The Knowledge

Research: How can we improve our relationships with students?

Three studies point to some strategies with the potential to build better rapport with students and improve their results too, writes Harry Fletcher-Wood

Three studies point to some strategies with the potential to build better rapport with students and improve their results too, writes Harry Fletcher-Wood

27 Sep 2021, 5:00

By this point in the school year, we’ve made some sense of our new classes. We know who’s enthusiastic, who’s sceptical and who’s unsure. Often, this leaves us wondering how we can reach some students, how we can build a better relationship with an individual or group.   

Some things are obvious: listening, being firm but fair, explaining our actions. But beyond the obvious, can research tell us anything more about improving relationships? I went looking for an answer, and found three studies with interesting prospects for classroom application. 

The first comes from a review of the field of ‘relationship science’ by Harry Reis, which led him to conclude that responsiveness was of paramount importance. Responsiveness, he argued, meant feeling that others were doing four key things: 

  • Understanding and appreciating what matters to you 
  • Being aware of, and responsive to, you and your needs 
  • Offering care and support 
  • Being warm 

Much of the research he cited looked at family relationships, but he also described relationships in public service. For example, researchers found that patients reported better health outcomes when they felt their doctor was more responsive. So being more responsive seems to improve relationships; being unresponsive – even if we’re trying to be helpful – doesn’t. 

The better relationships these promote seem likely to help students achieve more as a result

The second study concerned similarity – a key factor in promoting our sense of liking someone. When we have something in common with another person, we tend to like them more – even when that thing is as arbitrary as a birthday, or a favourite sports team.   

This doesn’t appear immediately useful. After all, we can’t change our birthday or favourite team, and our advanced age limits how much we are likely to have in common with our students.   

But researchers at Harvard found a clever way to use similarity to build relationships. They asked teachers and students to answer a series of questions, such as, what they looked for in a friend, and what sporting event they’d want to go to next. Then, researchers told students five things they had in common with their teacher, and told the teachers five things they had in common with each student.   

In essence, researchers had found –  or created – new similarities. Compared to control groups, teachers and students saw themselves as more similar. Teachers liked their students more – and students got higher grades. And what’s more, the effects were strongest for minority students: teachers reported interacting with them more, and they gained higher grades.   

So much for building better relationships, but another key factor is to not let them fall apart again. For example, students often perceive teachers’ feedback as personally motivated criticism. This means they don’t benefit from the feedback – and relationships get worse. So what can we do to make feedback palatable, and strengthen relationships? 

In a series of experiments, researchers tried tackling students’ perceptions of feedback. For example, researchers asked teachers to mark students’ work as normal – then added handwritten post-its saying either “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them”, or “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”   

Students who received the first note were more likely to resubmit work, received higher grades, and trusted the school more.  And, as in the previous study, the effect was strongest among minority students.   

The researchers argued that critical feedback “must be conveyed as a reflection of the teacher’s high standards and not their bias”, and the student must be assured that they have “the potential to reach these high standards”.   

While this study applies to feedback, there’s no reason not to apply the same principle to other classroom situations. 

Taken together, I find these studies encouraging. There are specific strategies we can pursue to improve relationships in class: being responsive, identifying our commonalities and defusing those tricky moments. 

The better relationships these promote are worthwhile in themselves – and seem likely to help students achieve more as a result.  

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