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Is developing meaningful relationships with students part of the academic’s role?

In an environment focused on outcomes and scores, it is easy to lose track of what is essentially important in Higher Education. Too often there is a reference to students within the context of statistics and their progression is linked to targets. However, being at university and its transformative quality encompasses much more than that.

It is that learning environment which promotes a sense of self worth, increases confidence and has an impact on our wellbeing. Stronge (2007) argues that social interactions between learners and academics are of great significance to promote an effective learning environment. I think that these relationships are the basis from which students can then go on to learn not only academic skills, but much more than that. However, for this to happen these relationships should be based on legitimate interest and real concern for students and their welfare.

Within a humanistic approach, we should place the wellbeing of all learners at the centre. But, how are we as academics to value or understand learners’ aspirations or what motivates them, if we do not get to know them?

I think it is a vital component of our role to develop a student centred attitude where effective and meaningful relationships with students are forged (Rogers 2003). The way in which students are recognised and even valued, is integral to the development of their self-esteem as it is easier to be receptive and therefore learn, when there is rapport between academics and learners.

But how can we develop and nourish these types of relationships? Well I have been reading and reflecting about it for a long time and I have come up with some ideas based on relevant theory, my observations from other people’s practice as well as my own.

  • We can provide an inclusive environment that thrives on enabling students to identify, articulate and develop their own needs.
  • We can create opportunities for active listening, a commonly used term within education, which basically means, listening with a purpose (Wallace 2007).
  • Another idea could be to allow students to share their ideas and freely contribute to the learning environment. Wallace (2007) points out that teaching and supporting should not be a battle between academics and students.
  • Academics should provide an environment where everybody is part of the team, and encourage a sense of community and shared purpose (Huddlestone 1997). I suppose this is similar to the point above, but at the end of the day we are all peers in a learning journey. Understanding this rather than having a “we-they” attitude can avoid causing conflict and separation (Plax and Kearney 1999 p. 269).
  • We should take into account individual needs, cultural differences and learning preferences.
  • Being genuine and fair are also important. In the same way that rapport could be quite difficult to fake, so could be firmness and authority. And even though some academics may disagree, class management and genuine cooperation can be achieved without the need of being intimidating.
  • Taking time to build relationships. Mendler (2001,p. 62) asserts that if academics and students have the opportunity to develop relationships over time and create a “sense of collegiality”, the process of learning becomes a team effort. Students, then feeling a sense of belonging will also feel empowered.
  • Making sure that learners are being treated with respect at all times and from the first encounter is also very important. I am a great believer that we should treat everyone as we would like to be treated.
  • Empathising with students and their problems with compassion, care and a nurturing attitude.

In conclusion and to answer the title of this post, I think yes, it is part of our role to take the time to develop meaningful relationships with our students to help them to succeed. This is not always possible due to class sizes or teaching commitments but I think that it is well worth the effort as it will make our experience much more interesting and fulfilling and the students’ experience all the better.

I will be sharing some more of these ideas in various posts, some I have presented in various conferences and papers, others are new ideas I have been thinking about recently which I hope you find interesting and useful.

For now, back to my studies to get ready for the VIVA!

Thank you for reading and remember to smile and spread the joy on this wonderful ride that is life.


  • Hudleston, P., 1997. Teaching and Learning in Further Education. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Plax, T. G., And Kearney, P., 1999. Classroom management: contending with college student discipline. In: A. L. Vangelisti et al. (Eds). Teaching communication: Theory Research and methods. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. p. 269-286.
  • Mendler, A. N., 2001. Connecting with students. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Rogers, C. R., 2003. Client- centered therapy. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
  • Stronge, J. H., 2007. Qualities of Effective Academics. (2nd Edition). Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
  • Wallace, S., 2007. Managing behaviour in the lifelong learning sector. (2nd Ed). Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd.

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