You might have noticed that I am exploring different concepts of what makes a good teacher-student relationship recently: belonging, caring, and most recently, trust. Why am I not just picking one? Short answer is that teacher-student relationships are really complicated, and those three are only some of the facets that are important, but there is no understanding yet of how they overlap or interact. Below I am writing a review of two articles that show just how many other factors are involved and how complicated it is to understand what’s going on.
Hagenauer & Volet (2014) is a (not very recent any more) review of the literature on teacher-student relationships at university. The motivation is that is important to humans to feel that they belong, and in an university context, how this sense of belonging can be fostered, is important to understand for at least three reasons:
- Universities world-wide have high drop-out rates, possibly related to students not feeling like they belong. This is expensive both in terms of money and in possibly negative impacts on the students’ self-efficacy etc.
- Also teachers need to feel that they belong, and positive relationships with students could help there.
- If we want excellent education, we need to understand “the quality, establishment, and effects of social factors”, that all contribute to learning.
They give an overview over the current state of research on four themes:
The quality of teacher-student relationships
Even though the literature generally acknowledges its importance, there is no conceptual framework that actually explains what makes a high quality teacher-student relationship. There are some reported positive or negative experiences of the relationship, but no generalizable dimensions (although two dimensions are suggested: the affective dimension about the bond and often about “caring behavior” or approachability of the teacher; and the support dimension about e.g. teachers answering emails promptly or setting clear expectations). Also, relationships can not only be bad because they are distant, they can also get too close when they develop into for example friendships or sexual relationships rather than professional relationships, but the “optimal range” is not clear. And when studies tried to measure something to determine the quality of a relationship, it was most often the frequency of interaction (because that’s easiest to measure, I guess), which does not actually say anything about the quality of the interaction or about the relationship.
The consequences of teacher-student relationships on students and teachers
Low sense of belonging has been linked to student dropout and other negative consequences, a sense of belonging to retention, well-being, and a lot more. For teachers, negative relationships with students have been reported and they were obviously unpleasant, but there is no research on what the consequences of that are (as of when this report was published in 2014).
The development of teacher-student relationships based on interactions
Positive relationships can only form if there are interactions, but studies show that there are typically very few interactions outside of the classroom, and that most students never make use of a teacher’s office hours or try to otherwise get in personal contact, because students are not sure whether the lecturers even want to talk to them (see approachability above!), if they have time, and what the benefit of talking to a teacher would even be. Students also sometimes perceive interactions as not worth the effort, especially if they would have to find a teacher in a different building and didn’t have a clear agenda for the meeting and are not aware of the potential benefits. However, interactions also do happen inside the classroom, especially in seminars or other interactive teaching formats, and we can of course also create opportunities specifically for the purpose of relationship-building.
In summary, this article argues for research that produces more and better conceptual frameworks. And keep in mind that this article is almost 10 years old, so a bit has happened since then!
For example, one thing that has happened is the study by Hagenauer, Muehlbacher, & Ivanova (2023). There, they report on others’ research on the student perspective on the relationships (mostly beneficial as long as it stays appropriate) and they then investigate teacher-student relationships from the teacher’s perspective.
They identify several indicators of positive, professional (was support in Hagenauer & Volet, 2014) student-teacher relationships: mutuality (teachers being organized, enthusiastic, reliable; students being engaged and showing effort), teachers’ care, approachability, support, fairness. There is a power imbalance between students and teachers, and teachers suggested flattening the hierarchy through more informal interactions (which is not without problems — for example, moving to Norway, many students are surprised that on the surface there seems to be no hierarchy, but then in the end teachers still hold all the power. The cues for how big a hierarchy is are very much culturally dependent!); being open and friendly, honest and respectful. On the other dimension, interpersonal (was affective in Hagenauer & Volet, 2014) relationship, teachers report very different ideas of what the optimal level of closeness to students is, for example whether or not it is appropriate to hand out personal phone numbers. But there is obviously a large overlap between those two dimensions.
There are two important categories of factors that can help or hinder the development of good student-teacher relationships: contextual (university conditions like whether there is a good climate or high pressure, number of students, how early on a Monday or late on a Friday a course happens, whether students are interested in or afraid of the subject) and personal (personalities, different needs depending on cultural background, students’ and teacher’s gender, age, status, etc, with often a focus to support less privileged students more; but also classroom dynamics). And of course many of those factors might, for the same teacher-student pair, vary over time, too. It’s complicated! And this means that teachers need to have role clarity for themselves, and communicate it to their students, too.
So that’s it for today on teacher-student relationships. It’s complicated!
Hagenauer, G., & Volet, S. E. (2014). Teacher–student relationship at university: an important yet under-researched field. Oxford review of education, 40(3), 370-388.
Hagenauer, G., Muehlbacher, F., & Ivanova, M. (2023). “It’s where learning and teaching begins‒is this relationship”—insights on the teacher-student relationship at university from the teachers’ perspective. Higher Education, 85(4), 819-835.