Currently reading: Relationship-rich education (Felten & Lambert, 2020)

I read the book “Relationship-rich education. How human connections drive success in college” by Felten & Lambert (2020) almost a year ago and found it super inspiring, but also very hard to summarize. You should check it out yourself, of course, but here are my key take-aways.

A feeling of belonging and “mattering” is really important for students to succeed at university, and that feeling is not a given just because someone was admitted to a course and so officially “belongs” in the course. So many people can tell stories of “being one conversation away from quitting”, being at the point where they wanted to give up and then this one conversation turned things around for them. For these conversations to happen, students need to form relationships with other students and with staff. Historically, these relationships were often formed organically through extracurricular activities on campus, time spent in the library studying, doing what students (stereo-)typically used to do. But the typical student we meet in our classes today is different from what the typical student was like a couple of decades ago. Many students these days are studying part-time and working in parallel, they are commuting to campus, they are first-generation academics, etc.. We cannot rely on the old mechanisms for finding rewarding and supportive relationships on campus working for our students, and of course those mechanisms were never inclusive in the first place. Then and now, it helps if students come from academic families and know how to play the game, and/or are extroverts for whom it is easy to form new relationships. We need to make sure that we create environments and “inescapable opportunities” for all students to form the relationships that help them persist and strive, that we shift the focus from “prestige factors” towards “human factors”, the first one being what attracts students to an institution and gets them admitted, the latter what keeps them at the institution and helps them succeed. So what can we do to create the human factors that make students want to stay and succeed?

From hundreds of interviews, Felten and Lambert (2020) deduce four principles that support successful relationship-building, and give examples of what that means in practice (and I have totally butchered the structure of the book for my summary below):

1. Genuine welcome & care

First of all, students must feel that they are welcome and that they are seen, not just as a number in the system, but as a person. For that, we have to let go of how things were in the past, see who is actually on our campus now, and also let ourselves be seen to create a culture where it is ok to be our authentic selves. Genuine welcome and care can be experienced when it’s the institution’s culture, or at least some teachers’ mindset, to value students as whole persons that bring a lot of things to the table beyond results on tests and generally their formal education, and to value “webs of human interactions”, which means frequent and diverse conversations with diverse participants. The institution’s culture can be shaped by influencing the value that is put on the efforts that staff makes to build good relationships with students, e.g. by the kind of criteria that go into hiring and promotion decisions at that institution, or by rewarding good teaching.

As part of the culture that the institution hopefully supports, there are strategies that we can employ to create conditions under which students feel genuinely welcomed by staff, i.e. showing “relentless welcome”.

For example, teachers and student tutors can be instructed to ask “how are you doing” within the first couple of minutes of any conversation, and then pause and really listen, even if the reply does not seem related to topic of meeting. They can make sure to listen for key words or even ask questions about common problems like note-taking, time management, …, and have responses/resources/advice ready for the most common issues, so that small problems don’t even become bigger, and nobody has to figure out how to solve them.

Or library (or other university) staff can be trained the way luxury hotel staff is trained: to smile, often use names, exceed expectations; to make students realize that it’s the staff’s main purpose to support them in their learning, so that student don’t feel like they should not be taking up the staff’s time by asking them questions etc but know that being there for students is the staff’s job.

And we can create opportunities for people to bond and have deep conversations about emotions, that might otherwise have difficulties doing so, for example — as an example given in the book — male students of color that might otherwise mostly meet in competitive sports activities or watching tv together.

Why is this so important? Fear of, and shame around, failure makes it difficult to reach out for support or even ask questions for many, but especially bad for historically marginalized groups. Therefore it is super important to create a culture that doesn’t feed doubts about belonging, for example by triggering stereotype threat.

Other challenges to students feeling welcome are that there is a lot of knowledge about how universities work that is never made explicit. For example, students are often not aware of the function and importance of forming good study groups, so they might miss out on the opportunities of peer learning as well as building networks (especially risky for first generation students, who might even feel that working with others is a form of cheating, because they’ve had to rely on themselves and work all alone for all of their educational career so far). So it is really helpful to explain the benefit of group work, and that it is actually encouraged.

