New tool helps define student-teacher relationships

Good student-teacher relationships in higher education create a positive learning environment. This has been scientifically proven, and many people have experienced this first-hand, such as when they see a disagreeable professor make students want to drop a class. But what underpins these educational relationships, and what causes a teacher to be liked? Can these factors be measured in an objective manner? “Although many studies have shown how student-teacher relationships affect learning during higher education, analyses of this relationship are often limited to a single dimension such as warmth or the teacher’s behavior, or to verbal and non-verbal signs of empathy and enthusiasm,” says Roland Tormey, a senior scientist and researcher at EPFL’s College of Humanities. “This is problematic because such interpretations can vary depending on the social and cultural context.”

The importance of emotions

In response, Tormey, who also heads up EPFL’s Teaching Support Center, developed the Classroom Affective Relationships Inventory (CARI) – a new tool for assessing the emotional aspect of student-teacher relationships. His research was recently published in Higher Education. Up to now, although the significance of the emotional aspect in higher education has been increasingly acknowledged, there has been no objective tool to measure it. In creating the CARI, Tormey drew on the work of psychologists Jennifer Jenkins and Keith Oatley, who have shown that the social-emotional distance between people stems from the feelings of affiliation (warmth/affection), attachment (safety/security), and assertion, sense of power (position within a social hierarchy) created by their relationship.

It was interesting to see that a positive response to a class correlates in large part to the admiration, respect, sense of trust and safety that the student feels towards the teacher.

Roland Tormey, senior scientist and researcher at EPFL’s College of Humanities

“Affection and empathy are integral to the social bonds that connect us and are central to the idea of affinity. Feelings of safety and trust are also important in a classroom relationship; if students are anxious and fearful of their teacher, they’re less likely to behave in a way that promotes learning. As for the last dimension, students generally value the respect and admiration they feel towards their teacher,” says Tormey.

CARI uses a questionnaire to measure these three dimensions on a seven-point scale that ranges from “not at all” to “very much.” Students are asked to rate the extent to which their professor can be associated with 15 terms such as “impressive,” “trustworthy,” “influential” and “compassionate.”

Respect and trust

Tormey tested the questionnaire with 851 Bachelor’s students at EPFL. “The data showed that a three-dimensional model is effective in this approach, and that there is a strong link between the emotional quality of a student-teacher relationship and the student’s satisfaction with the class, even in the fields of science and engineering and in large classes,” he says. “It was also interesting to see that a positive response to a class correlates in large part to the admiration, respect, sense of trust and safety that the student feels towards the teacher. Therefore, contrary to what you might expect, teachers who appear the most likeable are not necessarily those who receive top ratings. Similarly, teachers who are just starting out are sometimes advised to not seem too cheerful in the first few weeks, if they are to earn the respect of their students. Our study shows that smiling and appearing competent are two completely separate things.”

Because the EPFL students’ questionnaires were anonymized, Tormey can’t know whether class size, subject area, or a student or teacher’s background play a significant role in the perceived emotional quality of the student-teacher relationship. He therefore hopes that universities, researchers and educators will use his tool to conduct further studies, especially since CARI can be used in a variety of socio-cultural settings. The questionnaire can also be a method for teachers to get high-quality feedback quickly. “By measuring the three emotional dimensions of the student-teacher relationship, CARI lets teachers more accurately pinpoint what makes a difference,” says Tormey.

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
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