The teacher-learner relationship

The relationship between a teacher and student is complex and dynamic, making it impossible  to pin down an “ideal” example of such a relationship; however, it can be constructive to explore the characteristics that enable and promote effective learning.

Necessary and sufficient:

  1. Trust – Any positive relationship depends on a certain level of trust, and this one is no different. Specifically, the student must obviously trust that the knowledge and experience of the teacher is both accurate and valuable, and both parties must be able to trust that the other is applying an honest effort toward the creation of learning.
  2. Effort – Both parties must apply some effort towards the learning process. Real progress cannot be expected if either party simply “shows up” and waits passively for learning to happen.
  3. Open communication – It is obvious that some communication must occur for knowledge to be transferred from one person to another.  It is especially helpful if the channels for this communication are clear of obstructions like confusing language or terminology. In many instances, it can also help to be clear and open about the learning process itself; for example, many engineering students regularly feel cheated upon entering the real world and learning that no real engineer actually ever uses many of the governing equations they were taught. If the context of the material being taught were made more clear – e.g. “you’ll never use this in real life, but look how mathematical simplification can obscure complexity and give us predictions we can actually use – the student is more likely to pay attention in the first place, and retain the understanding later.

Bonus traits:

  1. Actual knowledge – Optional! Of course this helps, but any two people can share their understanding of a topic about which neither has any prior knowledge. Provided good buy-in and communication from both parties, this is probably one of the most effective ways of generating new ideas and thorough understanding.
  2. Clear goals – this is similar to the above-mentioned openness about the learning process.
  3. Appreciation of learning styles

What are your thoughts on the ideal student-teacher relationship?  How about examples of the good and bad that you’ve experienced before?

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6 responses to “The teacher-learner relationship

  1. Is it possible to build a trusting relationship in a few weeks of classes? Or is trust something that only truly blossoms after months?

    • I think a minimum of trust needed for learning (i.e. “this guy knows what he’s talking about, and he is at least trying to teach me”) could be obtained before even meeting. But it could also be destroyed in a first impression, so it’s admittedly fragile.

      But you make a great point that a more lasting and effective trust built over time undoubtedly enhances the experience for both parties.

  2. @chrismgowen So what are some ways that have been effective for you in building trust in a course…? Do we also need to build trust with peers engaged in learning in the same course? Do you find value in peer learning? Seems like trust might span this enterprise…

    • First,that is a great observation that inter-student trust is hugely beneficial to the learning environment. This is why I think it works so well to encourage working on homework in groups outside of class. It fosters a team environment in which the instructor can “get away with” giving more and harder problem sets or reading assignments than what would overwhelm a single student. The trust that’s built outside of class then returns to class and opens up dialog and reduces anxiety.

      As for your first question, my teaching experience has been limited to a few grading-only TA-ships and a month-long summer intro to chemistry class here at VCU in which I led a problem solving breakout session with about 20 students. If I’m honest with myself, i did not make a very strong effort towards building trust there. That’s not to say that the rapport was bad, but there was certainly room for improvement. Specifically, the students in that class (like all incoming freshmen) had a very stiff resistance to anything that resembled work. This was compounded by the fact that this was a summer course worth no actual credit. Classroom management was a problem.

      The plan was that students would work in groups of 4-5 on problem sets, and I would be available to answer questions both individually and for the entire class. In reality, they only looked at the problem sets when I was standing at their group asking questions. They naturally thought this was tremendously boring, and I shut down in a way. I few times I tried to connect through what I’ve just learned might be called “verbal immediacy,” in which i broke the wall of “instructor” and spoke very frankly about their motivation and why the class was important to them (they were struggling with some very fundamental aspects of math and chemistry and were in for a world of hurt if they didn’t take this time to improve those areas). This is the type of feedback I grew up with and respond to, but I’m afraid it may have come across a little harsh. More should have been done on the front end on my part to create a relationship in which that motivation would be better received, and I should have kept my pride and frustration out of it.

      In stark contrast to this experience, one of my favorite – if informal – teaching roles was as an undergrad. I was in the marching band at Clemson all of my four years there, and served two years as the trumpet section leader, leading warmups, directing sectional practice sessions, etc. This was one of the most fun and satisfying experiences of my life. It became easy to teach because everyone was for the most part on the same page and willing to put forth the effort. They trusted that I was fair and would treat them with respect. They were my friends, but I could somehow also yell at them to get in line or whatever, and they could come to me with questions or suggestions. There are elements of that experience I would want in all of my future teaching roles.

  3. Granted, you are speaking of teach/student relationships at a mostly university level, but I have learned that having a good sense of humor (to disarm bad attitudes or reluctance) and both parties being able to give/take criticism constructively helps, too.

  4. Great observation. A positive culture where egos are set aside for the sake of a common goal is crucial for progress in any environment, no less in the classroom. Humor is a great way to signal that it’s ok to be honest about what could be better so that changes can be made.

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