Three Things to Help Gain Good Rapport with Students

Musicologist, Dr. Ginny Lamothe of Belmont Univ. shares her approach for building good rapport with today’s students both inside and outside of the classroom.

Teaching outside

The relationship between professors and their students is central to not only the learning process for the student, but also to the mental health of the professor.  Too many times I have felt myself or heard others say “Oh, this just isn’t a good group of students.”  Gaining good rapport is difficult with students, especially when college is a new environment for them, they face new responsibilities, and view their lives and the world around them very differently than most professors do. However, the benefits of gaining good rapport with your students can range from better classroom behavior to overall higher assessment scores.

#1 Accept without judgement that this generation of “Millennials” is just a different culture.

I’m so tired of reading articles and blogs about how Millennials are “entitled” and “too into their technology.” I myself am guilty of these complaints early in my career, but I have now learned that entitlement and technology in the hands of millennials are not necessarily bad things.Students questions  Entitlement may create the idea that the student can ask questions – that’s all.  Will they ask inappropriate ones or questions that could easily be answered if the student read the syllabus?  Probably yes, but it is the professor’s job to decide how to handle those questions.  In his book Outliers (2008) Malcolm Gladwell discusses how Millennials may make better choices than people of previous generations do concerning their health and wellbeing because they ask questions.  How to handle this?  Answer their questions – sometimes before they ask.  Try to write a syllabus that explains why there is a late work policy or why they should not be absent from class.

Try to write a syllabus that explains why there is a late work policy or why they should not be absent from class.

The same is true of technology – we should learn to use it for good and not create problems in the classroom.  Let’s face it: your entering freshman student this year has never lived in a world without cell phones, computers, or the internet.  I’ve heard some of the craziest cell phone policies, including one professor who collected all cellphones from the students in a trash can as they entered the classroom.  This is not a good way to build rapport and it goes back to the first problem: they won’t understand why the professor is taking their cell phones (not to mention, in a trash can).  I finally gave up on my “no cellphone” policy and told my students they can have their phones in class as long as they are on their desks, upside down, and set to vibrate.  They know that if they need to make or take a call or text, to go and do it in the hallway.  I expected anarchy, but instead, very few students actually used their phones inappropriately or had to leave to use their phone in the hallway.  I received many comments in my course evaluations that said that I “respected them” instead of the common complaints of “treats us like children when it comes to our phones,” or “doesn’t understand our needs.”  I know I need to check my phone in cases of emergencies, why wouldn’t they?

#2 Let them text message you (and text them back).

This one was really, really, scary for me at first.  I thought “No way am I giving some 19 year old my phone number!” But, I only thought this until I realized the number of emails from students was down by nearly 70% over the course of two semesters.  I didn’t even receive that many texts.  Most of the time, the student texting me only had a quick question that could be answered with a “yes” or “no” answer.  Under 160 characters and totally easy.  Also, students don’t check their email as regularly as they check their text messages. College students on smartphone

We can establish good rapport by using technology in ways that they use it, and respect them when they ask questions.

A great discussion about the impact of “email only” and disconnect in the classroom was written by Carl Straumsheim and posted this year on Inside Higher Ed titled “Read and Unread.” For more information about this phenomenon of new technology and communication, check out the “Further Reading” section I included at the end of this post.  How many times have I turned to my students and said “but didn’t you get any of the emails I sent?” only to be answered by blank faces.  But if I text them “the assignment is on the class website, see you Thursday!” they seem to get the message.  Afraid to receive texts from students, but want to send them?  No problem.  Some cell phones and providers allow for mass texts.  Or, you can use a number of free apps like “GO SMS Pro,” “Textra SMS,” and my favorite, “Mass Text.”  These are very easy to use.  You set up a group with the students’ phone numbers and send them a text all at once.  They cannot text back on most of these apps, so they are great if you only want to send announcements.  Also, it doesn’t hurt to brush up on your emoji skills.  Smiley faces are okay, but you may want to find other fun ones like ice cream cones, palm trees, and unicorns (always a popular choice!).

#3 Spend time (and possibly a little money) to learn their names.

I always have a hard time remembering names, especially of the 90+ students I see on a Tuesday – Thursday schedule let alone all the others I see Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Worse yet, if your class meets once a week then you might just find yourself with students with new haircuts or colors and clothing styles to express themselves every time they walk into the classroom!  I broke down and bought a Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 Instant Camera and several packs of film.  I have to admit, these cameras are so much fun and work just like the old Kodak Polaroid cameras we non-millennials remember from growing up.  I take a picture of every student on the first day of class and write the name they prefer to be called by underneath the picture.  Then, I mount them on poster paper for each class and put them on my office walls.  Despite the fact that they look like a “most wanted” list of mugshots, they really do help.

Students holding up picture framesI’ve also asked student to write “short biographies” for me and include a picture of themselves.  I tell them to get creative… and then I have more glitter and sequins on my office floor than the rehearsal stages for our musical theater program.  I make the “biography” part of their grade which they have told me they really appreciate.  I learn all kinds of great things about them and see them as unique people so much more quickly, especially in a large “lecture” class.  I love learning about their families, their pets, their favorite foods, and I’ve even received a few knock-knock jokes.

Not so into the paper versions?  Not to fear – there is an app for learning names too!  The best one I have found is called “Name Shark” and is available for iOS.  Hopefully they will also soon have one for Android.  If you are the type of person that learns best from video games and wishes every week could be shark week – this is the app for you.  You will learn your students’ names a lot faster than you would have expected.

Group of students using iPads to work on project

Millennial students come to our classes wanting to learn,but they also need to know why they learn in the ways we ask them to.  We can establish good rapport by using technology in ways that they use it, and respect them when they ask questions.  We need to create an environment that is inviting and where they feel cared about if we want to engage them.  This doesn’t mean you are their new best friend, it just means that you are learning the social mores of their culture, just as you would with any foreign culture.  Also, good rapport is reciprocal: if we make an effort to show we care about them and their learning process, they will often take the class and your authority more seriously.

Further Reading:

Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press.

Pastorino, E. E. (2007). When Generations Collide in the Classroom. Essays from E-xcellence in Teaching 2006, Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Howe, N. and Strauss, W. (2007). Millennials Go to College. Great Falls, VA: LifeCourse Associates.

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Price, C. (2009). Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy? The Teaching Professor, 23 (1), 7.

Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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