Student-Faculty Interaction: What the Research Tells Us
by Peter Felten
This post is adapted from chapter 5 of A. Cook-Sather, C. Bovill, and P. Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2014).
Decades of research indicates that close interaction between faculty and students is one of the most important factors in student learning, development, engagement, and satisfaction in college (Astin, 1993; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt, 2005). Indeed, frequent and meaningful student-faculty contact is a central characteristic of all high-impact educational practices (Kuh, 2008).
Emerging scholarship highlights the power of approaching this interaction as a form of partnership. Such an orientation often is unusual in higher education because of the real (and important) distance between the roles of faculty and of students. However, partnership does not require participants to be the same; instead, it is a reciprocal relationship where partners each make significant contributions toward a common aim.
Partnership is a highly flexible practice (for an overview, see this short blog post), that provides faculty and other staff with a way to productively view all of their interactions with students – through a partnership lens. In addition to the classroom, a partnership lens is applicable to the many other spaces where faculty engage in rich partnerships with students, including mentoring undergraduate research, facilitating service-learning, designing and leading study-abroad experiences, and advising living-learning communities.
In the new book Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching, Alison Cook-Sather, Cathy Bovill, and I synthesize research on student-faculty partnerships. We conclude that partnerships tend to produce similar outcomes for both students and faculty. Since students and faculty are so different, these shared outcomes might seem surprising. However, partnership’s roots in reciprocity and shared responsibility create a solid foundation for all participants to learn and grow in similar ways.
We identified three clusters of outcomes from this work:
(1) Engagement – Partnerships tend to enhance motivation and learning for students and faculty. Specifically, partnerships deepen students’ learning, increase their confidence, and focus them on the process rather than simply the product of learning. For faculty, partnerships often produce new thinking about and understanding of teaching, enhanced enthusiasm in the classroom, and a reconceptualization of teaching and learning as a collaborative process.
(2) Awareness – Partnerships also develop metacognitive awareness and an evolved sense of identity in both student and faculty participants. Students become more reflective about their own roles in learning and teaching, and think in new ways about their own capacities as a student. Faculty partners see both their teaching and themselves as teachers in new ways.
(3) Enhancement – This set of outcomes emerges from the previous two, yielding enhanced teaching and classroom experiences. As a result of partnership, students become more active as learners and take more responsibility for their own learning. Faculty have increased empathy for their students, better understanding their experiences and needs.
In short, partnerships tend to make both students and faculty more thoughtful, engaged, and collegial as they go about their work and life on campus. While partnership certainly is not a panacea, emerging research suggests that it fosters precisely the kinds of student-faculty interactions that are so important for learning – and for the broader aims of higher education.
Astin, A. W. What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., and Felten, P. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.
Kuh, G.D. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008.
Kuh, G., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., and Whitt, E. J. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Peter Felten is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and associate professor of history.