And as a teacher, we can for example make sure to say what office hours are and not just when they are. Office hours could also be called, for example, student hours, so it becomes more clear that they are about and for students, not about the teacher sitting in their office. Ideally, office hours would be held not even in the office, but in a public space / meeting room central to where students work. That way they are easier to access and find, and the threshold to going there and meeting with the teacher is lower. (A public space is also great if students don’t feel comfortable being alone in a room with the teacher…). A teacher can also encourage that students come in groups to make them more comfortable, and use the opportunity to mentor them into peer-learning.

The whole “genuine welcome and care” point is about not making assumptions about what students probably know (including that they should know they belong), but rather being open to seeing what they might need support with, and then providing that support.

2. Inspiration to learn

Very loosely compiling ideas from this book, the advice for how to inspire students to learn could be summarized in three points:

A. Encourage belief in own capabilities

First, students need to believe that they actually have the capabilities to learn, and to learn at university level. Especially for students who come from non-academic households, but also for others, this might not be a given! We can encourage belief in own capabilities by asking “what are things you have worked towards & achieved”, doesn’t matter whether academically or not, to help students see that they have actually achieved something. Also acknowledging “you don’t realize how much you have learned because I keep throwing these new and hard ideas at you” is a good idea. In the excellent book by Lang (2021)), a couple more good ideas are given, like for example “asset spotlighting” or “name the good work”.

Of course, both teachers and peer-tutors need to be trained for this, and for example to not just give answers to questions right away, but recognize e.g. fixed mindsets & know how to support cultivating a growth mindset.

As one challenge to belief in one’s own capabilities the authors mention the “imposter syndrome” on which I would like to push back a little by mentioning this excellent article “Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome“, because “imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.” Nevertheless, making students aware that they are likely thinking that everybody else is smarter than they really are, and that they themselves are not as smart as they really are, might be helpful.

B. Help students get excited about learning in general

I love this point! Learning is exciting, and students should feel that. We can model that learning new things — and generally having the identity of being a learner — is awesome. Sharing excitement is part of teaching for transformative experiences (and one of my main motivation for all the #WaveWatching and “KitchenOceanography I do). And also beyond the classroom we can create conditions for sustained and rekindled excitement, for example by creating communities of students early on and considering where/how students meet outside of class.

C. High standards coupled with offers of support

Articulating high standards coupled with offers of support has been shown to be key for students taking on feedback and acting on it, especially when the feedback comes from a majority member towards a member of a historically marginalized group. In the same vain, the authors recommend to “value engagement over prestige” and “becoming smart over being smart”. Again, modeling the behavior is key here: normalize help-seeking behavior (more on that in the excellent book by Lang (2021)) is especially important for students that are not used to looking or asking for, or accepting help.

3. Web of significant relationships

Students who have mentors do better, and it is not random who typically has mentors. First-gen students, for example, tend to have fewer or no mentors than continuing generation students. To level the playing field, we can aim for a “web of significant relationships” for all students. Not just each student having one mentor, but an environment where students have frequent opportunities to connect with each other and staff in different ways, both to be exposed to many different types of people but also to find the ones that they match best with. The goal is therefore to build a diverse community where people interact in all kinds of different roles: As supervisors or mentors, teachers or friends; and for different purposes: For inspiration or information, challenge or guidance. (Doesn’t this remind you of the ideas behind our mentoring map?) Of course, students need more help to develop this web, for example through programs that match students with older peers, or groups for minority students to build community.

But the most important thing we can do as teachers? Make use of the time when we have all our students in one place to create relationship-rich classrooms.

