Summarizing more literature on trust between students and teachers

The assumption that teacher-student relationships are important has been around for a long time and is probably uncontested. But when it comes to describing what exactly makes a good relationship, there is no consensus yet, and many aspects, like a sense of belonging, or the teacher caring, or trust in teachers, have been investigated. Here comes my summary of some of the relevant literature on trust that students have in teachers, and how that trust can potentially be fostered and grown.

Trust that students have in teachers

Mcfarlane (2009) argues that students taking university courses are taking a “leap of faith”, where they need to trust the institution to accept the promises made to them about job prospects etc, even though the outcome and benefits are not 100% guaranteed. And there might be gaps between what is promised to students and what they (perceive to) get out of attending university, as well as between what students want and what university thinks they want. In this system, teachers are the “personification of the university and its brand imaging“, or as I often say, the “face of the subject”. This implies that depending which teacher students meet, on a good or bad day, or generally connect well with them or not, this might lead to very different impressions of the university as a whole.

Mcfarlane (2009) uses a model developed by McKnight & Chervany (2001) to describe what they mean by trust. In their model, trust consists of four categories:

  • Benevolence means caring and being motivated to act in one’s interest rather than acting opportunistically.
  • Integrity means making good faith agreements, telling the truth, and fulfilling promises.
  • Competence means having the ability or power to do for one what one needs done.
  • Predictability means trustee actions (good or bad) that are consistent enough to be forecast in a given situation

This is very similar to the definition in Hendriks et al. (2016), which is only “missing” predictability. But predictability might actually be relevant in this context: Mcfarlane (2009) shows a table of actions by teachers that might potentially erode student trust, e.g. “changing a course assignment or assessment criteria mid-course“, which is really eroding the predictability of what will happen. Another example mentioned for eroding predictability is “changing established seating patterns“. I find that especially interesting, since that is something that is often recommended for new perspectives (not every day, but occasionally) or to influence group processes, as are many other new teaching methods that change things up. I would think that it doesn’t actually influence the trust in the teacher if they are transparent that this can happen and explain the reasoning? But as Mcfarlane (2009) points out, it might well feel students less safe and that might lead to a loss in trust.

I tried re-coding the Mcfarlane (2009) table of trust-eroding teacher moves (that he coded himself after McKnight & Chervany (2001)), using the McKnight & Chervany (2001) above. I am giving you some of their statements (numbers refer to their numbers in the table) and a little discussion of each:

1. “Canceling or re-scheduling classes or lectures without good reason”

This is coded as benevolence by Mcfarlane (2009). Using the McKnight & Chervany (2001) criteria, I could go with benevolence if the assumption is that the lecturer just didn’t care (rather than that the students did not deem the lecturer’s reasons “good”). I could also go with integrity, because it’s a broken promise to hold the class as scheduled. Could also be that the lecturer is just not competent enough to “do what one needs to do”. Or without any judgment, it’s predictability, because the action wasn’t consistent enough (at least the first time it happened). I personally think the issue for the students is not whether or not there are good reasons to reschedule (which they might not be in a position to decide anyway), it’s that things have become unpredictable.

5. Criticizing a student in the presence of other students or teachers

Mcfarlane (2009) codes this as integrity. I, using McKnight & Chervany (2001), would say it’s about benevolence (i.e. not doing what’s best for the student). I don’t see it as a problem with integrity according to this definition. But it could also be competence as teacher. Me myself, I think it’s a case of missing benevolence.

6. Being an overly harsh or overly lenient assessor

Mcfarlane (2009) don’t code this. Me, using McKnight & Chervany (2001): Overly harsh could be missing benevolence, both could be missing competence as teacher, and compared to other teachers, it could also be predictability. I personally would go with missing competence as teacher.

7. Losing or mislaying student assignments

Mcfarlane (2009) codes this as benevolence, predictability. Me following McKnight & Chervany (2001), I don’t see aspects of benevolence relevant here. Integrity would be the broken (implicit) promise to take care of the assignments. It would also be a sign of incompetence as a teacher. It could be unpredictable, or predictable, depending on how often it happens. I myself would actually go with incompetence, because this is not professional.

So as you see, this framework does not seem to work well, since either I really don’t understand what is meant by the definitions of the components, or they are so unclear that different raters (in this case, Mcfarlane and myself) come to different conclusions, or maybe it is just not appropriate to be used in this context.

But maybe it is also important to distinguish between specific trustworthiness that is just in relation to a certain relationship, and general trustworthiness (McLeod, 2021)?

Zhou (2023) the also reviews definitions of trust for teaching in higher education. They also list different ways to undermine trust and map them on the four categories above, but again these are not sourced from what students report, but from what teachers and academic developers imagine students might feel.

The focus of their article are problems with the “service-management definition of trust” (like for example the one Mcfarlane (2009) uses); for example that “good teaching” is very much culturally and contextually dependent, our trust of a person also being influenced by stereotypes, body language cues, and lots of other biased influences, and that requiring predictability in teaching is pedagogically problematic as discussed above.

They also, like McFarlane’s “leap of faith”, point to “faith” rather than trust, since trust or distrust is often built on an insufficient evidence basis (“predictability” for example requires repeated interactions [or does it? It could also be an expectation based on the role we meet a person in that is not fulfilled, and hence the predictability broken?]).

