Faculty-Student Interactions: The
Research starting in the ’70s consistently and
repeatedly documents the value of faculty-student interaction,
especially when that interaction occurs outside the classroom. These
studies tell us that such interactions help students make better career
choices, aid students’ personal growth, and make it more likely that
students will graduate from college. Surprisingly, other than knowing
that interaction with faculty benefits students, few details about the
nature of those exchanges are known. The research cited below aimed to
uncover more about the kind of exchanges that occur between faculty and
This study is interesting for a number of reasons. First, these
researchers did not use the quantitative methods that are most often
used to analyze faculty-student interaction. Rather, they opted for a
multi-method qualitative approach that included focus groups, individual
interviews, and observations. Also of interest is the site of the study:
a residential college within a large public university. In an attempt to
cultivate faculty-student exchanges, 40 faculty members agreed to
participate in a number of college-wide events such as dinners, teas,
lectures, and banquets. To encourage student participation, all of these
events were free, but student attendance was not required.
When analyzing the data, the researchers identified five different kinds
of faculty-student interactions. Although each type was unique, the
interactions were not isolated or unrelated. Rather, the researchers
describe them as occurring “along a fluid, contextually influenced
continuum.” (p. 350) Here are a few details about each type.
Disengagement—In this case, interaction between faculty
and students did not occur. “Our study revealed that, despite
institutionally established conduits through which interaction could
occur, the majority of the students and faculty members were not engaged
with one another outside the classroom.” (p. 351) Often the interaction
did not occur simply because faculty were not present at events.
Researchers never observed more then eight of the 40 faculty associates
at any of the events designed to promote faculty-student exchanges. Even
more surprising, when faculty did attend those events, they often
interacted with each other and not with students. Researchers observed
this at every event they attended. “Even when they were in the same room
at events, faculty and students tended not to interact with one
another.” (p. 352)
This lack of interaction has been confirmed by other research, including
the very large National Survey of Students Engagement (NSSE). Of the
five benchmarks for effective educational practice, faculty-student
interaction occurs less frequently than all but one other benchmark.
Incidental Contact—After no interaction, the second
most common type of faculty-student interaction was incidental or
unintentional. These are interactions that include polite greetings or
maybe a wave of recognition. Researchers use the adjectives “trivial”
and “perfunctory” (p. 352) to describe these exchanges. However, even
these brief exchanges and the mere presence of faculty members at events
were mentioned by students in focus groups, and students described even
these short exchanges appreciatively.
Functional Interaction—“Functional interaction occurs
for a specific, institutionally related purpose.” (p. 353) These were
exchanges mostly about academic or intellectual issues. Students
frequently initiated this kind of dialog by asking a question. The value
of these exchanges was that they frequently led to more interaction.
Faculty and students discovered a common interest, or the answer to a
first question led to a second question and still more discussion.
Personal Interaction—Typically these personal
interactions developed out of the functional exchanges. The outcome was
the beginning of a relationship between professor and student. It became
personal rather than purely professional. In focus groups, students
repeatedly talked about how much these exchanges meant to them. They
reported feeling valued and important when a professor invited them to
coffee, spoke with them about their interest in their discipline, or
just talked about a range of issues related to life. These interactions
served to “humanize” professors and students.
Mentoring—This type of interaction was found least
often in this study. Using a definition from previous research that
proposes the presence of mentoring when the professor provides direct
assistance with career and professional development, emotional and
psychosocial support, and role modeling (p. 356), researchers in this
study found only one faculty-student relationship that qualified as
mentoring. Despite the observed absence of mentoring, interviewed
faculty frequently described what they did for and with students as
The researchers conclude that the most significant finding from their
analysis of faculty-student interaction was the lack of it—and
interaction was absent “within a well-funded residential college
intentionally designed to foster meaningful interactions between
students and faculty members outside of class.” (p. 357)
This study is helpful in its characterization of the types of
faculty-student interaction. It should also motivate all faculty to
recommit themselves to interactions with students. In the busyness of
faculty life, it is easy to forget just how important and significant
even a brief exchange can be for a student.
Reference: Cox, B. E. and Orehovec, E. (2007). Faculty-student
interaction outside the classroom: A typology from a residential
college. The Review of Higher Education, 30 (4), 343-362.
Copyright © 2007 Magna Publications. Reproduction in whole or in part
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