Teachers alone, no matter how much they try, cannot provide all the relationships and support their students need, and not all relationships can run through them. We need relationships between students inspired and shaped by what teacher does. The classroom is arguably the most important meeting place, especially on commuter campuses (and for how to decide whether to assign groups or let students choose themselves, check out Annika Fjelkner’s PhD thesis)! The one really important thing we can do is to introduce students to, and get them hooked on, peer-mentoring and peer-instruction, so they don’t only use it when explicitly instructed to do so within our classroom, but use the same methods on their own to learn together. Teaching assistants (“learning assistants”! How’s that for a better language?) and peer mentors can act as condensation nuclei for networks, and as connectors between students & teachers.

One excellent point is made in the book: As important as each start is, i.e. each first-year student arriving at university, every new course is a new beginning and should be used as such. For example by making sure to address these four points within the first three weeks:

  1. Learn student names to help build relationships both with the teacher and between students (and use name tents! See excellent article here)
  2. Return assignment with formative feedback so students get an idea of where they stand and how they can improve
  3. Articulate high standards coupled with offers of support (See 2c above…)
  4. 10-15 min 1-on-1 meeting with each student (which builds relationships to fall back on if problems arise, and lowers threshold to speak up in class or approach the teacher)

We can also run self-efficacy interventions and explain what they are doing, like what we are currently doing in Bergen: We elicit student concerns about specific courses, and then discuss those concerns in small groups to normalize struggles and instill the belief that they are temporal and surmountable.

Also we can have systems in place to make sure “failure” doesn’t become a bigger issue than it actually is, for example by inviting students who fail to retake tests in instructor’s office, so they get the opportunity for tailored mentoring. Also send personal emails with feedback, tips, & availability, all implicitly and explicitly saying “Come and see me, don’t disappear”. (For how to scale this up for large classes in online learning, read my summary here)

For students to feel welcomed and cared for among each other, it is important to consider the availability of, and if necessary provide space and frameworks for genuine interactions — beyond competing in sports or watching something together.

Institutions can support all this by trying to not have a high turn-over of staff, so relationships can form over many years, and staff also has the capacity to invest in relationships because they are not so consumed by figuring out what is going on and where they fit into the bigger puzzle.

4. Explore questions of meaning & purpose

This principle I find super important and often completely underdeveloped, both because many students don’t have anyone in their networks to ask them question that start thoughts or conversations on meaning and purpose (see above for the importance of networks and how to create them…), and because many teachers don’t see that this should happen in their specific course, or that they might want to have those kind of conversations outside of their courses. Especially in courses where it might be most crucial to help students find meaning and purpose, i.e. first year lectures on (for our geoscience or engineering study programs) supporting subjects like maths and physics where there is a lot of content that needs to be somehow conveyed, in a very short period of time, to a lot of students from different study program at once, possibly by teachers for whom the subject they are teaching carries a very different meaning than for the students that have to “endure” it. So what can we do, in those and all other courses?

There are a lot of experiences out there for example with students writing e-portfolios on questions like “who am I and who am I becoming?” or even “who are you becoming for other people, not just for yourself?”, where those questions are integrated in the course and re-appear in conversations with peer-mentors, in advising processes, and in undergraduate research experiences. Of course, this requires a lot of effort and time commitment, and a framework beyond what just one teacher can easily implement on their own. But a seed could be planted even with “small teaching” (see my blog post on the excellent book by Lang (2021)), for example by asking students to reflect on those questions in minute papers or their connection notebooks.

Another way to explore meaning and purpose is to build students’ lives into all aspects of the courses, the activities, homeworks, assessments, … to support transfer of disciplinary content into their actual lives (hello, #WaveWatching and #KitchenOceanography! And also hello teaching that aims at engaging head, heart, and hands).

And I think one of the most important aspects make meaningful conversations with students more likely is that we as teachers need to also be willing to open up and potentially show vulnerability. How else can we expect it from our students?

So these were my main take-aways from the book. Check it out yourself, all the small case studies and examples from practice make it an inspiring read!

Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.

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  1. Pingback: Connections are everything! (Currently reading: Felten et al., 2023) - Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching

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