Do your students like you? Does being “liked” as an instructor impact your students’ success in adult learning?
As an instructional designer and facilitator of learning, I spend a great deal of time on careful analysis of students, facilitators, learning environment, curriculum and learning objectives before any class takes place. My goal is to create a student-centered learning environment so students are provided with opportunities to master learning; after all, isn’t that the mission of higher education?
Like most good teachers, my head is constantly in a book learning a new theory, principle or current event to tie to the course objectives. As an instructional designer, I have had experiences observing, as well as working with, instructors to discuss pedagogy/andragogy and technology in distance learning. These experiences have given me opportunities to work with talented and skilled instructors who know a great deal about their subjects as well as how great lessons should be delivered. And, yet, I also find instructors who are less concerned with building rapport with students (considered being “liked”), as though it comes with a stigma of not being “respected.”
In terms of instructor-student relationship, observation and feedback have provided me with the insight that great instructors always maintain professional boundaries. The boundaries are invisible lines for instructor-student interaction both during and after class. Professional ethics dictate that interactions will always reflect learning and focus on a student’s progress in a course. As a dedicated instructor, I align with this mandate. Students should be treated fairly and respectfully and anything outside of that realm constitutes a bias and will blur judgment. It is the instructor’s responsibility to keep students safe and focused on their learning objectives. Good instructors are dedicated to this mission as they are passionate about teaching and learning. Yet, we find instructors who adhere to the professional mandate and are labeled as “difficult” in terms of instructor-student interactions. Difficult instructors can be deemed so for many reasons, but it has been my experience that they are those who are inflexible, unmerciful and who seem as though they cannot relate to students. At a time when the unemployment rate teeters between 9 and 10 percent and there are no guarantees of employment, instructors no longer have the luxury of turning a blind eye to retention rates; therefore, being a “difficult instructor” doesn’t serve the student, institution or profession well.
Throughout the course of a semester, instructors hear about a great many “life events” that surface, the reason usually being that these events are preventing a student from completing an assignment or benchmark. It is during these times that the lines of professionalism can be blurred. Instructors want to be fair and also have the wisdom to know that “life events” can impact student motivation. Further, late assignments cause students to get “backed up” and feel overwhelmed, thus further impacting motivation and, potentially, efficacy. Sometimes instructors can appear to be “difficult” when they refuse to accept late work, administer an exam when a student is absent or when they abruptly end a conversation while a student is revealing personal information. From an instructor’s standpoint, this often occurs because the instructor believes that a boundary may be crossed by allowing something outside of the original course outline. Other times, it occurs because instructors are of the philosophy that students are in college to learn their subjects as well as to learn discipline, and that to allow anything else robs the student of the opportunity to develop discipline.
Adult students are at great risk as they juggle full-time jobs, families, bills and a degree program. Some adult students already view themselves as “behind” because they did not complete a degree in the traditional sense (after high school), further impacting feelings of efficacy. Although determined, adult students are at great risk of dropping out due to “life events.” Instructors dedicated to teaching this population must know that a my-way-or-the-highway philosophy can hinder progress and retention for this population. Does this mean this population receives special treatment? The short answer is, no, they don’t.
This population is due a different philosophy altogether. This philosophy stems from adult learning principles where these students need to be taught relevant skills they can immediately link to their life experiences so they can see the need to stay with them. They also need flexibility with regards to deadlines, although they should be held responsible for making a plan with deadlines they believe they can manage within the lesson timeframe. It is this flexibility that provides this population with the faith needed for them to deliver, as set by their own terms. Students who take the reins of their learning will also understand reasonable penalties for deviating from the plan as outlined. Discipline is learned by engaging in the learning, feeling accepted and trusted and completing the assignments successfully; meeting rigid deadlines alone does not indicate discipline.
Over the years and also recently, I have been told that my students “like” me. My students themselves have stated, “You treat everyone the same no matter what,” “You have no idea how instrumental you have been in my life. Your knowledge, expertise and patience made it possible for me to continue pursuing my education. … Your belief in me has allowed me to see how resilient I am when I apply myself and for that I thank you wholeheartedly.” The point here is that a truly student-centered approach works — and it works well. If my students like me, I attribute it to the fact that I have taken the time to understand their learning preferences, prerequisite skills and life experiences in which to apply the appropriate philosophy to facilitate instruction. In fact, I, too, liked and respected many of my instructors (who called themselves facilitators of learning) over the course of three degree programs. Modeling faith, while being fair and maintaining professional boundaries, takes a great deal of patience, planning and additional work time, but has proven time and time again that student success is the goal and priority. Once adult students believe that, they work even harder.
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