Anyway, Zhou (2023) suggests a new “network model of trust for higher education teaching” where “trust is a processive action or activity that involves assent and continued engagement over time“. Trust is about what is happening in the communities and institutions around a student: quality co-engagement with peers and teachers increases it, but also more remote events can influence it, like how university handles problems or what external policies influence the university. This makes it, for example, possible to trust a teacher that a student has never met more than not, just because they are employed at LTH (as several students stated in interviews we did), even though at the same time not all individual teachers at LTH might be judged as trustworthy.

There are some studies that investigate trust in specific settings, for example Myers (2004) looking at in-class and out-of-class communication and finding that out-of-class communications are important for trust.

Beltrano, Archer-Kuhn & MacKinnon (2021) do a rapid systematic review on trust in higher education IBL classrooms. Inquiry-based learning requires taking intellectual risks, hence trust should be especially important in that setting.

Thei distinguish between

  • trust between students (through well-facilitated group work)
  • students trusting the educator (sometimes difficult to build because large classes prevent 1:1 interaction)
  • trusting the process (teachers need to explain the method and why they are using it)
  • trust within the institution (if IBL is used in many courses and therefore students can build competences and also feel like it is wanted by the institution)

Karpouza & Emvalotis (2019) investigate relationships between students and teachers and find that “despite the teachers’ hierarchical superiority, [the relationship] is characterised by reciprocating in all its manifestations: mutually wanting to relate, developing characteristics of a meaningful relationship, overcoming obstacles, maintaining boundaries and experiencing the positive outcomes“. They point out that the relationship starts with the first meaningful interaction (whereas Zhou (2023) for example points out that trust can already exist before any interaction, e.g. just by virtue of a teacher being part of the same institution), and that — at least initially — the teacher sets both the tempo and the norms in the developing relationship.

How can trust between students and teachers be fostered?

…obviously by not doing stuff that destroys trust (as identified above by Macfarlan (2009) and Zhou (2023)), or that is likely to distroy relationships, like getting inappropriately close. But trust seems to grow where students and teachers work together to create learning:

Cook-Sather (2002) calls for “Authorizing students’ perspectives”, for which we need to change our mindset as teachers, and also change the structures in how education is organized in relationships and institutions. She argues that we don’t know what it’s like to be a student growing up these days, but we can and should learn about that from and with students.

Felten et al. (2019) suggest including students in academic development: to give formative feedback to individual teachers, as facilitator of academic development workshops, as co-designers of courses and curricula, as actors in multi-institutional collaborations. In formative feedback conversations (or any of the interactions, really), the teacher can build trust with the student, and by extension with the students in their class.

Cook-Sather et al. (2021) then make a concrete suggestion for, and share experiences on, how to develop a new faculty voice and agency through trustful, overlapping, faculty-faculty and student-faculty conversations that they have tested. She describes how students work as consultants in a year-long faculty development program: they observe the teacher’s teaching, talk with enrolled students, meet weekly with the teacher for feedback and discussions, and meet weekly with other student consultants (and herself as facilitator). This program has a big influence on students, who report that they become more confident and engaged, understand the complex system a lot better, and become active agents in their own and other’s development. The main purpose of the project described in the article is faculty development, but it must contribute to mutual trust!

And lastly, our own work in Persson et al. (2023) shows that it really does not take much for students to trust teachers: Basically just show that you want to be there and teach, and don’t be an a**!

Beltrano, N. R., Archer-Kuhn, B., & MacKinnon, S. (2021). Mining for gold and finding only nuggets: attempting a rapid systematic review, on trust in higher education IBL classrooms. Teachers and Teaching27(1-4), 300-315.

Cook-Sather, A. (2002). Authorizing students’ perspectives: Toward trust, dialogue, and change in education. Educational researcher, 31(4), 3-14.

Cook-Sather, A., Hong, E., Moss, T., & Williamson, A. (2021). Developing new faculty voice and agency through trustful, overlapping, faculty-faculty and student-faculty conversations. International Journal for Academic Development, 26(3), 347-359.

Felten, P., Abbot, S., Kirkwood, J., Long, A., Lubicz-Nawrocka, T., Mercer-Mapstone, L., & Verwoord, R. (2019). Reimagining the place of students in academic development. International Journal for Academic Development24(2), 192-203.

Karpouza, E., & Emvalotis, A. (2019). Exploring the teacher-student relationship in graduate education: a constructivist grounded theory. Teaching in higher education, 24(2), 121-140.

Macfarlane, B. (2009). A Leap of Faith: The Role of Trust in Higher Education Teaching. Higher Education Research, 9, pp. 221 – 238.

McKnight, H. D., & Chervany, N. L. (2001). Trust and distrust definitions: One bite at a time. In Trust in cyber-societies: Integrating the human and artificial perspectives (pp. 27-54). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

McLeod, C. (2021). Trust. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: https://plato.stanford. edu/archives/fall2021/entries/trust/.

Myers, S. A. (2004). The relationship between perceived instructor credibility and college student in-class and out-of-class communication. Communication Reports, 17(2)

Persson, P., Glessmer, M. S., Forsyth, R. (2023). ““If I don’t trust my teachers, how can I learn then?” – why LTH students trust teachers, and what we can do to increase their trust”. In LTH’s 12th Pedagogical Inspiration Conference.

Zhou, Z. (2023) “Towards a New Definition of Trust for Teaching in Higher Education,” International, Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 17: No. 2, Article 2. Available at:

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