness of the instructor”) and student commitment (“how dedicated are you to doing well in this class?”).

Their findings show that instructors’ levels of commitment positively influence student perceptions of instructor support, which ultimately predict student satisfaction and commitment. In the authors’ words:

Students who believed that their instructor cared about their well-being and valued their contributions were more satisfied with their course and had higher commitment to the course.

So what type of changes could an instructor make to improve student perceptions of instructor support? The authors suggest a few key methods:

  • Increase the depth of student performance feedback. Grades are not enough. Instructors should provide constructive positive and negative feedback on assignments and exams in order to demonstrate care for student performance.
  • Collect (anonymous) midterm feedback. A short survey to assess students’ mid-term reactions to the course. At a minimum, instructors should debrief the results with the class and address what, if anything, he or she can do to make midcourse adjustments.
  • Increase student-instructor interaction. During class, instructors should provide opportunities for direct dialog with students, in small groups or even during lectures. Outside of class, instructors who make themselves available to talk about the class or about something relevant for the student (e.g., career planning) are more likely to increase perceptions of support. Of course, interaction outside of class won’t happen if the instructor is unresponsive to communications from students. Students will, as we all do, infer a lack of caring on the part of instructors who are slow to respond to emails or phone calls.

In all, the Dachner and Saxton study suggests that even modest changes in instructor behaviors (i.e., style) can significantly improve student reactions and that these changes can be instituted in any class regardless of content.

%d bloggers like this: