Encouraging Good Student Contact

The primary tenet of good undergraduate teaching is "encourage student-faculty contact." At least that's how important it is to Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, whose book, Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1991), ranks best practices (www.msu.edu/user/coddejos/seven.htm).

Few deny the desirability of more interaction. But the devil is in the details. How can a single professor interact meaningfully with 100, 200, or 300 students each term, and simultaneously have a life? How can students interact with 5, 10, or 15 professors, and simultaneously have a life?

For me, the key is to avoid contact for contact's sake. Instead, design courses and curricula to move through three distinct stages of contact. At first, contact must emphasize trust building: Students must trust that their professors care about their learning, and professors must come to trust that students have the ability and desire to learn. Once trust is built, the danger is too much low-productivity contact. During the second stage, students must be guided toward contact that is focused on the distinctive expertise of their professor. At stage three, students must be encouraged to rely less upon frequent contact with their professors. They need to build self respect and alternative support networks.

One of my pet peeves is the tendency for our smallest classes to be concentrated in the senior year, at the very time when students need comparatively less help from their professors. But that subject is for another day.

Let's focus on the individual course. Contact for the sake of trust-building will usually be concentrated in the first several weeks, and then taper off. Contact that emphasizes independence will usually build to its zenith at the end of the course. Focused contact will be emphasized throughout, with its highest concentration during the heart of the course. The exact mix of types of contact will vary by professorial style, student need, institutional ethos, subject matter, length of term, available technology, and the level of the course. And the three stages are not discrete.

Some of the strategies for building trust through student-faculty contact might include:

  • Ask students to complete a pre-course survey, preferably electronically.
  • E-mail a welcome to each student, prior to the first class.
  • Build a personal Web site that allows students to know you better as a professional and as a person.
  • Sometime during the term, individually e-mail each student a word of encouragement.

To facilitate coaching and clarification contact:

  • Ask each student to e-mail their "muddiest point," or their most confusing area in the assigned readings.
  • Encourage students to sign up online for face-to-face office hours.
  • Create an FAQ file for the course.
  • Around class time, arrive early and linger after class.

To promote and encourage mature partnership contact:

  • Inform the students when you are transitioning toward independence.
  • Encourage students to check with each other before consulting you.
  • Encourage former students to volunteer as consultants to current class members.
  • Continue communicating through listserv or group e-mail with members of a class, even after the term is over.
  • Create a departmental Web site about career opportunities in the field, and urge students to consult it.

Contact for the sake of trust. Contact for the sake of coaching and clarification. Contacts characteristic of a mature partnership. Technology enhances possibilities in all three domains.

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